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Do You REALLY Understand Your Car?

Traditionally, the predominantly male operators of any form of transport craft confer a female personality to their vehicles. Down at a south coast yachting marina recently, I heard a proud owner boasting to a friend, saying “She’s truly beautiful”.

Pilots, including me, refer to their aircraft as “She”. “She flies nicely”, or “She doesn’t like being thrown about”, “She needs a touch of power when rounding out to land”.

Who could argue that She is beautiful. Supermarine Spitfire showing her elegance. Image courtesy Airwolfhound under CCA SA 2.0

It’s the same with cars, and it’s common to hear people, including women, referring to their cars as “She”. Before I get angry comments from my lady readers – yes, I am aware that many women own male cars, some that I know even name them.

The tradition of referring to a vessel as “She” goes back to ancient times. Nowadays, people may consider that this is somehow sexist, and objectifies women.

I prefer to believe that it’s more fundamental than that. Our early mariners were a superstitious bunch, and believed that the ship in which they sailed would offer protection and guidance, in much the same way that a mother or goddess would.

I refer to my aircraft as a “She”, as in my eyes she is elegant, pleasing to the eye, and demands to be treated with respect.

Today, there appears to be another reason.

Now, be honest. How many of you chaps out there believe that you don’t understand the woman in your life? How many long-suffering ladies out there are stupefied with their blokes’ methods and logic?

I have been happily with SWMBO for over three decades, but there are times when I am truly and utterly baffled by her. I know for sure that she experiences the same sense of bewilderment with my behaviour.

You may be wondering where this is going, but stay with me, dear reader.

If, like me, you own and operate, say, a five-year-old car, it will be fitted with some basic driver assistance systems. My car has rear parking sensors and steerable headlights. That’s it. Nothing fancy. It has standard Cruise Control, and an anti-lock braking system, like the one fitted to my previous 2002 Skoda Octavia.

If you decide to invest in a new car today, be prepared to be a little baffled by its behaviour and systems. (New cars are definitely female!).

In a previous article, I mentioned the Automated Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) that are fitted to modern vehicles.

It’s likely your new pride and joy will be fitted with Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Keeping Assistance, Blind Spot Monitoring, Autonomous Emergency Braking, Collision Avoidance Systems, Driver Alertness Monitoring, 360º Cameras and Intelligent Parking Aids.

To make the best use of these systems, drivers need to fully understand how they operate.

A few months ago, I decided to evaluate electric cars. I arranged to test drive cars provided by three of the main manufacturers, Kia, Nissan and MG.

Now, bearing in mind that all the vehicles I tested were fitted with some sophisticated systems, you would have thought that a full tutorial or some guidance would be offered by the salesmen before they let me loose on the road in one of their expensive cars.

Not quite.

All the dealers involved were more than happy to show me the boot space, and the clever stowages and storage areas, and gave me a very brief explanation of how to interpret the instruments and how to use the infotainment system, but not one discussed any elements of the ADAS in any real detail at all.

Luckily, I had conducted quite a bit of prior research, so I had a reasonable idea of how to change the level of regenerative braking, and how to use the different driving modes. However, there were many systems that, whilst I knew they were there, I had no idea how to configure them.

I have several friends who have recently purchased new cars, and when picking up their new vehicles, each one received no real training on how to use the systems correctly and effectively.

I have considered this, and it seems that this presents a bigger problem than I initially thought.

After collecting their new car from the dealer, proud owners will drive their new vehicle home, and maybe they will find the time to sit and wade through the Driver’s Handbook or Owner’s Manual. The onus is very much on them to gain understanding of the plethora of safety systems that their car is now loaded with.

More mature drivers, such as myself, will fall back on our “What’s to learn” mentality. We have grown up with cars fitted with few safety systems – maybe embryonic energy absorbing crumple zones, and collapsible steering columns. This is flawed thinking!


We had relatively unsophisticated in-car entertainment – maybe a push button radio, or a radio cassette player if we were driving a more luxurious model. I can remember being delighted with the fact that my first company car was fitted with a proper heated rear window and a fitted rear wash/wipe system.

Our cars were so simple that we just picked up the use of what systems we had as we drove. I think my biggest challenge was remembering on which side of the steering column the indicator control was located. The first few days of driving was always entertaining, with me switching the wipers on before making a turn!

So, for drivers of my generation, it is possible that we have a degree of complacency about the new systems, and maybe we don’t bother to sit down and read the book. (I do, but then I’m a bit geeky, having been a flight technical instructor for the past two decades!).

That may not be a good attitude to have these days.

In my world of professional aviation, we frequently refer to human factors, and even have training sessions on how simply being human affects the way in which a pilot interacts with an aeroplane.

There is a lot of automation on a modern aircraft flight deck. Autopilot, Auto Throttles, Flight Control Computers, Flight Management Computers, Automated Anti-Collision Systems, Ground Proximity Warning Systems, and Electronic Checklists and Diagnostics.

All of these systems must be understood, reacted to correctly, and effectively managed by the flight crew.

Despite high levels of safety-related automation, there are still incidents involving the crew falling asleep in flight, and flying past their destination. We still hear of aircraft being landed at the wrong airfields.

The same human factors will come into play in our increasingly automated cars.

There have been numerous reports of Tesla cars being involved in colliding with emergency vehicles whilst the Autopilot was engaged.

Most definitely human factors incidents, as the drivers simply assumed that the car was infallible, and therefore mentally disengaged and stopped supervising the on-board equipment.

A study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) clearly showed that once drivers had engaged the Autopilot (or Adaptive Cruise Control) their focus of attention changed, and they spent much longer looking inside their cars, than paying attention to the road ahead.

Sometimes, drivers disengage to the point of falling asleep!

See this video of a Tesla driver, cruising and snoozing!

As a result, Nissan, at least, has incorporated what it calls an Intelligent Driver Alertness System. This system monitors the driver’s inputs to the steering wheel, and, using algorithms, it can predict the onset of tiredness and inattention. As arousal levels reduce, the chances of an accident increase, so the system suggests taking a break.

Screenshot of the Arousal Monitor. Wish my car would invite me for a coffee…

When I learned to drive, before making any manoeuvre, the mantra was “Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre”. That has become ingrained behaviour, reinforced with 44 years of driving and in the region of 1.1 million miles travelled.

Wow! I have never worked that out before.

As a result, before lane changing, I always throw a quick glance in the door mirror. I have also ridden motorcycles for many years, so I can’t get out of the habit of looking over my shoulder as well.

If all is clear, I change lanes. Lots of people don’t do this and I have had to brake heavily to avoid being sideswiped on several occasions.

Interestingly, the Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM) systems being fitted to cars now are really good. You may be lucky enough to drive such a car, and, in many cases, the door mirror contains an indicator that turns amber when another vehicle intrudes into the safety zone, and turn red if a collision would result in the driver changing lanes.

Another piece of research studied the rates of lane-changing accidents across 26 US States. It found that accidents causing an injury were reduced by 23% in vehicles fitted with BSM systems.

If every US vehicle in 2015 had been fitted with BSM, it is estimated that 50,000 accidents and 16,000 injuries could have been avoided!

The other aspect of Blind Spot Monitoring is that used when parking or reversing. Now, I use all three mirrors, even though my car has a rudimentary parking aid that sounds a tone with increasing frequency as I reverse closer to a solid object – including a person, although I have never tried this.

Now, a further study has shown that the drivers of cars fitted with rear view cameras and sensors do not look to the sides of their vehicle before commencing reversing manoeuvres

Surprisingly, the use of rear-view monitoring cameras only reduced accidents involving “reversing into or over something” (maybe a person??) by 17%.

Still, a 17% reduction, is better than no reduction at all.

So, it all boils down to training and gaining an understanding of the equipment fitted to our cars.

I decided to check what the UK Driving Syllabus includes for cars and light vans (Class B Vehicles).

What I found was of interest.

As the document is undated, but is on the government’s assets publishing service site, as at October 2021, I assume it is a current piece of guidance.

I quickly reviewed it, and found two main concerns.

Firstly, it only mentions one Automatic Driver Assistance System, and that is Cruise Control.

Secondly, it focuses totally on driving a fossil fuel-powered vehicle.

Not a single mention of electric cars.

I do understand that they haven’t been around for very long – I mean, the Nissan Leaf has only been on the road since 2010, and what’s eleven years when you are setting the standards for people to learn to drive?

Sarcasm aside, there must be a need to teach new generations of drivers about the features, advantages and benefits of their vehicle’s on-board safety systems.

Maybe they should also be teaching students about the limitations of both those very same on-board systems, and their limitations as a human being.

You decide…

Go Well.

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East African Wedding – Part Two

We stood outside the hotel at 0900, with our bags by our sides, waiting for Pious and Gospel to collect us. Marvellous names! Pious and Gospel were two of the bride’s cousins, who had generously agreed to pick up the British contingent and drive us up-country.

It had been decided that we would stop en-route at Thika, so 40km (25 miles) to enable us to stretch our legs, and to enjoy the scenery. 

Some of my British readers of a more mature age group, may remember the TV series in the early 1980s, “The Flame Trees of Thika”, which was based upon the autobiographical novel of the same name, written by Elspeth Huxley. She was raised on a coffee plantation in this part of what was then known as Colonial British East Africa.

Thika lies northeast of Nairobi, and sits pretty much astride the main A2 highway.

Standing in the morning sunshine, we were enjoying the remains of our breakfast coffee, and chatting quietly amongst ourselves. The relative peace was suddenly destroyed, by the sound of straining car engines and grinding gearboxes heralding the arrival of our transport.

My heart sunk, as I looked at the two MoT[1] failures that pulled up in a swirl of dust and grey exhaust smoke.

Our transport…although this one is in much better condition

I glanced at SWMBO, and we shared a conspiratorial look, as she shot me a smile. “Oh, well”, I thought. “In for a penny, in for a pound.”

By this time, Pious and Gospel had opened the boots of their respective cars, and were now greeting us, with much smiling, shaking of hands and slapping of backs. They boke spoke excellent English, which they proudly explained they learnt in school.

Like most of the local Kenyans that we had met, they were happy, generous, and deeply religious, hence their names.

SWMBO and I gingerly climbed into the back of the battered old Datsun[2] Cherry, and the lads jumped into Gospel’s old Datsun 120Y, and with a mechanical groan, Pious started the thing up, crashed the transmission into gear, and we lurched off down the relatively well-maintained tarmac road.

I knew that it was relatively well-maintained tarmac, as I could clearly see it through the very large hole in the footwell, where the floor had rusted out over time.

It was a tribute to Datsun’s design engineers that the car was still driveable in such a hostile environment.

We continued to motor north, and we chatted amiably with Pious, who drove at a steady 55 miles per hour, regardless of the road surface, camber, or bends. The car therefore rattled, banged, jolted, and lurched alarmingly and we were soon pulling a rooster-tail of dust and smoke.

I had to supress the urge to giggle, as I didn’t want to offend Pious, who was obviously very proud of owning a car. He had a job at one of the coffee bean processing plants locally, and his brother Gospel worked in the plantation as a supervisor.

I admired them both greatly for their pride, joie de vivre and happiness.

We eventually arrived in the town of Thika about an hour and a half later. The journey wouldn’t normally have taken so long, but Gospel needed to stop his car every five miles or so and top up the radiator with water from an old Coke bottle. Pious also stopped to lend moral support, mainly in the form of laughing, and clapping him on the back, and everyone seemed happy to potter our way north in a very gentlemanly fashion.

I had heard of the Flame Trees of Thika, and was a little deflated to see only a light scattering of the bright red blooms locally. I asked Pious if there were places to see the Flame trees, and he laughed, explaining that the trees only came into bloom in the spring, and that we were a week or two early.

The Flame Tree – Fantastic!

It didn’t really matter, as Pious had excitedly explained during the journey that they would be taking us to see the Chania Falls.

The Chania Falls are truly beautiful, and the smell of fresh oxygenated water purged the dust and car fumes from my head. We wandered up and down, taking in the splendour of it, finally sitting on some convenient rocks to enjoy nature at its best.

The Chania Falls.

Eventually, we decided that we should press on, up into the foothills to our destination, as we needed to get there for three o’clock for the wedding.

I glanced at my watch. It was already almost 1100, and we still had a couple of hours to drive.

We boarded the cars, and re-commenced our drive northwest, towards the Aberdare Range, to the tiny village where Njambi’s family lived.

The Aberdare Range from the Highway…

As we left the main highways, I looked down onto the road beneath my feet as it changed… first to broken tarmac, which gave way to old concrete, and finally, red earth. We were also climbing steadily – the Aberdare Range has an average elevation of 11,480 feet (3,500 metres), and it was noticeably cooler.

Passing a solitary and forlorn-looking roadside shop, both cars pulled over. Gospel needed to refill his water bottles, we needed a drink as well, and more importantly, I needed a pee. Returning to the cars, we started off, and all was well for about three miles, when Pious’s car suddenly started making some alarming noises from under the bonnet, and the smell of very hot oil permeated the cabin.

Gospel’s car was already out of sight, disappeared round the bend and probably halfway up the steep and winding hill that we were ascending.

Pious brought the car to a stop on the edge of the road, and opened the bonnet. Looking into the engine bay, we could see tendrils of vapour coming from the oil filler and dipstick, and steam was hissing from the radiator cap. Not good!

Pious clearly had limited knowledge of the mechanical working of his car, so I took over.

Pulling the dipstick from its port, I could see that the engine was almost totally devoid of lubricant.

Turning to Pious, I said “Do you have any spare oil?”

He looked at me blankly.

“It needs more oil, or it will seize up completely”

I saw the understanding on his face, and he explained that there was a garage in the next village, about a mile away, just over the crest of the hill that we were climbing.

Looking at the still smoking car, I doubted that it would make it the required mile, especially if it were carrying both SWMBO and I, and our hand luggage, so I told Pious to let it cool for ten minutes, and then he should get it to the garage. I stuffed a wad of shillings into his hand, despite his protests, and SWMBO and I started trudging up the hill.

Within 100 yards, I was wheezing like a Victorian steam locomotive. The air was so thin, and I was already drenched in sweat, despite the temperature being only 20°C.

SWMBO was also enjoying the same level of discomfort. I suspect that hefting a flight crew cabin bag behind me didn’t help too much.

Five minutes later, we could hear the old Datsun grinding laboriously up the road, and it passed us, belching smoke, exhaust, and red dust. It vanished around the bend, and we continued to plod very slowly up the steepening slope.

A few minutes later, I could hear another vehicle approaching us from behind. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw a very old, split windscreen VW Camper van come round the bend.

A VW Kombi Camper van, similar to the one that rescued us…

It passed us, slowed, and pulled to the side.

An elderly, grey haired local man hurled open the nearside passenger door, and yelled, “Where you goin’, man?”

I briefly explained our predicament, and he roared with laughter, and waved us into the passenger compartment of the old minibus.

We climbed aboard, and I pulled the doors shut and took a seat. Our new friend chatted to us constantly as we drove sedately up the rutted highway. When I say chatted, I really mean bellowed.

I don’t think it occurred to him to change gear, and the engine was howling in protest at being abused so badly. He must have picked up on my thoughts, as he slammed the old van into second gear, and we were jerked against the seat backs as he dropped the clutch heavily. 

The VW Kombi was made in VW’s Wolfsburg factory, after being designed by Dutchman Ben Pon. As a utility van, they were immortalised by the counterculture of the 1960s, when the minibus version became the vehicle of choice for young hippies all over the globe.

This one somehow survived in East Africa, and whilst rusty and clearly worn out, was still providing stalwart service over some of the roughest roads on the planet.

Five minutes later, we crested the hill, and followed the winding track into the small village, where, as expected, stood a garage.

Standing outside, under the corrugated iron roof, was Pious’s Datsun, with the bonnet open.

Thanking our good Samaritan profusely, we climbed out into the sunshine, and walked over to Pious with our bags.

Pious greeted us warmly, and explained that the engine was okay, and that the mechanic had just finished filling it. He looked sheepishly at the one-gallon oil can that stood in silent testimony as to the amount of oil that wasn’t in the engine.

We piled our bags back into the boot, and with a cheerful wave to the mechanic, Pious gunned the engine, and we pulled away, now lagging Gospel by a good half hour.

After a good distance, we swung left into a farm track, and looking out of the window, I could see a vast coffee plantation. Way off in the distance, I could see some farm buildings, and a large metal storage facility.

The car shook and rattled as we drove up the ever-narrowing farm track, eventually coming to a stop outside a very small, single storey building, constructed of breeze block.

Tiny, and made out of Breeze block….

Shutting down the engine, Pious grinned, and said “Welcome”

We thanked him, and got out of the car, which was now ticking like a cheap alarm clock as it cooled down.

Gospel’s car was already parked up, and we were shown into the tiny house.

The house only appeared to have two rooms; a bedroom and the room that we were in, which was crammed with people. Having only two small windows, it was very warm, and despite the breeze, was stuffy.

I looked around, and spotted the lads squeezed up into a corner of the floor, so we picked our way over the congested floor and squatted down with them.

Pious and Gospel came over to sit with us, carrying four large glasses filled with water. I was wondering if it was fresh water, and whether I should discretely pop a purifying tablet in it, when Gospel proudly told me that it was fresh spring water, as they had a pump in the garden.

Cautiously, I took a sip, and was surprised. Cold and with a pleasant flavour – not like the fluoridated treated water at home.

Pious leaned over, and whispered to me that most of the family spoke no English, and he would attempt to translate as and when needed. That was just as well, as my Kikuyu wasn’t up to much.

I had learnt the basic greeting “Ní Atía” and thank you (Ní Ngatho) but that was my limit.

In due course, the door opened, and Duncan appeared, wearing a brightly coloured ceremonial robe, and he walked slowly into the middle of the room. The packed room immediately fell silent.

Golden shafts of sunlight penetrating through the corrugated steel roof and simple awnings over the windows illuminated him as if he were a celestial being.

A soft click as the door to the bedroom opened, and Njambi appeared, looking quite radiant in a white gown.

Standing next to Duncan, they awaited as the minister came forward.

I was surprised to see that he was a Christian minister. That struck me as odd, as many of the guests spoke no English.   8 million Kenyans speak Kikuyu, and we were slap bang in the middle of Kikuyu territory.

And so it was, that we witnessed our friend marry his beautiful bride, in a tiny little cottage high up in the remoteness of the Aberdare Range.

The foothills of the Aberdare Range, Kenya

After the simple ceremony, all the guests went into the tiny garden, where the bride’s family had laid out a simple buffet of chicken and local foods.

SWMBO and I had several silent conversations with the family and guests, mainly with much signing, gesturing and laughter.

I personally enjoyed a silent, yet very rewarding conversation with the bride’s mother, who was clearly delighted that we had come. I managed to compliment her on her cooking – the chicken was delicious and had been coated with some subtle spices, and the vegetables and salad were full of flavour.

I even received a hug!

Eventually, the shadows started lengthening, and Pious and Gospel appeared at our shoulders, murmuring that we should be setting off for our hotel.

It was as well that we were leaving, as the house had no electrical power, and no lighting except for that of oil lamps. These lovely, gentle people had virtually nothing in the way of the creature comforts that are deemed as essential in the so-called developed world. No TV, cell phones, washing machines or even a refrigerator.

However, they were all happy. Proud, kind, decent. Maybe we were missing a trick, surrounding ourselves with material possessions.

Saying our goodbyes, we left, and our two cars clattered off down the track, into the African dusk, heading back to the road that would take us to our hotel.

We were staying at the Green Hills Hotel, some 15 miles (25km) from the village, and looking out of the car windows into the gathering gloom, we could see miles of coffee plantations.

Coffee Plantation, Aberdare Range, Kenya

Looking up, we could see millions of sparkling pinpricks of light – shards of celestial glass, strewn across the black velvet tablecloth of space.

The Green Hills Hotel

Green Hills Hotel had only been opened thirty or so years before, so was relatively new, but the area in which it was located was the setting of the infamous unsolved murder of Josslyn Hay, the Earl of Errol, an expatriate Brit living in the area.

Later, the murder was dramatised in the 1987 film White Mischief.

Having settled into our room, we enjoyed a late supper, and drinks out in the grounds, listening to the sounds of the creatures of the night as they scurried around in the bushes.

Back in our room, we fell asleep to the rhythmic pulse of our ceiling fan, wafting the African night over us.

Waking up early, I decided to go for a walk around the place whilst SWMBO was still dozing, so pulling on my shorts and a bush shirt, and my boots, I made my way quietly out of the room, into the covered walkway. I enjoyed a half hour of wandering, returning to the room via the restaurant so that I could take a steaming mug of finest Kenyan coffee to SWMBO, to ease her gently into the final day of our holiday.

Having packed our hold baggage the night before, it was a fairly quick process to just finalise things, and then head for breakfast.

As our flight didn’t depart until almost midnight, we had decided that once we had checked out of our rooms at noon, we would relax in the hotel grounds, until our cab would collect us at about 1830.

We whiled away the afternoon chatting with the lads, reading, and, as soon as the sun was sufficiently over the yard arm, (about 3pm) we ordered Gin and Tonics all round, to officially draw our East African break to an end.

The Garden, The Green Hills Hotel. Just time for a large G&T…

Six thirty arrived far too soon, and the minibus cab was already waiting outside when we left the hotel, having paid our bills.

Our cab driver wasn’t the talkative type, so we quietly chatted amongst ourselves in the back as he drove us back down to Thika, and then on to Nairobi.

The airport terminal was quite full, despite the hour, and we patiently queued for check in and passed through security with delay. I think the fact that they spotted my crew tag on my bag helped, and we were waved through immigration swiftly.

Once airside, I felt I could relax a little. I love flying, but the stresses of getting onto the flight always made my stomach churn.

Standby travel is a wonderful privilege, but carries with it the risks of being “bumped” off a flight should a fare-paying passenger need the seat.

Furthermore, at some airports, they operate a policy of not allowing standby staff travellers through to the departures lounge until the check-in has closed, which gives very limited time to get through immigration, security, and out to the gate.

Being bumped is a very real possibility, and it has happened to me before. On a previous flight from Los Angeles, I had stowed my cabin baggage in the overhead, and had been happily quaffing the pre-flight champagne, when I heard a cabin announcement “Would passenger Charlwood please make himself know to the cabin crew”

This could mean one of two things.

I was either being upgraded to first class, or I was being offloaded.

The look on the crew-member’s face as she approached me told me it was the latter.

I was asked to collect my bag, and follow her.  Gloomily, I had followed her up the cabin, and was met at the door by a ground agent, who told me that they needed my seat.

On that occasion, I was lucky, as there was another flight departing an hour later, and it was going to use the same gate, so I was immediately checked in, and later enjoyed my flight, meeting SWMBO in London.

But that night, the universe decided that all four of us would get on the flight, and all of us were able to have Club class seats, so a good result all round.

Night departures are always interesting. Nairobi is extra interesting.

To put this into context, I need to explain a little about aircraft performance.

Aircraft operate more efficiently in denser air. Air density reduces as altitude increases, so the higher the elevation of the airport, the more the aircraft performance is reduced.

The other factor that reduces air density, is temperature. The warmer the temperature, the less dense the atmosphere. In my profession, we refer to such airfields as “hot’n’high”

Many equatorial departures are scheduled for as late in the day as possible, in our case, 23:50. At this time, the local air will have cooled to its lowest, so the aircraft will perform marginally better.

Jomo Kenyatta airport is 5330 feet (1624 metres) above mean sea level, so during summer, when it’s at its warmest, there is double the impact on the aircraft’s performance.

This means that flights may be weight-restricted, and there is less scope for carrying non-revenue standby travellers.

It also means that the aircraft will need a much greater runway length to reach safe flying speed.

Our B747-400 used up a huge amount of Runway 24 which is 4,200m long (13,570 feet, or 2.6 miles) to get airborne, and the ground roll seemed to last forever. Even as an experienced flier, I was starting to get a bit concerned, when finally, I felt the nose lift, and the pounding rumble of the gear reduced, and finally stopped. shortly thereafter, I had the whines and clunks of the gear being retracted.

Eventually, we dipped a wing, and entered a climbing turn, and looking out of my window, I could see the lights of Nairobi slipping away below.

The rest of Africa disappeared into the dark, mysterious night, as we winged our way home.

Footnote: For those of you that would like to see the view from the flight deck during a sunset landing at Nairobi, watch this video clip of a KLM/Martinair B747-400!

[1] MoT – Is a legally required annual roadworthiness inspection of any vehicle over three years old in the UK.

[2] Datsun was the brand under which Nissan cars marketed vehicles into emerging markets such as Africa.

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aviation Climate change Cycling Driving Electric Transport Environment Exercise Flight marine pollution Motorcycling Motoring Science Sport Technology Transport Vehicles

What Do Mars and Bicycles Have in Common?

It’s a lovely day.

The sky outside is an impossibly brilliant blue, with just the occasional cloud to add texture and remind me that nature is hard at work, even if I am not.

This is an absolutely perfect day for flying. Definitely VMC (For my non-aviation friends and readers, that is Visual Meteorological Conditions, meaning that navigating and staying in control of the aircraft is performed by looking out of the windscreen – rather than flying in cloud or above the cloud, thereby having to fly by using the aircraft instruments, known as Instrument Meteorological Conditions).

The perfect day for a fifteen minute trundle over to the airstrip, to pull my aircraft from the hangar. A quick but thorough pre-flight inspection, and then away up into the sky, to meander through the air, with no particular place to go.

Maybe a leisurely buzz south to the coast, then east to Beachy Head, and then back over the sunlit rolling chalk and downlands that make up large swathes of Sussex and Hampshire.

So, why then, am I sitting here in my den, hammering an article into my keyboard.

Well, for one thing, my aeroplane is currently being reassembled after a major rebuild. It’s sitting forlornly in the gloom of the hangar, its wings rigged, and its engine and systems all fitted. However, with no flight control surfaces rigged, she might as well be a boat.

Fully rigged, engine and systems up and running – but no flight controls…

Secondly, I am awaiting the arrival of the technician from Autoglass to change the windscreen on my car.

Travelling back home from work one afternoon, I thought that I had come under machine-gun attack, and the volley of stones that hit the screen might as well have been real bullets, as they plunged deep into the laminated glass, and with a noise like a pistol shot, three long cracks propagated across the screen.

A short phone call to my insurers and £75.00 lighter, and the windscreen would be fixed. It appeared that as I had previously had two chips repaired, this would be a brand new screen.

Well, I was expecting to have to make an appointment to drop the car off at a repair station, but no, it would be changed on my drive, and all in about an hour.

So, staying with the vehicle theme, some of you may have read my previous article on the levels of pollution that is caused by the interaction of car tyres on roads?

No?

It may be worth a read if you are interested in sustainability, climate change and pollution.

Vehicle tyres degrade with use, and the erosion of the tread causes the release of micro-particles that wash into waterways, and ultimately into the seas and oceans.

So, a new piece of space-age technology caught my eye.

My first exposure to NASA[1] was as a barely-ten-year-old boy watching the launch of Apollo 11 on the 16th of July 1969, and subsequently watching recorded footage of the lunar landing on school TV on Monday 21st July.

To say that I was awestruck was an understatement.  Subsequently I couldn’t read enough about space, and became an avid reader of the science fiction pulp magazines such as Astounding Science Fiction and Amazing Stories that my dear old Dad used to buy from the secondhand bookstall not far from the tube station.

I think that by the time I was 13, I had the complete works of the mighty Isaac Asimov on my bookshelves, and was familiar with all of the Sci-Fi greats; Arthur C Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Philip K Dick.

A few days before the launch of Apollo 11, the BBC aired it’s first episode of Star Trek, and I had become a fan almost instantly.

The Crew of NC-1701 Starship Enterprise – Star Trek the Original Series

And I have been a real fan of quality science fiction (not to be confused with science fantasy such as the Marvel Superheroes) ever since.

There has always been, however, a blurring of the lines between science fiction, and science fact. Which drives which?

In Star Trek, (the original series) we saw Captain Kirk being presented with what looks like an iPad tablet for him to sign. Uhura, the Comms Officer wears what looks like an ancestor to a Bluetooth earpiece, and Motorola designed a flip phone that looked suspiciously like a Star Trek communicator.

Lt. Uhura, wearing her early Bluetooth earpiece… Photo Courtesy ViacomCBS

I have to admit, that I am REALLY looking forward to using a dematerialisation transporter. Imagine just setting the co-ordinates of a friend’s house in California, and hitting the button and arriving microseconds later.

A universal replicator that ends poverty, and makes the use of money totally redundant…?

I digress…

So, it seems that Science Fact is now about to follow what was Science Fiction up until a few decades ago.

The continuing exploration of Mars has been conducted to a great extent by the Mars Rover vehicles, which have been sedately pottering over the Martian landscape since 1997. Kitted out with sensors, cameras and communications equipment these vehicles have been surveying our nearest planetary neighbour.

Perseverance, the Mars Rover – Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

In order to traverse the hostile terrain, the current rover, Perseverance, is equipped with six 52.5cm (20.7 inch) wheels made from aluminium and springy titanium spokes. The wheels are fitted with cleats for additional traction.

Well…

It seems that the NASA-developed tyre technology may be coming to a vehicle near you – well, initially, a bicycle near you!

NASA – Not just a Space Agency! Designers, Developers and Scientists

These highly advanced tyres are designed by the SMART (Shape Memory Alloy Radial Technology) Tire company, and manufactured by NASA using a highly elastic material called NiTinol+.

The Rover’s wheels – Light, and very robust! Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-CalTech

Virtually all elastic materials will stretch, and then they may almost revert back to their previous shape and strength. Most will lose their resilience and potency – think of a well-used bungee strap.

The clever thing about the metal alloy used in the construction of Perseverance’s wheels is that it actually changes its molecular composition when it is flexed or distorted. Once no longer subjected to any loads, the material simply returns to its prior profile, and the molecules are rearranged to their previous composition.

Tyres constructed from this material would no longer need to have inner tubes, or be inflated with air – no more punctures, less weight, and the added strength of Titanium.

The outer surface of the “tyre” may be coated with a highly resilient synthetic rubber called Polyurethanium.

The robust nature of the tyre combination means that a SMART tyre will probably exceed the life of the vehicle to which it is fitted! There will be no risks of punctures, and deflations, no need to use sealants or carry a spare wheel.

In comparison to conventional steel, this new alloy, known as METL, is thirty times quicker to recover to its original profile. This made it ideal for use in the hostile environment and rugged terrain of Mars.

Now the good news!

These revolutionary tyres are about to be launched – initially for bicycles, which will enable further development to be carried out for heavier vehicles.

SMART Tire prototype clearly showing woven metal construction, Photo Courtesy SMART Tires

SMART Tires has already collaborated with the Micro-mobility scooter provider, Spin (owned by the Ford Motor Company) to develop tyres for electric scooters.

Currently, this is a small-scale project, but in due course, it will become a primary challenge for the $250 billion global tyre industry to adapt to and deliver. This will be driven, in part, by the ever more urgent need to reduce emissions of any kind.

SMART Tires aims to launch their range of tyres to the cycling community by 2022, and once in full production, will no doubt start developing wheel/tyre units for the automobile and motorcycle industries.

Prototype SMART Tyre designed for a bicycle – Photo courtesy SMART Tires

I imagine that the launch range of bike tyres will be expensive initially, and will appeal to only the upper echelons of competition cyclists, but the economy of scale will undoubtedly reduce prices to the level where they may be bought in your local high street bicycle shop.

So, in the words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard…

“Make it so!”

Well, Maybe buy one of these after I have bought the tyres! If I have any cash left!

[1] National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Categories
Civil liberties Crime English Culture HEALTH internet Mobile Communications Politics privacy Science Security Society Technology Telecommunications Transport Vehicle Safety Wearable Technology Work

The Internet of Things – Friend or Foe?

Who likes history? If you do, then I invite you to take a little journey with me…

Cast your mind back to the early 1990s.

If you were one of the 10% of the UK population that possessed a cell-phone at that time, then you may well have owned one of these – a Nokia 1610.

The Nokia 1610 Cellular Telephone

It was a simple device – able to make and receive telephone calls, and send and receive text (SMS) messages. I was using this model of phone back then, and at the time it was regarded as one of the top phones available.

It had a tiny screen by today’s standards, and was quite bulky. The antenna, whilst small, was still an intrusion, and would often malevolently jam the phone into my pocket.

In 1996, 27% of the UK population owned a PC (In 2017, 88% of us had a computer at home). Mine was a Packard Bell desktop system that I bought from the now-vanished Dixons.

Packard Bell – The workhorse for the British Public in the mid 1990s, Bought from Dixons, long since gone from our High Streets.

I can’t remember how much the system cost me, but I do remember that I was entitled to a Freeserve email account, which I used for a good few years before moving over to web-based systems such as Outlook, Google or more recently Imail.

My home set-up was ludicrously simple. No passwords, or hunting for that elusive Wi-Fi router.

Just plug the Modem into the network port on the PC, plug the other end into the phone line using an adapter, and the system was ready for use.

Old-School. A dial up modem – Looked cool with flashing lights and that wonderful connection sound

Getting onto the internet though, was a whole different matter. This was the heady days of Dial-Up Internet.

Simply open the web browser, and hit the connect button. The auto-dialler inside the PC would dial the number for the Internet Service Provider, and once connected, you would have been treated to the squeals and squawks of the computers setting up the connection.

Ahh, Yes, I remember something similar!


Once connected, the upload and download speeds were truly awful. I well remember downloading a detailed photograph. It appeared line by line, and eventually, after five minutes or so, I got bored with waiting and went downstairs to make a cup of tea. I came back twenty minutes later – and it was still not finished.

Today, with fibre broadband, images appear almost instantaneously!

The internet was pretty simple too. Basic browsers that contained a multitude of adverts, and rather unsophisticated email. Shopping online was in its infancy – eBay had only been started in 1995.

So, the interconnected world really consisted of a computer, hard wired to a modem, and the embryonic world wide web.

The only real risk attached to surfing the web, was that of unwittingly downloading malicious software (malware) or computer virus.

The first computer virus was designed in the early 1970s. It was created as part of a research programme conducted by BBN Technologies in the USA.

Researcher Bob Thomas designed the programme to be self-replicating and was targeted at DEC computers that shared the ARPANET network. This virus was called Creeper.

Bob and his team then designed a programme called Reaper which, once released into the ARPANET, hunted out the infected machines, and then killed the virus by deleting it.

Obviously, breaking into computers was seen as a target of opportunity to the less honest members of society, and viruses started appearing more frequently.

Some were just mischievous, such as the Elk Cloner virus (written by a ninth grader in a Pittsburgh High School in 1981) which upon its 50th opening would display a poem, the first line of which was “Elk Cloner: The program with a personality.”

Others were more malevolent, and were designed to either destroy records and data from the infected computer, steal personal data, record website access passwords and log keystrokes. Ransomware enables the attacker to hijack a computer, and then demand payment to unlock the machine.

The resulting loss of public confidence saw the arrival of cyber-security, specialist organisations that analysed the emerging viruses, worms, trojans and malware and wrote anti-virus software, which could be loaded onto a computer and which could then subsequently scan it for infection and quarantine any suspect viruses into a part of the disc not readily accessible by the user, or by the system.

Fast-forward to 2021.

The internet has evolved – and BOY has it developed! If you are privileged enough to live in a developed country, you may already be using fibre-optic broadband, offering speeds of up to 1 Gigabit per second.

According to recent UK survey Hyperoptic offer a 1GB service for an introductory offer of £45.00 per month!


This is jaw-droppingly fast. To put it into perspective, it would have taken about 3.5 days to download a 4K film (about 2GB) using a 56kbit dial up service.

My previous broadband was copper-wire based, and the fastest speed I ever achieved for a download was 8Mb/sec – and that same 4K film would have been delivered to me in 35 minutes.

My latest broadband is totally optical and is Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) and my download speed is a minimum of 71Mb/sec – that 4K movie is now mine in about 4 minutes.

One of the major advantages of broadband, is that unlike a dial up service, the system is “always on”. The old modem has been replaced with a router, which essentially does the same job, but additionally acts as a network hub, through which multiple devices may be connected simultaneously.

BT Hub – A home router, Wi-Fi enabled, with 2GHz and 5GHz Channels

Whilst is it possible to connect equipment to the router using a network cable, most routers offer Wi-Fi connection, and this allows several Wi-Fi/internet-enabled devices to connect to the internet simultaneously.

With a sufficiently fast connection, it is possible for SWMBO to watch a movie on Netflix, whilst I catch up with a friend on a video call, or listen to the internet radio.

Why am I rambling on about this?

Well, technological advances never stop, and there is much publicity about the new 5G (5th generation communications network) which will increase the speed and capacity of the internet even further.

In my previous article, “Who is Driving YOUR Car?” I explored the embryonic Intelligent Transport System, which relies on internet-enabled vehicles and sensors in the fixed transport network, communicating with each other to provide optimised traffic flows and traffic safety management.

This is only made possible with 5G communications and ultra-fast internet systems, and the Internet of Things (IoT)

The Internet of Things is the medium through which our emerging “Smart Society” will operate.

In essence, the IoT consists of items that have the capability to connect to the internet, and communicate and exchange data with other similarly enabled things. These “things” may have sensors, software and other systems to support their intended purposes.

It could be a device as simple as a smart lightbulb that is able to be activated by a smart assistant such as Alexa or Siri, or from a suitably equipped smartphone – located perhaps many miles away.

Such items are already used in intelligent Building Management and Control systems, which employ an array of interconnected sensors to monitor heat and humidity, occupancy levels, lighting, lifts (Elevators for my US readers 😁) and security within a building.

Intelligent Healthcare uses the IoT to monitor medical data such as cardiac performance and blood pressure, or blood glucose levels. This enables improved management of an individual’s medical conditions. Significant research is being conducted in this area, and there are already several emerging disciplines and specialities.

The Internet of Things is also used in industry and manufacturing, to monitor and control processes – making use of internet-enabled sensors.

We are now seeing “Smart Homes” being built, which use the same type of Wi-Fi-connected IoT devices to control home environmental systems.

Smart Home hub

I imagine that a fair percentage of you may well be protecting your property with Closed Circuit TV Cameras. It’s probable that most of these cameras will be Wi-Fi-connected to your home broadband – and from there out onto the web.

A Wi-Fi enabled Internet CCTV Camera – A hackers back door into your systems? Photo ©Mark Charlwood

Maybe some of you will have an App on your smartphone or tablet that enables you to remotely view the camera feeds.

Smart speakers such as Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Homepod and Google’s Home are wirelessly connected to home networks, and are continuously monitoring their environment for their wake-up command (such as “Alexa”)

Smart doorbells enable us to see who is at the front door using integral video cameras and transmitting the footage over the internet via the home router and to an app on a smart phone.

Smart appliances, such as Samsung’s Smart Refrigerator now offer us the ability to manage our food.

Smart Fridge – Whatever Next?

An internal camera within the fridge compartment enables the user to view the contents by using a smart phone. The system will also monitor food expiry dates, without the door being opened, thus saving power.

Some models also enable groceries to be ordered via the fridge – a rather redundant feature in my opinion, as you can order your groceries online from your phone, tablet, laptop or PC.

Or, for the truly bold and adventurous – take a risk, and actually go into a shop and buy your groceries.

A large LCD screen is provided in order to display a family calendar, and if you really haven’t got enough tech in your home, it’s also fitted with a 5W Stereo sound system to play your favourite music tracks.

Poor Alexa… She may feel quite outranked by the domestic white goods!

Smart Washing machines are able to connect to the home network, and may be controlled remotely using an app, and are able to automatically sense loads, apply the correct dose of detergent, and add the optimal amount of water.

On some models, the best programme for the laundry load may be selected by filling in a few pieces of information on the app.

I’m sure it won’t be long before your garments will be fitted with a passive RFID tag, or a label barcode, and the machine will scan the items as they are loaded, and then set the correct wash programme.

Should an item that is not compatible with other items in the load be added inadvertently then the machine will inhibit the washing cycle from starting until the guilty culprit is removed.

No more business shirts stained girlie pink then!

Result!

As a society, we are all used to smart watches, and fitness trackers, (which all fall within the scope of wearable technology) and have become very complacent about the interconnectivity with our other tech.

And this is where the real problem lies…

Security MUST be one of your top priorities these days. I have removed my profile permanently from Facebook, as the platform discretely harvests everything I “like” and every comment I make. My preferences and personal data are then sold to other organisations, without my permission and regardless of the ethics involved.

Think about why Google and Facebook are free! There really is no such thing as a free lunch.

Most of you will already be protecting your data and PC behind an encrypted firewall, with passwords, multi-factor authentication, and PIN codes. In all probability, you will be paying for some kind of anti-virus protection which will (hopefully) prevent your data from being compromised.

The IoT makes this a lot more difficult.

The processing power inside some of the connected devices, and to an extent, their size may well prevent them from having all but the most basic of security protection – if any.

The CCTV you bought to protect your home may well be being used by the manufacturer, or a malicious hacker to access a backdoor into your router, from where it can monitor data passing up and down your comms link.


So, all of these innocent devices are hooked to the web via your router.

Lots of individuals I know never both changing the default password supplied with their devices, and will happily discuss bank details, finances, and other personal details within “earshot” of their smart speaker.

So, nasty hacker chap decides to wage an attack on his ex-employer. By harnessing the combined IoT devices of many households, and requiring all of them to connect simultaneously to the target company’s website will cause it to crash.

This is an extreme example of a Distributed Denial of Service Attack (DDoS), where innocent PCs and devices are hijacked to overload the target’s website.

Many large and respected companies have been attacked in this manner, despite having the financial clout and technical expertise to surround themselves with multiple layers of digital security.

In 2017, Google came under a sustained DDoS attack, originating from China, which, according to Google, lasted for up to six months.

In 2020, Amazon Web Services (AWB) was taken down for three days following a similar, yet more sophisticated attack.

Internet security expert Brian Krebs was attacked in 2016, when his website was assaulted by the Mirai botnet, executed by about 600,000 compromised and suborned Internet of Things – such as Internet CCTV cameras, home routers, and other simple IoT devices.

This may be the tip of the iceberg.

Cisco, the internet systems company predicted in its annual report (2018-2023) that sophisticated DDoS attacks will double from the 7.9 million in 2018 to 14.5 million in 2022.

Now the truly chilling bit…

In our increasingly technological world, we rely on the internet in so many ways – from grocery shopping to building control, from home banking to healthcare. Connected vehicles – not just cars, but ships, aircraft, tankers, trains.

As I have said, many of these devices are so simple and un-assuming, that we don’t regard them as a potential threat.

That simple fitness tracker that you wear all the time. The silly old fridge, just sitting there in your kitchen, keeping your food safe and edible. The CCTV that you use to monitor your car in the drive.

The ease and convenience with which you access your bank to pay a bill. The ability to have a video call with your dear old Mum from miles away.

And yet, in the stygian, gloomy murk of the deep, dark web, there lurk hackers, thieves, and criminals. Hackers who are willing to mount cyber-attacks from as little as 7.00 US$ per hour.

Foreign states, and terrorist organisations that are willing – and able – to hijack your IoT devices to wage an attack on society.

Imagine, if you dare – a world where the bad guys can hack into your car, and disable the brakes.

A world in which someone can access your pacemaker, and shut it down…unless you pay a ransom.

A world in which a hacker can eavesdrop on your home, and record everything that you say and do, and record everything about you?

It’s not as far-fetched and dystopian a reality as you think!

Go Well!

Categories
Civil liberties Driving Electric Transport Mobile Communications Motorcycling Motoring Music Nostalgia Science Society Technology Transport Travel Vehicle Safety Vehicles

Who is Driving YOUR Car?

Those of you who are of a “certain age” may well remember the song Car 6-7, the lyrics of which tell the sad story of a taxi driver who has split up from his girlfriend, and is turning down a pick-up from control, as it’s the ex-girlfriend.

That was back in November 1978, and the old-fashioned two-way VHF radios used in taxi cabs have been largely been updated, and to a certain extent have been superseded by smart phones and booking software.

Typical 2-way VHF transceiver as used by mini-cab companies in the 1970s and 1980s

We have all become used to very sophisticated communications systems; Bluetooth earpieces and microphones, Wi-Fi internet connections, cordless phones and smart speakers such as Alexa.

Modern cars are no exceptions. My car has a Bluetooth system that will support two mobile phones; My 2013 motorcycle has the same. 

Very sophisticated.

Well, it was in 2017 when it rolled off the production line in Kvasiny in the Czech Republic.

Kvasiny in the Czech Republic – the home of the Skoda Yeti…

But things are changing fast, and we are now moving into the world of Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS).

ITS is a futuristic totally integrated transport system that uses an infrastructure of sensors, communications links, artificial intelligence and algorithms to monitor and manage traffic flow, safety and incidents. Data collected may also be used to help design safer and more efficient transport systems, which may be optimised for different conditions.

We are already using a very basic kind of ITS; We have CCTV cameras that remotely monitor our motorways and road networks. Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras that are able to identify and trackthe driving behaviour of a specific vehicle, and monitor entry and exit times of vehicles using private car parking facilities.

ANPR and CCTV cameras…

We have under-road systems that monitor the volume and speed of traffic[1] – (You may have wondered about those geometric grids in each lane of the motorway placed at regular intervals?), speed-monitoring enforcement cameras mounted on overhead gantries, and Variable Message Signs (VMSs) 

All of these systems will look like they came out of the stone age when compared with what’s coming very soon.

Intelligent Transport Systems combine data that comes from a variety of sources. 

One of the sources of dynamic data are vehicles that are actually using the road network.

Cars have recently become a lot smarter. My ancient vehicle (4 years old) is just about capable of talking to my smart phone. 

New vehicles will be able to communicate on many different levels.

Imagine, if you will, a car that is able to independently communicate with other, similarly equipped vehicles.This is the most basic system, referred to as V2V

Cars are already fitted with Autonomous Driver Assistance Systems which include obstacle detection, autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning systems, and adaptive cruise control. See my previous article entitled Autonomous Vehicle Safety Devices – Do you turn YOURS off? for details.

Maybe the car ahead detects an obstacle, and applies the emergency brakes. This information in instantaneously broadcast to all following vehicles, and this in turn allows them to begin braking – before a human driver is even aware that an emergency exists.

Vehicles may also be designed to interact with the infrastructure (traffic signals, traffic density and speed monitors, road condition sensors etc). This is known as V2I. 

A V2V/V2I equipped vehicle starts to lose traction on a wet road, and begins aquaplaning. A message is sent from the vehicle to other vehicles, and also to the fixed highway infrastructure. The infrastructure may then automatically activate warning signs and reduce speed limits accordingly.

This is not science fiction.  This is Science Fact.

Infrastructure sensors that continually monitor the depth of water on the road surface and the road surface temperature already exist, and are integrated into the ITS. 

The UK’s Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) have been operating a sophisticated network of subsurface sensors that are capable of accurately detecting overloaded Heavy Goods Vehicles. This system is known as WIMS, short for Weight In Motion Sensors. This uses induction loops and special sensors to detect the weight being carried by each axle of the truck in question. When combined with ANPR cameras, the system will identify the vehicle, and also be able to calculate whether it is overloaded, and whether it is complying with the speed limit.

Other car communications systems enable the vehicle to exchange data with the wider internet of things, and may also inter-exchange with other transport modes. This is known as Vehicle to Cloud (V2C). This would enable a vehicle to be able to communicate with trains, aircraft ships and exchange other relevant data.

Lastly, cars will also be able to communicate with pedestrians. (V2P). This would allow vehicles to update pedestrians on their status, and speed of approach. Such information could be received by the pedestrian by using a smart phone. 

Cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, farm vehicles and even bicycles will all become part of a communicating interactive network, and ultimately connected to the global internet of things.

Combine the automated on-board driver assistance systems with the benefits of a smart, thinking and proactive transport network, and road safety may show some dramatic improvements.

Currently in the UK, about 40% all vehicle accidents were as a direct result on a driver “failing to see” the other vehicle. 

In our brave new world, your car probably won’t let you pull out of that junction as its already identified an approaching car, assessed the risk, and calculated that there would be a collision! That’s assuming that both cars are V2V/V2I equipped.

Old duffers like me driving a 2017 model will still have to rely on the Mark I eyeball, and the basic training received nearly 45 years ago.

The old saying that the best safety device in a car was a well-trained driver may no longer be true.

Live Long and Prosper…


[1] MIDAS – Motorway Incident Detection and Auto-Signalling. An Induction loops system that senses a vehicles presence using magnetism.

Categories
College Deafness English Culture Mobile Communications Science Technology Trains Transport Wearable Technology

Am I reading the Signs Correctly?

A sign of the times…

A few years ago, I had to attend a meeting in the London offices of the CAA, and rather than pay the congestion charge, and then fight it out with the city traffic, I decided to catch the train to Waterloo, and then use a Boris Bike to cycle the last mile to the office.

Boris Bikes – I love using these! Cheap, and only a seven minute cycle from Waterloo to Work!

It was a lovely sunny morning as I stood on the platform waiting for the 09:09 Liphook to Waterloo service.

The 0909 from Liphook to Waterloo. A mobile office – A mobile reading room…

The carriage that I boarded was almost empty, and I chose a table seat, and sat by the window, and took a sip of my coffee.

I smiled. I had bought my coffee from the young, attractive blonde woman who operated the coffee van outside the station.  

I had flirted outrageously with her, and she had charmingly flirted back, despite the fact that I am probably double her age (at least!). No wonder she always has a queue for coffees. She is always cheerful and happy regardless of the weather. And the coffee is great too, so a win-win for everyone.

The best coffee for a pre-commute journey, and served with a smile and a flirt… what more could a chap want for?

The Liphook train is never in much of a hurry to get to Waterloo. It meanders through Haslemere, Guildford and Woking, stopping at the many small towns and villages that constitute commuter-land.

By the time it clatters into Godalming, my carriage is starting to fill up. In compliance with the average Brits’ reluctance to engage with any strangers, many people passed through the carriage, despite the fact that there were three empty seats at my table.

Eventually, three young women shyly sat with me. I budged over to make room and reassure them, and fished my battered paperback book out of my bag. 

They all pulled files and folders out of their bags, and set them on the table, and busied themselves with their textbooks. Obviously, University of Surrey kids on their way to a lecture.

I returned to my book, and attempted to read, but something was not quite right.

It took me five minutes or so to realise that they were not making much noise, and I surreptitiously glanced over at them.

It suddenly struck me that these young women were all deaf, and were enthusiastically signing to each other – their hands moving constantly; some gestures as soft as butterflies, some more direct chopping movements.

British Sign Language being used to translate the Welsh Assembly’s COVID Briefing.

One of them caught me looking at her, and she fired a smile at me that was as bright as the sunshine pouring into the carriage, and I found myself disadvantaged in not knowing how to respond, and all I could do was offer a grin back. Embarrassing or what?

They departed the train at Guildford, still signing happily. I watched them wandering off up the platform as the train finally decided to recommence it’s groan towards Woking.

This did get me thinking. I had felt quite disconnected from three fellow human beings. If they had required my help, they would have had to write their request down, as I couldn’t sign, and I never heard one of them utter a single word.

I promised myself that I would learn British Sign Language one day.

Well, like most people, one day has still never come, and I still don’t know how to sign. 

Good news is now on the horizon, that will enable those who are unable to hear, to communicate with those that can’t “speak” in sign language.

It’s the white knight of wearable technology to the rescue!

There is now hope for easy communications between those that sign, and those that can’t. The communications barrier has finally been breached!

Recent research published in Nature Electronics shows that wearable technology is able to offer a highly accurate real-time translation of sign language into speech, and delivers translations that are about 99% accurate and with a translation time of less than a second on average.

To put it simply, Yarn-based stretchable sensor arrays (YSSA) are used to track the movements of the hand, and will monitor the position of fingers, thumbs, and the movement of hands through the air. 

These clever sensors are lightweight, cheap and highly sensitive. They offer stretchability and are durable and hard wearing, so they are ideal for incorporation into a wearable tech system.

Using artificial intelligence, and a specifically targeted algorithm it is possible to calculate the underlying meaning of the hand gestures and movements.

To put it simply, the sensor array is woven into a lightweight simplified glove, which flexes with the movement of the hand, fingers and thumbs. The movements of the glove generate electronic signals that are processed by the receiver and then translated into the speech equivalent.

To add even more accuracy, it was possible during the tests to stick a YSSA sensor to the side of the mouth, or near the eye of the wearer to monitor facial expressions, all of which are essential subconscious enhancements to language.

The Yarn-based Stretchable Sensor Array, in the form of a lightweight glove.

All of the data is then transmitted to a very small wirelessly-connected receiver which is worn on the body in an inconspicuous location. Once the data is received, it may be transmitted to a software application on a smart phone, and the “app” will convert the data to human speech and synthesise the words as audible and recognisable speech. 

According to the report, the system is 99% accurate, and has a gesture-to-word processing time of less than one second.

At the moment, the system is in its infancy, and is a bit agricultural to look at, but in time, it is possible that the components will be small enough and discrete enough to be worn confidently by a person with a serious hearing impairment.

It will also ensure that people like me won’t miss out on having our lives enriched by being able to converse easily with someone who signs.

How fantastic is that?

The photo that I have chosen as the cover image, is of a sculture on a wall outside a school for the deaf in Prague.

It translates as “Life is beautiful, be happy and love each other”

The sculture was created by Czech Zuzana Čížkové. Photo by ŠJù under CCA-SA 3.0

Go Well!

Categories
Climate change Driving English Culture Environment Motoring Society Transport Travel Vehicle Safety Vehicles

Staying Safe – Despite the Weather

I was mentally kicking myself. Just over a month previously, I had traded in my 4×4 SUV, replacing it with a 2WD Skoda Yeti. I had been pleased with the Kia Sportage, but despite my care in driving it, the fuel economy was not as good as I had been led to believe.

My Kia Sportage 2 4WD. Nice to drive, but too thirsty!

It was the 1st March 2018. At 1530, I left my office at Aviation House, heading for home. My route from Gatwick Airport was cross country. I could easily have driven home more quickly up the M23, M25 and A3, but at a cost of an extra eleven miles motoring.

Hardly fuel efficient!

Skoda Yeti… Workhorse, paractical and almost 60 miles to the gallon on DERV,

My normal route was a delight. Out through the village that shares my name, and then through Ifield and Rusper, to join the main A264 just east of Horsham.

I would then cut through the back lanes of Broadbridge Heath, and then head south west through Loxwood, and on through Haselemere and from there via Liphook to home.

Storm Emma decided to put paid to that little plan. The snow began to fall; small pellets that danced and pirouetted slowly through the sky until they smacked wetly on the car windscreen.

By the time I got to Loxwood, I was seriously considering the wisdom of my decision to trade the 4×4 in. It was now hurtling down heavily, a swirling white vortex pouring out of a grey and ominous looking cloud.

Traffic speed was decreasing to almost pedestrian speeds, and I was now having to concentrate hard to anticipate the erratic behaviour of other vehicles.

Haslemere was, by this time, totally gridlocked. The snow was now very deep, and it was almost dark.

Haslemere, in Surrey and traffic at a standstill.

I looked at my watch. 1830! I would normally have been home by 1700.

I was beginning to get worried. There were several routes that I could take to get out of Haslemere, but all required me to drive up steep hills, and looking at the developing chaos I had little confidence that I would make it up any of them.

Cars were slaloming down the slightest of inclines, and I witnessed many crashes, and the roadsides were now becoming strewn with crumpled cars,

At 2030, I had managed to travel about 2 miles, so I ended up making the decision to abort my journey, and park up and weather the storm. I knew the decision was correct when I witnessed a Police 4×4 pick-up truck struggling to climb the slight incline. Despite the four wheel drive, its wheels were still slipping.

Surrey Police Ford Ranger 4 x 4 pick up…

I now didn’t feel quite so bad. If a well-equipped emergency services 4×4 couldn’t make it out of the town, then even in my previous 4×4, I wouldn’t have either.

I found a grass verge sufficiently away from the kerb, and drove up and parked, backing up in such a way that a mature tree would offer some protection should someone lose control of their vehicle and depart the carriage way.

I gingerly opened the door into the maelstrom, and crunched my way to the tailgate. Opening it, I dragged out my thick government issue wet weather high viz jacket, and opened my car winter crate.

I decided when I first began commuting long distances across empty countryside to prepare for all eventualities, and so I had previously invested in a large plastic crate, into which I packed my emergency kit. Next to the crate were half a dozen blankets of the type that removal companies use to protect furniture.

A fold-up shovel, a set of jump leads, a pair of work gloves, half a dozen bottles of water, a pair of wellingtons, a torch, and some dried food in the form of energy bars, packs of nuts and chocolate.

Yes…. Lots of chocolate. You can never have too much chocolate in an emergency box.

I selected a handful of bars of chocolate, and a couple of bottles of water. Slamming the tailgate shut, I got back into the drivers seat, and started the engine.

I dialled up maximum heat from the climate control, and switched on the electrically heated seats. Reclining the seat back as far as it would go, I snugged up under the blankets and dozed off.

Haslemere snowed in. Photo Courtesy Ian Underwood.

The temperature outside continued to drop. and I eventually had to start the car every fifteen minutes and run the engine for a while to stay warm.

I slept very fitfully and was wide awake by 0530.

The storm had passed through, and I decided that I would attempt to get home.

I knew that as long as I could get the car moving and maintain a constant speed, I could probably get up the hill, from where I could make my way to the A3, which, I hoped would be open. I knew that once other cars started moving, my chances of a successful escape from Haslemere would revert back to zero.

Even genteel Haslemere loses it’s appeal to a cold and hungry driver.

Starting the car, I eased it into gear, and slowly, ever so slowly accelerated up to about twenty miles per hour. Every so often the wheels would spin, but the plucky little car continued up the hill which I crested without seeing another vehicle on the road.

I did see quite a lot in ditches though, inclding a single decker bus and a police car.

The A3 was closed northbound, but – joy of joys, it was still clear southbound.

Half an hour later I was at home. The first thing I did after having a hot shower and a cup of tea was to start researching for winter tyres.

I have to admit – I had never really considered using winter tyres. I had always thought that they were a hyped up fashion in the UK, as we don’t expereience the extremes of weather that are enjoyed by our continental neighbours.

If you are fortunate enough to live in the United Kingdom, then according to figures I dug out of the Meteorology Office, we only get to “enjoy” snow for 23.7 days per year, and it only lays around for an average of 15.6 days each year.

Winter Tyres – on a Steel Rim. Great for country lanes, potholes and freezing conditions. Image courtesy of FreeImages.co.uk

On this basis, I was started wondering if it would be worth it.

It seems that during the winter in the south east of England (The counties of Kent, Sussex, Surrey Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire, and London) the winter temperatures sit at around 3℃ in London, down to -0.5℃ on the coast.

There is little difference between snow tyres and winter tyres. Winter tyres are optimised to perform at their best during all types of winter weather, including rain, sleet, snow, and slippery surfaces. Snow tyres may well have studs moulded into the tread to enable better grip in very hostile weather conditions.

Winter tyres are designed to offer their best performance when outside air temperatures are less than 7℃ (45℉) and have a tread design that includes deeper grooves or “sipes”

This makes them ideally suited for a typical British winter. Take November 2019, for example. According to Met Office figures, the average temperature this time last year was 5.3ºC – prime conditions for winter tyres.

Firstly, how can you recognise a winter tyre?

Winter tyres carry a mark on the sidewall which consists of three mountains with a snowflake. This “Three Peak Mountain Snowflake” symbol indicates that the tyre has undergone and passed a specific winter traction performance test.

My somewhat salty, muddy, winter tyre, clearly showing the winter tyre mark Photo Mark Charlwood

In order to perform well under the low temperature, wet and slippery conditions, winter tyres are constructed from carefully blended rubber compounds that are hydrophilic in nature.

These compounds contain more natural rubber, which stays softer at lower temperatures, and helps the tyre to become more “grippy” in wet conditions.

Winter tyres are also narrower than standard tyres; the width of the tread is narrower for the wheel diameter. This reduces the resistance of the tyre as it is driving through snow.

The tyre will also have a deep groove pattern, with many additional smaller grooves known as Sipes that are designed to cut through snow, and improve traction.

Deep grooved tread pattern, clearly showing the sipes and the extra blocks for exerting grip. Photo Mark Charlwood

Tests conducted by the British Tyre Manufacturers Association found that a car braking at 60mph on a wet road at 5 degrees Celsius stopped five metres shorter, equivalent to more than one car length, when fitted with winter weather tyres.

I could see the immediate and obvious benefits of fitting winter tyres.

I started by ringing round the local tyre dealers, to get costs. Most of the dealers were able to supply, at reasonable prices.

What I hadn’t bargained for was the extra costs involved. My normal “Summer” tyres were not worn out. I would need the tyres removed from my rims, and the winter tyres put on. Then, when I needed to change back to the summer tyres, I would need the dealer to remove the winter tyres, and refit them.

As they wouldn’t be fitting a new tyre, they would charge £20.00 +VAT per wheel to switch them. £80, twice a year! And I would have to store the tyres as well.

It was beginning to look costly.

Then I had a brainwave.

What if I bought some steel wheels and had the winter tyres fitted to them?

It would mean my nice Alloys wouldn’t be subjected to the rough conditions (salt, mud, and the risks of hitting potholes, or the verges) and I could change the wheels myself without incurring costs.

Solution found.

Now I hit a potential problem that had me scratching my head.

My car was originally fitted with 17 inch rims. All of the winter tyres quoted for my model of car were 16 inch rims, and a lot narrower.

Whilst Skoda Yetis may be bought new with 16 inch wheels, I was worried that the smaller size would mean the the tyre pressure monitoring system, stability control and anti skid systems would be compromised if I put smaller narrower tyres on.

A quick conversation with the service manager at the local Skoda dealer and I was happy. He explained that whilst the wheel rim was of a smaller diameter, the extra height of the tyre sidewall would ensure the onboard systems wouldn’t have any problems.

I eventually sourced a company on eBay that supplied me with four Continental winter tyres, ready-fitted onto steel rims. They arrived direct from Germany, and it took me about an hour to remove and refit all four wheels.

My experience is good. There is a definite improvement in the handling of the car during braking and cornering in slippery and wet conditions.

Some folk complain of the tyres being noisier than summer tyres, but I haven’t noticed this. The only thing that I do notice, is that the speedometer over reads by about 10% now compared with the GPS (An indicated 77 mph equates to 70 mph GPS true speed) and as a result, my sat nav system calculates my drive to work as 44 miles, but the car trip recorder shows 47 miles.

Not too much of an issue, but I have to remember to deduct 10% of the fuel computer’s range-to-empty figures!

It must be remembered that winter tyres should really only be fitted in about October, and removed in March. Winter tyre rubber compounds do not work well at average spring and summer temperatures, and in many cases, braking will be considerably poorer than those achieved using the original tyres.

Yes, they cost me about £500 to buy, but I am only wearing both sets of tyres out at half the rate, so it was a good investment.

I regard it as an extra piece of insurance.

Stay Safe!

Categories
Aircew airlines aviation Climate change Econonomy Environment Flight pilots Science Technology Transport Travel Uncategorized Vehicles Work

Greening Aviation – Not as Simple as it Sounds

According to recent research conducted by the University of Reading in the UK, many tonnes of fuel could be saved by airlines, (and therefore many tonnes of greenhouse gases) if they planned to always fly in favourable winds whilst crossing the Atlantic.

The study found that commercial flights between New York and London last winter could have used up to 16% less fuel if they had made better use of the fast-moving winds at altitude.

New satellites will soon allow transatlantic flights to be tracked more accurately while remaining a safe distance apart. This opportunity could allow aircraft to be more flexible in their flight paths, in order to more accurately follow favourable tailwinds and avoid headwinds, offering the aviation sector a cheaper and more immediate way of cutting emissions than through advances in technology.

The report stated: “Current transatlantic flight paths mean aircraft are burning more fuel and emitting more carbon dioxide than they need to”.

“Although winds are taken into account to some degree when planning routes, considerations such as reducing the total cost of operating the flight are currently given a higher priority than minimising the fuel burn and pollution.”

Boeing 747-400 pulling Contrails at high altitude. This fabulous photo was taken by Sergey Kustov

This needs to be put into context.

Way back in time, I used to create flight plans professionally. This was done by hand and was sometimes quite time consuming, and required careful study of aeronautical charts, upper air weather, including icing levels, and any forecast areas of turbulence.

A Transatlantic Chart showing the Entry and exit waypoints for the North Atlantic Track System

The charts would also be checked to see the locations of forecast Jetstream activity.

A quick explanation here about Jetstreams.  Jetstreams are caused by two factors. Firstly, solar heating, which causes massive air movements, combined with the effects of the earth’s rotation (The Coriolis Effect).

Image courtesy of NASA

At lower levels, these air movements are known as Trade Winds, and two hundred years ago, clipper sailing ships used them very effectively to transport goods relatively quickly around the globe, hence the name.

Most weather phenomena is generated in the troposphere, which extends from the surface up to high altitude (30’000 feet at the poles, and 56,000 feet at the equator), and it is at these upper levels that we find the jetstreams.

Jetstreams are defined as winds with a minimum speed of more than 70 knots (80 mph), and often they may exceed 220 knots (250 mph) and so it makes economic sense to make use of them.

This has been recognised by the aviation airspace regulators, and specific routings that take advantage of the jetstreams have been in place for many years.

Typical Jetstream activity over Euope.

Each night, weather data for trans-oceanic flights is analysed, and tracks are optimised to use the flows sensibly.

Flights crossing the Atlantic use a system known as NATS (North Atlantic Track System). In simple terms, a number of tracks are generated for both easterly and westerly traffic that will enable aircraft to benefit from a tailwind, or at least a reduced headwind.

These tracks will move north and south over the Atlantic according to the weather and the predicted positions of jetstreams; sometimes tracks will start to the north of Scotland, and terminate in the far north east of Canada.

On other occasions tracks will run to the south of the UK, and cross the southern part of the north Atlantic joining the continental air route systems as far south as the Canadian/US Border.

Typical NAT Tracks. Westerly tracks, showing available flight levels for each alphabetically-identified track.

So, flights across the Atlantic already have some basic fuel saving principles built in advance. The same system operates for flight crossing the Pacific Ocean, known as PACOT tracks.  They run between the western seaboard of the USA and Japan and Asian destinations.

However, times move on, and grey-haired aviation expertise has been replaced in almost every arena with technology.

Modern computer-based flight planning systems are extremely sophisticated, and use some advanced algorithms to plan with even better accuracy.

Consider this.

Every nation has the right to charge a fee to every aircraft that uses its airspace. Airspace charges may be based on the time that the flight remains within that state’s territory.

So, modern flight planning systems will look at every aspect of the flight. It will perform calculations that compare fuel burn with overflight charges.

Sometimes, whilst flying in a Jetstream will burn less fuel, it may mean that the flight will pass through airspace with relatively expensive overflight charges. If the overflight charges amount to more than the cost of fuel, then the system will plan to use the cheaper route, and therefore save money overall.

Airlines also use a system known as Cost Index to further optimise the flight costs.

This is basically a system that compares the direct operating costs of the flight, with the cost of the fuel being used. If the direct operating costs (crew wages, navigation charges, cost of galleys and airframe hours – affecting the amount of maintenance required) are more than the cost of fuel, the system will plan to fly faster, burning more fuel in order to get on the ground faster. Conversely, if the fuel is more expensive than the direct operating costs it makes sense to fly slower, burning less fuel.

Airlines are extremely cost conscious, and low-cost carriers will do everything they can to reduce and eliminate costs wherever possible. For example, Ryanair removed paper safety cards as they wear out and need replacing. Now, their safety information is riveted to each seatback.

Ryanair Boeing 737 – and Safety Cards riveted to the seatbacks!

Some carriers do not serve peanuts, as if they drop into the seat mounting rails, they take time to remove, and time is money.

So, persuading airlines to always optimise their routes and use high speed Jetstreams to the fullest extent may take some time.

Stay Safe…

Categories
airlines Airport aviation Driving Flight Motoring Society Transport Travel Vehicles Work

The Happy Commuter

Not many people can say that they enjoy their daily commute with any degree of truth.

I am an exception to this rule.

Yesterday morning, I softly shut the front door, and swiftly double locked it. As I walked briskly to the car, I noticed that it was cloaked with water droplets from the previous night’s heavy rain, and they shimmered in the alabaster cold moonlight, ruffled gently by the almost imperceptible breeze.

I looked up the field, and could just about make out the old farmhouse through the light mist. The sky overhead was as black as tarmac, and the stars glittered like shards of broken glass.

I smiled to myself.

It was 0445, and I was about to drive from rural Hampshire to Heathrow Airport for my early shift.

The car was chilled as I started it up, and I decided to be very self-indulgent, and switch on the heated seats, as it was only 0.5°C. By the time I reached the tiny hamlet of Bramshott, the warmth was permeating my back nicely.

The back lanes had treated me like royalty this morning. First, an unscheduled stop to enable a family of Muntjac deer to slowly amble from one side of the road, to the nature reserve on the other.

A Muntjac deer, Shy and beautiful. Photo courtesy J J Harrison

A few minutes later, I found myself driving parallel with a barn owl, sweeping effortlessly along the field to my right.

Photo courtesy Peter K Buriam. Barn Owl in flight.

Fantastic!

Accelerating up the slip road to join the A3, a quick glance in the mirror showed that there was no evidence of other vehicles heading north – not even a headlight beam.

Once the car was comfortably at the legal limit, I engaged the cruise control, tuned in my favourite radio station (Greatest Hits Radio) and took a sip of coffee.

Oh, the joy of fast cruising on an empty highway. No vehicles, and just the occasional truck heading south to Portsmouth to dip my headlights for.

The tarmac was damp, but not slippery, and I managed to get all the way to Guildford, some 17 miles before I spotted another vehicle heading north.

By Ripley, his headlights were just bright dots in the mirror.

The M25 was equally quiet, relatively speaking. Busy with articulated lorries, many bound for the airport, and some diving off down the M3 to head to the docks at Southampton.

In some respects, this was a bit eerie. In the past, even at this early hour, the western segment of the M25 would be busy with cars; airport workers and passengers, all heading for the terminals.

Lockdown was having a huge effect. The airport was just about surviving, but with so few movements, staff were either on furlough, or redundant. On the upside, air pollution was significantly reduced, and my journey time was reduced by twenty minutes.

Once off the motorway, my drive takes me through Staines, Ashford, and Bedfont, all of which are pretty deserted.

At this time of day, the lunatics and muppets are not about – still asleep I guess. Most of those that I encounter are driving safely, at the limit, and are courteous and helpful.

This doesn’t happen at 0445 on the A3… All the loons are in bed.

I pass through the security checkpoint at work very quickly.

Well, to be fair, I am the only vehicle in the queue.

My shift start time is conveniently placed between the end of one shift and the beginning of another, so there is rarely a wait before driving through the massive security gates, and onwards to the staff car park.

Early shifts are a pleasure. Definitely the best time of the day.

According to my mother, I have been an early riser since I was an infant.

I went through a phase as a grumpy teenager when I would sleep in until lunchtime, but that was more as a result of imbibing vast quantities of alcohol with my friends, until late in the evening every Friday.

I would get home, and crash out, on many occasions still fully dressed, not to be seen again until the sun was very much over the yard arm.

Despite the amount of beer taken on board, I was lucky to have never had a hangover either!

Leaving my teenage years behind, I became an early riser once more.

Working in the aviation industry, for a major airline I was a shift worker, and enjoyed a variety of start times, varying from 0500 to 2200 starts, and other shift starts between these two extremes.

0500 starts have always been my favourite though.

Summer “early-earlies” would see me quietly leaving the house, walking down the garden path in the pre-dawn glow of a brand-new day.

At the time, I was living in West London, about 5 miles from the centre of London Heathrow Airport, so it was a short drive to the staff car park.

In Spring, I would revel in the cool stillness of the morning. The sun would be shyly peeking over the gardens to the east, gilding the slate roofs of Bedfont with a golden glow, doing far more for the houses than a complete renovation would achieve.

Summer would offer somnolent dawns, warm, dappled and filled with birdsong and I would drive the deserted roads around the perimeter of the airport, usually not seeing another vehicle until I was within the airport restricted area.

Standing at the staff car park bus stop, it always surprised me that so many of us early shifters looked so tired, disengaged and sleepy.

I was, and still am, one of those awful people that are immediately ready for the day ahead as soon as their eyes are open.

Poor SWMBO, with whom I have shared my life for over 30 years, is a night owl, and doesn’t function correctly until the correct number of coffees have been emptied into her!

So, I would bask in the sunshine, waiting for the bus, whilst the others round me were slumped against the glass walls of the shelter.

The buses back then were a climate activist’s nightmare. Operated by the British Airports Authority, they were probably ten years old and to be frank, were knackered. Originally painted in bright traffic yellow, they were battered and grimy, both inside and out.

They rattled, creaked and generated more diesel smoke than an ocean liner, and would grind their way round the airport perimeter road, making only one stop at the staff bus stop in the central area.

I would then enjoy a brisk walk to Terminal 3 check in for work.

Autumn 0500s were enjoyable too, but in a more melancholy way. I would still leave the house at 0430, but now the sun was reluctant to welcome the day, and I would walk through the crispy leaves to the car in the half light, now needing to wear my light bomber jacket, thoughtfully provided by American Airlines.

As the seasons marched on, I would have to leave the house at 0420, to give me sufficient time clear the ice or snow from the windscreen.

Whilst I used a de-icing spray in the hardest weather, I often had to scrape the ice from the car, and the sounds would be amplified throughout the quiet residential street, reverberating and bouncing off the houses, and shattering the stillness.

I used to feel guilty about this, until I realised that most of my neighbours were shift workers as well, and we all took it in our stride.

I stopped working at the airport in 1997. I had been lucky enough whilst working with American Airlines to see many aspects of airline operations, Passenger Services, Passenger Security, Special Services, and Flight Operations.

I had sat in a deserted ops room, watching the flights departing the US, and plotted their arrival times, and planned the parking stands for the day.

I had sat with my heart in my mouth in the early hours of July 18th 1996, after hearing reports that an American aircraft had crashed into the Atlantic off the coast near New York.

It turned out to be TWA flight 800, and not one of “my” flights, but still a tragic loss of 230 human beings.

I had searched aircraft, operated security equipment, and interviewed suspect passengers.

I had escorted celebrities and VIP as they transited both Heathrow and Stansted airports.

Flight operations was my element though. It was what I was trained for, what I enjoyed, and what I understood.

However, promotion in the Flight Operations sector normally requires the transfer to a job that is no longer practical and hands on, but is more of a specialist desk job.

So, after many years with the mighty American Airlines, I started work with British Airways, working out of the fantastic Compass Centre.

The design of Compass Centre makes use of curved glass external walls on the south side, which overlooks the airfield. Curved glass walls were chosen as glass does not present a large radar signature, and the curved walls reflect radar energy onto the ground.

This reduces the building’s radar reflection on the ground movements radar used at the airport. The building is also thermally efficient, and summer afternoons caused the air conditioning to run at full power, despite the floor to ceiling blinds.

I was very privileged, as my department occupied the middle floor of the eastern-most block, and overlooked the runway. My desk was three feet from the glass windows, so my viewpoint was superb.

Compass Centre, My office was the middle floor of the module nearest the camera.

My job was now a standard day job, with working hours of 0800-1600. I now had to drive on roads that were filled with other commuters, some of whom appeared to have forgotten the most basic driving skills.

Luckily, this didn’t last too long, and I soon transferred to the Flight Training School, where I began working as a Flight Crew Instructor. Not only was the job hugely enjoyable, but luckily, I was back on a shift roster.

My office… I could never be an accountant!

Most of the instructors weren’t keen on early starts, so I happily swapped out their earlies, and off-loaded my late shifts. Every day was an 0630 arrival, so I was normally out of the doors at 1430, and was able to use the rest of the day for my pleasure when the rest of the world were slaving away in their offices.

I am now getting towards my personal Top of Descent, and I am thinking more and more about retirement.

If you ask people what they like most about their retirement, the most common response is “Not having to do the daily commute”.

I think that I will miss my enforced dawn patrols, when the day is new, and you can smell the freshness of the dawn.

What about you?

Categories
Driving education English Culture Motoring Science Technology Training Transport Vehicle Safety Vehicles

Autonomous Vehicle Safety Devices – Do you turn YOURS off?

If you drive a fairly recent car, it will, in all probability, have a number of added features to make driving not only a more enjoyable experience, but also a safer one.

When I started driving in the mid-1970s, driver safety systems – apart from the most basic, were virtually non-existent.

I started my driving career at the age of 16 with a 1965 Austin 1100.

Same colour, same condition – different registration! This is a 1966 model

Minimal controls, no radio to distract, and hydrolastic suspension, which for those of you that are not familiar with it, made performing hill starts a simple manoeuvre.

A four-speed gearbox, and a disproportionately large steering wheel by todays standards. (This was to compensate for the lack of any sort of power assisted steering).  

My parents believed this to be an ideal car for a learner.

But was it?

It had absolutely no safety features. Not even a collapsible steering column! In vehicles without such a device, in a frontal crash, the impact and subsequent deformation of the body shell and chassis could drive the steering column backward, in many cases impaling the driver to the seat.

Austin/Morris 1100. Simple, uncluttered, yet maybe deadly!

Interestingly, a patent was filed for a collapsible steering column way back in 1934, but it wasn’t until 1959 that Mercedes Benz fitted them to its MB W111 Fintail. We had to wait until 1968 before Ford fitted them as a standard item to all new cars.

My car did have one quite advanced feature – it was fitted with disc brakes on the front wheels, and drum brakes on the rear wheels, making it almost unique for a small, mass-produced car in the early sixties.

Let’s move on to crumple zones. My little car was built quite simply, and any energy created in a crash impact would be transmitted throughout the whole car until it dissipated. Modern cars are now designed with front and rear panels that deform in a controlled manner, spreading the loads and therefore dissipating the energy to survivable levels before it reaches the occupants.

Volvo introduced longitudinal steel bars to protect the occupants from side impacts, a system that Volvo imaginatively called SIPS, Side Impact Protection System. That was back in the early 1990s, and now all modern cars are built with a rigid passenger safety cell which, amongst other things, prevents the engine from being forced into the passenger compartment.

Losing control of a vehicle causes many accidents. The moment that wheels lock up under heavy braking, is the moment that the driver effectively becomes a passenger, and the skidding car has an uncontrollable trajectory, potentially leading to an impact.

The aviation industry has been using anti-lock brakes since the 1950s when Dunlop invented the Maxaret system, which was fitted to various aircraft types. By preventing the wheels locking up, aircraft landing distances could be reduced by up to 30%, and the use of the system extended the life of tyres considerably.

Vehicle engineers weren’t slow to recognise the opportunity to enhance car safety, and in 1966, the Jensen FF Interceptor became the first production car to be fitted with mechanical anti-lock brakes.

Jensen FF Interceptor – 4 Wheel Drive, and the first production car with Anti Lock Brakes

Modern systems are fully electronic, and are so sophisticated that they can work in conjunction with electronic stability systems to reduce brake pressure on one wheel, or even redistribute the brake effort from front to rear, or even side to side to ensure that the driver remains in control.

Other safety features are less glitzy, including the humble padded dashboard and flexible sun visors, to head restraints and laminated windscreens, but I am sure they have all made a positive contribution to reducing post-impact injuries.

Air Bags and Air Curtains, Seat belt pre-tensioners (to tighten the lap-strap within milliseconds of an impact being detected) and tyre pressure monitoring systems play a more active role in saving lives.

Air Bag Deploying during a Crash Test

Safety device development continues at high rate.

Due to the ever-increasing sophistication of vehicle on-board computer systems, and better understanding of accident causal factors, there are a now a complete suite of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) that are being fitted into new cars.

Lane Departure Systems that monitor the vehicles distance from lane markings warn the driver (and in some models will intervene to bring the car back into its own lane) of a deviation from the chosen lane.

Tesla instrument binnacle, showing lane departure system- Photo copyright Ian Maddox

Blind Spot Monitoring uses a system of sensors and cameras to detect vehicles in adjacent lanes and activates a warning – either in the external door mirrors or within the driver’s area of vision. Some of these monitors will also activate when the car is placed into reverse gear, and will warn of approaching vehicles or pedestrians. This enables cars to be safely reversed out of car parking spaces.

Blind Spot Monitoring System – Mirror mounted camera. Photo by Emancipator

Active Cruise Control (ACC) may be set up to automatically maintain a certain speed and distance from vehicles in front. and will automatically decelerate the car if the car in front slows down. If the spacing limit is breached, then the system will communicate with the braking system to apply the brakes. Drivers will also be warned by an audible alarm and a visual prompt to intervene and apply the brakes.

Adaptive Cruise Control Display. Image courtesy Audi AG

Driver Monitoring Systems can measure the level of arousal and alertness of the driver, using eye tracking technology, and driver steering inputs. If the driver begins to exhibit symptoms of drowsiness or incapacitation, the system will activate, generating a loud audible warning, and in some cases the seat or steering wheel may vibrate.

Should the driver not react to an obstacle under these circumstances, the car systems will intervene and take avoiding action.

Many accidents occur due to breaches of the speed limit, so ADAS provides another system – Intelligent Speed Adaption to assist in preventing a driver from exceeding speed limits.

These systems may either be active or passive in nature; passive ISA will simply warn of an exceedance, whilst active ISA will either exert a deceleration force against the accelerator pedal, or will reduce engine power and apply the brakes.

My current car was manufactured in 2017. It has standard cruise control, electronic stability control, ABS and is littered with airbags.

My only additional Driver Safety Systems are manually optimised…

I use the mark one eyeball and good driving practices that were ingrained in me during my driver training. Mirror Signal Manoeuvre when changing lanes or joining a motorway. A good habit picked up from being a motorcyclist – I actually turn my head and look over my shoulder when lane changing.

Despite all of these advanced safety systems being available, many people are ignorant of the systems fitted to their cars.

In part, this is due to sales staff at dealerships being either unwilling, or unable to explain satisfactorily how the systems work, the advantages and practical use of the systems, and the limitations of the systems when in everyday use.

Secondly, having checked the Driver Standards and Vehicle Agency website, and reviewed the UK Driving Test Syllabus, there appears to be nothing in the course to ensure that drivers have an understanding of integrated safety systems.

Unless Approved Driving Instructors teach the practicalities of Advanced Driving Assistance Systems, and their limitations, drivers will remain in ignorance of the benefits that these devices offer.

According to a recent survey conducted by Autoglass, 41% of drivers with ADAS equipped vehicles intentionally disabled safety devices such as Autonomous Emergency Braking and Lane Departure devices!

The survey further revealed that 24% of those drivers responded that they were not provided with any information about the importance of these features and how they work when they had the vehicle handed over to them.

55% were unaware that these safety-critical systems need to be re-claibrated following a replacement of windscreens of repair of panel damage.

67% stated that they believed that more education and training is needed before driving ADAS-equipped cars.

The best safety device in every vehicle is a well trained driver. A well trained driver would not disable safety systems designed to save lives.

Maybe its time to start the training?