Overcomplicating things

We’ve looked at jetpacks, hoverboards, tracked hovertrains, and self-driving cars: here is what I’ve learned from all these absurd concepts.

In the 1960s, people were convinced that there was a huge and growing problem with transport.  The then Ministry of Transport commissioned engineers and economists to look at those problems and suggest solutions.  The Beeching Report recommended closing all except the very core main lines of the railway network.  The Buchanan Report recommended razing cities and building neat modern concrete one-piece tower-block-and-motorway towns.  These were huge problems that called for radical solutions never before heard of.

That was the future of transport then, and every day since we’ve been treated to another great future of transport, from politicians, engineers, design students and photoshop fiddlers.

From the politicians we get grand projects: something that will leave a conspicuous legacy.  Boris spends millions on a distinctive new not-a-routemaster bus because the new bus (if it’s not ridiculed by Londoners) will be a conspicuous media-friendly achievement where fixing the distributed millions of little everyday problems with uncomfortable unreliable overpriced and overcrowded bus journeys would not.  Philip Hammond loves to play with High Speed Intercity Rail and motorways, but lets councils fight over the pennies that will determine the future of people’s everyday local journeys, because big billion-pound national construction projects give the impression of getting things done where the boring work to enable commuter journeys on the existing little lines in Conwy, Cornwall, Camberwell or Caithness doesn’t.

Perhaps the most perfect example in this category is the news that while the existing Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels fall apart (and the Clippers are cut back, and the road tunnels are closed at night, and the Woolwich ferry rusts), Boris thinks it’s a brilliant idea to build a massive cable car river crossing between Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks.

Meanwhile the engineers are left alone to tinker with what we already have, attempting to keep the status quo viable by “managing” the problems, designing ever more complicated traffic management schemes, and attempting to fix fundamentally flawed designs and devices.  Things like 155mph superbuses and, of course, electric cars.  Things that will at best merely delay the day when a problem becomes a crisis.  This reaches its absurd conclusion with “shared space“, when engineers conclude that the best way to manage our problems is to rip out all of the myriad expensive engineering that we have spent eighty years installing to manage our problems, and just let the problems free to magically manage themselves.

And then there are the design students and photoshop fiddlers, playing at engineer.  People who come up with ideas like the hourglass traffic light.  Ideas that are all media-friendly pretty picture and no relevance to real world problems.  This gushing moron is so enchanted by the shiny computer mockups that he’s willing to put his name next to prose that earnestly declares the segway, the backpack helicopter, the moving pavement, and the zeppelin to be the future of transport.  When small children draw these pictures and tell us they’ve invented something brilliant we think it’s cute.

These politicians, engineers, and amateur inventors recognise that there is a problem.  (Most frequently they cite carbon emissions as the problem; sometimes it’s congestion; rarely the many other problems that afflict car addicted societies.)  And they all think that a solution is in need of invention — a shiny and expensive and conspicuous and media-friendly solution.  Fifty years ago it was jetpacks and hovertrains.  Today it’s segways and maglevs.

And all the while a handful of little European counties have been looking on in amusement, happily getting to where they need to be with a bicycle or a pair of boots and the occasional old fashioned railway train, wondering whether the rest of us aren’t overcomplicating things…

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.