Monday, August 29, 2011

High-Speed Rail Crash in China: Too Fast Too Soon?

Only four years ago, the first “bullet train” line in mainland China opened to great fanfare. Like tall buildings and modern airports, a high-speed rail line is considered to be a sign that a nation has joined the industrialized world, and Chinese citizens were justly proud of their new high-speed rail lines, which have mushroomed since then. But last July 23, the Chinese high-speed rail industry received a shock that has reverberated to the highest levels of government.

Details are still hard to come by, apparently, and I am working from secondary sources in English. But the basic story appears to be this: On a rail line leading to the coastal city of Wenzhou, a high-speed train was traveling through a thunderstorm. Suddenly, lightning struck. Exactly what it struck is not clear. Some reports say the train itself was hit, disabling it and bringing it to a halt. Other reports say the signaling system was disabled. In any event, lightning crippled either the power or signaling systems or perhaps both, leaving the train stranded on a viaduct some 60 feet above the ground.

Then a second train approached and slammed into the stranded one. Several cars fell to the ground or were derailed, hundreds were injured, and forty people died of their injuries.

The accident was tragic enough, but public reaction intensified when, after a week or so of competitive and often scathing news coverage accusing the government of incompetence and corruption, the government’s censors clamped down on further negative reporting. This sent many citizens to so-called “micro-blogging” sites similar to Twitter, where people can post up to 140 Chinese characters. And they did, criticizing government censorship of investigations into the crash and questions about whether China has rushed into high-speed rail too fast.

Even in the West where media coverage is over-generous, it would take months for an official board to thoroughly investigate a complex accident such as the Wenzhou disaster. So we should not be surprised that a definitive answer to the question of what caused the accident has not yet emerged. China’s premier Wen Jiabao, who has been visibly concerned about the accident starting the day after it occurred, said on Aug. 10 that China was suspending approvals of new high-speed rail projects and taking steps to ensure the safety of existing systems, including lowering maximum speeds temporarily.

All the same, it creates an atmosphere of distrust to issue orders from censorship agencies to quit covering certain topics. Old habits die hard, and the bad old days when electronic media were limited to a single government-run TV station and a few radio channels, plus the party papers, apparently allowed censors to get used to the idea that they could steer public opinion like a farmer steers an ox. But with the proliferation of modern computer-based media, it’s getting harder and harder to steer opinion this way. Even in China, where the government has made strenuous efforts (often abetted by American high-tech companies) to restrain the free flow of information on the Internet, the censorship regime is showing signs of coming unglued. And the rail accident has only put more strain on it.

Still, the government is the only entity which has the resources and access to technical information to investigate the accident in a competent way. I do not know how such investigations are organized in China, but one hopes there is a measure of independence for the technical experts charged with getting the facts straight. In the U. S., the National Transportation Safety Board has a mostly unimpeachable record of independence from political pressure. In all the many accidents I have looked into that were investigated by the NTSB, I do not recall any incidents in which the board’s integrity was ever questioned because of political motives. This doesn’t mean it has never happened or never will. But the fact that most transportation systems in the U. S. are privately owned (AMTRAK being a glaring exception) means there is little political motive to prettify accident reports.

In China, on the other hand, the government has its economic hands in most major undertakings, including high-speed rail. Add that to the heightened sensitivity to criticism that characterizes new kids on the block, and you have plenty of motivation for the Chinese government to whitewash accident reports. Perhaps the lightning strike was a one-in-a-million occurrence that is unlikely to happen again. With six thousand miles of high-speed rail in operation, much of it built in the last four years, the fact that China has not had another major rail accident of this magnitude says something positive about the system. Lightning can do some pretty unpredictable things, and it may turn out that this accident was way down the list of likely problems that the engineers had to consider.

Publicly owned rail systems seem especially prone to engineering ethics controversies. One of the canonical engineering-ethics cases of all time occurred in the 1970s during the testing of a new Bay Area Rapid Transit train system. Some bad technical flaws were covered up and the engineers involved went public, leading to considerable controversy and a classic engineering-ethics story.

Nevertheless, my sympathies are with those who lost loved ones in the Chinese accident. And I hope that the whole controversy surrounding coverage of the accident will lead to greater openness on the part of the government of China, as well as improved safety for millions of Chinese who ride the rails.

Sources: I consulted several news reports on the accident, including coverage by the BBC (, Bloomberg and Business Week (, and Reuters ( and A summary of the BART train incident can be found in Stephen H. Unger’s Controlling Technology: Ethics and the Responsible Engineer (1982).

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Self-Driving Cars: Here Sooner Than You Think, Courtesy of Google?

From time to time I have noted the progress being made in autonomous roadway vehicles, otherwise known as self-driving cars. Somebody recently stepped on the gas to speed it up considerably. This time, the progress took place not in a lab, but in a state legislature.

About half a decade ago, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sponsored a series of highly publicized contests to develop driverless vehicles that would complete a prescribed route many miles long, including some rugged stretches representative of the kind of terrain the military might be interested in traversing. After some embarrassing initial failures, several vehicles successfully completed the route by 2005, including one built by a team led by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun. Thrun has since become a Google Fellow, and heads that company’s efforts to develop a fleet of autonomous vehicles. This fleet has reportedly logged over 100,000 miles of driving in California traffic, which counts for a lot more miles than driving in ordinary traffic, I’m sure.

It is outside the scope of current motor vehicle laws for an unmanned car to drive down the highway, even if it drives better than your mother-in-law does. While it is not clear who would get the ticket if a cop pulled over a driverless vehicle, I’m sure he’d find a way to blame the passenger for not touching the wheel. With advances in artificial intelligence such as Thrun and others, including researchers at Volkswagen, have made in the last few years, it looks like the technology is beginning to outpace the legal system, which is not an uncommon thing these days.

Just a couple of months ago, legislators in the state of Nevada did what Google has been asking them to do for some time. They passed a law directing the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to develop a driver’s license endorsement for autonomous vehicles. This means that as early as Mar. 1, 2012, you could take some sort of examination and get a Nevada driver’s license authorizing you to sit in a car that drives itself, and not be pulled over for DWI (Driving While Idle).

Why is Google, of all organizations, so interested in autonomous vehicles? A clue is provided by another law they asked Nevada lawmakers to pass, one that so far the legislators have hesitated to approve. This law would allow drivers of autonomous vehicles to send text messages while behind the wheel they aren’t touching. A little item in (believe it or not) Google Answers states that “Americans collectively spend more than 500 million hours in their cars each week with an average commuting time of 80 minutes per day and growing." Google is probably looking at those 500 million hours a week like the miners of the 1850s gold rush (also in Nevada, it turns out) looked at the Comstock Lode. Put all those folks, or even a good fraction of them, in autonomous vehicles (and give them wireless mobile internet connections provided by, for example, Motorola’s mobile phone division, which Google also purchased recently), and voilá: hundreds of millions of hours a week freed up for people to do whatever they like that will fit inside a car, including surfing the Internet and using guess what? Google! These things aren’t hard to figure out if you think about them a while.

Of course, Google’s public reasons for interest in autonomous vehicles are things like safety and convenience, and these factors are also true. But Google exists because of its bottom line, and employing some of the smartest people on the planet, they know exactly what they’re doing, and it isn’t all altruism, though that may be a useful byproduct.

I foresee bumps on the road to the general use of autonomous vehicles, though. One technical problem, I suspect, will happen when the fraction of autonomous vehicles in use gets so large that chances are good that several driverless cars, most likely made by different companies, will be seeing each other all at once. As smart as Prof. Thrum is, it’s possible that interactions between large numbers of driverless cars will lead to some spectacular unforeseen results, not all of which will be healthy for the occupants. The danger is that a really deadly accident in which autonomous vehicles are involved could cast a black pall over the whole technology and slow down or reverse legislative approval for years. Something similar to this happened after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents with the nuclear industry, and it has only recently partly recovered from those disasters.

A more remote but still real issue concerns those of us who, as a friend of mine once said, will insist on driving his own vehicle until they have to pry the wheel out of his cold dead fingers. Suppose the technology succeeds so well that insurance companies begin to treat it like safety glass: something that no vehicle should be allowed on the road without, and something that everybody should use. What happens to the freedom of the road to drive your own car in your own way? What happens to motorcyclists, for Pete’s sake? An autonomous motorcycle would be like a man going on his honeymoon by proxy: it might get the job done, but it wouldn’t be near as much fun.

Fortunately, we are a long way from worrying about those kinds of problems quite yet. For me, I would be glad to be relieved of the mostly tedious, dull, and occasionally dangerous task of driving a car, at least for routine commuting purposes. And yes, I probably would surf the Internet some with the time it would free up. But I also might read a book, or nap, or pray, or do any number of other things which would not lead to immediate profits for Google. And so I say to Google: go for it!

Sources: A number of articles appeared in June following the Nevada legislature’s approval of the autonomous-vehicle license law, including one in Forbes (, (, and the Huffington Post ( On May 10, 2011, the New York Times published an in-depth piece on Google’s research and lobbying efforts in this area at

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Small Businesses Hacked; Banks Say Not Their Business

Say you run a dry-cleaning company with three outlets, or a restaurant, or a machine shop with thirteen employees. You have an account with a bank, possibly a smaller bank that isn’t in the major leagues. Like most people these days with bank accounts in the U. S., you deal with your bank electronically as well as in person. You log onto your bank’s website daily and transfer funds, pay bills, do payroll, and most of the other financial operations that a small business requires. And you probably have some accounting software on your business computers that interfaces somehow with the bank’s software.

Everything’s rolling along okay until one fine morning, when you open up your accounting software, update your balances from the bank, and find that instead of the thousands of dollars you had there yesterday, there’s zero dollars and zero cents—or even that your $10K line of credit with the bank that you haven’t touched in months is suddenly maxed out. You get on the phone with the bank. After some heated conversations with the bank’s information technology (IT) people, you discover your accounts have been hacked. And the bank says that because it was your system that was hacked, not theirs, that you are out of luck. They won’t make good your losses.

According to a recent blog post in the online edition of IEEE Spectrum, the amount of physical cash stolen in old-fashioned bank heists (less than $50 million a year in the U. S.) is dwarfed by the amount of money hacked from small-business bank accounts, which is upwards of $1 billion annually. Unlike regulations covering consumer credit-card accounts, which have a $50 maximum loss ceiling that most banks honor, there is no law protecting small businesses against similar kinds of fraud. So unless a small company can prove in court that the bank itself was at fault and not the company’s IT system, that money is just as gone as if a thief broke into the office safe and walked away with it. But in the case of physical cash, there’s usually no question about who the money was stolen from. Digital cash is different.

Money is an interesting philosophical concept. I was in my forties before a historian of technology made me realize that the monetary value of gold is not an intrinsic objective property, like atomic weight. Considered analytically, money is just an elaborate symbolic system humans have devised to keep track of economic value. Whether money is stored in the form of dollar bills, gold bars, or bits on some server somewhere, it is fundamentally an agreement among people that certain physical states of the universe correlate with a certain distribution of wealth among individuals and groups.

That being the case, there is a fundamental distinction between physical theft, which is what happens when someone with a gun holds up a real bank and runs off with real bills; and cybertheft, where by fraud some hackers make certain numbers in one computer system go down and certain other numbers in their own accounts go up. In this regard, hacking small business accounts is in the same category as check forging. In both hacking and forging, a third party or parties are made to believe something false.

What has this got to do with the question of who should shoulder the responsibility for hacking small business accounts? In a more leisurely era, there might be a real chance of simply catching the crooks and making them give back the dough. But the famous fungibility of money (the ease with which it is converted into other things of value) goes double for digital cash, which can be laundered, converted, disguised, and transferred around the world in seven minutes or less, beating Shakespeare’s Puck by a good measure. Hackers are notoriously difficult to catch, and by the time they are caught the money they steal is almost always unrecoverable. So in reality, the question boils down to who is left holding the empty bag: the small-business owner or the bank?

The fact that there is some dispute about this in the various court cases that have been brought to trial, reflects the fuzziness of computer systems with regard to the question of whose pieces are whose. If your business software transfers data back and forth to your bank, who is to say where one system ends and the other one begins? Maybe we should all gang up on the rooms full of programmers who worked out the compatibility standards for both systems. After all, they are ultimately responsible for the way the system ended up, including any vulnerabilities. But nowhere have I seen that anyone considers going after the programmers or engineers who put these systems together. Instead, the banks who hire them are the main targets of lawsuits, because, as all good bank robbers know, that’s where the money is.

I wish I had a gold-plated surefire answer to this ethical issue, but I don’t. The best I can do is urge caution all around, especially where “phishing” attacks are concerned. If what you think is your bank’s website looks the least little bit funny, stop what you’re doing and double-check everything. That way you might be able to avoid a very costly mistake.

Sources: Robert Charette’s blog post entitled “Business Phone or Bank Account Hacked? It's Your Toaster” appeared on Aug. 12 in the online edition of the magazine for electrical and electronic engineering professionals IEEE Spectrum at

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Betting on Methanol

The U. S. dependence on foreign oil imports is a little like what Mark Twain said about the weather: everybody complains about it, but nobody does anything about it. My metaphorical hat is off to entrepreneur and author Robert Zubrin, who, in a small way, is trying to do something about it. Zubrin has offered to wager up to $100,000 (presumably his own money) that he can make his recent-model Chevy Cobalt run on methanol with better fuel economy than it gets with gasoline.

Why methanol? In a previous column in National Review, Zubrin explained some of its advantages compared to gasoline and even ethanol. Methanol (also known as wood alcohol) has the chemical formula CH3OH. It can be produced at low cost (Zubrin says the going price is currently $1.28 per gallon) from a wide variety of carbon-containing materials: oil, coal, natural gas, and almost any biomass material, even wood (the name comes from an early production method involving the destructive distillation of wood). The chemistry for producing methanol is fairly straightforward, in contrast to ethanol, which is most easily obtained from sugar-containing foodstuffs (e. g. corn) used in a fermenting process. Although most cars cannot burn pure methanol because it attacks certain kinds of rubber seals and has different combustion characteristics than gasoline, many recent models have fuel lines and software that will allow the use of methanol and other flexfuels with only minor modifications. I am sure Zubrin, a smart engineer, has either done this or knows people who have, and so is fairly sure to win his bets.

So what if he does show that his Cobalt can get 24 mpg on methanol? Will he have done anything more than pulled a publicity stunt profitable to himself? His wider goal is to make a point about the inertia of our present transportation fuel system and how it could be radically improved.

Increasingly, newer technology is advancing beyond the shell-like fossilized regulatory and infrastructure environment in which earlier technology developed, and the environment often blocks adoption of the new technology. As Zubrin points out, adapting a car of today to a different kind of fuel is a much simpler matter than it was thirty years ago, when one would have to do extensive mechanical modifications to the carburetor, valve lifters, and other parts, costing many thousands of dollars to complete. But the nation’s fuel infrastructure and regulatory environment developed around such facts. Now that the facts have changed, we are stuck with a distribution and legal system based on the assumption that cars will run on gasoline or diesel fuel forever, amen. If by some miracle, methanol refining plants running on natural gas or coal sprang up all over the country and methanol filling stations were built to service flexfuel cars, the road tax system of every state would be severely challenged, because most states receive revenues based on a fixed charge per gallon of gasoline sold. If gasoline sales plummet, so do road tax revenues.

Of course, the one thing lawmakers are still pretty good at is passing new tax laws, so this problem would be addressed promptly if methanol became a significant part of the transportation-fuel market. The best thing about such a development from Zubrin’s point of view is that unlike petroleum, the U. S. has abundant coal and increasing amounts of natural gas reserves. And methanol can be made from either coal or natural gas.

A believer in the free market, Zubrin does not call for a methanol subsidy, which like the current Federal law mandating ethanol in gasoline would further distort the market and lead to unexpected negative consequences. He simply wants most new cars to be flexfuel-capable in fact as well as in theory, and feels if this happens, the market will do the rest. If your car could burn either gasoline or methanol, and you drove by two filling stations, one with gasoline at $3.55 a gallon and one with methanol at a fuel-economy-equivalent price of $2 a gallon, which would you buy? Such no-brainers are how the market works, and pretty soon gasoline marketers would find they have a price ceiling to contend with.

We have seen calls for major shifts in the nation’s transportation-fuel infrastructure before. Who remembers President George W. Bush’s call for a hydrogen-based economy in twenty years? As attractive as it might have been politically, hydrogen is a relatively poor choice for a transportation fuel. To carry around enough hydrogen to take you more than a few miles, you need extremely high-pressure tanks to contain the compressed gas. The problem is even worse than it is with natural-gas-fueled vehicles, which have made very limited inroads in mostly municipal fleets where a city can build its own supply station. Methanol, although not quite as easy to handle as gasoline, is a lot better in this regard, because its energy density is higher than hydrogen or other fuel gases. Another advantage of methanol compared to gasoline is its biodegradable characteristics. It breaks down into carbon dioxide and water in a few days if released into the environment, unlike gasoline, some of whose toxic components can persist for years in the ground.

I wish Zubrin the best of luck in his wagers. He’s willing to break down his $100,000 bet into as many as ten $10K pieces. If I had that kind of money lying around, I would be tempted to take him up on it. Not because I think he’ll lose, but because it would be fun to participate in a publicity stunt that may turn out to be a prophetic event.

Sources: Zubrin has published two articles recently on methanol as a transportation fuel, both in the online edition of National Review. The July 27 article can be found at and the one in which he issues his betting challenge appeared on Aug. 2 at

Monday, August 01, 2011

The Transient and the Enduring: Rereading "A Canticle for Leibowitz"

Films and novels are not the usual fare in this blog, but every so often I come across a fictional work that embodies a truth so important to engineering ethics that I want to bring it up. Such a work is Walter M. Miller Jr.’s prize-winning sci-fi trilogy A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I recently reread after seeing it mentioned by another blogger whose name I’d mention if I could remember it.

The book combines what at first glance seem an unlikely pair of premises: the near-destruction of the world by a nuclear war (the book was published in 1960, at the height of the Cold War), and the 1700-year history of a Roman Catholic monastic order founded shortly after the nuclear war in order to preserve scraps of knowledge that escaped the flames. At the time Miller was writing, two things seemed nearly certain. One was that sooner or later, some madman would start a nuclear holocaust. The other was that the Roman Catholic Church, which was then near the zenith of its post-World-War II flourishing in the U. S., would endure no matter what.

Regarded strictly as technological prophecy, Miller’s work scores pretty well. Toward the end of the book there are dictation-taking computers (which break down), self-driving automobiles, and interstellar space flights. But of far more interest are the essential points of conflict that Miller explores between the oldest continuously functioning institution of Western culture (the Catholic Church) and the scientists, technologists, and government agents with whom the monks of the Order of St. Leibowitz have to deal.

It would be hard to make a movie out of the novel, but it has a few memorable scenes of cinematic quality. In one, a clever monk, after piecing together scraps of technical information, has managed to build a dynamo-powered arc lamp, the first electric lighting the world has seen in several hundred years. It works great as long as the four monks pushing the cartwheel in a circle don’t get tired out. In order to avoid spoiling the story for those who haven’t read it, I won’t give the context of the second scene. But it involves a fight (first verbal, then physical) between the abbot of the monastery and a government-paid doctor who wants to set up a portable euthanasia center and crematorium for victims of radiation poisoning who are beyond help.

Every age asks questions about fundamental issues: What is life for? What should we do with wealth and power? How should we deal with knowledge? In his novel, Miller takes the answers that the Church has had two millennia to refine, and contrasts them with the answers that the secular world typically comes up with. Tribal chieftains commit gruesomely gory murders; civilizations rise, destroy each other with nuclear bombs, and rise again; cultures forget nearly everything that makes modern civilization possible, and then slowly re-acquire the scientific and technological knowledge that previous ages had achieved. In all this, the monks of St. Leibowitz play relatively minor roles on a larger scale. But the continuity of their own records and the fact that theirs is the only historical memory that endures, creates a thread that ties the different ages together and brings up recurring themes.

Where Miller was truly prophetic, I think, was the way that the Church has preserved its stance on the absolute sanctity of life as the shifting legal sands have washed away prohibitions on first abortion, and now euthanasia in some states. When the book came out, the infamous Roe v. Wade decision was thirteen years in the future. But its promulgation brought to reality a forecast that Miller made, which was that the Church would always protest the taking of innocent life—whatever the age of that life, whatever its form (healthy or handicapped), and whatever its usefulness to society. Canticle is a working out in fictional form of various ways that technological man can go wrong, both individually and collectively.

To his credit, Miller poses no easy answers. A colleague I recently loaned the book to said it was “dystopic,” and I suppose that’s one way to look at it. But as engineers know, you can sometimes learn more from mistakes and accidents than from successes. A Canticle for Leibowitz is a long case study in how 1950s-era technology (most of which is still with us today) can go wrong and combine with original sin to do really bad things. There are a lot of things to avoid doing in this novel. And the heroes, such as they are, are men and women of faith. That, too, is a lesson to ponder, I think.