previous / next column
A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .
Sometimes a September column almost seems to write itself, if the summer has generated an above-average flow of silly-season stories...
It was announced that in order to save electricity, the EU is banning the import and sale of vacuum cleaners that are rated above 1600 W. This is fair enough, I suppose, as long as they will now be redesigned to suck more efficiently. But then came a warning that up to thirty various electrical appliances are at risk of being similarly power-limited, including lawnmowers, kettles and hair-dryers.
Well, with lawnmowers, if they can be made more efficient then again this makes a sort of sense (except that the Daily Mail – not my regular paper – illustrated the tale with a petrol mower). But appliances that simply convert electricity into heat are already 100% efficient! Reducing their power only means that they will be kept on for longer, until the job is finished. It saves nothing. In fact, a lower-powered kettle will use more energy in boiling a given amount of water, because heat will be leaking from it into the kitchen at the same average rate but over a longer period of time. Doesn’t the EU have scientific advisors?
The Highways Agency released a motorway story (which naturally the press leapt upon) about a driver who glanced down at his dashboard display. He saw the word Fire, took it to be a warning and pulled on to the hard shoulder, or so he told the agency’s Traffic Officers who spotted him. They managed to establish that his CD system had been playing a song called Set Fire to the Rain. Evidently his reaction speed was faster than his reading speed.
But at least he was in control of his vehicle. Progress in the development of driverless cars has been widely reported recently, and you wonder how they would react to a hint of something wrong. For example, will they have a ‘nose’ able to detect a burning smell, or an ‘ear’ that can pick up the noise of a failing wheel bearing? And a brain capable of assessing the situation and deciding whether to pull over as a precaution?
I have a more urgent question too: when are these vehicles going to be given a short and simple name? I bet it wasn’t long after the horseless carriage arrived on the scene that someone decided to save time by calling it a car. Anyway, for now in this column I shall refer to the driverless car as an auto.
As I say, there has been plenty of news of them. Several manufacturers are in the field, but Google seems to be attracting the most attention. This is partly out of surprise that it’s now building cars, I guess, but also because in May it announced the launch of a fleet of more than 100 prototype bubble-car-shaped autos with no pedals or steering-wheel for emergencies, even, just stop/go buttons.
Now for the sillinesses: firstly, the front of this distinctive auto is soft, consisting of a foam-type bonnet and a flexible windscreen, which “may help to reduce injuries”. Or so said all the news reports, which suggests that a Google press-release said it first. But regardless, it doesn’t indicate much confidence in the self-driving system! (Though why not soften all cars as described?)
Secondly, Google’s home state of California decreed only last month that before autos can be used on public roads (which is Google’s intention, of course) they must be equipped with pedals and a wheel, so that an occupant can take over control immediately if necessary. Refitting these new bubble-autos, in order to comply, won’t leave much space in the cabin for legs, bags etc. Also, isn’t it likely to be a big turn-off? Nearly everyone I’ve seen or heard reporting to us from the inside of an auto has said how unnerving it is to watch the wheel steering on its own.
And thirdly, Google says that its autos are being programmed to drive at up to 10 mph above the prevailing speed limit. The argument is that this will be safer than restricting them to the limit if surrounding traffic is already speeding. Well now, would you be a happy passenger under these conditions? And when the first auto gets caught by a camera, who will pay the fine (and take the points) – the owner, the occupant(s), or Google?
Many other such tricky questions come to mind. And right now I’m sure they are frantically being debated at the Department for Transport, because Vince Cable announced in July that autos will be permitted on UK roads as early as next January: what a shake-up of the regulations that will cause!
But our roads have one feature that will defeat the auto, I think, namely mini-roundabouts. I find it hard enough myself sometimes to pick out a right-indicator next to the headlight of an oncoming car: imagine the outcome if an auto fails to detect the signal as it approaches the roundabout. And even when it succeeds and stops behind the line – being programmed to give way to the right – how will it cope with other drivers who are proceeding (in the more efficient manner) by giving way to the left instead? Finally, what if three autos arrive at a mini-roundabout at the same time?
Hoping not to confuse you, I shall now revert to applying the word ‘auto’ to the gearbox of my VW Golf. In July I received a letter saying that the car was subject to a recall: there was a risk that the synthetic oil in the box could cause a short-circuit, which would leave the car freewheeling (though at least still with working brakes)! I read later that this had in fact occurred, in hot climates, because of the oil decomposing.
So whose silly idea was it first to synthesize an oil that could deteriorate in this way, and then to pour it into an electronically controlled auto-gearbox? Anyway, the remedy is to replace it with mineral oil, which VW kindly did for me. And I drove away afterwards continuing to admire the working of my auto-transmission. In fact I’m thinking of devoting a column to it...
Meanwhile, Mrs S and I are about to take a break in Ireland, including hiring a car – with manual gears of course (auto would be twice the cost). I’m curious to see how smoothly I can change gear, after 15 months of delegating the task!
previous / next column