The Productive Commute

One of the key reasons people want self-driving vehicles is to make their daily commute less tedious. But the possibilities go much further than simply allowing you to take your hands off the steering wheel so you can text your friends on the way to work.

At a conference in Bavaria recently, I asked the question, “Where would you most like to spend the time between getting up in the morning and arriving at the office?” For me, that place would need to have a charger for my laptop, a table, comfortable chairs, and a really good coffee machine, ideally filled with my choice of coffee beans. My coffee mug would be in the cupboard, and there would be fresh milk in the fridge.

Yes, I basically want a self-driving cafe.

The closest image I could find online was this; the front of a large and luxurious motorhome:

Now, I might not need something this large and luxurious just for my own personal commute, but you get the idea: this is nothing like my current car; it’s more like a room of my house that just happens to move around.

People often predict that autonomous vehicles will mean the end of car ownership; if you’re just a passenger in the vehicle, why not treat it like a taxi, and summon it when you need it? No doubt that will happen in some situations, if your main use for a car is the occasional trip to a restaurant, or the shopping mall, or the airport. But for a daily commute, very few people choose a taxi at present, and I think that’s unlikely to change much if the driver happens to be silicon-based instead of carbon-based.

But if we ever get something like the self-driving breakfast bar I describe above, it will, I think, be an even more personal space than the cars of today: it’ll grind my coffee beans, play my music, have the right adapter for my laptop. It may even have my choice of curtains at the windows. It will be more tailored to the various needs I have while using it, than is a traditional car, which is tailored primarily to the single task of guiding it down the road.

In short, so many more personal preferences may be involved in choosing and using such a vehicle that I think — for the purpose of commuting, at least — rumours of the death of car ownership may have been somewhat exaggerated.

The only thing that sounds better than an electric car

On Saturday, our research group had an outing to Haddenham Steam Rally, which turned out to be a wonderful gathering of a huge range of old equipment, most of it steam-powered, from tractors to cars to pipe organs to merry-go-rounds to fire-engine pumps. It was, of course, a wonderful photo opportunity.

Amongst the mighty machines, there were also many scale models, fully functional, and (to my eyes) just as beautiful.

Some of them, I felt, must be feeling under some… ahem… pressure… to perform, under the watchful gaze of their larger colleagues.

The amount of care that had gone into building and maintaining these was extraordinary.

It’s only natural that some of them were closely guarded.

As we walked around the fairground and numerous exhibits, some of these would come puffing by, large or small, at such a pleasingly low speed that one could talk to the drivers and passengers quite easily. And always, everywhere, was the relaxed, almost hypnotic sound of slow, rhythmic puffing.

When they all got together, it was a wonderful sight. I call this photo ‘Heated Discussion’:

Anyway, a surprisingly enjoyable day. I went along mostly because of the social nature of the trip, but I have a feeling it won’t be my last visit.

Future Imperfect

As someone who has watched a few Star Trek episodes recently… well, OK, I admit it… a few dozen Star Trek episodes recently, I must express my concern about the quality of hardware engineers employed in the construction of Federation starships.

Why is it, that after several generations, they still build ships with computer consoles that explode at the slightest hint of enemy phaser fire? Perhaps Samsung had a watertight long-term supplier contract and the Federation couldn’t get out of it, but still, it does seem like a serious design flaw, especially on the bridge.

If you search the web, of course, you’ll find that I’m not the only person to have noticed this, indeed, there are many long discussions which might provide an answer if you’re a bit more interested than I was. If you’re considering a career as a Starfleet officer, however, it might be worth your while doing some more extensive research.

Perhaps the consoles are more robust than they might appear, though. Others have pointed out that a surprising number of them do seem to keep working after having exploded.

So the basic underlying manufacturing is sound. Like so many computer consoles, though, more work is needed to improve the user experience.

Hot at the top

This is a lovely idea – the Mixergy hot water tank.

A standard UK hot water tank heats the water from the bottom, either using electricity or water heated by a gas boiler. This means that when you want to heat up your water, you need to heat the whole thing.

Mixergy, instead, put the heating at the top, so you can warm up smaller amounts of water, and then make intelligent use of pumps to circulate it as required if you need to heat larger amounts of water. Not only is this more energy-efficient, but it means you get hot water again more quickly after you’ve used it up.

There’s a more detailed discussion on a recent episode of Fully Charged.

A Man with a Van

A few months ago, we made our biggest and most expensive purchase ever (excluding houses, that is). And yet, it is almost a house, sort of, in a small way…

We bought a campervan. Or, to be more precise, we bought a three-year-old Bilbo’s Nexa, based on a long wheelbase VW T5 Transporter.

This is something we’d considered for some time. We had borrowed a friend’s (rather larger) van for a few long weekends, and we had also rented a smaller one for four nights in the spring. On each occasion, we joked about the luxury Bed & Breakfast establishments we were driving past in order to go and stay in a field! On the other hand, we came back from each one having had an enjoyable adventure, and having seen the world from slightly different angles than we would otherwise have done.

Another reason for initial hesitation, of course, is that these things are terrifyingly expensive, especially if you get one that’s even vaguely new. The small vans based on the VW Transporters command a particular premium, partly because it’s such a good base vehicle, partly because the builders have to work harder to pack everything inside, and partly because it can also double-up as your everyday vehicle if you need it to. (At just under 2 metres tall, for example, these can be driven into almost any car park, including multi-storey ones.) The only thing that allowed us to consider such an extravagant purchase is the fact that they depreciate more slowly than almost any other vehicle you can buy. After a few years you can sell one for almost as much as you paid for it, especially if it’s from a respected company, and, in the UK, Bilbo’s have been doing these van conversions successfully for more than four decades.

I suspect that half our friends think we’re mad and the other half are envious. But if this isn’t a mode of transport you’ve tried or even considered, I should explain that there are almost as many different ways of approaching campervanning as there are people doing it.

For some, it’s a way of entertaining the kids by getting them out of a crowded city suburb, so they head for the big campsites where it’s easy to park large vans near to tumble dryers, playgrounds, and sometimes even swimming pools.

In our case, we usually want the opposite: a key thing we’re looking for is peace and quiet. This means that we tend to aim for smaller sites, typically with fewer than 10 pitches; a few of them are even adult-only.

The trade-off is that these tend to have fewer facilities; some are little more than a field with a tap and some electric hook-up points. We do have a portable loo in the van, with a fine loo tent we can pitch when needed, and it turns out that these have been refined over the years to be really quite civilised; it hasn’t been an issue for us at all. But a good shower is definitely nice to have, and vans the size of ours don’t come equipped with such things. So we tend to make sure, when on the road, that we stay somewhere with showers at least every other night!

In the UK, these small sites are known as Certificated Sites (or Certificated Locations), if they’re inspected periodically by one of the two big clubs, but there are many independent ones too, and there are thousands to choose from, so finding one you like is not too hard. We’ve passed through some that were fine as a one night stop but that we wouldn’t particularly choose to revisit, and others where we’ve had a delightful time, and have already returned to more than once, even in the limited time we’ve been doing this.

The big sites can also be fine – a favourite of ours is the Camping Club one at Sandringham – but we’ve only stayed there out of season and out of school holidays, when there are large areas of empty space (and often clusters of trees) between you and the next occupant, and yet just a short grassy stroll to plentiful showers and dishwashing facilities.

For those who say that it’s not real camping, I would agree, but I also enjoy the fact that we can pitch up, pull fresh milk from our fridge and be enjoying a cup of tea while we they’re still unpacking their tent-poles. For those who wonder why we don’t get a bigger and more comfortable van (which we could easily do for the same price), I would point out that our aim at present is exploration more than relaxation: we want to get to our location and be able to drive around the local sites without worrying about parking spaces, height barriers, low tree branches etc.

We’ve just come back from a wonderful two-week trip which took us up the west coast of England and Scotland to spend a few nights staying with friends near Arisaig, and then back down the east coast visiting places like Lindisfarne (Holy Island). Here we are on the causeway out to the island, on one of the two damp days we had on the whole trip:

(This road is underwater at high tide, so you need to time your visits carefully.)

In general, though, I expect most of our trips will be of shorter duration. For me, part of the fun is just having a vehicle with a fridge, table and gas hob in it, so that you can have lunch almost anywhere you find a good view.

This is a small car park on the shores of Lake Windermere – we had just come back from a swim: it’s a changing-room too!

I’ve no idea whether this will be a lifelong obsession, or just something we enjoy for a couple of years before going back to luxury B&Bs 🙂 But it’s fun at the moment!

Update after a few months: I’ve also now made a list of some of the accessories we’ve found to work particularly well for us; you can find it here.

Quote of the day

“I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention — invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness. To save oneself trouble. That is the big secret that has brought us down the ages hundreds of thousands of years, from chipping flints to switching on the washing machine.”

— Agatha Christie, from her splendid autobiography.

One more moonshot

Three days after my previous one, a gloriously orangey moon, but now partly in shadow, so you get to see a few more contours.

I don’t really have the proper equipment for this; this is a crop from a photo taken with a 200mm zoom lens on my Fuji XT-2. But I’m still quite pleased with the result.

You can click on the image to see a slightly larger version, and go here for a map of where the lunar landings were.

I’ve never really looked this closely before, but it’s cool that I can at least identify the basic locations from my study window.

Buzz Aldrin’s footprint is about here:

Heat Haze Hospital

There are many benefits to living close to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, but, as any Cambridge resident will tell you, its effect on the aesthetics of the region is not one of them. Usually the best way to improve its visual appearance is to go a long way away. And then face in the opposite direction.

Even Addenbrooke’s can have its moments, though. It’s about 4 miles from my house, as the crow flies, so this was taken with a long lens from my kitchen window.


Fancy some fast, green, silent, smooth, aquatic transport? Me too. So the approach taken by SeaBubbles is really attractive.

They’re making electric hydrofoils which, once you get above about 6 knots, rise up and lose 60% of their drag.

They’re about the same size as a car, and the battery has the same capacity as my BMW i3. This would give you enough range, on their figures, to get you across the English Channel.

Here’s some nice footage of their tests on the Seine; they’re keen to promote them as water taxis. As they point out, many waterways have speed restrictions that wouldn’t allow you to get the most out of your SeaBubble…

They haven’t announced pricing yet, but I fear they’d be well beyond my reach, especially since I’d also need to buy a cottage by the side of a fjord to appreciate it fully.

But I hope I get a chance to ride in one!

The least autonomous cars?

Since my last post was about the most high-tech cars around, let’s go to the other extreme (well, almost), and look at the earlier days of automotive user interfaces. This, for example, is a handy guide for drivers of the Model T Ford, showing how you should adjust the throttle, and advance the ignition, based on what you want to achieve.

Kids these days have probably never seen a manual choke, let alone a manual ignition advance! (If you want to know what an ignition advance lever is and why you might need one, Wikipedia will tell you). Now, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever had to use one either, but I’ve ridden in cars where the driver did.

I’ve never actually ridden in a Model T, though I’ve sat in one, in Henry Ford’s garage, no less. But if you should ever find yourself in the driving seat, don’t assume that the three pedals and the handbrake-like lever will do what you expect.

Here’s a nice demonstration to show you the basics:

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser