Danger is in the Eye of the Beholder

I recently rewatched the video of Felix Baumgartner’s jump from space. For those that don’t know, he broke the sound barrier when jumping from a height of nearly 39km and reaching a speed of over 1300km/h. I know that there were a lot of clever scientists sponsored by Red Bull to make it happen, but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous. It wouldn’t have taken much for Fearless Felix to break the record for being the man who fell the furthest to his death.

Before the Big Jump

Before the Big Jump

I was thinking about this as I was driving on the stretch of the M40 between Warwick and Beaconsfield. I have to make this journey quite often and it’s usually in the evening. The motorway at that time is pretty empty. Sure you have the odd vehicle every now and then, but there’s nothing to stop you pelting it down the fast lane (or even the middle lane) at 100mph. And some people do of course. In their big Jags. And Mercs. And Beamers. Recently however, I’ve noted that even the little cars are flying down the fast lane. For instance, last night I saw a little i20 shoot past me. I was going around 80 and had only enough time to note that it was a 1.2. Some people would say he or she was being reckless, but I disagree (as I’m sure you knew I would).

The thing is – car manufacturers are being forced to make their vehicles lighter and more efficient in an effort to reduce their CO2 emissions. I remember a time, not long ago, we used to compare cars by likening them to the number of horses they were equivalent too. Now we talk about how many grams of CO2 we are throwing out of the tailpipe every km and how that affects the penguins, the polar bears and the common housefly. It’s all about climate change and global warming these days and an effort to combat or at the very least, manage it. However, there is an argument that people in the industry will be well aware of and that’s the amount of CO2 emitted to make the end product emit less CO2 – the good old well to wheel analysis (which by the way paints a much more realistic picture). That is however, a discussion for another time. Back to car manufacturers making their cars more efficient and relatively lighter (take this with a pinch of salt as most cars are actually getting heavier, but relative to the power produced and the embedded technology – they are lighter) – this has the ultimate effect that the brake horsepower per ton of vehicle is on the rise. The consequence of this increased power density is that it’s a lot easier for the 1.2 litre of today to drive comfortably at 80-90mph than it was 10-15 years ago. You’ll be relatively comfortable, relaxed and most importantly – safe. Let’s have a look at that last one in details shall we…

Power Up!

Power Up!

Obviously car manufacturers know this i.e. the fact that the cars they are making are getting more powerful. They also know that we aren’t very good drivers. So they have implemented all sorted of driver aids to stop us killing ourselves (or others). Such systems include antilock braking system (ABS) which prevents your wheels from locking up when you slam the brakes. Some people think that this is to help you stop faster, but actually that’s not strictly true! Often when you slam the brakes it’s because there is something on the road that you are trying to avoid. Your secondary instinct after slamming the brakes is to turn your wheel. For those that have been in a situation where your wheels lock and then try to steer you will note that there is little to no change in direction. The reason is very simple, braking and turning both require grip which is why it’s impossible to do either when you are on ice. When you lock the wheels you’ve run out of grip, the wheels are just sliding along thus if you turn them, you won’t change direction. By rapidly applying and releasing the brakes, the ABS system allows you to maintain grip thus avoid the obstacle safely and effectively when you steer away from it. Of course we also have disc brakes rather than the old drums which make a huge difference to the braking power available, reducing the stopping distance which means we may not have to avoid the obstacle at all!

You may also have heard of other systems with acronyms such as ESP or ESC – there are too many variations to name. Essentially they exist to maintain vehicle stability when you do a manoeuvre to avoid an obstacle and prevent oversteer or understeer depending on the drivetrain of your vehicle. They do this either by applying the brakes in a strategic manner, throttling the engine or a combination of the two. Extremely clever but complex systems and I don’t envy the guys that have to program them and am jealous of the guys that get to test them!

In addition to these systems vehicle manufacturers have implemented lane assist, active cruise control, blind spot sensors and so many other things that you will have seen in ads or read about in the media.

The upshot of all this technology is that it is a lot safer to drive and potentially more difficult than ever to crash. In addition, with all the crash tests and safety standards it’s also more likely you’ll walk away unscathed if you do mess up (as you probably will). Of course a serious crash at 80mph vs 100 mph has a more similar outcome compared to 20mph vs 40mph where the difference is literally life and death.

Modena Massacre

Modena Massacre

So this makes me wonder why on earth we have (in the UK at least) the prehistoric national speed limit of 70mph while we have the capability to go to at least 20mph more than that – safely. In addition to this I think there should be a higher minimum speed limit set for driving on the motorway. The times I’ve almost crashed on the motorway are when someone is trundling along at 50mph. Their car comes at you so quickly you barely have time to react whereas when someone is coming behind you at 90mph, you generally have space to move out of their way because you can move to the middle or left lane depending on where he or she is.

But really – my blog this time around isn’t about changing the UK speed limit even though I would like to. They tried changing it but were scared of losing the female vote. Don’t ask – politician logic is beyond me. My blog is actually about the crazy suggestion of manually pumping a highly flammable liquid into a vehicle with nothing to stop us pouring it all over the floor and lighting a match and blowing the whole place up (if your that way inclined). My frustration is that people are whining about the safety concerns with hydrogen and don’t bat an eye about driving around with 50 litres of gasoline strapped to the underside of their vehicle.

I do wonder if we tried introducing hydrogen fuelling at the same time as gasoline whether we’d be fighting to meet so many standards. The poor guys working on hydrogen fuelling and storage have to jump through a gazillion hoops and processes which is really hindering the mass roll out of fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen fuelled reciprocating internal combustion engines (which would be super awesome by the way). The biggest problem is ignorance. More specifically it shares its first 5 letters with hindering. That is of course the Hindenburg. Every time I try and have an intelligent conversion with someone about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles they have only one word for me – the Hindenburg. The Hindenburg was an airship that caught fire in 1937 killing 35 people. This event brought an abrupt end to the era of the airship. There is no doubt that the death of innocent people is terrible and high levels of investment need to be made to avoid such catastrophes. The primary concern when implementing new technologies should always be: Is this safe? Can we make it safer? However, since the implementation of the automobile, millions have suffered car related fatalities. But we don’t see the motor vehicle becoming obsolete any time soon.

End of the Airship Era

End of the Airship Era

The other thing major ignoramuses talk about is the fact that it costs more energy to produce hydrogen than we get out of it. Welcome to physics. Again, a conversation for another time.

So in conclusion, everything is dangerous. In the right hands, I’m sure a toilet roll can be a murder weapon. The point is managing and understanding risk and appreciating that as we begin to embrace new technology we will learn how best to use it safely. As engineers we need data to improve products. This data comes from real world usage, which comes from real people using products and feeding back. This is how Felix managed his world record jump. He had practice runs and data was captured, analysed and the system was improved iteratively. He put his faith in engineers and scientists, who (generally) work tirelessly to improve safety, manage risk and make life better for humanity. If everyone had thought the internal combustion engine and the manual refuelling of liquid hydrocarbons was dangerous, we’d still riding round on horseback. I say give the new technology a chance, critique it all you like, feed it back and we will work to improve it.

victorian on horseback

Giddy up!

I leave you with a quote from Ernest Hemmingway:

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them”



Thanks for reading.


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