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News Science Technology

Going Dutch, Heated Cycle Paths and Glowing Roads

glow roads

As regular readers may know, I am currently living my life straddled between two continents. I am based in Boston in the USA, but technically resident of Italy. To add to the confusion I am going to live in the Netherlands in June.

Why the Netherlands? I hear you all ask in unison. Bikes and technological advances in road safety might be one reason (although there are also others).

So first to bikes. I am a cyclist myself, I ride a 1973 Triumph 3 speed, it is a lovely machine. This winter has been a harsh one though, even for Boston standards, and the roads and pavements were covered in ice for long periods of time. As in many other places the city council sends trucks out to throw salt all over the place, which is not very good for the roads, cars, or water supply.

So to the Netherlands. They certainly know how to treat cyclists there. The Dutch city of Wageningen is experimenting with an innovative system that will help keep cyclists safe without the salt problem. A 50 metre stretch of cycle path has been replaced with concrete plates that are heated with stored thermal energy, preventing the path from becoming icy and slippery.

Yes, a heated cycle lane. It is fully recyclable, maintenance free and the system is carbon neutral. Here is the story in Dutch. Sorry but I can’t find anything in English so you will have to try a translation tool.

And while they are at it (the Dutch) they have developed a paint for their new heated paths that also stores energy during the day so that it can glow at night. There is no need for street lights in some areas if the sides of the roads light up so it could offer a great energy saving benefit. They are trialling it out on a short stretch of motorway at the moment, and have other ideas for its use. How about painting snowflakes into the road that only illuminate when the temperature drops and could create ice? Temperature sensitive paint is also undergoing testing, also a Dutch development. Check out this report on the BBC.

I very much look forward to my move to the Netherlands, spending the winter days on my bike, riding home on an ice free path through the woods, lit by painted strips down either side and all without the need for any electricity.

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Business Media Technology

Vehicle Reversing cameras, a real safety improvement?

Congratulations on a beach

Congratulations Jonny! You have the honour of posting Technology Bloggers 500th article – which is also your 125th! It is also the first post of Technology Bloggers fourth year. (Image Credit)

A car reversing cameraImage Credit
At the end of last month the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (USA) finalized long-delayed rules that will require automakers to install back-up cameras in all vehicles by May 2018. This was a long fought battle, the auto makers not wanting to be forced to adapt such measures.

And we must consider the costs, possibly between $500 and $900 million a year, to be borne by the purchaser, manufacturer and of course the state. The legislation is aimed at avoiding death or injury caused when drivers reverse over their own children or the elderly (the main victims in such accidents).

All well and good I say, maybe the rules will save some lives, and we should bear in mind that they did take 10 years to pass. But how many lives will they save?

A Typical view in reverse

We have to bear in mind that auto-mobile manufacturers estimate that upwards of 60% of all cars would have had the technology as standard by 2018, we are talking about the remaining 40%, so an incremental improvement on an already rolling ball. But how many people are killed each year in the USA in accidents of this type?

According to this article, fittingly enough from the Detroit News, 60 to 70 lives a year would be saved if all the fleet had rear view cameras, but of course as stated above 60% would have already had the cameras, so the legislation itself would save about 15 lives a year and save 1300 injuries. But how many injuries and deaths are there a year in the USA?

On average in recently in the USA there have been about 35 000 deaths and more than 2 million injured in motor accidents. According to the US Census Bureau most of those were caused by speeding and alcohol.

Now I would question the rationale of spending the amounts of money required to install cameras in all cars when the number of lives saved is going to be so small. We are talking about between 15 and 25 million dollars per life, when there may be better ways of spending this money and saving more lives.

If we look at the legislation in context, I think there are other questions that need to be asked too. The US government Distracted Driving website offers another bewildering array of statistics and related information, with mobile technology use once more taking the blame for accidents. But we might imagine that it is illegal to text and drive, but it is not in all states. Several states still allow you to send a text message while driving. Texas for example bans texting for bus drivers and novice drivers, and in school areas for everyone, but I can drive and text in Texas perfectly legally. Arizona only bans bus drivers from texting, and in south Carolina there are no rules about using mobile technology while driving.

Although road deaths have come down dramatically in the USA, those related to driver distraction have gone up. This could be related to changes in how the statistics are reported, or might be related to increased usage of mobile devices, I cannot tell that from the data provided in the census.

A table is available here that summarizes the current situation.

As a quick comparison in the UK you can be charged with reckless driving if you are involved in any accident, and texting and hand held telephone use is against the law. If you are eating or drinking however this can also be taken into account, and there is research that suggests that eating and drinking while driving can dramatically slow down reaction time. Check out this article in the Telegraph newspaper.

So I want to ask a serious question about this US legislation that we could ask about a lot of other legislation. Do these new rules really make driving safer, or do they make us feel that we are safer, or do they just make us feel that we are doing the right thing?

I don’t honestly believe that this legislation will really make driving much safer for anyone, although this is of course my own opinion. I am not making light of accidents that involve reversing over children or old people, but there must be plenty of more efficient ways of cutting down road deaths than this (like taking action to deter mobile phone or texting use for example).

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Business Environment Science Series Technology

Experts, Regulation, and Food

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on the Bassetti Foundation website called The Innovation Principle.

The post was a review of a letter sent by some of Europe’s largest corporations to the European Commission. The letter claims that regulation in the EU risks damaging development and the economy, they want a series of things to be taken into account within the regulation process.

It is easy to read and short and I recommend a look, it is free to download through the link above, but I would like to take one of their suggestions and apply it to food regulation, as part of my food series.

The letter calls for the “Full inclusion of relevant expertise”, and this sounds perfectly reasonable. But what does it actually mean in practical terms?

If we take the example of GM food development that I raised last week, it means finding experts in the field and putting them on committees to determine if proposals are safe. Now this means that you have to look to industry, because most of the experts work within the industry.

Now I believe that in all likelihood an expert working for a nuclear energy company will tell you that nuclear energy production is 100% safe, a nanotechnology researcher will paint a glowing picture of how the future is bright thanks to nano developments, and a GM food expert will do the same.

In the USA, the Federal Drug Administration is responsible for regulating the safety of GM crops that are eaten by humans or animals. According to a policy established in 1992, FDA considers most GM crops as “substantially equivalent” to non-GM crops. In such cases, GM crops are designated as “Generally Recognized as Safe” under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) and do not require pre-market approval.

But here the waters start to murk and merge. As I said, experts in the field working or having worked for industries working with technology are likely to be positive about their products. And the FDA seems to contain several of these experts, and some of them may have helped to make the distinction above.

According to this IVN article, over the last decade at least 7 high ranking FDA officials have also held high positions in Monsanto, the largest producer of GM seeds in the world. This is generally accepted as true, and in fact Monsanto have several employees present or past that have held high ranking positions in other capacities in the US Government. This is known as the revolving door in the USA, and it is worthy of exploration.

Monsanto and US Government Employees
Monsanto and US Government Employees (click to enlarge)

The website states that “At the forefront of this controversy is Michael R. Taylor, currently the deputy commissioner of the Office of Foods. He was also the deputy commissioner for Policy within the FDA in the mid ’90s. However, between that position and his current FDA position, Mr. Taylor was employed by Monsanto as Vice President of Public Policy.

Other Monsanto alumni include Arthur Hayes, commissioner of the FDA from 1981 to 1983, and consultant to Searle’s public relations firm, which later merged with Monsanto. Michael A. Friedman, former acting commissioner of the FDA, later went on to become senior Vice President for Clinical Affairs at Searle, which is now a pharmaceutical division of Monsanto (Oh Donald Rumsfeld ex Secretary of Defense was also on the Board of Directors).  Virginia Weldon became a member of the FDA’s Endocrinologic and Metabolic Drugs Advisory Committee, after retiring as Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto”.

Another controversy surrounded the appointment of Margaret Miller. The following is taken from Red Ice Creations website:

“In order for the FDA to determine if Monsanto’s rBGH growth hormones were safe or not, Monsanto was required to submit a scientific report on that topic. Margaret Miller, one of Monsanto’s researchers put the report together. Shortly before the report submission, Miller left Monsanto and was hired by the FDA. Her first job for the FDA was to determine whether or not to approve the report she wrote for Monsanto. In short, Monsanto approved its own report. Assisting Miller was another former Monsanto researcher, Susan Sechen”.

Obviously I am not in a position to determine whether these allegations are true, but a look at this article that appeared originally in the Observer newspaper might lead one to believe that there is a fine line being walked here.

The article states that “Monsanto received copies of the position papers of the EC Director General for Agriculture and Fisheries prior to a February 1998 meeting that approved milk from cows treated with BST.

Notes jotted down by a Canadian government researcher during a November 1997 phone call from Monsanto’s regulatory chief indicate that the company ‘received the [documents] package from Dr Nick Weber’, a researcher with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Sources noted that Weber’s supervisor at the US FDA is Dr Margaret Mitchell who, before joining the agency, directed a Monsanto laboratory working on the hormone.”

Oh and the hormone treatment made the cows sick, but you can read Robert Cohen’s reported testimony before the FDA on the subject of rBGH including the disclosure that, while at the FDA and in response to increasing sickness in cows treated with the hormones, Margaret Miller increased the amount of antibiotics that farmers can legally give cows by 100 times. Once again I cannot verify the transcription but it is widely reported on the web and was apparently shown on C-Span Congress TV live.

I am not suggesting that there is any collusion here, and as Monsanto argue people move jobs, taking jobs that suit their qualifications. A look at these people’s profiles show that they have many different positions, many of which we would say were undoubtedly working for public good. But some suggest that some of their positions might lead to conflicts of interests. But if you need experts where are you going to get them from? Here though I might simply suggest that you don’t need so many experts.

Within my life’s work of trying to promote responsible innovation I have come to the conclusion that a broader public involvement within decision-making process must be a good for society. Closed sessions full of experts deciding what is or is not safe for us may be efficient in terms of getting things done, but the public’s voice is not heard, and maybe that voice could lead to more responsible choices, or at very least some reflexivity in the decision-making process.

On a closing note, arguments are currently raging in the US about the labelling of GM foods, as currently there is no need to label it, something pushed for by many organizations. There is a counter movement that is arguing that as the FDA state that there is no fundamental difference, GM products that do not contain additives should be allowed to be labelled as “natural”, in the way organic vegetables are. This Common Dreams article presents a critical view of current practices that although strongly worded offers an insight into how a section of US society thinks about the issue.

The question remains however, who do we want to regulate our food and the technology used in its production?

Categories
News Technology

3D Printing and Health

3D printing technology undoubtedly presents opportunities for a completely new type of production that will revolutionize the workplace, as the many posts on this blog demonstrate. But as with all new forms of technology its development also raises many questions.

A cheap, commerical 3D printer
A cheap, commerical 3D printer

A recent report appears to find evidence that the use of 3D printers creates a bi product of nano particles that may be harmful to humans.

A research team measured ultra fine particle emissions (UFP) from the types of 3D printer typically in domestic or office use. Their findings are published in this rather technical report, and mathematics is certainly not my forte’, but it can be easily summarized: the results show that mean concentration of UFP’s is almost three times higher during 3D printer operation, meaning that these types of printers must be classed as UFP “high emitters”.

Now we need to see the results in context however, the levels reported are similar to those produced when we cook on a barbeque, but I personally use my barbeque in the garden, not in a small sealed room in the office.

The printers in question are often grouped together or found in air conditioned spaces with little ventilation, they are not sold with ventilation and there is no venting legislation, so the levels of UFP tends to increase over time in the spaces where they are used.

Particles of this type have been found to be damaging to mammals because they can easily pass into the respiratory system and cause inflammation. Some are so small that they can pass directly into the blood stream and into the organism itself.

The authors conclude that “caution should be used when operating some commercially available 3D printers in unvented or inadequately filtered indoor environments. Additionally, more controlled experiments should be conducted to more fundamentally evaluate aerosol emissions from a wider range of desktop 3D printers and feedstocks”.

A little common sense and some awareness raising and a health risk can be avoided. Industrial users have a culture of health and safety related to emissions, something that office culture might lack, but it could certainly be learned and implemented.

Anyway, the sun is out, where are those frozen veggie burgers?

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Media News Science Technology

Asleep at the Wheel?

Anyone who has ever driven a long distance will know the feeling of “zoning out”. You lose focus on the road, staring blankly in front of you, your reaction time lengthens, and sometimes people even fall asleep.

In the UK it is estimated that about 20% of accidents are caused by people nodding off at the wheel, but a breakthrough at the University of Leicester might help to put an end to this problem.

Researchers have been working on a system that combines high speed eye tracking and EEG technology, with one application being to alert drivers who show signs of drowsiness.

These forms of technology have traditionally been difficult to marry together, EEG use has been around for decades and any epileptic person will have had experience of it. The EEG system involves wearing a kind of cap with electrodes attached that measure neurone activity in the brain. Once a cumbersome affair this can now be carried out using a lightweight headset, a far cry from the rubber cap manually fitted with sensors and cables that I grew up with.

A contemporary EEG Underway
A contemporary EEG

The eye monitoring technology involves infra red cameras measuring how LED light reflects from the user’s eyes, monitoring where the user is looking, how often they blink and other signs of distraction and sleepiness.

The researchers at Leicester have made the breakthrough of devising a way to use these different measurements together, something that has not been possible in the past.

Applications go much further than saving lives however. The developers point to uses for people who cannot use their arms, as they could control machinery using their eyes and thoughts. Even more importantly for some, the technology could be used to control video games, so that a player would no longer have to use a console of any sort but could communicate through measuring where their eyes were looking and the patterns in their brains.

More information is available here.

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Apps Gadgets

Texting While Driving

Communication, communication, communication, but at what cost? In many countries it is illegal to use the phone while driving the car, but many people still do so. Maybe using the phone doesn’t seem such a risky thing to do, but texting?

Figures suggest that many accidents are caused by texting drivers, and many companies are offering possible solutions to the problem. Some Apps block phones that are moving through their GPS systems, but this also blocks passenger phones and cannot tell when the owner is on a bus or train, so have override options. Maybe this override option would be attempted while driving however, and that might be dangerous.

A somewhat typical sight?

Other systems make it so difficult to access the texting facility that it would be impossible to use while driving. Well this is all well and good but a teenager that NEEDS to send a text will find a way, and persistence might not be a good thing at this point. The more difficult it is to enter then the more concentration required, and probably more accidents and deaths caused.

Many of the systems available today also require downloading, so they only work in the phone that carries the App. These systems only work if somebody has downloaded it into a phone (typically their teenage son or daughter’s) and the user cannot work out how to disable it, or doesn’t have another phone or friends for just such emergencies.

More sophisticated systems plug directly into the car and broadcast directly to the driver’s seat, but here hardware is required and other problems of system compatibility are raised.

Although I make light of the situation we are addressing an extremely serious issue. If behaviour does not change than these systems may actually put more people at risk, and that is obviously not to anyone’s advantage.

Many other systems that read out text messages or allow you to dictate them are also available, but I am raising a finger at systems that aim to prohibit rather than adapt behaviour, sold to worried parents that think they might be able to stop their children doing something, and not at those that are aimed at responsible drivers.

So does anybody have experience either as a parent or teenage user that they would like to share with the community?

For a few references and more discussion see this article on NBC News.

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News Science

Nanotechnology, risks and benefits

Last year Hayley posted a really good article on this site entitled ‘What do we need to know about Nanotechnology?‘ She raised some important issues about the governance of such high technology including the facts that little research has been conducted into health implications, legal regulation is minimal and nobody really knows how much of this type of material is produced. It is however already everywhere, in cosmetics, car wax and sunscreen to name but a few.

She followed the post earlier this year with another, ‘Nanobots, the future in Nanotechnology‘. This is also an informative piece in which she describes how nanotech engineering is moving away from top down construction to a bottom up approach, and goes on to talk about the possibility of building autonomous and even self replicating robots on the nano-scale.

Last week I posted an article about synthetic biology, another branch of science that deals in the nano-scale. With synthetic biology one of the issues raised by Hayley, that of power source, is resolved, as the machines are in fact alive and get their power from the organism that they are implanted into. The two are very much related and entwined forms of science.

And all this leads me on to looking at regulation regarding these types of research and a recent publication entitled ‘A Research Strategy for Environmental, Health and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanotechnologies’.

The document was prepared by the National Research Council and a pre publication copy is available from the National Academic Press for downloaded here.

This is a long and detailed document written with the help of a host of academics, and it raises some very important points about an industry that Barak Obama has placed at the forefront of his innovation policy. In this year’s budget Obama is asking for 123.5 million dollars to invest in nano-tech research, which if seen next to the relatively small investment of 34.8 million in 2005 signals the importance attached to this form of innovation.

Nanobama

But all of this investment is made in a technology that is as yet practically unregulated and severely lacking in health and safety legislation, with the problem being that exposure limits and contamination issues have yet to be formalized. All of this is despite the ever growing use of such particles in our everyday life.

The National Research Council document aims to develop such a research strategy starting from a conceptual framework for considering environmental, health and safety risks, through critical questions to understanding the problem, tools and approaches for identifying properties that may cause risk, resources needed and how to implement the strategy once it has been described.

The document is extremely thought provoking. The fact that safe (or dangerous) exposure levels to such particles have never been determined nor possible environmental release dangers quantified or analyzed seems to paint a picture of an entire industry that operates without a clear understanding of how to manage the risks involved in their work.

This week a rather alarming report was published on the Science News website in which scientists have discovered that exposure to nano-particles changes the way blood vessels in animals behave. They were not using a poisonous substance I might add, but a common compound of nano-particle size.

Now I am not a biologist but I imagine that if it affects mice in this way then it will probably do the same to me.

I would summarize the problem as this; regulation and law making always has a problem when dealing with high technology, lawmaking is a slow process, but technological advancement is not. Laws chase while science runs ahead. But here we are dealing with a serious situation, something is in mass production and use, generating large sums of money but practically unregulated and untested.

The possible up-sides of nanotechnology are enormous, but I would say that the down-sides need to be taken into account too.

For a more in depth debate see my and other’s posts on the Bassetti Foundation website.