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Letters: Should we hand over motoring to the machines?

Driverless car

Driverless cars: Can we trust the technology to keep road users safe from hacking and software glitches?

Driverless cars present an incredible opportunity to essentially reduce the working day and increase our leisure time, as at present, driving is a form of labour which produces no value at the start and end of every day (NCE 24 September).

Without the need to drive, our efforts could be focused on a number of different things. For example, we could incorporate our commute into our working hours, starting the commute into work at the start of our working day, working (and being paid) during our commute. There are a number of other possibilities such as using the time to catch up on sleep so we have more free time outside work, or even just use the time to relax and do things we enjoy.

Then there is the question of ownership and operation of this huge network of driverless cars. Your article sadly suggests what appears to me to be driverless Uber where, instead of paying, we have more adverts piped into another area of our lives or are forcibly driven to a supermarket we don’t need to go to. This suggestion seems to be based completely on the unquestioned ideology that the market is good and we need it everywhere in spite of it producing nothing of value here.

Why can’t we have this network of cars collectively owned? We all surely benefit from it and I can see no reason why private companies should. If this was run by the state for free we would all enjoy uninterrupted journeys and it would still be a massive benefit for the economy.

  • Jack Hogg

While the “internet of things” and driverless vehicles will no doubt have great benefits, there are a few unpalatable facts that seem to be brushed aside or ignored by proponents. Here is the Luddite point of view.

These systems are computer controlled and therefore hackable. Even at this relatively early stage, it has been shown that not enough attention is being paid to system security. It has already been demonstrated that the computer management system of a car can be hacked, while in motion by somebody outside the vehicle and cause the car to steer itself off the road.

No matter how many times companies have stated that security is taken seriously, time and again we read reports that they have failed, or even more seriously, not really done this.

And there is always somebody who, for whatever reason, is looking for ways to compromise computer systems. And the more complex they are, the more security loopholes will be embedded, and there is always the insertion of a “back door” into the code. You only have to look at the number of security updates Microsoft issues.

System upgrades are also an issue: these do not always run smoothly and sometimes create mayhem despite the developer’s best efforts.
And if you want to be even more paranoid, all these things make it much easier for “them”, whoever they are, to keep tabs on where you are and what you are doing.

  • Jeremy Abell (M)

Your article presents a somewhat sensationalised role for driverless cars (NCE 24 September), to the detriment of dealing with the potential advantages that driverless devices and advances in technology can play in civil engineering to reduce materials waste and increase productivity and safety.

To allude to motor racing was a particularly inappropriate comparison as a more misdirected diversion of money, materials and skills is difficult to find, and one which doesn’t even produce reliable results. Driverless cars may well be a technical possibility in 20 years’ time, but as a society we have shown little, or no, ability to introduce such radical ideas. A multitude of sensors are required to deal with the complex environment of operating a vehicle in the full range of potential hazards a road network provides. I see no attempt, at present, to deal with the difficulty of providing the necessary reliability, maintenance and testing functions that will be demanded of such sensors; the current MoT test can’t even handle some of the current devices and is there anyone who hasn’t ignored their sensors at some stage?

This is to say nothing about the legal and legislative framework which will be needed to operate such systems, particularly during the long period where driverless cars would cohabit the road network with normal, manually driven, vehicles. The costs of implementing such ideas seems to have been totally ignored.

  • Robert Courtier (F), The Grove, Kentmere, LA8 9JL

It is unusual to find the M42 near its intersection with the M40 to be completely deserted at 5pm on a Friday evening. However, this is exactly what I found when entering the road at Junction 4 travelling north recently. An accident in the M40 / M42 triangle had closed the road at that point.

Despite this, the signage along 16km of empty road indicated congestion, had a 60mph speed limit and hard-shoulder running - so called “active traffic management”. On a simple level, this was annoying and consistent with a belief that around 80% of “active” warnings are either without cause or ignorantly optimistic. In a queue moving at 5mph, a 60mph active limit is unhelpful. On an open and deserted road, it simply serves to destroy the credibility of the system. One is led to believe that active management is about a person watching the cameras as some sort of part-time hobby.

On a more serious note, the foundations of this technology form the source of input for the driverless technology that you describe. It is also used today by satellite navigation systems that react to the bogus information invisibly. Long term bridge works on the M5 (a lane restriction) caused my satnav to want to divert me via another country (Wales) even at 5am, had I not known better.

So before we become reliant on such automation, would it be possible to have a spare “fat controller” to provide cover when the one on duty is either getting a cup of coffee, gone home or on leave? In the meantime, I have little confidence in my connection to this technology in this country.

Sadly, I do trust it navigating Paris in rush hour.

  • Professor David Johnson (F), Cumhill House, Pilton, Somerset BA4 4BG

Discrimination and older, white engineers

I read with some disbelief the letter from Katja Leyendecker, and your Editor’s note (NCE 24 September).

Please will you define what you perceive equality to be. This must be the crux surely? To me it is equal opportunity, irrespective of race, gender, sexuality or anything else. That, in my experience, is now in place. It is definitely not about equal numbers/quotas, which is discriminatory and demeaning to minorities, which in theory, such a policy is seeking to promote. We owe it to our clients (private or public) to employ the best people for the job, not on the basis of a PC quota system. In the nursing profession, nurses are predominantly female - is that discriminatory against males? No, since the opportunities are the same for both genders.

When I was at university (1970s) there were very few female students, possibly because of entrenched attitudes at that time. This, I think, has been turned around. I have spent most of my time in the private sector, but also time in the public sector, and have never witnessed any of the discrimination which is suggested here. Our staff give presentations on civil engineering to local junior schools and we actively engage schools in projects.

I do object to your correspondent’s comment about “pale male stales” - for this surely perpetuates the alleged antagonism/discrimination which she argues against.

  • Paul Cobley (M)

Diversity stand is a sham

I would very much like to be in a position to support NCE’s editorial stand on equality and diversity. However I have come to the conclusion that this is a sham, as evidenced by your repeated condoning of correspondents using the term “male, pale and stale” (NCE 11 June and 24 September). By using the word “stale” as a synonym for “old”, this expression equates being older with being unmotivated and resistant of innovation and change. You would not publish letters containing racist stereotypes or homophobic insults, yet you publish letters from, and openly condone the views of, correspondents who use this expression that is prejudicial and insulting to older engineers.

Unfortunately the editorial tone of the current incumbency appears to reinforce such ageist stereotypes: witness the suggestion made on a number of occasions in the coverage of BIM that its adoption relies on younger and “more innovative” engineers. This might not matter if it merely reflected your editorial view: but as many engineers over the age of 45 will know, the employment practices of many major civil engineering employers are riddled with ageism.

No, you can’t pretend to support equality and diversity on one hand, and on the other, condone the constant repetition of expressions that reinforce age prejudice such as “male, pale and stale”.

  • Frank Westcott, Magnolia House, 15a Fore Street, Roche, St Austell, Cornwall PL26 8EP

Editor’s note: You are both quite right of course. We are acutely aware of the need to avoid equating older with “stale” or unimaginative and innovation-averse and strive to avoid it ourselves. But when others do make the connection we take a view on the context and appropriateness in which it is expressed.

Get on with runway decision

Yet more clambering by vested interests for a third runway at Heathrow (NCE 24 September). Would any sensible person, engineer or not, seriously contemplate building a major hub airport in a densely populated area with a flight path over the nation’s capital and largest city? Of course not. For the same obvious reasons, expansion of Heathrow cannot be a serious or sensible option. The fact that the airport already exists is no justification; expansion will only compound an existing problem. Let us have some enterprise and build it somewhere else that is suitable. Boris Island?

Probably. I was on the board of the Foulness Consortium in the 1970s and we have been dithering ever since. Other countries do it, why can’t we?

  • Anthony Bates, Axbridge, Somerset BS26 2LE

Could fracking cause another Abbeystead?

In May 1984, the Abbeystead disaster killed 16 and injured many more of a party visiting an underground water pumping station. The inquiry found that It was caused by gas percolating up from coal deposits 1,300m below.

Have we calculated the risks of similar explosions in underground chambers and manholes resulting from fracking?

We can’t say we haven’t been warned.

  • Robert Fraser (F retd) 4 Gala Terrace, Galashiels TD1 3JT

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