BMW deal with Vodafone to deploy telematic services

Described here. Sadly no sustainable transport or driver behaviour angle to it at all, though traffic avoidance will deliver some sort of carbon reduction benefit. I suppose the safety thing won’t hurt either – support for e112, and so on. But it’s mainly aimed at making things even nice for drivers – concierge services and so on. As described elsewhere on this blog, that reduces the ‘misery price’ of driving, and makes it more likely that people will drive more.

Vodafone New Zealand deploys ‘drive safe’

A service to prevent drivers from texting while they drive, even if they wanted to, but provided that they opted in. Described here. Surely the real innovation would be to stop the morons wanting to? If you can’t do that, how you can make the idiots opt in?

Unlike me to post pictures of a religious origin, but hard to dislike this one!

Why making driving more enjoyable might not be good for the planet

Much creative and intellectual effort goes into making things nicer for car drivers. Scanning for transport-related ICT innovations, I find lots of projects like this – ‘connected car’ projects that are about making sure that drivers have access to their multimedia content, or Intellgent Parking Assist systems, for example.
Some projects are about making personal transport (and even car driving) more sustainable – for example, the various ‘eco-driving’ applications designed to give car drivers information about how they could reduce fuel use by driving more carefully.
Of course, some projects both make driving nicer and also help to reduce the environmental impact of driving. Since most of the fuel use (and therefore of the carbon emissions) produced by urban driving are caused by slowing down or speeding up, route planning applications not only shorten journeys and make them more pleasant, but if they help the driver to avoid the most congested routes they do reduce the impact of the car journey. Similarly, driving around looking for somewhere to park uses a lot of fuel and produces a lot of emissions; if drivers could pre-book their parking space they’d not only be happier but also do less environmental damage.
The ICT industries are mainly run for profit. They want to make things that they can sell. Drivers mainly want to buy things (services, applications, gadgets, whatever) that make them happier. They are not for the most part interested in things that will deliver a benefit for someone else – a polar bear, a starving African, a member of future generations. So it’s not surprising that this is where the effort goes.
Trouble is, making things nicer for drivers makes them more likely to use their cars, more likely to use them for longer, and less likely to shift to other modes of transport. The academic David Metz analysed the BritishTravel Survey data to demonstrate that, notwithstanding all the investment that has gone into the UK road system in the name of reducing travel time, actual travel time remains remarkably consistent over a thirty-year period. So where did all the saved time go? Into journeys that took the same time but went a little further.
Metz argues that this is what rational-choice theory would predict. Backpackers and JeremyClarkson excepted, most people don’t travel for the sake of it (at least not their habitual journeys) but because it is a means to an end. Commuting extends the job market (or conversely, the housing market) in which we can participate. Driving to the shops extends the range of outlets from which we can buy, thereby improving our bargaining power with potential suppliers. We don’t travel for hours and hours because there is a diminishing benefit from travelling further, and at some point the additional utility becomes offset by the misery of the travelling itself.
So ICT innovations which make travelling more pleasant, or less unpleasant, make us travel more – because they shift the balance in the misery/benefit calculation. If I can listen to the music that I really like, the journey won’t seem so bad, and I’ll drive a few minutes more. The certainty of knowing there will be a place to park at the end of the journey takes a little more misery out of the equation. So does avoiding having to manoeuvre through congested traffic, or being able to do something else useful with the time, like talk to someone. Even safety-related applications and services have a similar impact; part of the misery-price of travel is the anxiety and the vigilance required not to crash.
This isn’t to say that everything which makes life better for drivers must automatically be worse for the planet. It’s possible that the overall benefit of say, a parking app that helps drivers find parking quicker outweighs the impact of all the journeys that might not have been taken for fear of not finding a place to park. But remember that no-one can make any money out of selling you a journey not made, while the parking app and associated service is a nice little earner for someone. Claims that a new widget or service promotes sustainability need to be subject to the ‘cui bono‘ test.
That’s why I think that applications and services that are aimed at the system level – traffic flow management systems, for example – at least hold out some hope that they might deliver more sustainability benefits. Services aimed at individual users have to persuade those users to buy them, and people mainly buy stuff that is intended to make them happier. There wouldn’t be much market for a car-based ‘misery box’, though it would do wonders for the planet. 
Happy new year…

iOnRoad smartphone safety application

This one isn’t really a sustainability-related application of ICT (except in so far as car crashes don’t do much for the planet or resource reduction), but it’s (a) interesting and clever and (b) contains elements that could be used in an application that was aimed at promoting more sustainable as well as safer driving. Though I have to admit it looks a bit distracting to me – I hope they’ve got evidence that demonstrates there’s an overall safety benefit.

It uses the smartphone’s camera to acquire visual data (the size of the car in front) and the accelerometer to add speed and acceleration data – I have to say I think that’s a really clever use of the phone’s capabilities. This one a ‘best start-up’ award, and for once it seems genuinely deserved.

Perhaps this is an idea whose time has come, because we’ve seen a few similar ones (like the Sprint safety app described here) in the last couple of weeks. There is a video here and a longer description here. Love the way that street names on the smartphone map are still in Hebrew, even though everything else has been translated.

Talking cars

From Ford – using WiFi and GPS to warn drivers about potential accidents, and described here. Boringly, they don’t really talk like the cute ones in the picture- they just flash red warning lights on the windscreen for the driver to see. And it works best once it reaches critical mass and lots of other cars have the system enabled – WiFi, remember. Hope BT Openzone doesn’t sod this up for everyone, they way it does with my smartphone.

Reducing the speed limit: an easy way to cut carbon emissions from travel

Nothing (much) to do with ICT, although some ICT might help a bit with enforcement. This is an easy win – what the UK Energy Research Centre, a government-funded research body calls a ‘quick hit’ on carbon reduction.

It’s really easy to understand – reduce the speed limit, so people drive slower. Their engines run closer to the optimum speed, so they use less fuel and emit less CO2. No clever unproven technology required, no complex and unfamiliar behaviour change needed – just driving a bit slower. And of course, some side benefits in less road deaths and reduced noise from traffic.

The UKERC calculated that just enforcing the existing speed limit on motorways would remove 1 million tonnes of CO2, and reducing the limit to 60mph would remove almost as much again. Read the report, published in 2006, and weep that no-one has taken a blind bit of notice.

So why do we spend so much time and effort thinking about technology-based solutions that might not work, and/or might cost a great deal? Partly, I suspect, because the kinds of organisations usually called upon to give advice about transport issues tend to like complex technology-based solutions, because that’s the kind of thing that they do. And partly because our democratically-elected politicians are more scared of offending Jeremy Clarkson and his like than they are of climate change. After all, climate change is some time in the future, but a bad headline in the Daily Mail is right now.

Time for a national campaign to lower the speed limit, I think.