Best of the week’s news 28 October 2016: analysis from E&T’s editorial staff
E&T staff pick their favourite news stories from the past week and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them.
Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Laser technology has been installed on 4,000 of London's Santander Cycles, aka ‘Boris bikes’, that projects a bike symbol onto the ground to warn drivers a cyclist is on the road. Theoretically this is a fabulous idea when the lights are displayed at night, as so many cyclists think if they don’t wear high-vis clothing then they’re invincible (but actually just invisible). During the day you’re just going to have to wing it I guess. I can imagine tailgating drivers bring blinded by fluorescent green lights and still blaming cyclists.
BT will introduce a 21st century phone box providing free ultrafast Wi-Fi, free calls and smartphone charging into the capital. The new sleek phone boxes, called the Links, will replace some of the existing telephone booths as early as the beginning of 2017. This sounds really good, but you know when you’re walking down a busy London street and someone in front of you promptly stops walking – it’s infuriating. We’ve become accustomed to a world without phone boxes on every corner seeing as most of them have probably now been taken down. So when BT places these ‘phone boxes’ in the street, how will pedestrians cope? Not to sound overly cynical, but I’m also willing to place my bets on how quickly these things get damaged.
Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
BEEP BEEP! BEER DELIVERED BY A HANDS-FREE, HUGE AND SCARY TRUCK COMING THROUGH! Last week, a shipment of Bud was delivered safely by a self-driving lorry, but they didn’t let people know until the week after. Because, you know, in case it all went wrong. Also, if people were aware there was a multiple-tonne vehicle hurtling through Colorado with no human driving it, I reckon there would be a distinct lack of vehicles on the road. You wouldn’t want to be driving near that thing. Just in case. And if anything DID go wrong, and it crashed into something or someone, that would be bad news for Uber. Also, what a waste of beer. Albeit it’s a pretty weak brew. In future, it’ll be a normal thing to see no one at the steering wheel. Better start getting used to it.
Tereza Pultarova, news reporter
I think I am in love with this technology. Seriously, if only Santa brought this device to me, I would volunteer to vacuum the whole world. As a cyclist I see it far too often. A vehicle pulls away from the traffic lights spewing a thick cloud of soot-filled smoke. I hold my breath, waiting for the cloud to dissolve at least a little bit (and I curse that selfish driver). They shouldn’t be allowed on the roads with these engines that look like they must breach all emission limits, but somehow they are still there and us cyclists, pedestrians, residents and fellow drivers have no other choice but to inhale the mixture of particles and other pollutants they generate. There’s been enough research done into how especially the fine and ultrafine particles can harm your health, crossing into the bloodstream and sometimes even penetrating into the brain. It’s all pretty scary stuff. I understand that we can’t force everyone to buy an electric car immediately so until that happens, please please Santa bring this vacuum cleaner to all London local councils. Thank you very much indeed.
Internet of Things is here, Internet of Things is cool. Your bed, fridge, electricity meter and even bedroom lights can now be connected and smart because otherwise they are not in. But wait a minute. Has anyone told you that they are essentially computers and as such can be hacked? Do you think anyone has bothered to upload some antivirus on them? Cyber security researchers have been talking about this for ages and this week the world received a wake-up call when some pretty high-profile websites were taken down in a cyber attack executed through hacked web cameras.
Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor
The members of the parliamentary Transport Select Committee are generally a well-informed group of people, experienced at asking awkward questions of senior people in the industry, as well as politicians and civil servants whose decisions affect both people working in the transport sector and all the rest of us who have to use it. I know; from time to time I sit at my desk watching parliament.tv’s live streams of committee proceedings. This week's report is formally titled ‘Rail Technology: Signalling and Traffic Management’. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but the summary notes that Digital Railway is not a panacea, and warns: "moving ahead with caution will help ensure the right interventions are used on the right routes". Our web story includes quotes from trade union leaders who say exactly what you would expect them to say when asked for a comment, but it’s undoubtedly true that well-thought-out introductions of new technology are more likely to be successful than proposals based on exciting-sounding buzzwords. You can find the full report here: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/transport-committee/publications/
We all rely on mobile phones these days, and we’ve all had occasions when the battery that was fully charged this morning has suddenly gone flat just when we really need a connection. The idea of replacing unprofitable payphones with contact points financed by advertisers and providers of public information is brilliant. The new Link kiosks will also be fitted with sensors measuring local air pollution, noise and ambient temperature and monitoring surrounding traffic, with the data transmitted in real time to bodies that have a use for it.
Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor
Battery research has never been hotter. Cambridge scientists have recently developed a prototype of a lithium-sulphur battery that could have five times the energy density of a typical lithium-ion battery - and it is inspired by the structure of the cells which allow us to absorb nutrients. The new design overcomes one of the key technical problems hindering the commercial development of lithium-sulphur batteries by preventing the degradation of the battery caused by loss of material within it. A lightweight nanostructured material was created that resembles villi, the finger-like protrusions that line the small intestine. In the human body, villi are used to absorb products of digestion and increase surface area over which this process can take place.
Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Anyone who has ever been involved in app development, online sales or even shopping online can be only too aware that they have reason to be suspicious of half the reviews they read online. In the anonymous online commerce world, it’s only too easy for someone to write glowing references for their own products under different accounts, or trash their competitors. It’s a constant source of frustration for the honest developer or merchant but there’s nothing much they can do about it. I didn’t know until now the sharp practices even have a name: astroturfing, named after the fake grass, or in this case, fake grassroots. Now a new algorithm has been written to detect fake reviews by looking at their writing styles. Let’s hope the coders develop their algorithms further to identify malicious competitor activity too. Online reviews could be a whole lot more useful in the future than they are now.
The 1930s red telephone box is one of the most iconic designs on the streets of London, more recognisable even than the 1950s Routemaster bus or the black taxi cab. These days however, everyone has mobile phones and the only use people seem to find for the telephone boxes is as a backdrop for tourists to have their photos taken, leaning out rather awkwardly holding the handset. Those on Parliament Square seem to be particularly popular with Chinese brides and grooms taking their pre-wedding photographs. Now, BT is following New York in putting phone boxes to a use more suited to the 21st century by fitting them out as public wifi hotspots and advertising spots.
Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
My wife was rejoicing last night when the news of the extension of Nissan’s car factory came though. She was born and bred in Sunderland, a ‘fair dinkum’ mackam (a slang word for a Sunderland resident), and as such is very well aware of the importance of this decision for her native city, renowned for its shipbuilding and other manufacturing industries, but also notorious for its poverty. Several thousand new jobs to be created by Nissan will certainly cheer up a lot of Sunderland households. It is also yet more proof of the fact that all the scaremongering by anti-Brexit campaigners was both far-fetched and short-lived: the UK’s economy is already experiencing a small growth, and this trend is going to continue, I am sure.
“The surest wait to catch a train is to miss the one before it,” Gilbert K Chesterton once wrote. This pronouncement can serve as a good illustration to the above story. At a time when most of the developed and developing countries of the world, including China, Turkey, Malaysia and many other (as I discovered while attending the recent Innotrans international transport gathering in Berlin) are already using digital technology extensively on their railway networks, the UK has finally concluded that it is a good thing to do and should be tried at home. So far, as statistics show, on the train frequency scale Britain is railing way behind most European countries. So another relevant adage to quote here would probably be the old French maxim mieux vaut tard que jamais - “better late than never”. The UK has missed the digital technology train, but hopefully it is not too late to catch the next one.