E&T news weekly #57 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the week

Friday July 3 2015

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
Electric double decker bus to be trialled in London

Two stories about London buses this week point to how engineering and technology will change city living for the better over coming decades. I’m not alone in finding it a little disconcerting when the hybrid buses appear to cut out at bus stops. They’re just switching to electric power but this sudden silence used to mean ‘everyone off’ as the bus is terminated early and you all decant on the pavement to wait for another. It’s taking Londoners a while to get used to it but maybe the new all-electric buses will help as they are totally silent all the time. I’m looking forward to that across all vehicles, across London. Please don’t put ‘artificial noise’ into silent electric vehicles.

Automatic speed-limit technology tested on London buses

Driver resistance to automatic safety measures is slowly crumbling as they become harder to resist. I wouldn’t be surprised if this trial made the buses run faster rather than slower as a bus driver can put their foot down safe in the knowledge they will drive at the limit not beyond it. Car drivers will be harder to convince but the safety arguments will become irresistible. I think future generations will look back with disbelief at how we have learned to live with a daily death toll on the roads in the days before automated transport.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Mobile roaming charges to be scrapped across EU by 2017

I was at Dover Castle a couple of weekends ago; a bit pricey if you’re not already an English Heritage member but an excellent family day out if you have a look at everything including the terrific tour of wartime tunnels. Ending the day with a stroll on the iconic white cliffs just up the road though, I was surprised to receive an incoming text message from my mobile network operator welcoming me to France and telling me how much roaming charge would be now I was outside the UK. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been unexpected. The castle tour includes a striking wall-sized copy of a photo of German officers on a French beach looking across at the British coast clearly visible in the distance. What was unnerving was the instinctive thought that I might be incurring crippling fees for using my phone just because the network thought I’d ventured onto the Continent. That should become less of a worry when roaming charges are eventually abolished in a couple of years’ time, but it’s disappointing how long it’s taken to conclude negotiations, a process that one British MEP described this week as “Taking cat herding to extremes”.

HMRC tackles fuel fraud with measurement technology

Attempts to prevent misuse of the tax-rebated ‘red diesel’ fuel intended for agricultural vehicles are a staple of TV shows where camera crews accompany police patrols around Britain’s roads. The potential profits to be made mean criminals have set up sophisticated techniques for removing the distinctive colour markers that give the fuel its name. Now authorities have come up with a new marker and will be carrying out roadside checks over the summer months using special equipment. It’s tempting to think of this as a victimless crime, but in the current economic climate an estimated £400 million in lost tax revenue sounds like it’s worth clamping down on.

Alex Kalinaukas  Alex Kalinauckas, assistant features editor
Evolution not revolution, say F1 fans

So 80 per cent of Formula One fans want in-race refuelling brought back, 60 per cent want another tyre war and thousands voted the 2000s as the era that produced the best looking cars, according to a survey produced for the Grand Prix Drivers Association. They want to turn back the clock 10-15 years to when Michael Schumacher and Ferrari dominated the sport and nobody overtook anyone on-track ever do they? Why? No one loved that era of F1 more than I did as a Ferrari obsessed child fanatic, but now in 2015 we’ve moved on. Ok, the sport has serious issues and needs to urgently address its escalating spending to secure the future of several F1 teams, but the on-track action is simply better than it was ten years ago. Surveys like this are ok, but pretty pointless in reality. The sport needs dynamic and urgent leadership to solve its problems, not pandering to impossible-to-please, rose-tinted-spectacle-wearing obsessives who romantically look back on their younger fan days and vent their anger on Twitter every time Lewis Hamilton wins – it’s really not his fault.

Heathrow backed over Gatwick by Airports Commission

The long awaited UK airports commission report has recommended a third runway be built at Heathrow. But it still needs government approval and with David Cameron already having promised not to expand the UK’s largest airport even further back in 2009 and Tory heavyweights like Boris Johnson refusing to accept the commission’s recommendations, plus the inevitable protests, I reckon it will be some time before another runway is built in the south of England.

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
BP to settle Deepwater Horizon case

As comedian WC Fields put it, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.” So it goes for BP, which has spent the last five years determinedly – some might say bloody-mindedly – refusing to accept responsibility for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico and the resultant devastating oil spill. This week, after its desperate – some might say baffling – appeal was rejected by the US Supreme Court, BP finally agreed to settle the $12bn legal dispute.

Cuadrilla’s second Lancashire fracking application rejected

Fracking zealot Cuadrilla, on the other hand, is not taking lying down Lancashire County Council’s multiple dismissals of its applications to gleefully ravage large areas of the county. Strictly in a begrudging, the-brassneck-on-that, have-to-admire-their-moxy kind of way, Cuadrilla’s determination in the face of rejection has its place, but surely at some point it has to accept that no means no. Take note of Mr Fields’ maxim, Cuadrilla: no use being damn fools about it. The government’s own once-redacted, now-unredacted report on fracking has highlighted the myriad dangers the gas-extraction technique poses and the Great British public is now considerably better informed about fracking and becoming angrier at the aggressively proposed grotesque and greedy rape of this sceptred isle.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Black couple tagged as gorillas by Google’s smart app

Oh dear. This just makes me cringe. Reading the headline was enough for me. I wince at the thought that anything would do that, let alone a piece of advanced technology. Google’s new Photos app seems to be undeniably racist. The AI system scans photos and automatically detects objects. Unfortunately, a black couple who used the system were tagged as gorillas… eesh. Jacky Alcine, a software developer who is one half of the couple, brought the racist app to the world’s attention. I wouldn’t just bring it to the world’s attention. I would sue Google big time. Google said the mistake was ‘100 per cent not okay.’ Obviously not. Apparently, the app has been criticised before, as it repeatedly got labels on images wrong, like tagging dogs as horses. It went massively wrong this time around. They’re working to fix the misinformed app so it doesn’t make this ridiculous mistake in future. I hope Google compensates the couple, maybe with a horse-sized dog. Or a dog-sized horse. Google, you failure.

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