Tag Archives: cars

Fear of the unknown

Jim mentions the difficulties of bicycle maintenance and repair as a barrier to cycling. It’s one of several minor barriers to cycling — nothing compared with the problem of the uncomfortable, intimidating and dangerous environment that is so many of our roads and streets, but a real effect nonetheless. It’s actually part of a larger barrier: a combination of not knowing how it’s done, and not having adjusted to it. How do you know what clothes you need? What do you need to see by and be seen at night? Do you need special shoes? How do you carry things? On a rack? But then, how do I know which one fits this bike? Isn’t it a hassle having to unlock the garden shed, move the lawn mower out of the way, and carry it through the house to the front drive every time you have a journey to make?

Stephen discusses the perception that rail travel is expensive, and Simon the idea that it’s difficult and unpleasant. Everyone knows that a train journey costs hundreds of pounds, will be very late, and you’ll be standing in the corridors with smelly and possibly dangerous strangers, but they wouldn’t know, if they were to ever have to use a train, how to find out the times, how they would carry and look after their luggage, how they’d make their connection, or how to complete the final mile from the station. They’d spend ages looking for the right ticket type and checking they were pressing the right buttons on the ticket machine, and they wouldn’t be able to find the right exit at the big city terminus. It’s just so difficult and complicated. Similarly, buses are very difficult: you’re not sure exactly where to get one, how to pay, what to say to the driver (is one supposed to leave a tip?), how to make it stop — or even where to make it stop — and how early to get to the bus station to ensure you don’t miss the last one home.

Obviously all this is nonsense. Bicycle maintenance is almost as easy as riding a bike: you just wheel it down to the bicycle mechanic’s shop once you’ve learned it by making a few mistakes, you always know how. Train travel even easier. Of the countless (certainly well into three figures) assorted train journeys I’ve made in the past year and a half, including travelling most of the length of the country and back five times (I am a bad person and do not endorse such hypermobility), I’ve never paid more than £56.75 (PNR-EUS after a last minute change of plans), rarely paid much more than £15, stood in the corridors for a total of about half an hour, missed a booked train once, witnessed one fight (MCV-TOD on a sat eve), and had to change plans due to total service failure (GLC-ADS) once. Mostly they have been easy, relaxed, delightful, productive, or, at the very least, fine. And much of it excellent value — especially the three pence per mile for the Highland Sleepers, with bed, lounge, and tea in the morning included. You just need to know where and when to book in advance, who to go to for help, and which journeys would be quicker on a different line or cheaper by leaving half an hour later, or with a rover or season ticket. Those aren’t things that require lessons or study or investing time and effort. You don’t have to make many journeys before you just remember that trains always call at X, Y and Z minutes past the hour, the cheaper services start at 08:Z, and the ones at Y minutes past are quicker, or have more seats, or one of those other things that one picks up without any effort.

What must really be difficult and expensive is driving. I wouldn’t know where to start. Well, getting lessons and a license, I guess, but how do you go about doing that and how much does that cost? At least, judging from the competence of much of the driving I see, you’re not required to actually be very good at it, otherwise I doubt they’d ever let me do it, even if I wanted to: it looks complicated and I’m not sure if I’d really get the hang of it. And then getting a car. What kind? There are so many different makes and models — presumably all for different uses. I wouldn’t want to accidentally buy a racing car or mountain car if what I needed was a utility or touring car. And I’ve heard about car manufacturers and salesfolk. How do you know it’s good quality, ethically sourced, and not a scam or stolen goods? And drivers keep moaning about things like “road tax”: how do you know all these different bits of bureaucracy you need to get and pay for? What happens if you forget one of them? Are they for life, or do you need to remember to renew? What do you do if something breaks? It’s surely far too complicated to fix it yourself. How do you even do the refuelling thing? Perhaps there’s a tutorial on YouTube…

That’s all before you’ve even started driving it. How do you time the journey right? It’s obvious when trains and buses are due, and the average speed of a journey by foot or by bicycle has little journey-to-journey or day-to-day variation — we can all make a reasonably accurate estimate of a foot or bicycle journey time, it’s like language: just a skill we pick up over time as kids. But drivers seem to get themselves into all sorts of time-consuming queues that fluctuate during the day and over time according to patterns that I have difficulty following: I assume they have to pad all of their journeys to take such unpredictable variation into account? What do you do about the motion sickness? Doesn’t it get smelly, the confined enclosed space? What about when it rains: how do you see out of it? How do you find time to write blog posts if you can’t do them while on a long journey? Doesn’t it get boring having to just sit there concentrating on the job of driving? And don’t you get fat? How do you stop that? What about storing the thing? Judging from what I’ve seen around town, you can just store your car on any vaguely flat surface, and there are a lot of them, but what do you do if you get to your destination and there isn’t a convenient bit of road, footway, cycle path, field, park, cemetery, village green, or somebody’s front garden available that doesn’t already have somebody else’s car stored on it? And it must be a lot of hassle organising everything around having to return to the spot where you stored it. It all just sounds way too complicated.

Even leaving aside the expense and sheer impracticality of motoring, the complexity of it and the the length of the list of things you would have to find out about, learn how to do, and remember each time you wanted to make a journey — the known unknowns that I’ve listed and the unknown unknowns that might come as a shock — is frightening. The idea of adopting a new mode of transport is genuinely overwhelming. You’d have to adjust your whole life to it, and there are a million better things you could be doing with your time. Give me a simple bicycle and a railcard every time: you always know where you are with those.


Get a car, idiots

I take everything back.  I was wrong.  I realise now that in a place like Stamford Street, Southwark, the car offers outstanding convenience and time savings that will make my life better.

Now I just need to know whether to buy the Renault, which promises to save me “secs” (a reference, I understand, to the roof, which retracts in just nine of them):

Or the Mercedes, which I think is promising to save me from slow and difficult walks around town, judging by their use of the pedestrian crossing imagery:

Both look such very very attractive options, it’s impossible to choose.  Whichever I get, I just can’t wait to try it out.  Ah, the freedom…

Where’s my self-driving car?

In 1967, Popular Science magazine declared that cars would be self-driving by, at the latest, 1985.  Their vision was of cars that were driven manually for the final mile at either end of a journey, but which were guided by electric railways for the bulk of the trip:

“You gulp the last of your coffee, wipe the egg off your chin, and dash for the door. In the driveway sits a vehicle about the size and shape of a Volkswagen. Beside the door on the driver’s side is a handleless hatch. Beneath the car, unseen, are four flanged wheels of smaller diameter than the car’s tires.

As you slide away from the curb, the sound of the electric drive motor hardly rises above a whisper. A few blocks from home, you steer the car into a special lane, and pull a lever under the dash. The front wheels lock in straight-ahead position. Simultaneously the side-hatch door slides back and an electric third-rail folds out. It makes contact with a power rail, the flanged wheels roll onto the rails of a track, and your car accelerates at a controlled rate of 0.3g. You twirls a dial until you see “5th Street” appear in a small window. Seconds later, as your car enters a main guideway at exactly 60 m.p.h., you open the paper and scan the news. (via Boing Boing)

This was the 1960s, when you could put a man on the moon within a decade.  You’d think that the Americans could manage a simple extensive network of national, regional and local automated road/railways.

Turns out, this system had not quite been completed by 1985.  It’s not at all clear why this dream failed to come true.  But whatever the reason, the engineers at Google have been left wondering, “where’s my self-driving car?”  So they’ve built some of their own.  These cars are far more fascinating than the rail-cars of the 1960s.  These cars drive themselves on normal streets and motorways.  In amongst lots of manually-driven cars.  And pedestrians.  And San Francisco’s stoned cycle couriers.

All the news coverage of the Google Car fawns over its radar and cameras and obvious physical equipment, but far more interesting must be its software.  You can’t program a car with simple rules to accommodate unpredictable human hazards any more than you can create a driver by giving an idiot a car manual and a copy of the highway code.  How do you program a car to know that it needs to be more careful around pedestrians who are young and who are running and when the pavement is next to the carriageway and not segregated with railings and when there is another pavement opposite and there’s a playground nearby and there are parked cars and…?  There are a mere 306 rules in the highway code, but there are an immeasurable number of scenarios that one might encounter on a road.  So the Google Car must surely have used some very clever “machine learning”, and the 14,000 miles on the clock are presumably human-driven, with the car watching and sensing and learning how to drive — how a driver adjusts to other cars and other people, to the weather and the sound and feel of the road, in millions of situations and combinations.

It must be some of the most advanced computer science ever, with some of the most brilliant minds in the world working on it.  Google say that it could be available to consumers in eight years.  And there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be.  It’s a brilliant piece of work.  Just like the self-driving rail-car before it.