October 2008

29 October 2008
Transport Committee Eleventh Report
Rob Fisher

A House of Commons Transport Committee report has been published.  Cue outraged calls for Something To Be Done about road safety.

The Liberal Democrats say the government should be ashamed of itself for not reducing drink driving casualties.  To their credit, they seem to be calling for enforcement of existing laws rather than new ones.

Here is the BBC story.  Road deaths are being presented as “the major public health problem of our age”, which is probably accurate.  That people are, when not being hectored by politicians, prepared to accept this level of risk says something about just how overblown reports of other risks are.  Why worry about eating the wrong type of food when you’re perfectly prepared to cross the road every day?

This morning, the vague and impossible to link to Radio 1 Newsbeat was reporting that “MPs” were “calling for” laws to prevent young drivers from carrying young passengers at night.  It looks like the Transport Committee likes this idea, but another report from the Department of Transport called Learning to Drive rejects it in favour of extra hoops to jump through to get a full license.

I suspect the report will quickly be forgotten and we won’t see any big changes to road laws for a while as it’s unlikely to be an election issue.

13 October 2008
The future of driving
Rob Fisher

Ars Technica is running a series of articles on the automation of road transport.  The second article looks at the benefits of cars that drive themselves.  Safety advantages are obvious.  More interesting are the economic advantages.  In cities, taxis are more efficient than privately owned cars.  But:

So if taxis are so great, why aren’t they popular everywhere? The problem is that when you rent a taxi, you’re not only renting a car, but you’re hiring a driver as well. And human labor is expensive. So taxis only make sense financially in places where parking is so expensive or hard to find that driving your own car isn’t worth the trouble. Everywhere else, the cost of the driver is high enough that driving and parking your own car is a better deal.

Self-driving cars offer all the benefits of taxis for the cost of a traditional car. A self-driving vehicle will be able to show up on demand, transport passengers to a destination, and then drive off to pick up more passengers, refuel, or find a parking space. When self-driving taxis are readily available, many people—even far from dense urban areas—will find renting both cheaper and more convenient than owning a vehicle.

It’s easy to imagine being able to hire a taxi to your exact location from your GPS smartphone, have it turn up in minutes thanks to automated routing and demand prediction, and be able to choose from a selection of vehicles so you can get a pickup-truck to take you home from the furniture shop with your new sofa.

The article goes on to discuss the changes in parking and vehicle design that self-driving cars will enable, as well as the retail, freight and courier industries.

I have one concern: I enjoy driving and motorcycling, and it’s only a matter of time before human drivers are made illegal for health and safety reasons.  There will be other reasons, too.  Some kinds of automated congestion management may not work with a mixture of human- and computer-controlled cars.  For example, long convoys with only inches between each vehicle, or intersections where conflicting flows of cars are tightly interleaved.  Driving for pleasure may one day be confined to the track.

08 October 2008
Tariffs and Transport
Rob Fisher

On the one hand, we try to reduce the cost of transportation between England and America, or Canada and the United States, by developing faster and more efficient planes and ships, better roads and bridges, better locomotives and motor trucks.  On the other hand, we offset this investment in efficient transportation by a tariff that makes it commercially even more difficult to transport goods than it was before.  We make it a dollar cheaper to ship the sweaters, and then increase the tariff by two dollars to prevent the sweaters from being shipped.  By reducing the freight that can be profitably carried, we reduce the value of the investment in transport efficiency.

Henry Hazlitt in Economics in One Lesson.

Qantas Woes
Rob Fisher

Poor old Qantas.  First the hole of horror, now the plunge of, er, horror.

On the bright side, the safe landing of these flights should provide some comfort to those experiencing future in-flight anomalies.

Update:  ATSB has released information on the preliminary investigation.  It looks like a navigation computer fed erroneous data to the flight control computer.  Pertinent questions have been raised on the Risks Digest mailing list: the primary flight computer is supposed to compare information from multiple navigation computers, so why didn’t it notice something was amiss?

06 October 2008
Review: Ian Hislop’s “Off The Rails”
Patrick Crozier

This was on BBC4 the other night.  I thought it was garbage.  In fact it was such utter garbage that there was no chance of me ever getting round to writing it all down.  So, I recorded a podcast instead.

01 October 2008
Rail map
Patrick Crozier

I love this sort of thing: maps where area is proportionate to something other than territory.  Hey, I even designed one of my own way back.  This is the one for rail travel.


I think this is for passenger rail travel or else the US would be a lot bigger.  Look at China and India.  What does this say I wonder?