Tuesday 19 November 2013

Mail Boris the Blamer Now!

It's not too late to email Boris.

Dear Mayor,

Cyclists are dying at the rate of one per working day, yet nobody is actually doing anything to address this.

You yourself say 'it is too early to point fingers' yet then go on to point fingers at cyclists for breaking laws, listening to music -effectively implying it is their own fault. Then the met go out and start telling people off for not having rear reflectors.

What is killing cyclists is HGVs in the peak hours -tipper trucks in particular. Talking to the FTA about this will take months and achieve nothing, at best a promise to add another mirror in 2-3 years time -something the FTA are already complaining about.

You have been saying "no knee jerk reactions" for over a year. That means you've had enough time to come up with some non-knee jerk reactions. Your staff at TfL appear to be unable to imagine anything. Why not copy some from elsewhere?

  1. Dublin and Paris: A ban on HGVs at peak hours. Even if "flouted', it doesn't mean it has benefits. Speed limits are flouted and yet we still have them.
  2. NY: safe, segregated cycle paths.
  3. NL: investigation of cycle/HGV deaths followed by actions to prevent their re-occurrence
  4. NL: light sequences giving cyclists not just 2 seconds head start, but enough time to clear the junction, even on a slow bicycle.

See? These are actions you can take, which other countries have shown work. Please implement them instead of appearing on talk radio blaming cyclists.

Finally, given your TfL surface staff seem unable to come up with any solution to cycling safety in the city, have you considered replacing some of their senior  management. If you look at Leon Daniel's performance on the BBC london news, even you must have been embarrased. It's either blame them or blame you, and having one set of managers replaced, will motivate the new set.

Friday 15 November 2013

Boris the Blamer: the elephant in the room

This is probably the worst week in Britain's cycling history -to the extent that that the fact that someone else was crushed to death in London today: this time a pedestrian, was barely a surprise to cycling and road safety campaigners.

But to the families: the police turning up to advise that a loved one was dead will be a shock that will last for the rest of their lives.

The sheer awfulness of this week is brought out by the fact that the Bow Roundabout protest mid-week was protesting the death of four cyclists in eight days.

What would Boris Do? He's blaming the cyclists.

Why would he do this? The obvious answer: he's a selfish wanker who despite the claims that "dutch-style" cycling matters, doesn't mean it. He still thinks that cyclists can survive "if they keep their wits about them", and if not then it's their own fault, "they ran a red light" -which is of course the TfL world view.

TfL have that opinion because they are stuck in two worlds: mass transport -tubes and buses- and the car. Either way it's the big infrastructure projects their civil engineers love: overpasses, tube stations, grand things to be proud of -no shitty little bike lanes for ungrateful cyclists who are always complaining about your work.

With their direct control limited to the main roads, they end up being forced to build death-ways on them, because their overreaching objective "traffic flow" prevents them from building safe routes

To get more cars over per cycle, widen the road at each junction to let two cars through at once, then shrink it down at the far end. Gets cars over, but removes space for  a bike lane at the approach -and at the end you are left fighting for space with whoever is racing to the pinch point.

To get more cars over a junction, there's no time for all way pedestrian lights, meaning walking across more than one road means two waiting periods, then two sprints: slower to cross than a car. For cycling, it means that there is no time in the Bow St junction to have a dedicated cycling session. So the lights give you a couple of seconds head start, not the time you need to actually get over.

Finally there is parking. That's more of a side-road issue, which means the councils -but the TfL seem unwilling or unable to change the focus of the councils -Westminster and K&C councils in particular- to focus on cash through parking. Yet TfL have so much power if they really wanted it: the power to change the lights so that nobody could ever leave K&C, to cross over to westminster.  Those same main roads that break up cycling are a weapon TfL could use to get their way with councils -if they really wanted to. But they don't as they have  shared agenda. The councillors want their free parking spaces, the councils the paid parking, and TfL are happy to smooth the flow to those parking spaces.

That's TfL: stuck in time and collaborating with the councils to do nothing to make cycling safe. They could be changed, but that doesn't just take the time that Andrew Gilligan claims is needed: it takes motivation. It takes someone telling TfL "It's OK to slow down traffic if it encourages a shift to cycling". To instruct TfL to say to Westminster council "we're going to close Westminster Bridge to cars every Sunday -deal with it".

Who is the someone. The person who could is clearly; Boris the Cyclist Killer.

Except Boris the Blamer is again saying "no knee jerk reactions", "get all the facts" and reminding cyclists not to the break the law: with the obvious implicit message: the cyclists broke the rules and died for it"

And yes, he does it because he's a wanker who probably believes it.

However, he has a problem: he's an ambitious wanker.

Ambition one: get re-elected mayor
Ambition two: become leader of the conservative party, and then prime minister.

This week threatens this. Nationally.

Before the spring's elections Boris came round to supporting a "dutch style cycling revolution"

But where is it, apart from a half mile strip to CS2 -which you only get to from the city if you survive Bow Street.

That new segregated stretch is notable as the first TfL segregated superhighway route -but given it was opened the during the "massacre of the cyclists", the launch isn't going be a high point of Boris's second mayoral stint, it's going to be seen as a sign of him being out of touch with the real issues -and not just in London, this is making international news, as well as papers across Britain.

This threatens him because even if he thinks the cyclists are dying for their own failures, he's now exposed to his own failings:

If Boris can't build a bike path, how can he run a country?

It is that which may be the key to getting TfL to change their ways -but he needs to be reminded of this, every single day.

Monday 11 November 2013

Autonomous cars #2: Speed Limits and other ignored-laws

Previous post #1: If an autonomous car break the speed limit -who takes the blame?

Cycling journalist Carlton Reid, followed up by referencing an article by "Robocar" engineer and evangelist, Brad Templeton, who argues that fears of robocar-related crashes are overrated. He may well have a point given the willingness of todays drivers to make decisions that endanger "overtake cyclists before a corner" with followon decisions that compound the first mistake "I continued ever after seeing the oncoming cyclists".

Robocars are unlikely to suffer from it is the unwillingness to reverse a decision once the situation made it clear it was not the right one. Yet we see that on the road every day: the overtaker who keeps going, the left-hook van driver who, even though they have underestimated the cyclists' speeds, continues to pass and turn. Removing egotism from the decision making process may be progress.

However, the article wasn't actually on the reliability of robocars, but on the moral issue: should robocars break speed limits -and if so, who is at at fault.

Brad actually picks this issue up at one point:
More complex are the situations where breaking the vehicle code is both normal and even necessary, particularly for unmanned vehicles. One must be assertive on some roads in order to get through at all, and everybody does it and nobody is ticketed except in an accident or during zero-tolerance enforcement days.
He has acknowledged that breaking traffic laws is a social norm in many cities, and  rather than saying "it will be impossible for robocars to break the laws", he says "it's complex".  Yet he hints at why the laws get disregarded: because you can. If you only get tickets on "zero-tolerance" days then you can discount the law.

Which is of course precisely why the Daily Mail Fuckwits are so strongly against speed cameras, RLJ cameras and CCTV enforcement of school keep clear zones and bus-lanes. We can automate enforcement of traffic laws today -yet to do so generates a backlash from those who consider being able to break them a human right.

Brad gets into detail on the speed limit issue in another article, where he argues that it should be the right of a robocar to decide for itself what a safe speed is, looking at the two options of speed limits

  1. As with its ancestor, the cruise control, the operator of a robocar can set the car to operate at any speed within its general limits, regardless of the road speed limit. The moral and safety decisions rest with this person.
  2. The vehicle must be programmed to not break the speed limit, nor allow its operator to do so. It must be aware of all limits and obey them. 
I believe the first choice is both better and more likely. It's more likely because the public has a strong love for having control of their car, even if it is automated. Attempts to put in speed limiters by law have all been rejected, and cars are routinely sold able to go much faster than any allowed speed limit. 

That is, he believes that the driver has the right to make the decisions, even though they endanger others more than the driver -and society has  a set of laws because we recognise that the drivers aren't the best people to make those decisions.

Key claims here:

A vehicle limited to the speed limit will be going much more slowly than traffic on most US freeways, and be forced to drive in the right lane. (& arguments against this)
--- Only if the speed limits were not being enforced. If they were, the robocar would be integrated with the normal traffic flow.
"On many roads all lanes are moving faster than the limit. The limited car would become an obstruction to traffic."
-- Only because all lanes are full of drivers breaking the law. I they were all driving legally this would not be an issue
"This less comfortable ride, plus the longer travel time, will create a great temptation to manually take the wheel on many highways." (& increased risk follows)
Again, this only holds if the driver could break the speed limit with impunity. If speed limits were enforced there would be no benefit of manual driving, hence no increased risk. Anyway, surely robocars are about the ability to work while you drive, to not get tired on long journeys (where the speed difference between 70 and 80 mph may actually alter journey times)

Eventually he comes out and  makes his stance clear -and this is a stance of someone who works on robocars at at google-
I believe the math and other arguments clearly show that robocars should be allowed to move faster than the speed limit so long as they are rated suitably safe in the particular conditions, and the bulk of other traffic is also doing this.
This is just the safe speed and 85% percentile bollocks restated. Yet it ignores how the defacto speed limits of a road and a country have evolved: through a failure to enforce the limits and the gradual acquisition of a motor vehicle fleet designed to break those limits with impunity. Now that a majority of British cars are stable and quiet above 80 mph, the drivers and passengers believe that it is not only safe to do so -but their right- and that any attempt to rigorously enforce the speed limits becomes a political minefield.

Finally, Brad comes out and admits the situation we have in cities today: breaking the law is sometimes necessary because everyone else does: Speeding is just one of code violations almost everybody does.
In cities today, "aggressive driving" is often viewed as necessary. Examples: squeezing past bicycles, pulling out half-way across a road to complete a right turn, pulling out in front of oncoming traffic at a roundabout, turning right across the front of an oncoming car.

These are actions that are commonplace in a city, viewed as acceptable to drivers -yet which are some of the actions which are utterly terrifying to anyone trying to cycle in the area.

The "rules of the road" which have evolved in our cities are rules built around  800 Kg vehicles with ABS brakes and fast acceleration -and an assumption that they have right of way over all others

In the UK, the law that gets broken the most must be the "give way to pedestrians when turning" law. Anyone walking would die if they believed this would hold: so what will the robocar story be here? To actually give way to pedestrians? Or to follow the actions of the rest of the motor fleet?

The choice of which driving policies to implement in a robocar is something we cyclists cannot naively hope will be made so as to suit us. It will be made to suit the paying customers, within the constraints of the legal system. If robocar sales are suppressed because they don't drive aggressively enough, because they don't speed on the motorways, then the manufacturers will keep pushing this "we need to keep up with traffic" bollocks, this "everyone does it" rule.

But what will happen over time? Even if the first generation of robocars broke the speed limit, cut up pedestrians and squeezed past cyclists "because everyone did it", will there be some threshold -say when 51% of the motor fleet is automated, when suddenly the "everyone does it" argument becomes obsolete? As at that point vehicles will be driven dangerously not because people choose to drive that way, not because robocars do that way to blend in, but because it is what robocars have been programmed to do -and even when they are in the majority, it is how they will behave.

This is why it is critical that autonomous cars are not allowed to break speed limits in autonomous modes from day 1. If not, a precedent will be set that will remain unchallenged even if the cars form the vast majority of the fleet. There won't be a sudden "75% day" when there are deemed to be enough of them that they have to stop speeding, to stop blocking junctions to make progress, or to start giving way to pedestrians. These have to be done from the outset, so that the robots can set an example for the humans.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

If an autonomous car break the speed limit -who takes the blame?

Autonomous Cars are the great hope of the car industry, ironically, to solve all problems that cars have created: congestion, safety, parking, etc. It's also an obsession with google -maybe in a misguided belief that it will solve problems, more likely that they want to get all those extra hours people spend in traffic -browsing time.

Ignoring the technical issues -will they work- there are legal issues -and that's something cycling and road safety campaigners need to sort out -before the decisions are made for them.

Start with a simple question: If an autonomous car break the speed limit -who takes the blame?

This is a simple question but gets complex fast.  Today, if a car breaks the speed limit, the driver takes the blame. The driver is expected to be aware of what type of road it is, and what extra road signs show restrictions on the mandated maximums: 50 mph, 40, 30, 20. There are even temporary speed limits -those on motorways are still enforced.

It doesn't matter whether speed limits are long-standing, temporary or recent -if you break them, you take the blame.

Yet lots of people do break the limits, to the extent that if you drive round Bristol at 30 mph drivers behind you start to get impatient and then frantic. Drive down the end of the M32, where it's become 30 mph -you'd have a bus go into the back of you.  And as for the M5 to Birmingham: 85 is the minimum speed in the fast lane.

The defacto speed limits of much of S Gloucs and Bristol are higher than what's legal -the reason people drive at those speeds is because they get away with it. Which is why there's so much hate of speed cameras. Everyone views it as their right to drive at 85 mph down a motorway,  35 in town. Speed cameras don't catch one or two speeders -they force the speed limit down by 15 mph.

But speed camera or police camera: driver is always guilty.

Now, what about Autonomous Cars?

If they can be configured to break the speed limit, if there is some "break the law" button, what would that mean? That drivers have the option of telling the car to break the law -and if so, they are liable? But even building such a feature in means the car manufacturer wink-wink providing an overtake option "to use in emergency" -exactly the same way they hint about how cars can drive at 130 mph "in Germany".

The alternative: you can't speed in autonomous mode, you have to go manual -how is that handled? Does the a-car log this fact and speed? They'd have to: because if the car got caught speeding in manual mode, then the fact it wasn't in autonomous mode is something that'd be used by the car manufacturer as a defence.

But what if the car broke the speed limit in autonomous mode? If you are driving there is no excuse for doing so -and you take the hit: points and penalties. What happens in automatic mode? Does Ford or Google take a hit? Does the driver who was reading email get blamed for the actions of their car?

And how does the car know the speed limits?

Drivers have the road and its signed, but a-cars are going to have to rely on digital maps with speed-limit data on it. How often are those maps going to be refreshed? When a new 20 mph zone is rolled out, can a-cars break the limit until they get an update? And who is at fault then? Is it an "oh well never mind" problem? Is the fault of the driver? The map updaters? Or even the council? After all, today's GPS units have a big disclaimer "don't rely on this" -which is precisely what autonomous cars plan to do.

It gets better thought: in france the speed limits on autoroutes changes depending on weather -that's officially, not just "Slow down in the rain" hints.

Nominally then, an automatic car could break the speed limit in france even if the map was up to date -because it wasn't aware of the weather.

These all sound theoretical questions -but if they don't get answered the likely outcome will be "if an autonomous car breaks the speed limit -never mind". That will be especially in the case in changed limits, permanent or temporary. While drivers could get penalised, the fact that autonomous cars break the limits until the maps are updated is something that could become accepted as inevitable.

No doubt car manufacturers will also be pushing for higher limits for a-cars on motorways, say, 85 mph in dedicate lanes. Which is what they will know they have to in order to preserve the defacto 85 mph limit, to sell autonomous driving on motorways.

Yet from a road safety perspective, this question, who takes the blame when an autonomous car breaks the speed limit, is critical.

Because the answer to that will shape the answer to the next question: if an autonomous car kills someone: who takes the blame?