E&T news weekly #98 – we choose our favourite engineering and technology news stories from the past week

Friday 10 June 2016

Jonathan Wilson  Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor
Virgin Trains launches onboard entertainment streaming service

On a recent plane flight back to the UK from the USA, I appreciated how other passengers were using their own iPads and such like to stream the in-flight movies to their personal device’s superior quality screen, as opposed to desperately trying to identify the millimetre-specific sweet spot for the airplane’s own small, smeary, blurry back-of-seat screen, an experience not unlike watching a film with a pair of tights over your face while someone randomly shakes the screen in front of you. Now rail travellers in the UK can enjoy a similar entertainment consumption upgrade, as Virgin Trains has launched a Netflix-style entertainment system that will allow passengers on board its Pendolino and Voyager trains to watch films and TV programmes on demand using their own devices. Approximately 200 hours of content has been made available so far for travellers to watch on their mobiles and tablets. 200 hours should just about be sufficient for those delayed on a long journey from London-Edinburgh.

Facebook CEO Zuckerberg’s social media accounts hacked

Proof that even the nerdiest, web 2.0-iest and billionairiest among us can still be rubbish at choosing passwords – and this guy’s the head of Facebook, the biggest social media network on the planet! Several of Mark Zuckerberg’s social accounts were easily hacked over the weekend, after Saudi Arabian attackers unearthed his credentials from the recent LinkedIn data dump. It transpired that the Facebook boss had used the same simple password for multiple log-ins: dadada. That Zucks!

Vitali Vitaliev  Vitali Vitaliev, features editor
First driverless car insurance policy launched in the UK

Three cheers to Adrian Flux, the UK’s AV insurance pioneer. My recent experience at Intertraffic 2016 in Amsterdam confirmed that at present self-driving cars are, in the best of scenarios, unsafe, and in the worst outright dangerous. I am pleased to learn that, according to the above news story, 65 per cent of British motorists hold the same view. So what triggered Adrian Flux’s courageous move? Recklessness? Philanthropy? Or just unadulterated goodwill? And who – or what – will the new insurance policies cover? And who – or what – will be liable? The faulty AV manufacturer? The passenger? The hapless pedestrian who got run over by a driverless vehicle while its passenger was leafing through The Guardian on the way to work? Questions, questions… One point puzzled me particularly – the bit about the forthcoming Modern Transport Bill which “will extend compulsory cover to accidents where the car itself, rather than the driver, is at fault”. Well, why not? I do believe that some cars have souls and even wrote an ‘After All’ column about that last year. If so, why can’t we assign to them (cars) a bit of a guilt complex too? There might be a slight problem with questioning a guilty car in court though. Yet with all those huge leaps in AI and robotics, we could expect the Fiats and the Volvos of the future to make coherent court statement in computer-modulated, if somewhat screechy, ‘human’ voices.

Virgin Trains launches onboard entertainment streaming service

And a big hurray for Virgin Trains too! From now on, we can have Peppa Pig and Jeff Goldblum as our travel companions. Not sure about Jeff, but Peppa should feel at home on habitually overcrowded and often not very clean trains, with routinely despicable toilet facilities. Albeit if we remember Goldblum’s role of a human turning into a fly in the eponymous movie, he should be ok with all the above too. As a fly, I mean, he should be. However, as a Hollywood star and a very busy man, whose time costs a lot of money, Jeff probably won’t be very happy with the trains’ chronic delays and will be tempted to file lots of six-and-seven-figure compensation claims. As a frequent Virgin trains traveller, I can assert that – again – the company got their priorities wrong. Clean the trains first, make them comfortable and punctual. Lower the fares. Then – and only then – Peppa Pig’s and Jeff Goldblum’s cinematic shenanigans will be welcome on passengers’ iPad screens as entertainment rather than blatant distraction.

dominic-lenton  Dominic Lenton, managing editor
Horizontal elevators could ‘revolutionise’ London Underground

Shades of the Harry Potter universe’s fictional Ministry of Magic and Willy Wonka’s glass elevator in this idea from German firm Thyssenkrupp Elevator for lifts that aren’t restricted to just going up and down. One of the applications the company reckons they could prove a big advantage is on the London Underground, where passengers could step from trains straight into a cabin that would take them to their destination at a speed similar to that of a London bus (5 metres a second, if you were wondering). Anyone who’s had to regularly use stations like Covent Garden, where the choice at busy times is between waiting several minutes to squeeze onto a lift or risking the perilous and energetic ascent up a long spiral staircase, will like the sound of waiting times being reduced to seconds. With all-night Tube services ready to start shortly though, how are partygoers negotiating the Underground a little the worse for the wear in the early hours of the morning going to cope with the prospect of going from side to side as well as just up and down en route to their train? At least with the vertical lifts we’re all used to there’s not even a risk of getting off at the wrong floor, never mind at the wrong station.

Jade Fell  Jade Fell, assistant features editor
Robots stealing jobs but Swiss reject free income plan

Workers in low-skilled manual jobs are at risk of losing their jobs to more efficient and cheaper robotic replacements, and what are we going to do about it? We could stop making robots, or maybe introduce legislation to protect human workers, or, as suggested by Basel-based Swiss cafe owner Daniel Haeni, help sustain those low-skilled workers who fall foul to the rise of automatons. Sounds fab doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the rest of Switzerland isn’t too keen on the idea. This is the news that voters in Switzerland have spoken in full force against the suggestion of introducing a guaranteed basic income for everyone living in the wealthy European nation, following a lengthy debate on the effects of robotics on future employment. The proposal faced significant opposition, from more than 75 per cent of voters and the government itself, who said the plan would cost too much and weaken the economy. I’ve no doubt they’re right, but you can’t deny that a whole sector of workers being made unemployed might also have a slight, negative impact on a country’s economy.

Georgina Bloomfield  Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor
Virgin Trains launches onboard entertainment streaming service

Going on a long-haul train journey back in the day was always an amazing event. People would dress up for the occasion and invite their closest (and richest) friends to go along for the experience. Nowadays, we don’t want to talk to anyone on public transport – it’s just the British way. Behold, Netflix-style entertainment is finally here on trains! I wonder if Virgin will release a feature which tells you the best feature to watch for the journey time you have on the train. I always dislike having to stop a film halfway through playback. With cars having Wi-Fi so passengers can have a similar experience and planes having had this feature for years, it’s definitely something that has become a staple of modern day transport.

Rebecca Northfield  Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor
Horizontal elevators could ‘revolutionise’ London Underground

Horizontal elevators – it’s like the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter, where their elevators would go horizontally as well as up and down at top speeds. If commuters on the London Underground took that kind of magical lift, there would be a lot of health and safety complaints… and vomit on the platforms. The actual elevators planned for the London Underground are undergoing tests around the world by German company Thyssenkrupp Elevator. These brand-spanking new lifts use a different system which enables them to move about all over the place and this means waiting times should be reduced for busy passengers. We may not be wizards and witches yet, but we might be able to ride the elevators from the wizarding world…kind of.

ISS astronauts take first steps inside inflatable Bigelow module

The astronauts aboard the ISS have been floating around the BEAM module, which has been designed to be a safer option for housing crews when they spend lengthy times in space because it’s inflatable and squishy. You know what they should make? A bouncy castle with zero gravity. It’s fun, and there’s less of a chance of you hurting yourself with other bodies floating around, rather than bouncing. Let’s just keep our options open.

Dickon Ross  Dickon Ross, editor in chief
BMW’s electric division to focus on self-driving cars
First driverless car insurance policy launched in the UK

Are all of the major manufacturers now developing self-driving cars? The latest to join the race is BMW. Alongside the traditional players you would expect, there are also the technology companies like Google, who seem to be ahead in the development stakes, and rumours that Apple is working on something too. It’s going to make for an interesting market battle. Another important development this week was the launch of the first driverless car insurance policy. It’s been far from clear how insurance would work – for example, whether the liability in an accident rests with the car manufacturer, the software manufacturer or someone else.

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