Francis Vierboom's Blog

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Driverless cars: the real reason they won’t be here soon

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As anyone who knows me knows, I love talking about driverless cars. I have a daily google search scouring the internet for any fresh mentions of the topic. They need to hurry up and get here.

As Chunka Mui points out in a short series at Forbes, it’s a very disruptive technology.

If a car is allowed to drive itself, it’s likely to put taxi drivers, truckies and other transport workers out of a job. It’s even likely to replace most forms of public transport. And it’s likely to end the current model of private car ownership. People with a need to transport either themselves or anything else simply need a subscription to a car service.

In other words, there are a LOT of vested interests set against allowing cars to drive themselves.

The counterargument, ‘not-so-fast-dorks’ discussion tends to focus on two themes.

One is that the transitional stages where computers and real people share the road is hard. Jarred Walker makes some good points, but I still think he’s underestimating the fact that sharing the road with humans is the main focus of the technology push Google is making. When futurists bang on about robot cars all tailgating each other a few centimetres apart, I agree that it’s way off. But the transitional stage IS the vision. Google is making cars that can drive themselves alongside humans. Once there’s only a handful of grumpy old humans left on the road, the cool stuff can start happening in dedicated driverless lanes.

The other major counterargument is that the insurance and liability issues are hard. The substance of this problem itself doesn’t strike me as particularly bad. Spreading risk is the point of insurance. And driverless cars just need to have compulsory third party insurance, same as they do today. Driverless vehicles will most likely be owned by companies rather than individuals, so there is already a level of risk mitigation. When someone or something in Australia is hit by a driverless car, they will have access to accident compensation through the compulsory insurance scheme the same as if they were hit by any other car. Negligence litigation for driverless vehicle accidents should probably just be removed by statute (or indeed in a far wider variety of circumstances – but that’s another debate). There will be tragic accidents because of problems with driverless systems, but there will almost certainly be a lot less than with the vagaries of human drivers. It’s a pretty clear policy trade-off to me.

But we will hear a lot more about this problem, because, as I mentioned before, there are a lot of vested interests that don’t want cars to drive themselves. And the biggest richest ones are probably the car companies themselves. If people don’t need to buy a car, car companies are screwed. They’ll be left selling trying to sell their fleet to the driverless fleet operators (Hertz? GoGet?) and a few antiques to enthusiasts.

The big battle for driverless cars will be a lobbying battle. Car companies already preface all their happy visions of automatic driving technology with the statement that ‘cars with no drivers are still a long way off’. And this is how they want things to remain. The new Mercedes has adaptive cruise control and steering, but it stops working if the driver takes their hands off the wheel. The legislation passed in a few US jurisdictions so far requires a driver to be in the seat and in control at all times. This seems sensible now while the technology is in the testing stages. But the real trick will be getting this requirement removed as soon as possible. Or for ‘control’ to be moved a little further up the chain – right now ‘control’ entails a steering wheel that points the car in the right direction, but why not say ‘control’ amounts to ‘I have told it where to go using my smartphone’. If someone can make a car that can drive itself, and consumers are happy to buy it and get driven around in it, and have the right level of insurance – then why ban it?

One fairly good reason might be that it will be economically disruptive and put a lot of people out of a job. And that impact is a debate worth having. But it will open up a whole lot of new opportunities too. Internet shopping could grow even faster with automated anywhere delivery (or is that ‘retail shops will shut down’). Lanes currently devoted to parking could be reclaimed. Holiday houses five hours out of town could become worth more if you can sleep overnight in the car on the way there. Really, cheap and ubiquitous transport would unleash a whole new level of ‘free market’, in the same way that cheap and ubiquitous electronic communication has already changed everything. It’s pretty exciting.


Written by Francis

January 31, 2013 at 12:15 pm

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$100 billion for high speed rail? Or some law tweaks and cheaper, easier plane flights?

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High speed rail is brilliant. And as Albanese points out announcing the new report on the Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne rail proposal, one of the great things about trains is how much less hassle catching a train is compared to a plane.

But with the prospect of spending $100 billion on fast rail, it crosses my mind that maybe we should try and just think of ways to make air travel less of a hassle.

The question that comes to mind is: what’s the minimum amount of security that could be required to operate a domestic aviation industry?

I know in a rural airport it means: show your ticket at the desk, throw your bag on a trolley to get put in the hold, and walk out to the plane on the tarmac.

Couldn’t this be done across the board?

Check in at the gate, throw your bag on a conveyor belt, and get on the plane. Skip the double check-in and security process. Straight away, air travel sounds a lot better. You just have to be at the airport fifteen minutes before takeoff.

It would lead to some slightly traumatic job losses and business shutdowns in the security industry. But not exactly enormous ones.

Planes are a bit more fragile than your average terrorist target – a smallish bomb can cause big problems – but really, if you’ve gone to the effort of making a bomb, you can use it on a plane or a train and you’ve made your point.

You could mount the argument that a plane is a different target to a train because there’s the September 11 scenario of using the plane as a weapon, but the thing about that attack is that it will never work again. Indeed it stopped working within an hour of it being used – United 93 crashed in a field when passengers stormed the cockpit. A planefull of people are never going to let terrorists fly the thing again.

Also consider that aviation – even in terms of hours spent – is safer than riding a bicycle, which is in turn safer than sitting in a car – see for some slightly ancient but still probably roughly correct statistics. The security is all theatre.

What am I missing here?

I think it would be fair to ensure that anyone putting luggage on the plane has to board it – if you’re going to bomb a plane you have to be at least willing to go down with it. So that just means the luggage loading part is after the boarding gate process.

Possibly a better argument in favour of high speed rail is the prospect of peak oil price scenarios – if the rail line is built in thirty years time when the price of oil is twenty times higher, the government is going to look pretty wise. But as far as the comparison goes today, it seems like scaling back some of the crazy security red tape on aviation would be a good start on improving transport efficiency in Australia.

Sam Roggeveen makes the same point over at the Interpreter.

Written by Francis

August 4, 2011 at 3:57 pm

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Exclusive on new Louis Theroux project

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I recently watched the excellent documentary ‘The Ultra-Zionists’ by Louis Theroux – pictured here in his earlier doco about life in San Quentin prison.

Louis Theroux

I noticed that Louis has actually gone into deep cover inside the Australian Labor Party, creating a full alternate identity as former trade union head called ‘Greg Combet’ and managing to rise all the way to a senior portfolio as Minister for Climate Change in the Gillard cabinet.

"Greg Combet"

Should be a great doco! What would you call it? Louis and the Focus Groups?

Written by Francis

March 3, 2011 at 6:14 pm

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Thursday links

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Hi blogreaders! Links! How good are they??

Five emotions invented by the internet. You may be feeling one of them right now.

– Are you ridiculously good at darts? Unless you can hit a one-inch diameter circle about two thirds of the time, you’re probably aiming at the wrong spot.

– The game theory implications of shutting down internet access when your dictatorship is threatened by popular revolution. (Spoiler: not a great idea.)

– Letters of Note is great every time, but for some reason I really liked this one, this very one.

– Classic pub conversation: How long is a severed head conscious for?

– What were the Reagan years actually like? A scathing and hilarious contemporary account called ‘The Clothes Have No Emperor’ has been republished and the first chapter is free online.

Watch a comet go by.

Life is a bit too hectic in Mongolia for much blog posting but I have a few drafts I will try and churn out some time soon.

Written by Francis

March 3, 2011 at 6:06 pm

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Tuesday linkage

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It’s about time:

The winners of the 2010 IgNobel prizes for ‘improbable research’, including:

MEDICINE PRIZE: Simon Rietveld of the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Ilja van Beest of Tilburg University, The Netherlands, for discovering that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller-coaster ride.

PEACE PRIZE: Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston of Keele University, UK, for confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain.

Hipster dinosaurs.

– A recent psychology study finds that while, as might be expected, selfishness is considered annoying, the same also applies to selflessness:

After the game was over, the participants were asked which of the other players they would be willing to have another round with. As the researchers expected, they were unwilling to play again with the selfish. Dr Parks and Dr Stone did not, however, expect the other result—that participants were equally unwilling to carry on with the selfless.

…people were valuing their own reputations in the eyes of the other players as much as the practical gain from the game, and felt that in comparison with the selfless individual they were being found wanting.

Two rocks converse.

– Heartbreaking letter from a Japanese kamikaze pilot to his two children in May 1945.

– An oldie but a goodie: the classic PDQ Bach version of the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, with baseball commentary:


Written by Francis

October 12, 2010 at 6:46 pm

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Are the Greens radical? Am I radical?

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Gerard Henderson is in his usual form in the Herald today with a slapdash article that basically says ‘the Greens are watermelons’. He dredges up the fact that the NSW Green senate candidate, Lee Rhiannon, was a member of a Stalinist party in her late teens and early 20s in the 1970s. Never mind any actual policies.

But since I am an open-minded (read: highly suggestible) chardonnay social democrat, the mention of all that Stalinism did slightly remind me of the fact that there are some super-earnest lefty believers standing around on King St in Newtown and outside Glebe markets every weekend. And sometimes you will talk to committed environmentalists who, if you press them for a while, will admit that their advocacy on climate change is slightly driven by that fact that it’s a chance to finally have a proper go at tearing down the military-industrial edifice that’s destroying the world. And I agree that saving the environment is good and sustainable living is great too, and getting out into nature is great, and we should preserve it, and all that is only more clear to me living (and travelling) in Mongolia, the only country more sparsely populated than Australia. But on the environment, and climate change in particular, I think nobody has said it better yet than UK comedian David Mitchell:

‘sorting it out is always presented as an opportunity or a pleasure… In fact, it’s just a thing, a really depressing thing, that’s happening… There’s also often slight undertones of disparagement of industrial pioneers… I want to see a global warming expert acknowledge that burning oil, and the various machines we’ve invented that burn oil, is brilliant, and it’s a real pisser we can’t do it anymore, but we can’t, because of facts… The alternative attitude is no more convincing than when Mum said “why don’t you kids have a race to see who can tidy their rooms fastest?”‘

Anyway that’s all beside the point. My original question was prompted by Gerard, and it was something like this: if Greens candidate Lee Rhiannon is now, or has ever been, a Communist, and keeping in mind that some of the various earnest characters on Sydney’s somewhat bohemian streets are probably Greens, are the Greens’ actual policies in any way Communist?

I am pretty sure not, but I felt like I should at least check. This was also because the final questioner, named Luke Brand, on Q&A last night at 50:15 (in what was otherwise one of the best Q&A episodes ever) was particularly and irritatingly ignorant. As he complained about the lack of ‘visionaries’ in Australian politics, he tried to sum up a common perspective on the Greens: “We’ve got the Greens saying no for the sake of saying no, just so they can save baby lizards and small tree frogs… Where is the forward thinking for this nation; the grand schemes to move forward, like high speed rail, like Snowy Mountains style schemes.” It then fell to Senator Christine Milne to exasperatedly explain that the Greens policy actually includes large scale public works schemes with a particular focus on high speed rail and a significant restructure of the tax take centred around renewable energy and carbon reduction.

In response to all this, the questioner, Luke Brand, said, “Show us some policy, Christine. Put it out there.” Luke Brand, the link to the Greens website is, and their policies are at You should have a read! Instead of being an uninformed dick on live TV to a federal senator.

Anyway, I have now been to the website myself for some reassurance that the commies haven’t taken over. The results of my investigation into Greens policy are as follows:

  1. The first policy they list is “we are anti-GMO” (genetically modified organisms). This is minus points from me. Concerns about GMOs fall under the plausible but paranoid anti-industrial complex. From my understanding, some unpredictable eco-impacts are likely, but humans have been doing genetic engineering in the form of breeding crop varieties for thousands of years. Genetically modified crops reduce the need for pesticides, reduce land use, and reduce food shortages. Organically grown crops are lovely n’all, but unfortunately there isn’t enough landmass on earth to grow enough food to feed everyone without modern industrial farming. But other aspects of their policy I support – bans on DNA patents for example – so at least there’s something here for me. Still. Bad start. (Late disclosure: I came into this thinking I was probably mostly a Green voter). Three out of five crazy stars.
  2. Biodiversity preservation, rigorous environmental impact assessment processes, respect for traditional owners of the land, sustainable fisheries management, no logging of old growth forest. Tick tick tick. ‘No new coal mines’… well, if new coal mines are that bad, I figure the point of a carbon trading scheme or tax is to make them economically unviable. So I’d prefer that. But whatever. That’s one of those policies I can let slide as more or less symbolic. Slightly communist though. One star.
  3. Sustainable agriculture. Sure it all sounds good, subject to my rant under 1. One star. At this point I have realised the Greens have hundreds of policies on their website, so switching to a highlights package.
  4. Childcare centres: to be made non-profit by law, and wages to be raised. This is pretty communist stuff. I rather doubt if public or NPO childcare would be necessarily any better or cheaper than the current private providers. But their suggested progressive reforms to family tax benefit stuff are fine by me. Not something I know much about anyway. Two stars.
  5. Giving the vote to 16 year olds. Hmmm. I think this is a plain old error in judgment. In a theory of politics which I just invented (perhaps with some credit to Churchill), 18 to 25 year olds vote left-of-centre in higher numbers because they study at uni and live in the city and because they fall under the influence of their leftist friends who are (to make a vast and unfair generalisation) statistically more charming, interesting, sociable, clever and popular. Eventually the hard-working conservative voters we ignored in our 20s become rich in their late 30s and opinions swing around again because we all want to be invited to good dinner parties and yachts etc with people who actually own houses. But 16 year olds still live at home and just vote the same way as their parents. No stars for communism, just slightly whatever.
  6. Drugs: ‘harm minimisation’, and elimination of jail sentences for drug use offences. But no legalisation of marijuana? Sellouts. -3 stars for being old conservative fogeys.
  7. Climate change: the whole nine yards. I will defer to the judgment of Queensland economist John Quiggin on this one. While also saying that I generally agree anyway. Go geothermal! Go large tax take increases! Although I’m not that against compensation to power plants. The incentives are still there just the same, just with a bit less bankruptcy.
  8. Nuclear: no nuclear anythings. I am not particularly worried by this. I suppose there might be some cold fusion technology that is the bizness – I could get behind research aimed at nuclear power generation with no waste, and people sometimes say that’s possible. But generally nuclear plants seem to lead to the kind of awful irreversible permanent stuff that I don’t like, a bit like tattoos. Which is funny because Greens voters often have tattoos, according to my insightful use of stereotypes. Two crazy stars.
  9. Environment: I like the environment. I also like awesome toys, but sure, go for it Greens, protect the environment.
  10. Human rights: as a law graduate I generally am in favour of all kinds of abstruse deference to immutable rights etc and, based on my working career so far, pretty tough regulation of privacy. I am not sure about a human rights charter though, since I rather like Bob Carr. Still, given that democracy is going to the shitter with Rupert and 24 hour news, we probably need a human rights act. Tick.

Okay I am over this exercise now, I may continue it with more detail later. But in summary, I feel informed enough to say that the Greens are roughly as communist as I expected, ie about 27% communist. This is a level I can vote for. So far.

Written by Francis

July 27, 2010 at 7:56 pm

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Tuesday linkage

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– James Murphy, aka LCD Soundsystem, is retiring the band following the latest (incredibly good) album, This Is Happening. What will he do now? Pitchfork interviews him:

I want to do music for the subway– I want to make music so that when you go through the turnstile it doesn’t just go “eeeh!”. Make them all separate tones that are in key. So like during rush hour in big subway stations it would make this kind of harmonic music. Just bad ideas. The only reason to get semi-successful is so you can do that shit.

Star Wars characters wear haute couture (see right).

– Dutch council is trying to save €400,000 on welfare payments by encouraging unemployed women to find rich husbands. (via chris blattman)

XKCD surveyed people to get them to give names to colours. Stephen von Worley made a pretty sweet graphic of the results.

The Orwell Diaries continue. In George Orwell’s liveblog of WWII it is June 22nd, 1940, and France has just surrendered. Earlier in the month, during the Dunkirk evacuation, he was in a rather dark mood, considering he was a veteran of the Spanish Civil War himself:

Always, as I walk through the Underground stations, sickened by the advertisements, the silly staring faces and strident colours, the general frantic struggle to induce people to waste labour and material by consuming useless luxuries or harmful drugs. How much rubbish this war will sweep away, if only we can hang on throughout the summer. War is simply a reversal of civilised life, its motto is “Evil be thou my good”, and so much of the good of modern life is actually evil that it is questionable whether on balance war does harm.

– Finally, are you in the mood to get happy weepy? Check out this video of a baby who was born deaf, and has just had his cochlear implant turned on so that he can hear his mother’s voice for the first time:

Written by Francis

June 22, 2010 at 6:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized