Posts Tagged digital age
Tragedies like this shouldn’t happen, and it’s natural to want to respond with some sort of action that ensures they don’t.
A lot of discussion in that regard seems to focus on the implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC), a technology that’s designed to slow or stop trains when crews ignore signals and speed limits, and that railroads are already mandated to start using soon.
The general consensus is that a functioning PTC system would have stopped Amtrak Northeast Regional train 188 from entering a 50 mph curve at the 100 mph investigations indicate it was traveling at.
That seems fairly definitive, but the discussion shouldn’t end there. Today we’re used to jumping to the conclusion that technology is the only answer, but perhaps as much because of its flashiness as its superiority.
PTC uses sensors, wireless, signals, and control computers to determine a train’s position and speed, decide whether said train is operating within acceptable parameters (i.e., obeying speed limits and signals), and can slow or stop a train if necessary.
The Federal government requires all major railroads to put PTC systems into operation by December 31, although the industry has repeatedly said that deadline is unrealistic. Legislation has been introduced to extend the deadline by varying amounts.
Congress passed the mandate as part of the 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act, and it’s been vigorously debated by politicians and industry personalities since then. But it’s only recently been brought to the attention of the broader public by the Amtrak crash, as well as another deadly crash back in December on the New York-area Metro North Railroad.
That’s led to headlines like “Could technology have prevented the crash?” (CNN) and “Speed control technology could have stopped Amtrak derailment (NPR), which appear to frame the debate purely in terms of why a life-saving technology wasn’t available.
In an age where we look to Apple and Google to save the world, and our phones, tablets, smartwatches, and other digital ephemera to run our lives, that’s a comfortable perspective. But it’s also problematic.
Because while Congress requires railroads to deploy PTC, the regulations don’t comprise a technical standard. PTC systems exist–Amtrak already uses it on the Northeast Corridor where the crash occurred–but none that have proven to be interoperable across all railroads and all pieces of rolling stock.
In 2013, former National Transportation Safety Board Chair Deborah Hersman remarked that it took NASA less time to land a man on the moon than it’s taken railroads to implement PTC.
At that’s despite the major freight railroads spending over $5 billion to date on PTC. Amtrak and state and local government-operated passenger carriers are getting massive infusions of cash as well.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation tentatively approved a $976 million loan to New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority to cover PTC installation on Metro North and the Long Island Railroad, according to Trains magazine.
Over the past few years, Congress has shown consistent hostility when it comes to merely approving a budget for Amtrak. PTC will likely require additional infusions of cash into railroad infrastructure; will it really show enthusiasm for that?
But there is an alternative to the technical and financial challenges of PTC.
The crashes that sparked interest in PTC all have one thing in common: lone engineers in the cabs of speeding trains who all got distracted or otherwise incapacitated. So why not just put a second person in the cab?
Like a copilot in an airliner cockpit, a second crew member in a locomotive cab could act as a backup. And unlike PTC computers, railroads already have a pretty good idea of how to train humans for this job.
But adding ensuring that there are two people in the cab of every train will still cost money, and like most other businesses, railroads don’t generally like to hire more people than they feel they need. Two-person crews are still required for freight trains, but there’s already talk of eliminating that requirement when PTC goes live.
So in a way, PTC and expanded crews sit in opposition to each other. Regulations and the constant search for costs to cut mean the public could have to pick one or the other. And even though it’s the simpler solution, expanding crews will likely lose out to PTC.
Positive Train Control is simply the more dramatic solution. It makes for a better story, fits in with the current technological zeitgeist, and catches the public’s attention. Simply hiring more people isn’t very dramatic, or disruptive, or any other Silicon Valley buzzwords, even if it might be the better solution.
We’ll probably never know. Congress has already committed to a PTC mandate, and railroads have already spent billions of dollars on it. It’s also much easier to sell the public on a magic technology than the competence and effectiveness of multiple human beings working together.
Apple’s reported hiring of around 200 people with automotive-related experience indicates that the Cupertino, California,-based company is preparing to redefine the automotive industry the way it has redefined so many other industries in the past.
Even though no one outside of Apple knows anything specific about the car—or if it will ever be sold to consumers—we can tell that it will completely change the industry and the fundamental act of moving from one point in space to another.
Here are some predictions about what the car will be like, how Apple will bring a fresh Silicon Valley approach to the moribund Detroit auto industry, and why your car will soon be so hopelessly obsolete that you might as well go out into your driveway and set it on fire right now.
The Apple Car will change everything about the way cars are made and sold. Like the company’s other products, it will be built in a factory in China by underpaid workers entirely using components sourced from anonymous suppliers, but will be designed by Apple in California. No car today is made like that.
Tesla Motors pioneered the idea of selling cars directly to customers instead of through franchised dealers, but Apple will take things further.
Instead of selling cars through its trademark Apple Stores, it won’t sell them anywhere. This streamlines the buying process, saving consumers valuable time they’d normally have to waste test driving, researching, or finding out what a car looks like before buying.
And should those consumers accidentally stumble upon an Apple Car through this disruptive, innovative, new distribution system, they’ll find a vehicle that’s like nothing else on the road today.
The Apple Car won’t be fast, luxurious, spacious, or particularly reliable. Early reports suggest it will feature “minivan-like” styling.
So while existing car companies are stuck in the old way of building cars based on qualities people find appealing or that enable said vehicles to fulfill a practical purpose, Apple will shake things up by being disruptive and innovative.
The Apple Car will transcend these petty considerations of “practicality” and “desirability,” ushering in a new era of transportation the same way the iPhone changed communication. Even though we have no details of the car itself, it’s clear we’re looking at that much of a seismic change here.
In fact, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to predict that the Apple Car will fly, or drive underwater, or maybe even both. It will also be thought controlled.
In addition, the Apple Car is going to end world hunger. Now, you might ask how selling a car is in any way related to a complex global socioeconomic issue like food distribution, but given Apple’s past record of innovation, it’s safe to say that we can expect big things.
To sum it all up, we are essentially primitive beings living on the cusp of the invention of fire in this pre-Apple Car epoch. The Apple Car is coming, and once it’s here we won’t be able to imagine living without it, and not just because we will willfully ignore that recent past out of an intense obsession with feeling technologically savvy.
We pray the merciful Tim Cook and his ministers take pity on us and produce the Apple Car soon, so that we don’t have to wallow in this sad, unfulfilled existence for long.
Yet there might be another explanation: there are no appealing cars.
Whether they’re a recent college graduate or a high school student competing with a mother of two for a job at McDonald’s, young people today aren’t exactly having an easy time in the job market.
So it stands to reason that if a Millennial is looking for a new car, they’re probably looking for something cheap.
With a base price of $12,780 (including destination), the 2014 Nissan Versa sedan is one of the cheapest new cars around. It’s also tragically boring.
From its flabby exterior to its modest powertrain, the Versa seems to have been designed with indifference; a car built to a price. Then again, what else can you expect from the bottom of the market?
If you shopped for a small, economical car in 1971, you could have picked up a Datsun 510 two-door sedan–the Versa’s direct ancestor–for $1,990, according to Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car. That’s about $11,000 today.
Yet the 510 excels where it counts.
For one, the 510 is known as a great car to drive; Datsun used the BMW 1600 as a benchmark, after all. It was even raced by the likes of Paul Newman and Bob Sharp.
The simple styling has endeared this boxy Datsun to many, who view it as honest and, yes, cool.
The 510 is on its way to becoming one of the first truly collectible Japanese cars. Do you think collectors will pay attention to the Versa in 40 years?
Clearly, a cheap car can be cool. The Versa isn’t, which may be partly why Millennials don’t want to buy it and other cars like it.
Nissan itself seems to recognize this. At the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show, the Japanese automaker unveiled a pair of concept cars, the IDx Freeflow and IDx NISMO.
In its press materials for the IDx pair, Nissan said it involved Millennials in the design process, and found that they wanted a basic, more “authentic” car. Sounds a lot like the 510 to me.
A production IDx wouldn’t replace the Versa or any other entry-level Nissan, but hopefully the concepts will show that subjective qualities are just as important as practicality, fuel economy, or reliability.
If people are going to continue viewing their cars as more than just interchangeable appliances, carmakers have to give them a reason to.
“Millennials” have a lot to answer for.
We don’t buy cars, and we don’t buy houses. All we need to do is refrain from having 2.5 children, and we’ll have destroyed the American Dream.
Analysts often attribute my generation’s spending habits to some form of contrary thinking, but there’s a simpler explanation: we have no money.
A recent article in The New York Times highlights the problem of unpaid internships, which have replaced many entry-level jobs, leaving young people with no way to enter the working world.
Some college graduates spend the rest of their twenties in a cycle of internships, with no ability to advance to real jobs and, of course, no money to show for it.
Employers seem to think that they can run businesses without employees or, at least, without paying them.
In addition to replacing entry-level jobs with internships, they’ve turned increasingly to freelance or temp workers for jobs even the most desperate person won’t do for free.
Since these people aren’t technically employees, a company doesn’t have to offer them benefits, or pay its share of certain taxes–like Social Security–that are regularly deducted from employee paychecks.
Then there was the tantrum some companies threw when the Affordable Care Act mandated that they provide health insurance for all full-time employees. They delayed the employer mandate, then threatened to eliminate full-time positions just to get out of the requirement.
Unpaid internships, the cutting of full-time positions, and oppressively-low minimum wages may be good for business, but they’re not good for society.
People are quick to judge someone who borrows too much, or makes an extravagant purchase they really can’t afford. Maybe we should do the same with businesses.
A business that makes money while keeping its workers poor is operating on as false a pretense as a janitor who buys a new Mercedes.
The latter would be judged irresponsible, so why shouldn’t McDonalds’ be criticized for claiming massive profits while refusing to pay its employees a living wage?
That probably isn’t going to happen It’s always easier to blame the individual than the organization, especially when the organization is judged according to different standards.
Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp is in the news because of the comical list of companies that appear to be worth less than WhatsApp.
Yet, like Facebook itself, WhatsApp doesn’t produce anything. It’s just an app.
It seems that actually making goods or providing services is bad for business, let alone taking care of employees.
And how can employees stand a chance when money is flowing to businesses that don’t even need to pay for factories or stores to operate?
Karl Marx said the only way for workers to secure their rights was to gain control of the means of production, but when nothing tangible is produced, what is there to take control of?
The economy is becoming increasingly ethereal; the rise of the Internet has made eliminating expenses the main priority of businesses, not being good at what they do, or playing a responsible role in society.
The fundamental purpose of a business is to make money, but when businesses make that their exclusive purpose, everybody loses.
The snide criticism of the “Millennial” lifestyle will probably turn to panic is this generation reaches middle age, and is still getting other people’s coffee.
I really need to stop being so nosy.
“The world has changed, and not for the better,” I heard an older gentleman say to one of his friends while waiting online for takeout. He was discussing how he never does anything online, because “they always ask for your credit card.”
“It’s not just that, the fundamental moral fiber of the country has changed,” the friend said in agreement.
I’m not saying that I disagree with them, but I do think it’s interesting how people of a certain generation can decry society’s moral degradation when their peers are the ones that caused it.
“Millennials” are often described as feckless denizens of their parents’ basements, willing to sacrifice any freedom in the pursuit of technological connectivity.
That simply isn’t true. While the younger generations are the first to come of age with smartphones in their hands, this situation–and the concept that digital “smart” technologies are a catch-all social savior–was created by the Baby Boomers, who count Steve Jobs and Bill Gates among their ranks.
It’s the same story in politics. It’s easy to reminisce about the good old days of Jacob Javits, and blame Millennials for not being more politically active, when you forget who’s actually in Congress now.
Society has a lot of problems, but idly criticizing it without acknowledging where those problems came from won’t solve anything.
There’s something about the summer that causes magazine editors to compile lists of future technologies that are poised to change… something. The Car & Driver cover story for August features “The Tech 50” for cars, while Popular Science is probing the future of flight in their July issue (both are on newsstands now).
Both the automotive and aviation industries, it seems, could benefit from 3D printing. “Printed Cars” was number six on C&D’s list of paradigm-shifting tech.
Jim Kor, leader of the Urbee printed car project, told the magazine that 3D printing is a superior manufacturing process because it requires less energy, produces less waste, and doesn’t require time-consuming retooling when changes to the design have to be made.
Popular Science was also impressed by a 3D printer’s lack of tooling, noting that aircraft manufacturers already use it to rapidly produce prototype parts.
It seems that 3D printing’s time has come, at least in the media. While there aren’t any cars in production with printed parts, and only a few small items on the spanking-new Boeing 787, the technology seems to have a bright future.
There have been glorious predictions of 3D printers for the price of a cheap ink jet in the tech press for awhile, but now journalists from other beats are developing applications for it. Time to take notice.
Maybe it’s my cynical 21st century media consumer nature taking over, but it seems like every time someone wants to write about the “future” of an industry, they are obligated to mention the hottest new piece of tech.
Whether its phone connectivity or data management, the technologies of centuries past are increasingly expected to absorb new “tech” to stay relevant.
There’s nothing insidious about this, and I have to say I really do like 3D printing. It’s got a whiff of Marxism to it, giving individuals a small chunk of the means of production. It’s theoretical march from startup office to heavy industry is very predictable, though.
Like other aspects of the tech-o-sphere, 3D printing is a very cool, genuinely new technology that hasn’t really found a purpose yet. Hence the endless possibilities being suggested.
If I were allowed to make a prediction of my own, I’d say that these magazine articles will become self-fulfilling prophecies. People will eventually find an ideal use for 3D printing, just as they did for the Internet, and the rest of the world will be subtly warped to maximize that use.
Technologies can become widespread not just because they are useful, but because people want to find uses for them. Will 3D printing follow that trend?
I love learning jargon, and at a recent tech conference in New York City I got to add a few pieces to my collection. Here’s what technologists use to describe what they do when normal words simply aren’t enough.
Tech (n.) Any device incorporating digital technology, and the digital technology itself.
Exp: “This new iPhone is a great piece of tech.”
This is quickly devolving from shorthand for technology into a word exclusively denoting smartphones, tablets, and the bits and pieces that make them work. We say that our society has faith in technology, but many of us seem to actually mean the kinds of technology that come with plenty of silicon.
Unlike a lot of jargon, “tech” is actually a bit non-specific. A smartphone is a piece of tech, but so are the hardware and software that comprise it. Sometimes tech entrepreneurs need to be more specific, which brings us to our next term…
Solution (n.) A product proffered by a tech company for a specific application.
Exp: “Our company provides innovative solutions for in-car infotainment.”
Since a lot of what tech companies produce is non-corporeal software, someone obviously thought it was a good idea to ditch the word “product,” which implies something more substantial; it’s basically the opposite of what the finance industry did. it’s a suitable term for a technology that seeks to insert itself into all kinds of situations, from glasses to car dashboards.
Innovate (v.) To create something new, specifically a new piece of tech.
Exp: “To solve society’s problems, people need to be free to innovate.”
I miss the days of Dexter’s Laboratory and middle school history lessons about Thomas Edison, when scientists and engineerings invented things instead of just innovating. Being innovative is great, but shouldn’t there be a specific goal behind the innovation? A carbon fiber toothbrush would be incredibly innovative, but there wouldn’t be much of a point to it.
Space (n.) A subject, an area of expertise, a topic.
Exp: “Milled aluminum knobs are very important in the home audio space.”
This admittedly, has more to do with the people writing about the tech industry than the people in it. For some reason, when it comes to technology, there aren’t topics or beats, there are spaces.
Maybe it has to do with the way tech takes on different forms to infiltrate into different physical spaces; morphing into intelligent flat screens and TFT speedometers.
Got any tech terms of your own? Post them in the comments below.
My birth date puts me firmly within the generation that grew up with computers and smartphones, yet I sometimes feel like an anachronism. I’ve watched some of my favorite things (books, magazines, bookstores) and my chosen profession (print journalism) become threatened by digitalia, and the cycle isn’t stopping.
In a recent column, Car and Driver’s Aaron Robinson chronicled the demise of hobby stores. Yet another analog activity bites the dust.
I guess I’m lucky that my local hobby store isn’t affected by this trend. I’ve got a 1971 Dodge Charger plastic model kit on my workbench right now, with a Cold War-era guided missile cruiser and an F-104 Starfighter in the queue.
Given that the death of print books has been forecast for several years and Barnes & Noble is still open, I won’t be running down to the hobby shop to clear the shelves like a crazed prepper just yet. Still, it never feels good to have one of your passions make the transition from mainstream to old fashioned.
Sometimes, it makes me feel like I missed the boat on the digital revolution, but only just. When I purchased by first SLR camera in 2001, digital SLRs were extremely expensive and 35mm film was still putting up a fight in the battle for relevance. I also remember the typewriter my dad used to use for word processing.
That’s why I still prefer to shoot with film, draw with a pencil, read a physical book, and assemble plastic toys for fun. Like many older people who are expected to have a fondness for such things, I can truthfully say that I grew up with this stuff.
“At 43, I don’t feel ready to be called “old school,’” Robinson said in his Car and Driver column. At 25, I feel the same way.