Great confidence is being expressed about how robot cars are about to change the world. Robot cars, says a typical headline that Google (one of the prime movers in this new technology) has just today alerted me to, may be coming sooner than you think. But doubts are also being expressed:
A good technology demonstration so wows you with what the product can do that you might forget to ask about what it can’t.
Case in point: Google’s self-driving car. There is a surprisingly long list of the things the car can’t do, like avoid potholes or operate in heavy rain or snow.
Yet a consensus has emerged among many technologists, policymakers, and journalists that Google has essentially solved – or is on the verge of solving – all of the major issues involved with robotic driving.
“Essentially”. That’s a word that often means “not”. And “on the verge of” often signals a problem that turns out to be hideously intractable, as year after year passes with nobody any nearer to a definitive answer. I seem to recall an entire British high speed train project being abandoned because they just could not make the tilting of the carriages work perfectly. It worked okay, but okay wasn’t good enough. It had to be perfect, and perfection proved elusive. Here is what wikipedia says about that, for whatever wikipedia may be worth when reporting a story that remains controversial.
Even that constantly repeated refrain about how robot cars are coming “sooner than you think” is, if you think some more, an acknowledgement from robot car boosters that there are actually widespread doubts out there in the regular, non-techy world about how well these devices really will work, and how completely, above all how quickly, all the problems that they will face have really been and will really be solved. Yes, the techies will eventually get their robot cars working, probably. But for a few more years yet, there will surely be a nasty little clutch both of known unknowns and of unknown unknowns to deal with, all of which will have to be thoroughly dealt with. Crucially, such problems will all have to be solved. If robot cars get the go-ahead and work flawlessly for two months, followed by a lurid catastrophe like something out of a disaster movie, when a bunch of robot cars all follow each other into a swamp or over a cliff, or just run amuck and kill dozens or even hundreds in one catastrophe like in a plane crash, then their introduction will be judged a failure rather than given nine out of ten for technical accomplishment and an A plus for effort.
This strikes me as a lot more immediately promising:
→ Continue reading: Robot lorries now seem to me more immediately promising than robot cars
Earlier this week I got back from a week in Brittany. During the first few days of my stay, I and the friends I was staying with visited the island of Belle Ile. Their daughter is my god-daughter, and she was singing (very well) in a classical singing festival that happens in Belle Ile every year.
While in Belle Ile we also enjoyed other sorts of music making. In particular, at midday, in the fish market of Belle Ile’s biggest town, La Palais, we listened to a small beat combo called, as I later learned from the small print in some of my photographs, Les Gadgos. Les Gadgos are a bunch of blokes, but they have engaged a lead singer for their latest clutch of songs and their latest CD, a blond chanteuse named Mélody Linhart, who looked weirdly matter-of-fact in her days clothes. But she sang very well, in English. She did various venerable American standards, like St James Infirmary, and slightly more recent American movie tunes, including I Want To Be Like You. She made the latter piece of froth sound almost as profound and existential as St James Infirmary.
But take a look at this other Les Gadjos person, who I now know to be called Clément Lenoble:
A classic French type, I think you will agree. But that cigarette was actually quite a surprise, because Clément Lenoble was one of the very few people whom I observed during my week in France who was smoking. There were a few. He wasn’t the only one. But the basic news is, those Frenchies are no longer fumer-ing. Not the sort who live in or summer in Brittany, anyway.
Instead, this business is on the up and up:
That was just a clutch of e-cigarettes in the window of a shop that also sold other stuff. But later, I came across an entire shop devoted to this one product:
French smokers are a dying breed. No doubt, anti-smoking fanatics would reply that they’re a dying breed because smoking is killing them all off, and I do agree that this change of habit is probably a good thing. But even so, I miss guys like this, singing their gravel-voiced chansons in bars, with their whiskey glasses on the piano and their gauloises hanging down from their creased and lived-in faces. Or maybe I just miss the idea of such people, being around, in France.
Smoking is now illegal in most public places in France. I just wish les pouvoirs-that-be had been content to let the habit die away of its own accord. But that is not how such people think.
I also photoed many other more fun things.
→ Continue reading: Some Brittany holiday snaps
Talk about a fine bit of opportunistic business! Well done!
Even if checking every passenger exhaustively was the right way to thwart terror, why would any serious government issue a press release about it, informing the terrorists that you were on their case and keeping them up to speed on the things you’re looking for? They didn’t do that with Bletchley Park and the Enigma codes. Leaving aside the possibility that our leaders are just plain dim, we must assume their statements are a clever decoy. In that case, everything that we must endure at Stansted and Heathrow is pure ‘security theatre’. This would not be unusual. Much of what passes for ‘security’ and its kissing cousin ‘safety’ is little more than an elaborate show.
– Michael Hanlon. He has a book out with a co-author about safety issues, which looks interesting.
We’re in a political campaign, and the candidate is Uber and the opponent is an asshole named Taxi.
– Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
Gratitude to City A.M.’s Lynsey Barber for spotting this quote and supplying the link to it.
It’s one thing to read a Guardian piece complaining about Uber. That certainly makes Uber seem like a fine thing, but you can’t trust everything you read, can you? Maybe Uber is not actually as great as the Guardian is making it appear. Last Friday evening, a week ago, by a lucky chance, I went one better. I had an actual trip in an Uber-taxi. It was a good experience.
Rooted as I am in the twentieth century, I was not the one who set this journey in motion. The man who did was my twenty first century friend Rob, who is as computer-savvy as I am computer challenged. I and Rob were guests at a dinner party, and I heard that he and another guest had some kind of lift home fixed, going back towards central London, and I asked if I could join in. Yes, fine. I then rather delayed things by taking what turned out to be rather too long to do my thankyous and fairwells, because, basically, I am not used to taxis being this fast in answering the call. But, eventually I was aboard, and off we went.
It was only when I was in it that I learned that this was one of these new-fangled Uber taxis, this being why it had arrived so quickly to pick us up and why I should have been quicker off the mark when leaving the party.
What Rob had done, as soon as he and the other guest decided they needed to be off home, was crank up the Uber app on his smartphone and summon – and here’s the point of this system – the nearest Uber taxi, by looking for blobs on his smartphone Uber-map.
On our journey, we and the driver chatted about how the new system worked. New technology often has this effect, I find. It gets people talking. It reminded me a bit of the early days of blogging, which got all sorts of people in touch with each other who would never normally have been communicating.
Our driver preferred his new Uber-life partly because he now gets no grief from a demanding taxi-cab office with its rigid time and place demands and general stress and hassle. He now eludes that middle man and, via his new and improved middle man (Uber), instead relates directly to his passengers. There is an elaborate regime to register both complaints from drivers about passengers, and from passengers about drivers, but for a driver who wants to do an honest job, that’s all good, just as it is for passengers who are willing and indeed eager to behave themselves.
We passengers also like the service that the driver and his comrades provide, because it is cheaper than old-school taxis, and quicker, and easier to track. But given that Uber is so cheap for us passengers, and given that the driver pays twenty percent of the reduced fare that we pay him to Uber, how come the driver is nevertheless such a contented guy?
A big plus for the driver is that he now works exactly when he likes, that being what a lot of the grief between him and his former taxi office had been about. He can start and stop when he pleases, with no warning concerning either, provided only that he finishes all paid-for journeys he embarks on.
But just as impressive as the increased flexibility the driver enjoys is that the flip side of us having hailed the nearest Uber taxi to us when we wanted to start our journey is that our driver is immediately available to start his next useful journey just as soon as he has completed his previous one. Our driver had been taking someone to that particular part of suburban London, and within moments there we were, wanting him to take us back to the middle of London from that same out-of-the-way spot. He doesn’t have to drive back, empty, to some damn taxicab office. He resumes work at once. This is why Uber-taxis are cheaper. This is not done by lowering the standard of living of the drivers or the quality of the product. It is done by seriously improving the efficiency of the drivers and their vehicles.
You can tell that Uber is a massive efficiency gain by the fact that the regular black cab drivers are in a state of fury about it, and have been threatening to screw up London’s traffic, with some kind of demo/disruption or suchlike. Their excuse is that there is apparently some law or other which, in the opinion of the cabbies and their lawyers, these new Uber-taxis are breaking, concerning computer tracking or something. But such complaining seems likely only to publicise that if the law is getting in the way of Uber, then it should stop.
If you want some more jeering at those angry black cabbies, see what City A.M.’s Guy Bentley has to say about them.
That the black cabbies are demonstrating against Uber in particular, rather than against “Kabbee, Hailo, Addison Lee, GetTaxi, Uber and Green Tomato” merely serves to establish Uber in the public mind as the market leader. I daresay there are also “network” reasons why one big brand leader is advantageous to most customers. So, big win for Uber, I’d say.
I am sure that there are many, many tweaks to Uber that I am not even remotely aware of, the kind where not only do I not know the answer but where I had never even thought of the question. But presumably Uber-savvy commenters can fill in many more details.
In particular: what could go wrong? Our driver didn’t seem to have any worries. But, was he perhaps being a tad optimistic? Will his income maybe decline if lots more want in on the driving side of things? What about if robot cars join in, and snatch away his job? Great for us passengers, because if it’s not it won’t catch on. But not so great for our driver.
Once you start talking about systems like Uber and robot cars in the same sentences, is the longer term implication of things like Uber going to be: fewer privately owned cars? Will Uber 3.0 be the first robot car killer app?
But oh yes, back in the here and now, one further detail I do now remember the driver talking about. If you are an Uber customer based in Los Angeles (as a recent passenger of his was), you can use the exact same account to whistle up our London driver as you have already been using in LA. The exact same account. Think about that. In any Uber-enabled city, and there are now a lot of such cities around the world, you can use taxis with the kind of confidence you already have about Uber-taxis in your own back yard.
My guess would be that a characteristic Uber first time user is someone who is about to venture to a foreign city where Uber is in action, and he signs up for Uber beforehand, so that he knows his taxis in the strange foreign landed will then be sorted at non-punitive expense and without grievous risk. Where he lives, he has a car and trusts the local taxis. But in foreigner-land, Uber taxis will be a massive plus. Then, once he has sampled the service in a strange city, the obvious next thing will be to use it back home more regularly. If that’s all approximately right, you can see why the black cabbies are spitting blood.
But alas for the black cabbies, their complaints are only advertising Uber to a global audience of city-hopping tourists and businesspersons. London’s black cabs are famous the world over. So if they are now moaning about Uber, that’s a global story. With enemies like this, Uber hardly needs an advertising agency.
But that’s enough guessing from me about Uber. Over to our commenters and their amazing ability to share a collective conversation with us and with each other, thanks to the work of an earlier generation of computer-magicians.
One of my favourite, regular visit websites is Dezeen. At least half of the stuff there is of very little interest to me. But, I find myself wanting to look at about a quarter of it more carefully, and a single figure percentage of what it sticks up tends to interest me a lot. That’s a lot of interestingness, when you consider that Dezeen is, as of now, updated several times every day.
In particular, Dezeen often features an interesting new gizmo, news of which can be easily rehashed into one of those ain’t capitalism grand postings that we love to do here, as often as we are able to tear our eyes away from the ghastliness of politics.
So, for instance, today, Dezeen has a description of a supersonic airplane, the distinguishing feature of which is that instead of the airplane having lots of windows for its highly paid passengers to look out of, it instead has cameras recreating the visual effect of looking out, and much more continuously and impressively than is possible when you are relying on real windows. Like this:
Quite how exactly this arrangement fakes the real experience of looking out of a continuous window shaped like that, I do not know. Will 3D effects be involved? But considering that the faster an airplane goes (this one is intended to be very fast indeed) the more expensive it becomes to carve windows into it, and considering that the cost and bulk and weight and quality both of cameras and of screens are all variables that are moving in exactly the right directions, this struck me immediately as one of those “Why did I not think of this?” ideas. By that I do not mean that I could do the actual work of contriving such an airplane, merely that I ought to have realised far sooner than today that other much more engineering-savvy people than I would very soon be talking in public about such notions, and that they presumably have been doing this for quite some while, without me noticing it.
I would further assume that the structural benefits to having an airplane which does not have a lot of quite large holes scattered all along its fuselage must be considerable. Yes:
“It has long been known that the windows cause significant challenges in designing and constructing an aircraft fuselage. They require additional structural support, add to the parts count and add weight to the aircraft,” said the company.
On the other hand, if what is required inside the airplane is concentration on the job to be done when the airplane has landed, as might well be the case, then other imagery can go in the “window” instead. Or, presumably, no imagery at all.
Relying on cameras for a task like this means that if the worst happens and the cameras all go haywire, nobody dies. A few people merely have a somewhat less amusing trip than they might have been anticipating. Do the pilots have an actual window in front of them? That might be wise, but maybe not.
Whatever the details are, and indeed whether or not this particular airplane ever gets anywhere near taking to the air, I’m impressed. And talking of people who are much more engineering-savvy than I am, I wonder what our commentariat thinks about this notion.
On a Tuesday evening shortly before Christmas, I arrived at London Gatwick Airport on an Easyjet flight from Morocco. I wanted to travel to my home in Southwark as quickly as possible. The quickest and simplest way to do this is to catch a train from Gatwick Airport railway station in the terminal to East Croydon and then London Bridge, followed by another train to South Bermondsey, the nearest station to my home. A single ticket for this journey costs £14.60, a fare I find to be a bit steep. Knowing the fare system reasonably well, I instead purchased a ticket to East Croydon, the first station inside Greater London at which the train stopped. For this, I paid £4.50. I then used my Oyster Card – the contactless ticketing system that Londoners use for most of their public transport journeys within London – to get to South Bermondsey. This was charged using the zone based fare system that applies within London, and cost me £2.20. I was thus able to reduce the cost of the journey by more than 50%.
This is not fare evasion. What I did is perfectly legal, and I can’t be punished for doing it, but surely it is against the spirit of the fare laws. The powers that be have decided that the wealthy plutocrats who can afford to fly Easyjet can also afford to pay £14.60 for a train journey from central London to the airport. By taking advantage of the cheaper fares available for shorter journeys, I am demonstrating my contempt for the wise decisions of these people. Let us call it fare avoidance. As it happened, a ticket inspector stopped me part of the way through the journey, and berated me for my lack of public spiritedness and civic responsibility, and just generally told me off for failing to spend money that rightly belonged to the families of good, honest people such as ticket inspectors. How would such people be able to feed their families if everyone behaved like this?
Actually, no he didn’t. What he actually said was “Thank you sir. That’s great”. It’s also possible he wished me a merry Christmas.
In these enlightened days of state-controlled railways and fare control it is sometimes difficult to believe that there was a time when railways were monopolies red in tooth and claw and were more or less free to do what they wanted.
And here, from a hundred years ago, we have an egregious example of precisely the sort of monopoly abuse we have so often been warned of. It’s revision time for fares and you know what’s coming: they’re… er… reducing them:
The Times 3 December 1913 p5
Well, that’s as may be but the only reason they’re doing that is because they’re making the service… er… better:
In anticipation of the opening of the first section of the electrified suburban lines during the coming year…
As it happens the lines to which they refer weren’t electrified until 1916 – not that that is particularly important.
So, what’s going on? Well, as Brian Micklethwait likes to point out everything competes with everything else. Railways may not compete much with other railways but they sure as hell compete with buses, trams, cars, moving nearer work and finding a job nearer where one lives.
Even so, railwaymen often refer to the “sparks effect”. This is the phenomenon whereby a newly electrified line will see a significant increase in passengers. With that in mind you would have thought they could increase their fares. I can only imagine fares are being reduced because they are able to run more services.
By the way, not strictly relevant but I loved this from column 1 on the same page:
Mr J. D. Gilbert asked the chairman of the Highways Committee whether in view of the by-laws allowing passengers to stand in the tramcars, the committee had considered the advisability of issuing notices, similar to those in use in Manchester, asking ladies to have all hatpins protected.
Although I am only posting this at midday, I wrote most of it at three o’clock this morning.
I did this because I am now suffering from severe Ashes Lag (The Horror! The Horror!), and also because it is in the spirit of the news I am passing on, which is that soon, London will be experiencing (no doubt some would prefer to make that “enduring”) all night underground train service at weekends:
For better or worse, London is on the way to becoming a city that never sleeps, leaving other British cities even further behind.
Not the District Line, though. That’s one of the lines I often use late at night, and I would have liked that one also to be going round the clock. The other line I use, but less often late at night, is the Victoria, which will be all round the clock at the weekend.
But this is only a start. And it is only at the weekend. What has long puzzled me is why London has not, for the last several decades, been a city that never sleeps, but is instead only groping slowly towards one day becoming such a city. London always comes near the top of those lists of the world’s greatest cities, yet for much of the time London is almost entirely asleep, unlike one, in particular, of its most famous rivals (immediate music warning – don’t click on that if you wish to go on listening to something else). All that frighteningly expensive office space, basically doing nothing for about a third to a half of every day, and nothing at all at the weekends, since for ever. Why? Modern electronics means that there is always someone wide awake to be doing business with, somewhere in the world. So, why no big night shift activity in the City? It can’t take all night just to keep those places clean.
Maybe there is lots of City of London night shifting going on already, and I merely haven’t been told about it. After all, night shifters mostly only need transport when they start and when they finish, which they already have. I can see why they are starting this at the weekend, for people for whom the difference between getting home at 4 am rather than at 8 am is all the difference.
Talking of London staying awake all night, there was a time, in about 1941, when a lot of it did just that, for quite a while. This was when London Pride got itself written. Take that, Sinatra. Someone (can’t find who – anyone know?) once said something like: there are many more tunes to be written in C major. I don’t know the key of London Pride, but it is one of my favourite tunes ever, and it always makes me think of that remark.
What follows is based on a talk I gave at the end of August at one of Brian’s Fridays. See also Parts I, III, IV, V & VI.
Little is said about the economy – not that that was a term in common use at the time. Unemployment – known as idleness – seems non-existent but there is some inflation – referred to as an “advance in prices” or “an increase in living costs”. Seeing as the pound was tied to gold at a rate of about £4 per troy ounce this seems surprising although the enormous gold finds in South Africa may have had something to do with it. Inflation may have been the cause of the many strikes at the time and it may have been the effect. The tax take is about 10%. Today it is over 40%. Northerners are better off than Southerners.
In 1912 the Titanic, the largest moving object in the world, set sail on its maiden voyage. Most people are aware that it sank, which is notable enough. But the really amazing part is that it got out of port at all. There had been a month-long national coal strike immediately beforehand and supplies were extremely low. Strikes are extremely common. In addition to the national coal strike, recent years have seen a national rail strike, a London dock strike and a Hull dock strike. London is currently undergoing a painters and decorators’ strike and Dublin a tramworkers’ strike.
In a previous coal strike, in 1910 in South Wales, troops had been used to put down a riot. At about the same time troops were also used to put down a riot in Liverpool.
The state is starting to nationalise things. In 1911 it nationalised the National Telephone Company. I should explain that this isn’t quite as dramatic as it sounds. The state already owned the trunk lines. The National Telephone Company owned everything else and operated them under licence. In 1911 the licence simply wasn’t renewed. In London, the County Council, late in the day, built an electric tram network. It was completed just in time for motor buses to take their market away from them.
It is difficult to detect any class, race or sex prejudice in the pages of the Times.
In 1913, the world is undergoing a transportational revolution. The horse is being swept from the streets of London to be replaced by electric trams, motor buses, motor lorries and motor cars. Below the streets, the deep-level, electrified tube lines are being built while steam trains are being replaced by electric ones on the older cut and cover lines. We are seeing the beginnings of surburban electrification.
Buses, in particular, are allowing people to travel much further to work and to shop. The only downside is that a lot of people are getting killed on the road.
Talking of buses, this is still a time when entrepreneurs are able to think big. Flushed from their success in London, the London General Ominbus Company, which incidentally bought up most of the Underground in 1911, is selling shares in a planned national bus company.
A hundred years ago, London was undergoing a transport revolution. Electric trams, electric underground trains, motor cars and motor buses had all entered the market while horse-drawn buses, trams and cabs were leaving it. I’m guessing here, but it seems to me that for centuries the big class distinction was whether you owned a horse or not. Now that horses were becoming uninimportant, class barriers were starting to come down.
But that’s by the by. In a revolution there are winners and losers. And here, in the London County Council’s accounts, we see a loser, horse-drawn trams:
The Times 16 June 1913 page 3
But read a bit further and you see it’s not just horse-drawn trams that are losing out:
The most striking feature of the accounts is the falling off in gross traffic receipt, as well as in the receipts a car-mile compared with previous years. The average passenger receipts a car-mile have gradually fallen from 11.95d. in 1907 to 9.73d. this year. A new factor which has arisen during the last year or two which the Council has seriously to reckon, in its efforts to maintain the tramway undertaking on a sound financial basis, is the great increase in the competition which the tramways have to meet from the motor-omnibus undertakings.
In other words buses are taking their market. I must admit I’m in two minds on this. On the one hand, it’s hard to feel sympathy for the government losing money. On the other, trams are nicer than buses: smoother, quieter, cleaner. And commercial tram operators (they do exist) will not find bus competition any easier to deal with. You have to feel some sympathy with operators that have, at great expense, set up electric tram systems only to find them superseded by the internally combusted upstart within a few years.
But buses are where the action is. Still. In 1911, they bought up the lion’s share of London’s tube network. [Yes, private enterprise integrated transport.] They may be dirty, noisy and uncomfortable but they are cheap and flexible and go where people want them to go. Oh, and dangerous. Did I mention dangerous:
The Times 20 June 1913 page 4