Russian dashcams February 21, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
The recent and spectacular meteor strike in Russia has, of course, brought attention to the peril we face from space (or from sneaky American meteor weapons). One interesting facet of the incident has been the amount of live footage posted by Russians.
Note that the video was taken by a camera attached to the inside of the car. These cameras, known as “dash cameras” or simply “dashcams” have become celebrities in their own right, especially in Russia. Nearly every car in Russia is equipped with such a camera, explains this piece in Wired, because:
The sheer size of the country, combined with lax — and often corrupt — law enforcement, and a legal system that rarely favors first-hand accounts of traffic collisions has made dash cams all but a requirement for motorists.
Of course, it helps that the cameras have become quite affordable:
The technology running dash cams has gotten small enough and cheap enough that most Russian drivers are happy to pay the price. Good quality dash cams can be bought in Russia for as little as $50, or as much as $200. This small expense can conceivably save thousands in the event of a crash.
It also does not help that Russian roads can be icy, and that drunk driving or just poor driving skills are not as uncommon as they should be.
As a result, the ‘net is brimming with dashcam videos, often featuring spectacular crashes or other unpleasant altercations among Russian motorists. Here is a tolerable sample:
There are plenty of compilations of even more distracting videos, at Jalopnic, for example.
There is quite a bit that could be said about these videos. Obviously, they speak to the poor state of traffic on Russian roads. They also relate to the increasing ubiquity of surveillance in modern life, not from our authorities but from our fellow citizens. As a society, we are constructing a panopticon, one that seems to celebrate misfortune and bad behavior rather than promoting pro-social conduct.
It also brings us full circle, in a way. In 1923, Dodge introduced a coupe that was the first car with a totally enclosed, steel chassis. The main selling point of this new construction was the “appreciable new sense of security” that it gave to the driver. In brief, the enclosed chassis helped to keep the elements out of the car’s cabin, and thus separated the driver (and passengers) from the exterior in a way that was not possible in earlier designs. This separation tended to turn the experience of driving into one of watching a spectacle through a window, somewhat like on a movie screen.
Closer still is the later experience of watching television. In both cases, viewers sit back and take in what happens on the pane of glass in front of them. Now, with the advent of dashcams as pioneered in Russia, the experience of driving is being assimilated to the experience of watching TV.
It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, this development will have on driving. It may prove tempting to drivers to look around the roadway for interesting things to record with the dashcam. So, dashcams could lead to greater driver distraction. Or, perhaps, they could prompt better driving as motorists pay more attention to what is going on around them than what is happening on their smart phones, say.
Whatever the case, the Russians may well be the first to find out.
Why Swedes like congestion charges November 28, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Jonas Eliasson gives an interesting TEDx talk on why Swedes have accepted congestion charges in downtown Stockholm. There have been many approaches to the reduction of traffic congestion, often focussed on making traffic flow more efficient or on increasing road capacity. Experience suggests that these approaches do not work reliably. Congestion pricing, that is, charging people for driving cars in congested areas, has been the only strategy that reliably produces the desired result.
The example of Stockholm is consistent with this observation, as Eliasson notes. However, what is curious is his observation that residents of Stockholm came to largely approve of congestion pricing, having mostly disapproved of it initially, and also did not realize the changes that the plan has made in their driving habits.
How could people be unaware of the impact of this scheme on their own driving habits? Eliasson’s explanation is somewhat unclear. Congestion pricing “nudges” drivers into alternative behaviors, but what that means and what the alternatives are is not made explicit.
On the first point, a “nudge” is a small alteration to circumstances that causes a potentially large change in people’s behavior. For example, behavioral economists Thaler and Sunstein, in their book “Nudge”, note that retirement savings plans that, by default, subtract installments before people get their paycheques work much better than voluntary and post-payment plans. If people do not see the money in their paycheques in the first place, they do not experience its subtraction as a loss that they would rather not suffer. You do not miss what you never had.
In what way is congestion pricing a nudge? Perhaps, as explained here, it prompts people to try out public transit which they may well find they enjoy more than they thought. Where public transit proves to be agreeable, people develop the habit of taking it and so do not miss driving into the congested zone.
Of course, this explanation does not account for people’s amnesia about their former attitudes. However, human memory is reconstructed, not recalled from a rote store as in a computer. As such, what people remember is influenced by their current situation. As people find agreeable alternatives to driving in congestion zones, their feelings about the plan become more positive. When asked to recall their previous feelings on this matter, perhaps their positive feelings lead them to recall positive instances from the past and not so many negative ones. This bias towards positive past experience, in turn, justifies their positive feelings in the present.
Stockholm’s experience may serve as a model for other cities. It suggests that congestion pricing can be effective in reducing congestion, provided that agreeable, alternative transit options are available. It also suggests that the congestion pricing may be politically acceptable in the long run, although it is tough to sell in the short run as discovered in New York City.
Bicycle cameras July 24, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Today’s New York Times brings a couple of interesting articles about cyclists. The first concerns cameras that cyclists can wear to record their rides. Originally designed so that epic rides could be re-enjoyed later, the cameras are now being used by cycling commuters to record any accidents they may have while on the streets. For example, a cyclist named Evan Wilder was sideswiped by a car and knocked off his bike. The driver sped away but Mr. Wilder was able to obtain the license plate number from the video stored in his camera. Police arrested the owner and charged him with leaving the scene of an accident.
(Alisdair McDiarmid/Wikimedia commons)
Many cyclists will see such gear as a way of leveling the playing field, that is, of addressing an imbalance of power with motorists who, after all, have a big advantage in size and power on the roadway. Some drivers, it seems, also have an adversarial attitude towards cyclists, that cameras might help to curb:
“It’s a fact of life that on American roads that you get punked, cut off purposely, harassed, not once but on a regular basis,” said Bob Mionske, a former Olympic cyclist who is now a lawyer representing bicyclists in Portland, Ore. “If motorists start to hear about bikes having cameras, they’re going to think twice about running you off the road.”
So, cycle cameras may help to make things fairer for cyclists.
The next article concerns how New York City is sending errant cyclists to remedial classes. Cyclists who are written up for violations such as riding outside of bicycle lanes (where they are available) or riding on sidewalks are sent by judges to a class hosted in a sports store in the Upper West Side. The idea is to remind cyclists what the laws concerning cycling require of them, or simply to educate them where they are not clear on the matter:
“You couldn’t possibly ticket all of the stuff you see irresponsible cyclists do,” said Judge Felicia Mennin, who worked with the nonprofit organization Bike New York to develop the new sentencing option.
But, she acknowledged, some riders may be honestly confused about what is allowed. “There are a lot of laws and not always clarity about abiding by the law,” she said.
Cycling education is rudimentary in North America, so most cyclists learn the rules of the road informally. As a result, their behavior will tend to vary with their personal and cultural background. Perhaps our approach should be more systematic, as it is in the Netherlands.
In any event, the introduction of cameras for cyclists could have unforeseen consequences. If an accident occurs involving a bicycle, the video might be subpoenaed in court, even if the video weighs against the cyclist. In a recent case in British Columbia, a hang glider pilot was charged with obstruction of justice after he swallowed a memory card containing video of a flight where his passenger fell to her death. I imagine that the courts would take a similar view of videos recorded by cyclists in the event that they are caught violating the law.
It seems inevitable that we will be surveilling one another more and more with cameras. As with the recent case of Steve Mann, the results may not alway be what we expect or would like.
Stop worrying and love your robot car February 10, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why we drive the way we do, has posted a piece on Wired responding to critics of autonomous or robot cars. Vanderbilt does not name the critics whom he rebuts, so it is difficult to tell if he represents them correctly and fairly. However, the points he makes seem sensible enough on their own merits.
(Alex Goy/Wikimedia Commons)
Two points, however, may present difficulties that do not receive adequate attention in his brief commentary. Let’s start with autonomy and privacy.
Vanderbilt notes that some people may object to robot cars because they would allow Big Brother, aka the government, to have a larger say in the behavior of your car. The point is, I gather, that some drivers enjoy illegal practices such as speeding, or drinking, texting, or watching TV while driving, and so on. A robot car would be programmed to obey all local rules and regulations, and would also be programmed to rat out occupants who break them. Of course, it might be worth pointing out that drinking, watching TV etc., might not be considered an offense in a robot car.
In defense of Vanderbilt’s anonymous critics, robot cars will raise issues with driving and traffic that simply do not exist with human drivers. The problem of managing accidents is one that has already been considered in this blog. Another would be the potential for increasing complexity of traffic regulation. Consider speed limits. Presently, speed limits tend to be fairly generic, with major highways having a default limit of 110 km/h (here in Ontario), county highways 80 or 90 km/h, and city streets 50 km/h. One could imagine matching speed limits much more precisely to local conditions. A single stretch of road could have dozens of speed limits at different points, depending on how straight they are, how narrow, how far from housing or schools, and so on. And then there are weather conditions to think about. The possibilities for regulation of autonomous cars may be nearly boundless. The introduction of autonomous cars will raise many new issues for governments and citizens to consider. My point is not that we should ban robot cars. It is just that a robot car is more than just a tool; it cannot be added to the existing traffic system without affecting that system in return. A similar story will apply to considerations of privacy.
Another point that Vanderbilt raises is whether or not autonomous cars will increase or decrease the amount of driving that occurs. Vanderbilt is skeptical that Jevons’ Paradox will apply. This is the argument that, since robot cars will likely be more fuel efficient that regular cars, that people will consume their savings by making more trips and at longer distances. As he implies, there is only so much time in the day, and people have other things they would likely prefer to do than sit in a car. So, this factor should limit any effect from the Paradox. However, as Vanderbilt concedes, the situation is not so simple. With the car driving itself, the driver’s attention is freed up for other tasks, such as sending and reading emails:
The utility of the commute could theoretically improve as people once stuck driving the car can now fire off e-mails with abandon. Then again, this increased utility might lead to more people taking advantage of the utility, thus leading to more traffic and more time spent in gridlock. At which point you might long for that other, essentially “self-driving” vehicle: the train.
In other words, the autonomous car will probably increase the productivity of each car trip for its occupants. Thus, the effective cost of the trip will decrease. It will be as if, along the lines of Jevons’ argument, you had added more time to the length of the day. In that case, people might well be willing to consume that “extra” time, while their car drives them places. In that event, fuel consumption could actually rise as a result of the introduction of robot cars.
As Vanderbilt says, neither of these observations provides a compelling reason to ban or abandon autonomous cars. However, neither should we think of the introduction of such cars as being just like the introduction of a new model year in an existing type.
Parking and progress February 2, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
The New Scientist has an interesting item about a networked parking lot that makes parking more efficient. The basic idea is to have sensors in each space in a lot, which report their empty/full status to a central system. The information could then be presented to drivers through smartphone or in-car apps. As a result, the drivers could head right for an empty spot, instead of hunting around for one.
There are two reasons presented in favour of this scheme:
- Being able to find a spot right away would lessen frustration for drivers:
It’s a problem familiar to most of us: you circle for ages waiting to find a parking space and just when you’ve spotted one, someone else darts in first.
Most people do not enjoy parking lot driving (and I am one of them), so lessening its duration seems like win for sure.
- Lessening the time spent parking should lessen the pollution produced by cars idling while waiting for a space, or crawling slowly around the lot:
That means more emissions. According to a 2007 study by Donald Shoup at the University of California, Los Angeles, drivers in a 15-block district of LA notched up a staggering 1.5 billion kilometres a year looking for parking spaces. That’s the equivalent of 38 trips around the Earth, 178,000 litres of wasted gasoline and 662 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
That is a staggering statistic! It would be wonderful to eliminate the pollution generated by this useless activity.
The article does not consider any possible downsides, but there are some possibilities. First, as per Jevons’ Paradox, gains in efficiency can actually increase overall consumption. In this case, making parking more efficient may simply encourage more people to travel to parking lots more often. The result may be an increase in driving, and thus an increase in trips, travel time, and pollution. Traffic seems to be particularly vulnerable to such effects, so the problem cannot be easily dismissed.
Second, who is really benefiting from this efficiency? Drivers may benefit, if the effect of Jevons’ Paradox can somehow be avoided. However, the parties most likely to benefit are the establishments that use the parking lots. For example, the stores in a mall would likely do more business if people can be packed more efficiently into the parking lot. Right now, the possibility of a frustrating parking experience probably keeps some people away from the stores. If that frustration can be relieved, then more people will come to shop at the stores. That is a win for the store owners and their shareholders, not to mention the employees at the stores themselves.
The losers in this situation would be those who do not drive cars, either for lack of income or simply preference for transportation alternatives. If people with cars are more able to access stores through parking lots, then there is less incentive for cities to provide access to them through public transportation. Those citizens without cars will then have less opportunity to shop at the same establishments as their fellow citizens. That may or may not be a big problem, depending on what shopping or other service opportunities are at stake.
There are other possibilities for increased efficiency in access to resources that do not require high-tech gear or that invite more traffic. For example, the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte has a program called Popular Basket in which busses travel around the city carrying basic food staples, acting as a kind of traveling farmer’s market. When the bus parks in your neighbourhood, you can pick up what you require. Instead of each family making a car trip to the mall, the mall comes within walking distance of every family in the neighbourhood. The scheme could cut down significantly on car travel while allowing neighbours to meet on occasion.
Of course, the scheme comes with trade-offs of its own: The buses tend to carry only basic goods, and are not always available. Furthermore, they might be viewed as beneath the dignity of some potential customers in North American cities. My point is simply that making parking lots more efficient is not necessarily the solution to our traffic woes, and that there are innovative alternatives to be considered if we look beyond our preference for shopping malls and high-tech gear.
Run that red light! December 2, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Traffic lights are a common way to establish control over how people share intersections. Of course, not everyone obeys traffic lights (although Monty Python likes them), especially when they are red. One solution has been the red light camera, an automatic camera that identifies cars that run the red lights and then issues tickets to the owners. Of course, those cameras are themselves somewhat controversial, with people complaining that they are abused by local authorities looking to make money on traffic violations.
A new idea being pursued by researchers at MIT is software that predicts who is likely to run a red light:
Using data collected from DOT-sponsored surveillance of a busy intersection in Christianburg, Virginia to track vehicle speed and location, the researchers could determine, within two seconds of a car approaching an intersection, with 85 percent accuracy whether it would run a red light.
Eventually, the researchers propose, this software could be incorporated into inter-vehicle communications systems, so that cars on the road can predict the behavior of other cars and react accordingly. For example:
“Even though your light might be green, it may recommend you not go because there are people behaving badly that you may not be aware of,” said Jonathan How, an aeronautics and astronautics professor who co-created the algorithm.
The system is obviously far from production, but it does sound like something that might appear on the road someday.
Although the system is envisioned as an aid to drivers, giving them recommendations about how to proceed at an intersection, it is really an advance in driving automation. That is, cars will, in effect, see around corners and thus be in a better position to control the car than the driver is in. A recommendation such “Stop! A car may be about to run the red light ahead!” about two seconds before the event will be of little use to a driver and, indeed, could just cause alarm and panic. It would be better for the car simply to slow itself down while informing the driver of what is happening.
Of course, the situation in which a car is constantly intervening in the control of the car will be very frustrating for drivers. Think of the recent Eco-Pedal by Nissan, a gas pedal that pushes back if the driver pushes too hard on it. The idea is to save fuel, but many drivers will likely find this sort of negative feedback too interfering and just turn it off.
As ever, there is also the possibility that such a safety system will create an incentive for drivers to behave badly. In this case, if someone thinks that most other cars on the road have this system installed, they may think it less risky to run a red light. After all, the safety gear in other cars will take care of the problem. Risk compensation strikes again.
In addition, we have to consider what sorts of bias might be present in how the system operates. Although it seems to be highly accurate, it will make mistakes. As a safety system, I assume that drivers who have the system installed in their cars will want to minimize false negatives, that is, instances where the system falsely concludes that another driver intends to obey the red light when, in fact, he will run it. This bias will help to reduce t-bone collisions in intersections. However, this bias will allow relatively more false positives, that is, instances where the system falsely concludes that another driver intends to run the red light when, in fact, he will obey it. In those cases, cars with the safety system will slow or stop needlessly when faced with a green light. This will reduce traffic flow and could result in rear-end collisions as drivers further back fail to anticipate this outcome. How shall we program the cars to deal with these conflicting interests?
Finally, when we have cars programmed to do all the driving for drivers, they may start to wonder why we have traffic lights at all.
Danger! Texting! December 1, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
From Technology Review comes this brief article about a smartphone app that warns its users of approaching cars. The app is called WalkSafe and is being developed by researchers at Dartmouth College.
This device brings to mind to a trope about how people distracted by their gadgets do dumb things, and how they may be protected from their folly. In 2006, there was Rick Mercer’s Blackberry helmet to protect the addled craniums of Blackberry addicts. In 2008, there was a story about padding lampposts in London to soften the blow as Blackberry addicts walked heedlessly into them. Earlier this year, there was the actual story of a woman who fell into a fountain in a shopping mall while texting, which was captured by CCTV cameras and posted to YouTube. More recently, Rick Mercer ranted about the people he almost ran over while they crossed the street, texting without looking:
The WalkSafe app will help to alleviate this problem. Maybe?
As ever, one first worries about the miracle of risk compensation. Recall this earlier discussion of the aware car, a system that monitors drivers for symptoms of exactly the same sort of distraction. A potential problem is that that such a system could actually encourage drivers to indulge in distractions, under the impression that the system will save them. Similarly, pedestrians busily texting may assume that WalkSafe will let them know if a car is approaching, at least on the camera side of their phone. In that event, having outsourced their situational awareness to their gear, pedestrians may walk and text even more obliviously than before. Such behavior could negate any safety gains provided by the app.
Here is my suggestion: Create an app that temporarily locks out the texting function of the smartphone when the carrier is in a crosswalk. Many crosswalks in Canada are equipped with speakers that beep or chirp in order to alert blind pedestrians. Perhaps the smartphone mike could pick up the noise, lock out texting, and snap texters into a heightened state of situational awareness, allowing them to save themselves from collisions.
Traffic lights October 7, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Traffic lights have become “mythic” in the sense that we simply take them and their basic design for granted. (See here for Neil Postman’s use of the term mythic in this sense.) It is interesting, then, to find a public service video from the 1930s that tries to explain traffic lights and their operation to the general, car-driving public. Have a look!
One interesting aspect of the video is that it captures a time when traffic lights were in widespread use but were only starting to be standardized nationally. Some lights had two colors, green and red, whereas others had three or even four. Some lights also had semaphores that said “Stop” or “Go”. Some systems had amber lights come on while green or red lights were still lit. Other systems allowed only one light on at a time.
It is amusing to consider how the design of traffic lights embodies a kind of social contract regarding how motorists should share an important resource, namely street intersections. An automatic regulation system allows people the liberty of the public roads while requiring them to acknowledge and respect the same liberty of others.
Interestingly, the video segment does not explicitly touch on the pro-social aspect of traffic lights. Instead, it concentrates on the more selfish reasons to adhere to the new rules: If you obey the traffic lights, you will get to your destination sooner and with less wear-and-tear on your car. Indeed, the traffic lights themselves tend to detach the attention of drivers from the motorists on the intersecting streets. It is the relation between each driver and the traffic light that matters; relations with other drivers are mediated by the signal system. Contrast this form of control with the traffic circle (which you see more of in Waterloo Region these days) in which each driver is forced to reckon directly with the others using the intersection. Traffic circles force drivers, however fleetingly, to think about how they are obligated to share the road with others.
Smart traffic management July 20, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
New York City is installing a new traffic management system called “Midtown in Motion”. The idea, as Ariel Schwartz points out in this FastCompany blog post, is to give traffic engineers more options to ease traffic flow through Midtown Manhattan:
Data from the sensors, cameras, and readers is sent to a control center, where engineers pinpoint “congestion choke points” as they happen and adjust traffic signals accordingly.
This system is more sophisticated than the established one in which traffic signal timings are adjusted simply by time-of-day. The point, of course, is to ease traffic congestion by seeing that traffic flows more efficiently through the existing system of streets.
(Image courtesy of Michael Danser via Wikimedia Commons.)
Although this approach seems reasonable, there are grounds for doubting that it will work as planned. Readers of this blog are familiar with Jevons’ Paradox, the claim that increased efficiency sometimes results in not less resource consumption but more. Jevons argued that making consumption of a resource more efficient was just like making it more plentiful. When a resource becomes more plentiful, it gets cheaper, with the result that more people consume it, and more of it, leading to an overall rise in consumption.
In this case, if the Midtown in Motion system succeeds in making traffic flow more efficient, this could be tantamount to increasing the capacity of the road system. It could be almost the same as if the City had built more roads. An increase in the supply of roadspace, Jevons might point out, could simply increase the amount of traffic. More people would take trips, and take more of them.
Curiously, this problem was pointed by Ariel in a recent posting regarding a traffic study conducted at the University of Toronto:
The disheartening study used data from hundreds of metro areas in the U.S. to reach the conclusion that there is a “fundamental law of highway congestion,” which essentially says that people drive more when there are more roads to drive on–no matter how much traffic there is. As a result, increased building of “interstate highways and major urban roads is unlikely to relieve congestion of these roads.”
This study surely lends weight to the concern that more efficient traffic management is not a solution to the problem of congestion.
In that case, what is the solution? According to this same study, the only solution shown so far to be effective is congestion pricing, that is, imposing a fee on drivers who use congested road networks. Increasing the cost of entering traffic is akin to decreasing the supply, almost as if some roadways were closed down. People respond by not driving or leaving their cars at home when they do travel. So, it is perhaps a sad irony that New York City has chosen the Midtown in Motion system over the alternative:
Midtown in Motion will certainly be a more popular traffic solution than congestion pricing, a scheme proposed by Mayor Bloomberg that would charge drivers a fee for entering Midtown during peak traffic times.
Well, politicians often have to do what is popular, but you cannot help the sinking feeling that New York is throwing its money away.