Automotive & transport

The end of driving

Doomsayers are fond of predicting gloomy futures by assuming that what is happening now will continue to happen. For too long, it has been assumed the car will continue to be the centerpiece of our existence and we need to continue to plan for cars, albeit green or electric or hybrid or hydrogen. Yet recent media suggest that the mighty car is finally starting to appear, gulp, pedestrian.

Let us not underestimate the car. It does 70% of journeys in the west and more than a billion of them drive the world’s roads. This figure is forecast to double by 2020. The industry is a major employer: more than 12 million work in manufacturing in the EU (6% of the employed) and take 8 million jobs (4.5% of private sector employment) in America. Meanwhile, the emerging countries cannot buy them fast enough.

But there are clear signs that interest in cars is waning. The number of miles people drive has fallen, distance per person has fallen, and car ownership is reaching saturation. While retirees still drive (it’s in their blood), young people are eschewing cars for public transport. Thanks to the internet, they can do a lot of their travelling – and their communication – on the screen. Recession, insurance and high fuel prices have added a further crunch. According to the experts, we have reached ‘peak car’.

A study for the Australian government in March 2012 said 20 countries in the rich world were showing a saturation trend. Even in America, considered the home of the car, vehicle kilometres steadied in 2004 and have been falling since 2007. Measured per person, they fell even earlier. Partly this is because people do not use their cars so often for shopping (6% of spending in Britain is online) but it is also because people are sick of commuting to work. The psychological limit appears to be one hour. As cities sprawled further out, residents refused to drive any longer.

Now that people are moving back into the big cities (see our stories under Home), they seem less inclined to drive. Congestion charges and limited parking, combined with useful public transport, make the car a poor choice. Young people see this and are less likely to get their licences while young. Studies show when people get their licences later, they drive 30% less.

Investment in public transport has made a difference to their choice and car clubs, such as Cipcar and Buzzcar, can provide wheels only when they need them. As someone said, owning a car felt like being tied down – like a marriage. (Compare this to falling home ownership compared to renting.)

Conversely, people who live in rural areas need a car and continue to drive at the same levels because they have no other choice. It seems that where people have a choice, they decide the car is not the best option. As PD Smith says in his book, Straphanger, half the population in cities like New York, Toronto or London, does not even own a car and 155 million use the underground. Meanwhile, Americans spend nine years of their lives in cars and produce enough pollution to kill 30,000 residents a year.

The most bike friendly city is Copenhagen and Moscow is one of the biggest undergrounds carrying 9 million a day (while its roads are ‘traffic hell’). Public transport has always been the more democratic and social way to travel. In fact, motorists seem increasingly unsocial in the way they drive, as they buckle under the pressures of slow moving traffic.

This brings us back to where we started. The doomsayers said we would keep driving and run out of oil, and have to find new types of cars and build millions more roads. They forgot there is always an equal and opposite reaction. Why have a car at all?

Ref: The Economist (UK), 22 September 2012, The road less travelled. Also, Seeing the back of the car. Anon.
Guardian (UK), 8 September 2012, The car’s heyday has passed. PD Smith.
Straphanger: Saving our cities and ourselves from the automobile. Taras Grescoe. Times Books, 2012.
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Search words: New York, Toronto, London, autopia, pollution, driving, public transport, cities, subway, Moscow, Tokyo, bicycle, democratic, social, Copenhagen, cars, ownership, congestion, revenues, oil, green cars, pedestrians, freeways, status, manufacturing, distances, peak car, trips, traffic, retirees, licences, insurance, internet, internet retail, population, rural, rail, Zipcar, ‘sprawl wall’, China, driverless cars, identity, urban planning, buses, parking, carbon emissions.
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A new crash course

After a serious crash, we need to know what caused the crash to stand a chance of preventing it happening again. To this end, UK police trialled a system called CrashCube, which decodes the electrical systems of six popular brands of car to find out what happened. It is a kind of black box and, with all the information available in today’s cars, authorities can reconstruct the incident accurately.

The CrashCube takes a snapshot of what happened 30 seconds before an accident and 15 seconds afterwards. It looks at the speedometer (and whether you skidded), tyre pressure, brakes (whether applied or not), lane departure warning, tiredness alert, radio (what was playing), and air-pressure sensor (can detect impact).

Police can use the information collected to prosecute anyone involved in the crash if it appears they had contributed to the crash. Even if no charges are laid and someone dies, the evidence can be presented at an inquest. There have been very few cases of data being used in this way so far but it is early days. The American Congress has already backed a bill to install data recorders in all cars from 2015 and the EU plans to do the same.

Privacy concerns abound. After all, is it right to track somebody’s movements when they make (or someone else makes) a bad mistake? Will it lead to tracking people all the time? Is it just another type of evidence that will one day be mandatory to be able to insure your car?

Ref: The Sunday Times (UK), 20 May 2012, Cause a crash, get shopped by your car. D Tobin.
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Search words: crash, data, CrashCube, Colossus, privacy, skidding, data recorders, black box, Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Volkswagen, Seat, Skoda, Attention Assist, police, error reporting, Saab, Transport Research Laboratory, Chrysler, careless driving, tyre pressure, lane departure warning, air-pressure sensor, tiredness alert.
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CarSpeak – the more I see you

Imagine if, instead of relying on your own vision, you could ask oncoming drivers what they could see, say, round a corner. Researchers at MIT have developed a communications system called CarSpeak that allows autonomous cars to contact other cars to find out what their robotic ‘eyes’ can see.

A human driver has to slow down in case something unexpected appears, but an autonomous car would have a continuous 3D view of the environment created by its own sensors and those of other cars. The 3D view would comprise millions of points generated by laser mapping equipment. If every car sent all this information, it would overload a wireless network but the system only requests a view from other cars if it needs to know. Regions with the most demand are then allocated sufficient bandwidth.

CarSpeak has been tested firstly on golf buggies. Souped-up golf buggies were able to travel twice as fast as other vehicles that were using simple wireless and they were 14 times less likely to collide with an unseen obstacle. The next step is to test CarSpeak on full-size cars. It is hoped the system will help to make autonomous cars safer. No matter how safe they are proved to be, it will take quite a cultural shift for people to accept self-driving cars.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 15 September 2012, Power of the car crowd.
H Hodson.
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Search words: sensors, CarSpeak, communication, autonomous cars, MIT, robotic eyes, cruise, 3D, laser mapping, data congestion, environment, bandwidth, golf buggies, collision, range.
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Why the Knowledge is power

In the era of satellite navigation, there is no need to know where you’re going. Or is there? Drivers of the black hackney carriages in London, of which there are about 21,500, are being threatened by technological advances like TomTom, Google local search and even Soviet space navigation engineers. These engineers have been tracking taxi drivers for six years to find out what are the optimal routes to take round London.

For the taxi driver, this is an insult. They have had to spend up to 70 weeks learning 320 journeys or ‘runs’ in the Blue Book so they know the entire Knowledge zone in a 6-mile radius from Charing Cross. They have to memorise 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks, even the obscure ones, like the city’s smallest statue in Philpot Lane or the Policeman’s Coat Hook in Great Newport Street. With a dropout rate of 70%, this is a grueling task indeed.

The drivers claim technology can never compensate for their superior knowledge, nor can it cope with sudden changes in the city, such as road closures. The Knowledge may contain the facts of the city, like bridges and one-way streets – but taxi drivers deal with the humanity of the city, on the spot, as only humans can. They can still beat the satnav systems in cross-London races.

What the cabbies are experiencing is common today. Many skilled people are losing their jobs because technology is seen to do it better or faster. Editors, for example, are replaced by sophisticated word processing and spell check. Page layout artists are replaced by anyone who can use Adobe Creative Suite. They are all going the way of the candlestick maker (and even the local butcher). When are we going to learn the value of experience, wisdom and spontaneity, as well as just knowledge?

Ref: Prospect (UK), October 2012, You have reached your destination. H Anderson.
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Search words: black taxis, London, the Knowledge, hackney carriage, bus lanes, satellite navigation, TomTom, Google, London Tax Drivers Association, Knowledge Boys, streets, landmarks, dropout rate, Square Mile, optimal route, road closure, humanity.
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Nothing peaky about cars in China

In the story above, The end of driving, we talk about ‘peak car’ in the west. This trend is nowhere to be seen in China. Their car market is the biggest in the world – 18.5 million sold last year, compared to 13.1 million in America. In 2000, only 12 years ago, there were just 4 million cars for 1.3 billion people. This is “car culture with Chinese characteristics”, according to one observer and is very much concerned with social status.

Luxury brands are popular in China for that reason. They like Peugeot, Mini, Lamborghini, because they want to be seen and recognised. Ferrari actually launched in China 20 years ago and Rolls-Royce recently marketed eight Year of the Dragon editions of its Phantom for $US1.2 million each (they all sold). Foreign companies have relied heavily on the hungry Chinese buyer and would suffer if demand should cool. In the US there are 600 cars for 1,000 people but in China, there are only 44. So it seems unlikely.

There were only 16,000 kms of expressway in 2000, 65,000 kms by 2009 and there are forecast to be 100,000 kms by 2020. Some 95% of cars on these roads were built in China and tariffs on foreign cars are high. Unfortunately for the Chinese, cars are also associated with corruption, abuse of power, breed and environmental degradation, as well as widening the gap between rich and poor.

In a race across Beijing, a bicycle reached the finish line 22 minutes earlier than a Porsche. The city has even banned motorists from driving one day a week and limited new car registrations by lottery. This kind of congestion cannot be sustained and the air pollution that results is already well documented. Even so, SUVs are the fastest growing sector because they project a free-spirited image. We find it hard to imagine what is free spirited about sitting in a huge traffic jam.

But there is a lot at stake for many Chinese: “In China,” said one young man, “if you don’t have a house or car, you can’t get a wife”. Or another: “I would rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle”. (Wow, did BMW think of that?)

See our story, Chinese on a huge road trip, last issue.

Ref: Guardian Weekend (UK), 15 December 2012, Car crazy. T Branigan.
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Search words: China, cars, bicycles, social status, Mini, Maserati Quattroporte, Rools-Royce, foreign companies, peak car, McKinsey, Beijing, tariffs, population, deaths, corruption, smog.
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