Sacrifice is a strong word. A very strong word, it could mean giving up ones life for someone you love, or a country you love. It can be used many ways, but all of them are powerful.
Service is a gentler word. In my world service could mean the things you do to keep a car running at it’s best, oil change, filters etc. Service can also mean the act of doing something for someone, waiters and priests sort of thing.
But I’ve learnt a whole new meaning of the word service, and it’s a meaning that is every bit as big and powerful as sacrifice. Understanding the meaning of that little word has changed my perception of my own life, my world and the people around me.
It all started when I donated some race car parts to a bloke with no legs. His name is Gavin and he was building a Bowler Tomcat off road race car, V8 and 4WD in a space frame buggy doing three figure speeds through forests. Gavin did most of the work on the car himself, he built a special tray that clipped on the front of the engine bay so he could work on the engine, hauling himself out of his wheel chair onto the wing. He is an inspiring chap, and his story is astonishing.
Gavin was one of the founders of an utterly amazing charity called Mission Motorsport, dedicated to helping people who are wounded, injured or sick and have served in the British armed forces. The idea for this came from its CEO James Cameron, a Major in the Royal Tank Regiment who had seen many of his blokes suffer life changing injuries and had an overwhelming drive to do something to help.
I have supported this charity from its inception, and in 2014 I took on the role of training manager, building a training wing so that ex-soldiers could become mechanics and technicians. When someone enrols on one of our courses I interview them to find out what they already know, what they want to achieve and also what is holding them back. I’ve heard many stories, some inspiring, some distressing, all remarkable.
Before this I never had much to do with the forces, one of my school friends became a technician in the RAF, and my dad served in World War 2 but he never talked about it and other than that everyone I know is a dedicated civilian. Like many ordinary folk all I knew about life in the forces was what I saw in the news, films and TV shows gave glimpses but really it was a world totally separate to mine. But what I have learnt in the last three years has changed everything.
That word, service, it turns out to mean a lot. It means to serve your country, to deliberately put yourself in harms way to protect others, to seek out and engage with the enemy. Now clearly not all conflict has a clear cut right and wrong, some of the reasons for our exploits abroad over the years have been deeply flawed, defining what the enemy is comes down to the democratically elected government and is a whole different topic, but getting on with the job comes down to those who signed up to serve their country. The UK doesn’t have conscription, so our army is all volunteers who have made this their profession. It takes a certain sort of person to do that. I didn’t join up for the simple reason that I didn’t fancy being shot at, but of course what that actually means is that I would rather save my own skin than serve my country.
Now, that decision is fine, because the whole point of a country having armed forces is so that the majority of the population doesn’t have to fight and can get on with life. But it does leave me feeling slightly guilty for relying on the service, and sacrifice, of others. There is part of me that wishes I had in some way served, done my bit as it were.
At home we always watch the remembrance day ceremony on the TV, we have brought up our son to appreciate what it’s all about too. And now that many of the people I work with are from the forces, and privileged to call them friends, the ceremony has a new poignancy.
Last year was a break from tradition for me, I did not watch the ceremony on TV, I was at a real ceremony in the top left hand corner of Wales. Mission Motorsport run a race weekend that incorporates a very moving remembrance ceremony, the racing stops and everyone congregates on the circuit, a mixture of veterans, serving personnel and civilians like me. Seeing how deeply those who had served were touched by the ceremony was profound, I know how some of them had suffered personally or had lost good friends which gave the ceremony words striking relevance.
Service, sacrifice, suffering. All words that have very deep meaning, but a meaning worth taking time to understand.
As a teenager in the ’80s I wrote an essay on how robots would end up being the next stage in human evolution.
I had grown up reading great novels by people like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clark, my family were all engineers and I was studying science and technology at college. The future seemed very exciting (which indeed it turned out to be) with huge possibilities for human development.
But I got one crucial thing wrong, let me explain.
The vision I had, based on ideas from many other people far more clever than I, involved machines that extended human ability. This included powered exoskeletons to improve strength and stamina as well as increasing or decreasing the scale of movement as appropriate, increasing dexterity and having specialist tools fitted to do those tricky jobs that only a superhero could do.
But it also involved increasing brain power by having extra memory and computing ability to extend our brain’s capability far beyond natural limits. And that, to an extent, is already happening by way of the smart phone. I have instant access to the world of information, I have maps so I know my way round any town, I have links to thousands of people I’ve never met, I can talk to people all over the world whilst I’m walking down the street etc. We may be used to it, but actually it’s pretty impressive.
As a kid my vision went further than this, to a point where I had an extension to my brain built in, with the robot limbs attached to my body so I became one with the technology that made me stronger, faster, smarter etc. I figured everyone would have this eventually and this would be the next phase of human development. And it almost was.
Let me give you one, very specific, example. CAD, computer aided design, has made designing and making things so much easier and improved quality too. Early systems I used in the ’90s were basic tools that replaced pencil and paper drawings, this was great, then they got steadily better and added functions. Along came analysis systems such as FEA that can not only draw your design out but actually simulate forces going through it and identify where weak point may be, wow, this saved loads of time in testing and made is much easier to design light and strong components. Previously a design engineer would use experience and basic design principals to draw something up, then it would be tested and any failures analysed in order to improve the design. So now the skill and experience was in the machine, allowing CAD users with little mechanical knowledge to design fairly good components. This improved quickly and now these design packages can actually take a vague concept and do all the design work themselves, so it takes far fewer engineers to get a new thing designed and built.
So what happened was I started out with a simple tool that helped me draw, then it improved my design, but now it can do all the design and the machine no longer needs me to be there.
This is happening with AI driven Expert Systems, which pick up the knowledge and experience of many experts and synthesise it into very powerful knowledge systems that can learn from their own mistakes. These are better than any one single human expert. They are replacing Pilots, doctors, teachers, designers, engineers and are also replacing artists. Yes, an expert system can be set up to write new music, paint pictures and write stories to a very acceptable level, and they are getting better all the time.
By replacing humans in a company costs can be dramatically lowered, 24 hour running is possible, there are no strikes or HR problems, you don’t need buildings with heating or air con to the same extent. The financial pressure to implement these systems is huge. And this is driving investment into AI and causing it to be implemented without mitigation of the adverse effects on the people who no longer have jobs.
So whilst many people foresaw that machines would bring greater powers to us, what I missed was that once they got good enough they wouldn’t need me. The human element becomes redundant.
Now, what happens when there are very few jobs available? Mass unemployment is already creeping into the western world, and what the politicians don’t seem to be telling us is that this is because there are less jobs even though there are more companies who are doing more business than ever before.
Manual labour replaced with machines (just look at farming, even the combine harvesters are robots now), knowledge and skills replaced by AI (how long before expert systems replace judges in our courts?). Where do we fit in? Where does my young son fit in when he grows up in this world?
There are other problems too. There is also the issue of corruption. Computer systems get hacked, there are bugs and viruses, so total reliance on these systems is very dangerous. But to have a human back up needs the investment in people, training, facilities etc. that AI has just made redundant.
Then there is the whole rotten cesspit of autonomous military systems. Drones that decide who to kill, tanks without crews, smart missiles. This is stuff that already exists and is getting more sophisticated all the time, and most of the cutting edge stuff is obviously developed in secret.
But also there is the interesting aspect of group intelligence, because the internet is connected with millions of machines, smart systems can be spread across many physical platforms, the Cloud as it has become known. So we have a multitude of smart systems that have potential access to all the online knowledge, plus bank accounts, medical records, criminal records, documentation showing who owns your house and your car, who the legal parents of your child are, your nationality, passport, your social media, your pictures etc. A malicious system could hack your entire life, set up a criminal record and get you locked up. The net also has access to the physical world thanks to the Internet of Things, such as nuclear power stations, flood defences, gas supply and even where that robot combine harvester goes. A hack to Google maps might send thousands of motorists into one city centre location to cause gridlock, or to confound the response to a terrorist attack.
There is absolutely no control over any of this.
Our society is based on a magic thing called freedom, trying to precisely define it is impossible and probably pointless, but we all have a vague idea it means we can choose our own path in life as long as we don’t do very bad things. We choose what to study, or if to study. We choose what to work in, or indeed not to work in. We choose our partners, where we live (although that’s often dictated by where to work), what to eat etc.
This means that government has a largely reactive way of managing problems, western governments don’t like to get too involved with running things. This means that companies have a large amount of freedom to develop what ever they want, which has generally been a good thing. But this is different, this is one of those things that is about the very future of our species.
We need a plan, we need to agree what direction society goes, how it uses technology to benefit us all. We need control over this situation before something ‘very bad’ happens.
Anyway, that’s my opinion. Hope I’m wrong. But this bloke seems to have the same idea:
Here is an interesting observation: most drivers don’t want to be there.
Unlike enthusiasts, such as myself, who really get a deep enjoyment and fulfilment from driving, in the mass market most car owners don’t actually like driving at all, it’s just become a necessity of modern life. That’s why so many of them don’t pay attention and would rather chat on the phone, listen to the radio or just stare into the distance like a slack jawed zombie.
Cars are a very strange phenomenon in that respect, where else would you find a large, heavy and complex piece of machinery that is bought and operated by almost everyone regardless of whether they are interested in that machine or not? It wouldn’t happen with lathes, welding kit or submarines, but with cars we just accept it. In fact the buying profile of cars is more like toasters or kettles, everyone thinks they need one but has not interest in how to work them properly.
And because of the non-professional nature of the vast majority of car owners, technology is being developed to meet their needs. That is; making the car make most of the decisions. We are entering the beginning of a time when cars become more autonomous, adaptive cruise control will adjust the car speed to the traffic conditions, lane assist can nudge the steering to stop you drifting off your chosen path, we even have auto parking systems. It is a logical step to bring all these ideas together and link them to the sat nav to create fully autonomous cars, Google are investing heavily in this idea. Once the systems become common there will be increasing pressure to ban manual driving, after all an autonomous car doesn’t get road rage, doesn’t speed, can see through fog, never gets distracted and should never crash. All those computer systems running all those programs written by thousands of different people at different times in different places and controlling your car….
Autonomous cars have the potential to reduce journey times, slash road deaths and injuries, reduce insurance costs, reduce financial losses, and reduce emissions. Manufacturers also benefit from a reduction in warranty costs caused by customers abusing their cars. And intriguingly once a car becomes autonomous the interior design focus changes dramatically towards being an entertainment or business centre, windows become less important, seats facing forward is no longer mandatory, just imagine the possibilities.
Fully autonomous cars are now being trialled, you just get in, tell it where to go and it drives you there. To many this is automotive heaven, just like having a chauffeur, and takes the irritating burden of ‘having to do some driving’ out of a journey completely. Plus there are safety advantages which make a very compelling argument, the fact is that nearly all accidents are caused by the driver doing something really dumb, so by taking the driver out of the system lives would be saved. And that argument alone is powerful enough to kill the ‘drivers car’ stone dead, no arguments, it is simply infeasible to argue that autonomous cars should not be compulsory just because we want to have a little bit of fun.
But to enthusiasts this is automotive hell, no control, no involvement, no enjoyment, nothing.
And it also take a lot of skill and judgement away too, what if I want to drive on the left of my lane to get a good view past the truck I am about to overtake? Will the lane control system let me? What if I need to gently nudge my driveway gate open because its blown shut? Will the collision avoidance system let me?
And this brings me to a very important point; cars are so reliable these days that people are totally unable to cope with a simple problem; I would have thought that if the pedal stays down then either put your toe under it and pull it up or drop it in neutral, park up and switch off. Easy, but most people have lost the ability to cope with any sort of problem, and that is scary.
I say scary because we depend more and more on technology, cars, electricity supply, computers, the internet, mobile phones, the list goes on. And for the most part the technology serves us amazingly well, but like all things it can fail.
I remember in the 70’s there were power cuts, no problem; the lights went out so we lit candles, life goes on. We communicated by actually talking to people, we were entertained by actually doing things, we worked by going out and making physical things.
But now, oh dear, if the power fails we seem to be doomed to sitting in a freezing dark house unable to phone a friend or do any work on the computer. ‘Doomed I say, doomed, captain’ (although that phrase probably wont mean a thing to younger readers).
Now don’t get me wrong, I am a great fan of technology. As an engineer I work on car technology that won’t see the glowing lights of a showroom for maybe seven years, as a writer I would be lost without the word processor and its fantastic ability to correct my abysmal spelling. Oh yes indeedey I just cant get enough of the techy stuff.
What I am scared of is the way people are loosing the ability to do things for themselves. To even bother trying to solve problems seems to great a challenge, the mind is being numbed and switched off, its like intentionally loosing the ability to walk just because you can afford a wheel chair.
The first thought when a problem hits now seems to be ‘who should I call about this problem’, and not what it should be ‘what can I do to solve this problem’.
People have to be more proactive, just like we used to be, and much less reactive and just plain pathetic.
But what drives technological development is consumer demand, so if we want cars to be ‘drivers cars’, totally under our command, then we have to make our voice heard. Not only that but the voice must have a strong and sound argument, and it has to be heard right now.
Now modern cars are introducing collision avoidance, lane control and other complex systems which all have to work in harmony with all the other systems in all the infinite combinations of circumstance.
The complexity is so great that I believe it is now impossible to accurately asses how such a car will react in all conditions. Complexity hides secrets, usually unintentional.
This is true not only for cars, but in many of the systems we rely on today which are also hugely complex and have chunks of third party software in the control system, from automatic number plate recognition and speeding fines, military automatic targeting and smart weapons, to the DNA database and even the way we use the internet.
The potential for technology to assist is immense, but it has to be understood that we have now lost control of every detail. So how far do we let the machines dictate to us, and how much override can we allow to fallible humans? It is one of the most important debates we should be having today.
The answer to this will dictate the future of society and quite possibly our fate as a species.
Ralph Hosier is a Chartered Engineer with over 25 years in the cutting edge of vehicle development and research. He has written several automotive books and many articles. He also teaches engineering at the UK forces motorsport charity Mission Motorsport.
For engineering enquiries, project advice or media requests please email on email@example.com and look at the company website www.rhel.co.uk for more details.
The media has given UK industry a bit of a battering in the last few years, in fact ever since the high profile industrial collapses in the 70’s the media has focused on doom and gloom stories rather than all the good news that the industrial sector has consistently produced.
I was talking to a bloke last weekend at an arts festival, was was an ordinary chap who happened to have no real interest in cars but as he knew I am a motoring journalist he made conversation by asking what car I would recommend. Being very proud of the UK car industry I immediately replied ‘any car as long as its made in Britain’, he looked quite astonished and said ‘I didn’t think there were any cars still made here’!
This shocked me, the UK makes over 2 million cars a year with factories churning out products from Jaguar, Land Rover, Lotus, Morgan, Ford, Vauxhall, Nissan, Honda and BMW to name but a few. All of these bring revenue and prosperity to the country and use British skills, both in manufacturing and engineering design. But we very rarely hear anything about this on the news, in fact when Lotus dropped a few hundred jobs last year it made national news, but when Jaguar recruit about 3500 this year there is no national coverage, I find this very frustrating and also more than a little suspicious.
I am sure the fact that most of the big media organisations are tied up with the financial sector has absolutely no influence on their bias, but it is remarkable how even the phraseology favours the ‘markets’ at the expense of industry. For instance take a look at exchange rates, to sell things we make abroad we need the pound to be cheap and affordable, but the media call this situation a ‘weak’ pound. But when the pound is expensive and unaffordable, which crushes foreign sales, reduces production and leads to job losses, they refer to that situation as a ‘strong’ pound. Its ridiculous, until you look at the financial sector who benefit greatly when the pound is expensive, and suffer when its cheap.
And the whole idea of being ruled by a stock market that panics like a frightened weasel, thus taking support investment away when its most needed, is utterly ludicrous. A system where a few chaps in blazers in London transfer money when they see their bonuses start to drop, causing a hard working company many miles away to loose several jobs even though they have a full order book, must surely be immoral?
So you might argue that as there are so many people now working in the financial sector that it balances out, when money is tight in industry it must be flowing in the financial sector? Well maybe it does, but the thing I notice is the difference in the way that money is distributed.
I read a report a while ago comparing average wages, I think it was something like average car industry wages were 25k and finance was 36k, or something like that. But the distribution of those wages is dramatically different, many people I have met who work in the city earn less than 20k, normal average office workers, many earn less than 18k and really struggle to pay the bills. The equivalent in the car industry might be factory line workers who earn a basic of about 25k and with usual overtime could be on 35 to 40k, thus allowing them more spare cash to pump back into the economy.
By comparison at the top end of the pay scale things are the other way around, senior managers in the car industry might be on 60k, but their counterpart in finance may be on double that. At director level the difference is even greater, there are no million pound bonuses in the car industry, no seven figure salaries, and all the better for it.
There are two results of this, firstly the car industry benefits more of its employees, the wages are more evenly distributed and more of the cash finds its way into the local economy. But secondly the car industry is much less appealing to the super rich, the rewards are slimmer for directors and for investors the dividends are modest.
Over the decades the press has made industry seem grubby and declining which has damaged its image severely, now UK industry is struggling to recruit the people it needs for continued growth because generations of young workers have been put off by the media image, preferring the relative ‘glamour’ of finance or retail.
Career choice at an early age obviously shapes the subjects kids study at school, and the exams they take at the end. The media bias has driven huge numbers to study softer subjects, and whilst I have absolutely no objection to anyone taking these subjects, we desperately need to rekindle the enthusiasm for learning how to make things, how to design and engineer things, how to turn dreams into tangible working products that people can buy. This mismatch of candidates skills and job requirements, coupled with the apathy toward industrial work puts the country in the ridiculous position of having a large pool of unemployed youngsters and an industry being forced to recruit from abroad.
This situation has to change, the notion that an economy can run on the service and financial sectors alone is clearly flawed, how can a country prosper when all it does is sell someone else’s products to its own populous?
Also the idea that we can be solely a ‘knowledge’ economy, where we design stuff but make it elsewhere is idiotic. All that happens is the detailed knowledge of a product gained by actually making it gradually migrates to the place where it is made, all the product knowledge seeps away until the manufacturing area has greater understanding and technical expertise than we do. Then what do we design? ‘For Sale’ signs maybe.
I don’t know what the solution is, but I know what I see is terribly unfair and inefficient, like a misfiring engine it sort of works some times but keeps stalling at junctions. I think its time this country had a new engine, one driven by selling world class products globally, building real skills and doing useful jobs that benefit everyone.
Time travel is a wonderful thing, you get a great view of time as you warp through the decades. The recent PetrolBlog big day out at
Vauxhall took me right back to the dawn of my motoring career, the sounds and smells of old engines are so amazingly evocative of the age before fuel injection and catalysts. And this got me thinking about just how far we have come, there have been some remarkable advances in areas such as performance and refinement, but also we seem to have lost something along the way.
Fienza HP (Droop Snoot)
My first drive of the day, and one that instantly transported me back to my first ever car; a Cavalier mk1. There is the smell of fuel you only get with carburettor cars, it’s raw, pure, and for people of my
generation it’s hugely evocative of an era when just getting your car to start was an achievement.
This car was a complete bare shell restoration which I covered for Practical Classics a few years ago, absolutely everything had to be rebuilt from the ground up and is
another great example of the fantastic work that master mechanic Andrew Boddy at the Vauxhall Heritage Centre undertakes, and it is wonderful to see the car fully finished. It’s even more wonderful to drive it.
Immediately the car feels direct and delightfully connected to the road, with non-assisted steering you can feel the road under the wheels, it feels alive. Even before I get out the car park I’m smiling like a lunatic, but once out in the country lanes this car delivers joy in great bucket loads. It’s by no means perfect, the 185 tyres seem skinny by modern standards and let go readily, but delightfully progressively making it deeply rewarding to drive. Would I take this car out just for the thrill of it? Well yes, but half the thrill would be wondering if it will make it back in one piece. This is an old car, there are a few clonks and rattles, but it all adds to the theatre of this marvellous car. And when I finally get out of the car and walk away, I just cant help looking back at it and enjoying the superb lines and proportions of this classic beauty. Surely that’s a sign they must have got something really very right.
Astra GTE MK1
Now this was a very interesting car, because my colleagues formed a notably different view of it to me. This highlights how personal car
tests actually are, our view of a car depends on our own preferences, past experiences, expectations and driving style. Every road test is as much a reflection of the tester as it is of the car.
This car was from a far simpler age, non-assisted steering giving lovely feedback through the spindly steering wheel, the view from the large windows is complemented by the low waist line so you can see everything on the road with no blind spots. But that’s where the fun stopped for me.
On the road the performance of the 1.8 8 valve engine is modest, maybe I’m spoilt by the thrust of modern performance cars but this one just didn’t sing for me, despite not having a rev limiter. The handling is poor by modern standards, but very much the norm for small hatches of that era, go into a corner fast and it understeers horribly, and if you have to back off for some reason mid corner the understeer immediately translates into annoying oversteer. Not that slowing down is that easy, the brakes really don’t do much, press the pedal hard and you really don’t slow down very much, press it harder and a wheel locks up, and you still don’t slow down very much.
But this is in itself important, it’s stable mates at that time had even more pedestrian engines which didn’t overly tax the brakes and handling. By taking the standard car and fitting a slightly more powerful engine they created a dynasty that leads directly to today’s Astra VXR.
Astra GTE MK2
With the MK2 they put a decent engine in, in fact that 16 valve 2.0 litre lump became a legend in racing circles and managed to dislodge
the Ford Pinto as the engine of choice in many club racing specials. In the GTE it’s pleasantly nippy and buzzes along with happy eagerness, the understeer is still there but less intrusive, and the lift off oversteer is much better. The brakes are still inadequate when ‘making good progress’, it
doesn’t really do emergency stops as such but at least it has the ability to slow down a bit, unlike its predecessor. It is quite a fun car, but still doesn’t quite work as a complete package.
Now, our illustrious leader Major Gav has actually owned two of these fine motorcars, so I was a bit worried when he joined me for a quick blast through the countryside, was I about to show myself up at the wheel of one of his favourite machines?
This particular version is the higher powered version, still based on the Lotus Elese but with the suspension and engine tuned by Opel. It seems to be set up for a race track, with very hard suspension that is not helped by the non standard ultra low profile tyres, it crashes and bangs over irregularities and pot holes are like a kick in the butt. It’s not nice.
But on smooth stretches it sticks to the road quite well and picks up pace briskly, the steering is direct and it changes direction swiftly. It’s quite a lot of fun and begs to be pushed harder, and somehow as it wears a Vauxhall badge and not a Lotus one it seems a bit more humble, I like that.
The last stop on the time machine was the present day, and here I had the opportunity to sample the descendants of these old cars and see exactly what their future held.
Now, those who know me will be wondering what witchcraft managed
to get me into this sort of car. It’s not a fire breathing supercar or a go anywhere off road superhero, but putting my own preferences to one side I find that this sort of car is a very good idea. Its big inside, not too big on the outside, it goes and stops as it should and doesn’t use too much fuel. Normally that formula could be dangerously close to dull, so the splash of stainless steel and the nice blend of colours adds a touch of interest. In short it’s a perfectly good car. If you like that sort of thing.
This was a surprise. Again not my usual sort of test car, it has very little power and has no noticeable acceleration. Inside it is very roomy for two adults and two small kids at the back, an ideal car for a young
family, and I think that is a useful focus for this test. The car is painted to look sporty, it has stripes and graphics, even the headlining is a massive chequered flag, which initially seems at odds with its lack of performance and its super soft suspension, but I actually think it makes sense. If
you have just started a family you might not want to give up on the idea of a sports car, but even if you had one you would drive it gently with your new family installed, so this car works; it has a fun and sporty image yet delivers sensible family practicality.
I drove this on a test track last year, but driving it through the heart of Luton was a far more realistic test, particularly accelerating between speedbumps up some of the towns steep hills. Now, you might expect me to slate electric cars, as I spend most of my time testing things like
Bentleys, Jaguars and Porsches, but actually I am a strong believer in electric cars, which are in many ways still in their infancy but will increasingly meet an exceed the abilities of internal combustion.
But this car should not be judged as an electric car, it should be judged as a normal small family car, and that is something it does very well, in fact in many ways it does it better than the Adam. It has reasonable performance, it’s quicker than many other conventional cars in this class and handles acceptably well too, although the low ground clearance at the front can be an issue on speedbumps. The interior is well equipped and spacious, not massive by any means but certainly big enough for most things.
In short this is a good car in it’s own right, and if I had the cash I would probably buy one.
So in summary, there are many things that are good such as ABS and crash safety, but there are many things that are a bit of a sad loss too. Being able to feel the road through the steering wheel in such a vivid way that you know how much traction the tyres have has completely gone, and whilst it may be true that you don’t need to read the road any more because the car stability control does that all for you it also means that drivers aren’t compelled to concentrate on the road like they used to. One result being that crashes keep getting more frequent, and now for the first time in decades road deaths are increasing.
The styling of cars is much more intense than it used to be, we are cocooned and protected with styling flourishes here there and everywhere. The window glass area is increasing, front screens are massive now, but the view out is getting more restrictive. A pillars are huge, mirrors are multifunction colossus, waistlines are getting higher, our actual view of the road is diminishing. In fact it is quite easy to loose sight of a car behind the mirror and A pillar whilst waiting at a T junction or roundabout on a modern car, by comparison a car of the ’70s with its spindly A pillar, tiny mirror mounted lower and not obstructing your line of sight forward, all makes for a far better view of the road, I felt much more a part of the traffic in an old-timer than in a new car.
Our connection to the road and to the traffic is reduced, our responsibility in terms of controlling the car and observing traffic have been eroded. But it is possible to design a car with the best of both old and new, spindly A pillars made out of stronger modern materials, mirrors replaced by cameras and a head up display, nicely assisted steering but with the soft compliant isolation removed etc. Driving both old and new on the same day brings it all into sharp focus.
And a final observation, not about cars but about our car industry in the UK. Currently UK automotive is doing very well indeed, the car sector is probably better than it has ever been. But there is a sobering reminder of how things can change for the worse in the Vauxhal
museum, there is a map of the site from the early ’80s, it shows the massive scale of the sprawling complex, with roads and railways running through the site. Some areas are marked up for planned expansion, there are research and development facilities, prototype workshops, a styling studio as well as a myriad of huge production buildings. Thousands of people worked there, the streets around the plant housed thousands of families dependent on the thriving factory, for every job at the plant it is reckoned that about 5 further jobs were supported in support activities such as parts suppliers, transport drivers, sales staff and even the local shops and restaurants. The whole town fed this plant, and the plant fed the whole town.
And it’s all gone. Only a skeleton crew remain, some marketing people and a few support activities, even the fantastic array of cars in the heritage centre are restored and maintained by just one bloke. The streets reflect this change, there is not so much money about round there at the moment.
And this is not a case of me dreaming of a bygone industry, I’m not lamenting the passing of steam engines of horse drawn ploughs, no I’m cross because all those jobs went somewhere else. Vauxhall make more cars now than they did back then, the demand for there product is there, production is marching on, research and development is busier than ever, the jobs exist, but not here.
I’ve driven some very impressive cars here today, and I thank Vauxhall very much for the opportunity, but as I drive away through old streets, past the large retail site that has been built on part of the old factory, I feel a bit sad that all those jobs have gone. And with that loss the skills have gone, the real heritage of a hundred years of Vauxhalls, the stories, the effort, the stress of pushing out a new model, the dramas, all become fading memories.
A good motto to live your life by; look out!
Last year saw the first rise in road deaths for decades, despite cars being safer than ever. This is truly shocking, already we suffer about two thousand road deaths every year in the UK, just compare that stat to war deaths and cancer victims. It’s a scandal. And of course it doesn’t have to be this way at all.
There’s a trick that I learnt as a motorcyclists, used when passing a T junction, one of the prime danger areas for vulnerable bikers. If there is a car at the junction waiting to pull out, you stare at their eyes, strangely usually they then look at you and acknowledge you, if they don’t then you know they haven’t seen you and you slow ready for them pulling out in front of you. It becomes a sixth sense for bikers who survive long enough to become experienced.
I stopped riding my beloved Triumph a few years ago because there was a sudden increase in people not engaging with me or the traffic around them. I still use the technique in the car to good effect, but in the last two years I have notices a massive increase in people who are driving but seem completely disengaged from their surroundings.
I do a high mileage, spend a lot of time on motorways and A roads. Barely a week passes without me getting stuck in a traffic jam, only to slowly crawl past a multiple car pile up. It’s ridiculous, people just driving into each other, what a waste.
I am not sure what the cause is, but I have notice a number of trends in behaviour and in some technology that must be called into question. Obviously the problem is people not looking out, not thinking ahead, not concentrating on the job in hand. But there must be a cause for this noticeable change.
There seems to be much more driver aggression, lane 3 on most motorways is a battlefield with cars tailgating horrifically and slamming on brakes at the last millisecond. This may be to do with society, maybe the saturation of violent films and games, even Top Gear features the occasional helicopter gun ship now, this violent environment is everywhere.
But also our lifestyles are more fraught, specially since the recession which left many of us in poor financial state and having to work longer hours for less pay, stressful environments cause stressful behaviour.
Also we have become an ‘on demand’ culture, where slogans like ‘because you deserve it’ are flung at us left right and centre. We demand more, we expect not to be delayed, to get through fast. But of course this is just being selfish and not considering others. Clearly this negates the spirit of cooperation and camaraderie that is so essential for driving in heavy traffic.
We all know there has also been an increase in mobile phone use too, to me this is astonishing and may only be explained as being a result of drivers simply not understanding the risks. Despite being bombarded by information and statistics clearly showing the danger of phone use whilst driving, many drivers don’t get it. Maybe this is because we have so much exposure to violent and extreme images, games that turn killing and war into entertainment, films that glorify guns and extreme violence, that a safety campaign seems weak by comparison. Texting whilst driving is bizarre, why would anyone think it a good idea to not look at the road and concentrate on something down in their hand whilst covering ground at tens of meters per second in over a ton of machinery? But it’s not just phones that divert our attention.
Touch screens now seem to adorn every new model, they allow a huge array of complex controls to be put in one place which saves space and money. But there’s a big problem, a touch screen demands that you look at it, there is no tactile feedback at all. With old fashioned heater controls you could turn the heat or fan speed up without looking at the knob, you just reached over to where you knew the knob was and felt it move as you adjusted it. Easy, simple and absolutely no need to take your eyes off the road, unlike touch screens.
It is clear to me that any control that the driver is expected to use should not require them to stare intently at the centre console, in an old car you needed no more than a quick glance to operate switches or knobs, so touch screens are not really progress in my view. But things like voice command, which is already available on many luxury cars, doesn’t distract you and certainly is progress.
You see, anything that you have to look at carefully and think about, such as touch screens or mobile phone screens, focuses your mind on that area at the expense of your peripheral awareness. Usually as you walk down the street you are processing data from your peripheral vision and hearing to build a subconscious picture of the world around you, and not just what’s directly in front of you. In fact it’s happening to you right now, you’re reading this and your mind is in here with me, which is why you are completely unaware of that weird bloke staring at you over your shoulder.
Made you look!
Being aware of the traffic around you when driving is vital if you have to make an emergency manoeuvre, if a car cuts you up on the motorway you might not have time to look in the mirror and over your shoulder to check there is a clear space to move into, peripheral awareness is vital and is hugely compromised by using things like touch screens and phone displays.
Risk compensation is a phrase commonly bandied about, usually to do with the perceived safety of ABS, crumple zones and air bags. The safer we feel the faster we feel comfortable driving, but more importantly feeling safe makes us concentrate less. You know the feeling, you feel comfy and your mind wanders, then all of a sudden you realise you have no recollection of driving the last five miles. Humans need stimulation to stay awake, but modern cars are very quiet, with smooth running suspension, great sound systems. Not only is this a more relaxing place to be, but also the workload on the driver has been reduced, many functions are automatic such as lights and wipers so you don’t even have to think about road conditions any more. Whilst this may help reduce driver fatigue it also reduces our sensitivity to what is happening around us, increasing the chances of making a mistake and even crashing.
Certainly technology has a part to play here, but of course what matters is how we use it. Having a mobile phone is fine, texting whilst driving at forty meters per second is clearly not fine. We all have a responsibility to use our tools without causing others undue risk. So clearly there is something needed in our education system and media to bring this moral code back to strength.
It is fair to say that a similar responsibility lies with car companies when it comes to things like touch screens. But it is also fair to say that companies make things they think people want, if we the customer reject such things then they wouldn’t be there. The choice is ours.
Porsche is a very powerful word. As brand names go it’s a bit like Marmite. But love it or hate it one thing is certain, their cars are fast, designed for performance and driver enjoyment. Of course, to get the best out of such a specialised machine the driver needs to have the right skills and experience too, but crucially these driver skills are of huge benefit to any driver no matter what car we drive.
In fact you don’t even need to be a Porsche fan to benefit hugely from a bit of driver training, such as the rather brilliant packages on offer at the Porsche Experience Centre. Situated in its own dedicated complex of test tracks just a few yards from one of the fastest corners at Silverstone race circuit, it has a bit of everything to allow drivers of all levels to safely learn and develop their skills.
The main circuit is not really a race track, its flowing twisting curves are actually designed to replicate the most demanding country roads. Here you can learn how to approach corners safely whilst enjoying the full potential of one of the centre’s immaculate Porsche cars. Their skilled instructors, most of whom are professional race drivers, first asses your ability at modest speed, then identify areas where you can improve and then gradually build your skill and confidence at a pace that suits you.
You don’t have to drive fast either, they go at your pace making sure you are comfortable with the speeds. They can teach you road craft, how to balance the car and how to control it in emergencies, so when something springs out in front of you on the road home you should be better able to react and maintain control.
One crucial part of coping with emergencies is skid control, and although modern Porsches have stunning dynamic stability control systems built in it is still essential that the driver knows what to do should the unexpected occur.
To this end the Centre has two dedicated skid control areas where you can practice not going sideways, these smooth plastic roads are irrigated with soapy water so it can simulate the worst black ice. One area is on a hill which is set up as a series of corners, demonstrating superbly how quickly things can get out of hand if you don’t react at the first sign of a skid. The first time I tried it I drifted reasonably elegantly through the first corner, but the turn into the second put the car into a massive skid and the final corner was taken very inelegantly backwards! But with the skilled guidance of my coach the next pass was taken largely in the intended direction, if a little ragged. By the third pass all was well, under control and I was able to keep the car on the correct side of the road. I’m sure you’ll agree these skills are vital in any car, not just a high powered sports car.
But of course it’s one thing to enter a skid pan fully aware of what lies ahead, in the read world you may get no warning. The Porsche Experience Centre have this covered too, they have another skid pan with the same super slippery surface, but this time it’s flat and very wide with a very sneaky surprise at the start. You are asked to drive at about 15mph in a dead straight line, a simple instruction to get from one end of the surface to the other, it should be simple. But as soon as you enter the plastic road section a computer controlled kick plate throws the back of the car sideways with a violent jolt, the system can be set up to be mild or seveqre, usually it is set to be random so that you have no idea how sideways the car will go, or indeed in which direction! This is a fantastic facility, no other track I know of has the ability to continually surprise on every lap. After just a few passes I found my reactions improving, becoming more instinctive and flowing.
This area also allows the staff to demonstrate exactly what all those stability control systems actually do, taking runs over the slippery stuff first in normal fully assisted mode, here you have to steer into the skid but the car then brings everything into line very swiftly for you. Then there is a run with stability control off but traction control still on, here you have to put in much more steering input to keep things going in the right direction and then counter steer to avoid the car flicking back the other way. Finally they let you do a run with it all turned off, with only your wits to help you as the inevitable series of dramatic spins awaits. This remarkable demonstration really does show just how brilliant modern car technology is and is well worth doing.
I was fortunate enough to spend a day there courtesy of Porsche GB PR, but a variety of courses are available for anyone who fancies learning something new, you don’t need to be a Porsche driver or even have a fast car, they have a selection of cars for you to use including their luxurious executive saloon and the Cayenne off roader. And it’s not all about speed, there are road based courses, off road courses and you can even book a session in their classic ’70s 911. There is something to cover every aspect of driving, and before you ask yes I am going to book one myself!
People often ask me what the future of motoring holds, after all my day job is working with car companies to develop prototypes of the cars of the future. But the long term plans of the big car companies is only part of this story.
It’s true they try to guess the future, often a new car design will be in production for seven years with a facelift half way through, and it takes between three and five years to do all the engineering so all in all a totally new model may still be going strong a decade after the initial plan was agreed. And when you are investing billions in factories and engineering facilities you need to feel that your guesses will be fairly close to what the future will actually hold.
So many experts are consulted; economists, engineers, scientists, sociologists and pundits all make contributions in one way or another, and gradually a fuzzy picture of the future coalesces.
But times are changing.
Oil supply is uncertain, it’s not so much that it’s running out, more that politics and economics mean that prices will carry on going up and the reliability of supply is less certain than ten years ago. And when a critical factor like oil becomes iffy then long term plans become impossible to make, this means that it is far safer to plan for alternative fuels, and electric drives seem relatively easy to plan for (see a previous post). But even the role of alternatives is not clear cut, there is renewed interest in making fuel by reversing the combustion process with electricity. Petrol and diesel burn and turn mostly into water and carbon dioxide whilst releasing energy, so by combining water and carbon dioxide and putting loads of energy back in you get fuel. So depending on where the electricity comes from this has the potential to be carbon neutral and also has the benefit that the car industry doesn’t have to invent new engines. This could be the next big thing, really very big. Unless it’s easier to plan for electric drives or some other technology, in which case this will get too little investment and never get anywhere.
Fuel is a hugely contentious issue these days, both for its cost and its environmental effect.
Have you ever seen people complaining that they don’t get the claimed fuel economy from their car? The problem is drivers are hugely inconsistent, I am famed for squeezing higher fuel economy figures from almost any car, but a colleague of mine usually manages to use twice as much fuel as me on the same journey! And it’s not just MPG, its how many litres of fuel you have to pay for each month, and part of that is what route you choose and traffic flow.
But there are some bigger issues that will influence the future, did you know that road deaths in the UK have just started going up? About two thousand people are killed on the UK roads every year, that is an astonishing statistic, how the hell can we live with this situation? Almost all of these are caused by driver error.
These problems are contributing to the drive towards fully autonomous cars, although the main drive is the fact that most drivers hate driving and would rather be on the internet or chatting to friends, so having a robot chauffeur is a real selling point. We have already seen self parking cars gain popularity, and Volvo were the first to introduce collision avoidance where the car will do an emergency stop if it gets worried. All the car companies I know of are working on autonomous cars, they are still many years off, but within a decade they will be widely available.
Autonomous cars have the potential to reduce journey times, slash road deaths and injuries, reduce insurance costs, reduce financial losses, and reduce emissions. Manufacturers also benefit from a reduction in warranty costs caused by customers abusing their cars. And intriguingly once a car becomes autonomous the interior design focus changes dramatically towards being an entertainment or business centre, windows become less important, seats facing forward is no longer mandatory, just imagine the possibilities.
But in the shorter term there is still a lot of work going on refining existing technologies.
You may have noticed that engines are getting smaller again, coupled with much higher boost levels, such as the lovely little Ford three cylinder unit or the sprightly VW Tsi. This trend is set to continue over the next ten years at least, with a greater presence of electric hybrid drives to ensure the engine is used only at its best efficiency.
But something is coming that might make these plans irrelevant.
And it’s the weather.
People have noticed that the weather is becoming increasingly inconvenient. The climate is warming up, in the UK this means that crops are getting ruined year after year. I’m fairly close to the farming community and a startling thing is that most farmers I’ve spoken to can’t remember when they last had two consecutive good years. This year our food prices will go up, although to be fair we have very cheap food in the UK to start with, and there may be shortages of certain types of food. Initially grains will be diverted from animal feed stocks to feeding us directly,, driving up animal feed and thus meat prices will be the first to go up. This will drive inflation up and this in turn worries politicians, and when politicians get worried they usually pass some badly thought out laws.
But it’s not just food, floods have caused huge damage and disruption costing the country a fortune.
You can see where this is going can’t you? Yes it’s our old foe climate change, for decades people have been warning that there was a problem, and for over a decade the car industry has taken this very seriously but the problem has always been that the message we’ve been receiving has been confused and complex, making it impossible to know who to believe and so what to plan for. This is partly because the climate is a hugely complex thing, and our understanding of it is still in it’s infancy, what’s shocking is the lack of funding for this science, which takes us back to politicians.
Politicians react to popular opinion, more so near an election. So no matter what the real truth of the matter is (how about massive investment and incentives for zero carbon drives and proper funding for climate research? No, ok then spend the money on nuclear weapons we will never use.) politicians now have a population with ridiculously expensive fuel, flooded homes and food shortages. The people want this mess sorted out, so the standard scenario is that in this situation politicians choose someone to blame and pass laws to restrict the ‘bad thing’ that is the alleged cause of the problem.
Car companies are a bit worried about this situation, not knowing what laws will be passed on emissions or what taxes will be applied to fuel and different types of car means that long term plans are near impossible. Obviously 6.0 litre V8s will get hammered, but what about a 2.0 or a 1.5 litre turbo unit? If the top of your current range has a 3.0 V6, what should you plan to be using in ten years time? Maybe even a sub one litre engine will still get hammered?
And what about the cars due for release in 2013, many years of work and many millions, sometimes over a billion, have gone into getting each one into production. They simply have to be in production for their intended production life span or the company may suffer serious damage, and for very high volume producers like Ford or VW loosing the market on a new car because it gets taxed to oblivion or fails new emissions limits could bring it to its knees. This is serious stuff.
But more serious is the very real change in our climate, if greenhouse gasses are the problem then we have to engineer a technical way of ripping it out of the atmosphere in astonishing volumes, after all we’ve been pumping tons of shit into the air for hundreds of years and there is one hell of a lot of it up there now. And it’s not just CO2, Methane is far worse and a lot of that comes from our passion for meat, there are many factors and it all needs sorting out.
If the politics dictate that petrol and diesel suddenly face being taxed to death, or even banned, then all of a sudden getting funding for reformed fuel or electric drives will become a lot easier, because investors can see the benefit.
But time is running out, and what we need is some sort of certainty so long term plans can be made and investments made. Tell the car industry that cars in ten years time will have to be all electric and we know what we have to work with, sure it will be hard but it will get done. If its gas or reformed fuel or whatever, just let us know.
So what’s the next big thing? Could be reformed petrol, could be hydrogen, could be electric, could even be banning cars and everyone working from home (ok, not that). One thing that I have seen across the board is that there is an increased focus on putting more fun into motoring, there are some fabulous drivers cars in the pipeline. Longer term there are loads of fascinating technologies in their infancy that could change our lives fundamentally, some are being funded and some are just starting out. But in all honestly it all depends on politics, and one thing no one can predict is politicians.
I made a comment recently on Twitter mocking the rise in Lycra clad middle aged cyclists since the Tour D’ France and Olympic cycling team’s success. Whilst my intention was to lightly mock those dressed like racers but struggling to wobble up to 25mph, some of my flippant comments were picked up on by people with very passionate views on cyclists, unexpectedly a small war broke out between those who love cycling and those who hate it. So this is my feeble attempt to set the record straight, and hopefully enlighten some of you a little too.
But before I make my own views known let me just go over the views that other people have kindly expressed. One aspect that struck a raw nerve was how some cyclists were perceived to put themselves and other road users in potentially dangerous situations, such as travelling slowly round blind bends on country roads. A car travelling at the national speed limit would come up on such a bike very rapidly and have to slow abruptly, with the added potential risk of another car following on and striking the first one from behind, or the first car overtaking in a dangerous position potentially striking an oncoming car. A surprising number of people sited this sort of scenario as a reason why they were frustrated with bikes.
Of course exactly the same situation can also be reasonably sited by cyclists as to why they are frustrated by cars. A cyclist making reasonable progress down a road will often be squeezed into the gutters by idiot drivers overtaking in dangerous positions, or risk being struck from behind at high speed by drivers going too fast for the road.
When you think about it both sides are right, what we have in this particular scenario is an incompatibility problem between high speed cars and lower speed bikes.
Now, this brings me to one of my most strongly held opinions; ALL road users are equally entitled to be there. Roads are public places for us all to use for business and pleasure, I personally gain a huge amount of enjoyment from roads, I clock up fairly high mileages test driving a variety of exciting cars but I also enjoy the very different experiences to be had from other modes of transport. For instance nothing compares to the thrill of riding a fast motorbike as you feed it through an exhilarating series of roller coaster twisting back roads. But I also enjoy driving big things like trucks, large military vehicles, tractors, 4x4s and even Artics.
However you may be surprised to hear that it doesn’t all have to be about big engines, there is great enjoyment available from riding a horse, the best bits are fast runs over moors but inevitably to get from one run to another you have to do a bit on the road, but even travelling slowly with a fantastic view is still a great experience. I have even been known to use my own legs, mostly many years ago when they worked properly. But even this can cause tension on the roads, for instance a nice hill walk on the moors back home in Devon can sometimes be cut abruptly short by sudden fog fall, then the only safe way of finding a way out was to walk along the roads.
And yes, I even own a bicycle. As a child it was a ticket to freedom and adventure, as an adult it is a fantastic way to keep fit and a lovely low pollution transport solution (pollution levels depending on what I’ve eaten recently…) and one I wish I used more.
And remember that we all pay for the roads, road funding comes from general taxation and not from the car tax disc. It is a common misconception that the Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) tax disc is some form of road tax, it is not. It is a car tax, the government decided many years ago to tax cars and trucks, simply because they could. It has nothing to do with funding roads. A car driver has no more paid for the road than a pedestrian or cyclist, everyone who pays income tax has paid for roads, even people with no cars. Just thought I should clear that one up.
And when you think about it this makes some degree of sense, because most of us benefit from the road system even if we don’t use it ourselves. For instance we benefit from the trucks bringing food to the shops, from the nurses driving to work, from the parcel delivery, post or even milk delivery. The road system is funded by most people because it benefits most people, in fact everyone except hermits and self sufficient recluses with their own veg patch.
I feel very uncomfortable with any comments that target one group of road users in an attempt to turn them into villains and banish them from the public roads. I am a strong advocate of the view point that you can’t criticise something you don’t understand, although it is perfectly reasonable to question it and indeed poke fun at it in a light hearted manner. Having used most types of transport (still not driven a hovercraft yet) I have complete sympathy with all the above mentioned road user groups, and whilst I can see there are clearly problems I can also see the need for compromise.
So in our first example above with the cyclist on a blind bend you may be wondering which side I support. But as I said it is a compatibility problem due to the high speed differential, so the solution is to reduce the speed differential, cyclists are usually aware of the need to get through dangerous corners as quickly as possible, and many car drivers slow down enough to be able to manoeuvre in time. So the elements of a solution are already there, the problem seems to be where incompetent cyclist don’t recognise the danger and go too slow in such a section, and equally incompetent car drivers getting cheap thrills by not slowing for corners. Sadly on rare occasions I may have been guilty of both these sins, and I suspect you, dear reader, may even have transgressed one or twice too. The trick is to always think about what you are doing, asses the risks and proceed accordingly.
You may have seen the recent proposal to reduce the national speed limit in rural areas from 60mph to 40mph, something that happened on my beloved Dartmoor many years ago. Now, I love driving and riding fast, and being a country bumpkin the lanes were where I learnt to drive many many years ago, they are my home, the roads that I am most comfortable on. So when I heard about the proposal my heart sank, I felt saddened at the impending loss, but when a friend started a petition against the proposal I found that I couldn’t sign it. 60mph on many rural roads can be lethal, sure 99.999% of the time we get away with it, but that remaining small percentage represents utter misery for far too many people, and sometimes tragic loss. Rural roads have a disproportionate death rate, something that could and should be addressed by educating drivers and riders, but the funding for such an exploit would be difficult and any voluntary system would be unlikely to draw in the irresponsible people that need it most. Dropping the speed from 60mph to 40 means that when a car comes across a cyclist doing 25mph the closing speed is just 15mph, rather than 35mph, giving a much more realistic chance of manoeuvring, slowing and generally avoiding death.
In short it increases compatibility between the varied types of road user. And this has to be the key, remember that it is not vehicles that are entitled to use the road, it’s people, all of us. Roads are the arteries of commerce, essential links in farming, they are freedom for teenagers, the paths to our friends and family, adventure and excitement. They are, and always should be, for everyone. And to preserve that freedom and avoid further restrictive legislation we, the road users of all types, must pull together, look out for one another and reduce the scale of the problems. That surely is the only way we have the right to resist any kind of restriction as to what sort of vehicle belongs on the road.
United we stand, divided we fall.
When I was little I remember listening to old people talking about a time when there where no cars, the feeling of excitement and wonder when they saw their firs one, a feeling mixed with a little fear as the mechanical marvel seemed to take over every aspect of life. Where once they played in the road now the car was king, and a ruthless one at that. Communities divided by a constant steam of deadly traffic.
Of course today we take the car for granted. Many have moved away from the workers slums into suburbia and now rely on the car to support this freedom.
We teach our children ‘road sense’ so they can cross the road safely. Most drivers are not deadly speed demons (although in town most people still speed, 40 in a 30 zone IS deadly). Society adjusts and we move on.
Now it seems that its my turn to sound old because I remember a time when there were no PCs.
I remember the excitement of my first Sinclair ZX80, the awe of seeing the colour ZX Spectrum.
But now I feel the fear.
Now don’t get me wrong here, I am a great believer in the usefulness of computers, I have a degree in computer systems engineering, I have made a career out of devising and tweaking computer control systems for cars.
But still, now I feel the fear.
When I was studying to become and engineer, every step of the way I was told of the importance of doing things properly. With a large computer program one has to exactly and correctly specify what it should do in every detail. One must also specify what it must not do! Once the program is written then it must be tested against this specification and every possible combination of circumstances must be tested. That way there are no ‘bugs’ and unexpected effects.
But life is not like that.
The software (and also hardware now) on almost everything is so complex that it requires a computer program just to be able to test it.
No one programmer can do the whole thing, its just too big, so we have teams. So now we have programs to help the teams work together without bits getting left out and prevent miss interpretations etc.
But we live in a capitalist society. Its not just the engineers that create products, its corporations. Many individuals with their own beliefs on how things should be done dictating the boundaries and detail of what the engineer can do but without a sound understanding of the technicalities.
Money has too be made (exceptions include Linux (three cheers)) and so whole chunks of code from other programs are grafted in to new programs, the people producing this new program may not know the details of how this chunk was written and all its effects. Sometimes there may be a ‘surprise’ effect caused by the interaction of this chunk with the rest of the program, other chunks grafted in or indeed other programs running on the same machine or network.
Testing takes time and money and delays the launch date. Some things just cant be tested completely due to their nature, for example if your program predicts the weather then how do you test every possible combination of weather across the whole world and still meet the deadlines.
Also the hardware too is so complex that it is not commercially viable to test everything, or indeed possible. With several million transistors on a single chip is never going to get tested for the effects of every combination of individual transistor failures.
So that’s where we are today. Our systems are only partially tested and often a patchwork of other peoples work all stuck together with hope and optimism. Or indeed sometimes cynicism.
Many consumer products are made by inexperienced teams and pushed out by unscrupulous corporations (particularly in countries where software standards are not enforced) and are largely unproven.
Many of us have experienced the result of this growing problem, such as the PC just locking up when you try a new program or simply getting slower and slower as time goes by. These bug and software faults are so common that many people think it is normal for computers to behave like this. For instance the PC I am writing this on is twelve years old, it still does everything it was designed to and since running Linux it hasn’t slowed right down or ground to a halt, yet still most people accept that computers need replacing every other year and expect it to slow down over time. It must be realised that it doesn’t have to be this way, technically, but commercial pressures will continue to make the problem worse and this will be compounded as more and more code is piled on to bring use ever more features.
Complexity is a big problem and is the subject of many a professors career, things are getting more and more complex and there is no proper engineering control on it.
Now, the reason that I am writing this is not just to have a good whinge about my computer crashing or indeed to complain about commercial forces ruining good engineering. Those things make me angry, but they are not the cause of my fear.
The fear stems from how we are using these systems as a society, how we are relying on the unreliable.
Computer systems are now increasingly being used as part of the law enforcement system, finance control, travel systems and even food production
Speed cameras always cause a good argument so I will stir thing up a bit further. Now I know very well that excessive speed increases danger of injury and general twisting of machinery and putting a speed camera outside a school is no bad thing.
The issue for me comes from the fact that the picture generates an automatic fine for a person. There is no human judgement in the loop, bang, guilty until proven innocent. And that’s wrong.
A friend of mine suffered from a theft from his car, not the usual sort of theft, the number plates were stolen. It turns out that persons of criminal persuasion are stealing a car then cruising round till they find an identical type of car and putting those plate on theirs. Then they can generate speeding fines and parking tickets with impunity and even commit serious crime knowing full well that the system will point the finger at some one else. It even cause the police to waste time with the wrong chap, keeping the heat off the criminals long enough for them to make their escape.
Guilty until proven innocent, trial by computer, not good, not very British.
Maybe soon we will all have ID cards. This means that criminals only need to forge one item instead of a string off items as at present, thus making their life easier. The systems used for security are simply to complex to be testable, and driven down on price so the quality is marginal. Its simply not reliable.
If you want quality you have to pay for it because quality systems take more time to engineer and more time to test and it all costs money.
We are entering the beginning of a time when cars become more autonomous, adaptive cruise control will adjust the car speed to the traffic conditions, lane assist can nudge the steering to stop you drifting off your chosen path, we even have auto parking systems. It is a logical step to bring all these ideas together and link them to the sat nav to create fully autonomous cars, Google are investing heavily in this idea. Once the systems become common there will be increasing pressure to ban manual driving, after all an autonomous car doesn’t get road rage, doesn’t speed, can see through fog, never gets distracted and should never crash. All those computer systems running all those programs written by thousands of different people at different times in different places and controlling your car….
In the near future there will be an attempt to make remote vehicle arrestors mandatory on all new cars. This system uses ABS systems that have full authority breaking and engine management systems to bring a car to a halt using a radio command that only police will have. In a simplistic world this is great, you report your car stolen and the police can bring it to a halt when the conditions are safe. No more getaway cars. Well, unless criminals use older cars, but that loophole is easily solved by making classic cars illegal and crushing them all!
The problems include accidental stopping of the car (you cant prove the software completely due to its complexity and you cant prove the hardware completely because you cant test every failure and every type of possible radio interference etc), incorrect use by the police or other agencies, vehicle being stopped by criminals equipped with illicit stopping systems for the purpose of car jacking. Finally there is always a way to bypass the system, always a loop hole, a bug, a back door or an ‘unintentional feature’.
I was on a train in Germany last year which suddenly stopped in the middle of no where without warning, brakes full on. Luckily I had finished my coffee so the cup was empty when it slid of the table. The cause of this potentially dangerous emergency stop was a software error in the very system that is supposed to protect the train from crashes.
Our corporate based society does not allow for well written systems to be made as profitably as the quickly written ones.
This is a real problem and is getting worse as more systems are used.
In my life I rely on a mobile phone, I rely on my car, my computer, email, bank direct debits, automatic payments, alarm clock, microwave, fridge, washing machine, traffic lights etc. The power feeding my home is controlled by systems all linked together in a network. The amount of chlorine in the water I drink is monitored electronically. Aeroplanes are flown expertly by computers over my head, the air traffic is controlled by other computers.
I use my switch card to pay for car tax, the little computer in the post office reads my details and talks to one of many networked computers at the bank, the figure in my account file is reduced and a message sent to the post office bank computer to tell it to increase the number in its account. Then a message is sent to a computer at DVLA and it changes the value of a variable in a file so that when another program does its daily check of who has tax it will not automatically send a message to another computer to send me a fine and automatically turn me into a criminal. I never see these computers and they never see me. But they can bankrupt me accidentally or send me to jail.
These systems are not designed completely by engineers, the specifications and design constraints are created by politicians and computer sales executives who simply don’t understand.
When I was a child, I was proud to be British, a country that believed in tolerance, understanding and fair play. I was proud of my country.
Now I am scared of my country and the automatic systems that rule my life.
My bank local branch has just got rid of all its cashiers, you have to use the machines now. Signatures have been replaced with PINs.
Make no mistake, these systems give us great ability as a society and as in individual. The principles of the systems are very good, it’s often empowering and can change lives for the better. Even this blog site gives me a platform to express my beliefs and concerns in a way that was impossible a generation ago. I am a great believer in technology.
But as far as I can see if we are to rely on systems then they must be reliable.
Also, there must always be a human in the loop when ever civil liberty is at stake.
And finally, there must always be a manual back up for those odd days when thing don’t quite work the way they should.