Generation 40s – 四十世代

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China accelerates towards a driverless future as Hong Kong stalls

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-10-26
Wilson Wong says mainland China’s intensive investment and flexible workforce make it the ‘holy grail’ for autonomous cars, in contrast to Hong Kong, where concerns about job losses dominate thinking

Today’s cities are on the precipice of a technological breakthrough, driven in part by a once-moribund automotive industry, now bolstered by revolutionary advances in microchip, sensor and artificial intelligence technologies and evolving into a cutting-edge industry dominated by hyper-intelligent networked autonomous driving systems.

The idea of an encroaching future where highly advanced driverless cars are inextricably intertwined with homes, infrastructure such as roads and bridges, offices and drones (also considered autonomous vehicles) is no longer a flight of fantasy, but imminent reality. The dawn of this sea-changing technology will significantly affect China, the world’s largest automotive market. Moreover, the Middle Kingdom has every intention of dominating this emerging field (part of its “Made in China 2025” mission) and the government has asserted that it would like to have highly, or fully, autonomous vehicles for sale by as early as 2021.

By 2026-2030, Chinese authorities plan to have some degree of automated or assisted driving system in every vehicle in the country. The sheer commercial potential of this impending technology explains China’s overwhelming interest; by 2035, the Boston Consulting Group asserts that the global driverless car market could be valued at US$77 billion (impressive, considering the industry is still nascent today).

China is blighted by reckless driving (more than 250,000 deaths annually in road accidents), pollution and massive traffic congestion, so the driverless car could be an idea whose time has come. Relative newcomers to the world of driving, many Chinese do not share the West’s love affair with it. This is clear from a 2015 World Economic Forum survey, where three-quarters of the Chinese polled said they would have no issue riding in a self-driving car, vis-à-vis half of their American counterparts.

A damaged sports car is pictured after it collided with another car on a road in Yiwu city in Zhejiang province, in April 2016. A high number of traffic accidents, coupled with ongoing congestion and pollution, have contributed to China’s interest in driverless vehicles. Photo: Imaginechina

Considering the immense scale of China’s bold autonomous vehicle ambitions, there will be no lack of doubters. For starters, laws governing autonomous vehicle use are non-existent despite the impending deadline. To be fair, the US itself is still sorting out this potential regulatory minefield.

The Chinese committee (supported by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology) has only in the past year or so started examining all the infrastructure and regulatory guidelines related to autonomous driving.

Despite the obfuscation surrounding the regulatory frameworks on autonomous driving, leading Chinese technology firms such as Baidu (China’s answer to Google) have made impressive strides on the technical front. By 2016, the company said its autonomous vehicles possessed driving capabilities comparable to that of a fledgling driver; in general, many autonomous vehicles are still prone to stopping abruptly and relatively clumsy manoeuvring. In a daring act of corporate bravado, Baidu chief executive Robin Li drove his company’s yet-to-be-approved driverless vehicle across the streets of Beijing, earning the ire of authorities.

Despite the relative progress by the mainland in autonomous vehicles, Hong Kong has not made comparable advances nor does it seem to share the same ardour for this buoyant field. The Transport and Housing Bureau says most trials of driverless technology are still at the preliminary stages.

By contrast, Singapore, Hong Kong’s perennial rival, has secured the distinction of organising the world’s first trial run of six driverless taxis (albeit in a limited four-square-km area) in August 2016; the road to a driverless future is not entirely smooth, however, as one of the autonomous cabs collided with a truck barely two months after the successful trial.

In Hong Kong, as with many cities, some experts argue that the issue of acceptance rather than technology per se remains the greatest obstacle to successful widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles. In truth, it could be the technology’s capacity to inflict significant damage on the jobs front (at least in the short term) that has hampered implementation. In Hong Kong’s case, the impact of this revolutionary technology on the livelihood of the city’s 40,000 taxi drivers concerns policymakers; the same fate could await thousands of bus drivers steering Hong Kong’s extensive network of double-deckers and minibuses. Similar concerns have also been expressed about the technology’s impact on the job security of the city’s numerous delivery truck and van drivers. In a city already buffeted by skyrocketing property prices and escalating income inequality, the prospect of widespread unemployment among working-class drivers presents a tinderbox for this highly strung metropolis.

Conversely, in mainland China, with its considerably larger job market, it could be easier for displaced cab and delivery drivers to secure jobs with similar levels of pay.

In the world of autonomous driving, China is evidently the holy grail, offering a near limitless pool of commercial and scientific possibilities. The efficacious top-down approach of Chinese industrial planning and near-universal acceptance among the Chinese public has positioned the country as the future of autonomous driving; even Hong Kong’s government recognises the inevitability of autonomous driving and has taken initial steps to incorporate this development into its smart city plans.

Machine operatives fit oil feed pipes to engine blocks at the Ford Motor Company’s engine assembly plant in Dagenham, UK, on October 9. Ford’s CEO Jim Hackett has pledged accelerated work on green and driverless vehicles, but traditional carmakers like Ford and GM face stern competition from tech companies like Google, Apple and Baidu. Photo: Bloomberg

This contrasts starkly with the US (the birthplace of autonomous driving) where each of the states are laden with various significant regulations. Chinese firms continue to inject billions of dollars into autonomous vehicle R&D; in just the first quarter of 2017, China’s driverless vehicle industry attracted nearly US$1 billion in research funding.

However, some market participants urge investors to be more circumspect, as exit strategies via IPOs are not assured unless confirmed buyers are lined up. Further, they speak of irrational exuberance building up in the rejuvenated automotive industry, drawing hi-tech non-traditional players (for example, Apple, Baidu, Google, Intel and Nvidia) with immense financial and technological wherewithal; these interlopers are now fighting tooth and nail for market share with traditional industry incumbents like General Motors, Ford, Delphi, Continental and Bosch.

Moreover, Chinese authorities have yet to adequately address the considerable legal and insurance hurdles wrought by this disruptive technology’s emergence. But given the considerable spoils awaiting the victors, there is no doubt that the governments concerned in Beijing and Washington, along with their respective firms, will marshal resources to surmount any obstacle in this race.

Wilson Wong Kia Onn is an assistant professor in the Department of Accounting and Banking at Chu Hai College of Higher Education

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Singapore’s embarrassing metro disruptions offer a salutary lesson for Hong Kong

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-10-27
Bernard Chan says the problems afflicting a major transport network in a city known for its efficiency bring home the fact we must never take the quality of our services for granted

It is not only Singaporeans who generally think their city is better than Hong Kong; many Hong Kong people believe Singapore’s image as a clean, efficient and modern city. They must have been shocked last week to read a Post story about how Singapore’s MRT mass transit rail network has been hit by major delays and breakdowns in recent years.

Obviously, no metro system in the world has a perfect performance record. But, in Singapore, the rail system has developed serious reliability problems.

According to the story, Singapore’s MRT network is somewhat smaller than ours, at 198.6km versus the MTR’s 230.9km. Passenger load is lighter, at some2 millionper day versus 5.6 million here. The Singapore network first opened in the 1980s, roughly a decade after our MTR started – so both are far more modern than the century-old systems of London and New York. However, Singapore’s trains suffer one five-minutes-plus delay every 174,000km, against one every 360,000km in Hong Kong. This omits the less dense West Rail and East Rail lines, which make our numbers look even better. MTR can claim a world-leading 99.9 per cent reliability rate.

Compensation for affected passengers is a hot topic in Singapore, and the media publish advice on being prepared for a delay (go to the toilet before you travel, and make sure your phone is charged). There is even a Wikipedia page listing serious MRT disruptions.

This is embarrassing for Singapore. And it is not simply about image but practicalities: if commuters lose confidence in the trains, they will use cars and taxis more, and the whole transport and environmental situation will get worse.

There has been a significant increase in the number of passengers, reflecting a rise in Singapore’s population. But inevitably, responsibility must come down to management.

I am not writing this to score points for Hong Kong over Singapore. Most of us here would accept that Singapore beats Hong Kong in some ways – such as housing policy outcomes, and some would say in health care, urban planning and other areas.

Many people in Hong Kong will say the MTR’s performance has declined in recent years. The system has definitely become more crowded as passenger numbers have risen. And there are growing complaints about delays. (In fairness to rail operators, essential upgrades to tracks and signals are difficult without causing delays – and both the MRT and MTR face this problem right now.)

However, Hong Kong’s MTR is genuinely an outstanding rail system and a bigger international success than many of us realise. The MTR has been designing, building and operating our metro system from the start (in many cities, responsibilities are divided among different agencies). Over the years, it has acquired huge technical expertise, and it exports it to cities around the world. The MTR is involved in Beijing, Hangzhou, Shenzhen, and in the UK, Sweden and Australia. In fact, it is the biggest rail operator by passenger volume in Sweden. Profits earned outside Hong Kong also bring benefits to MTR shareholders as well as Hong Kong customers.

We expect very high standards, and our media reflect this in their coverage of MTR disruptions. On top of that, our legislators – from both pro-establishment and opposition camps – are very critical any time they feel the MTR has failed in any way.

Although the MTR is publicly listed, the community sees it as a vital public service. It is under constant pressure from society to deliver reliable, quality transport as well as profits.

However, the Singapore experience should be a warning for us. If a previously efficient service can deteriorate in Singapore, it could happen here.

It does not have to be the rail network, or any transport system. Macau’s experience with Typhoon Hato in August was a reminder of how much we rely on specialised infrastructure, and dedicated professionals who plan and operate it. It could be health care, food safety, air traffic control or dozens of other areas.

Our politicians and media watchdogs are right not to take the quality of these services for granted.

Bernard Chan is convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council


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When will Hong Kong tackle the health menace of congested roads?

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-10-25
Barry Wilson says the government is aware of the ills of roadside pollution and even the ways to reduce it, but seems unable to summon the will and courage needed to implement the solutions

 

There is a new realisation that air quality inside buildings can significantly affect health, productivity and happiness. The same is, of course, true for outside air quality, where one in nine deaths globally results from air pollution and the high costs of remedial health care far outweigh the preventive costs.

Awareness of the health issues from emissions should be of particular concern in Hong Kong, where congested streets are common, not to mention the psychological stress resulting from noise and safety issues.

Emissions include particulates from diesel engines, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and benzene. The 2014 Hong Kong Emission Inventory Report indicates that the road transport sector is the largest local air pollution source: 60 per cent of carbon monoxide emissions come from transport.

It’s not just exhaust fumes that are hurting us; brake dust, tyre fragments and even tiny bits of road can get into the air and these make up a similar proportion of the airborne particulate matter resulting from vehicle use as exhaust emissions. This problem won’t be solved by a switch to plug-in hybrids or electric vehicles. In a study published recently in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, the researchers described how vehicle-emitted metals such as copper, iron and manganese interact with acidic sulphate-rich particles already in the air to produce a toxic aerosol.

We need to start paying far more attention to air pollution caused by tyre, brake and road wear. Brake pad dust may come to be reduced through electric vehicle adoption because such vehicles mostly use regenerative braking, which usually needs no brake pads, but tyre and road dust will remain a problem.

Several countries and regions are in the process of implementing programmes to improve tyre efficiency and safety. Rating and labelling programmes along with compliance standards are important first steps. The installation of tyre pressure monitoring systems should become an effective strategy in reducing wear.

Maintaining a steady travel speed is a key factor in reducing pollutant emissions. Lower speeds require less intense wear on brakes. As well, driver behaviour in minimising unnecessary braking and avoiding excessively rapid acceleration becomes a key environmental issue. As such, traffic management features such as “stop lights and speed bumps” can adversely affect air quality. The use of traffic signal systems to improve air quality requires visionary design and committed institutional coordination that appears beyond most governments at present.

In trying to tackle vehicle emission pollution, there is really only one simple solution, and that is to reduce the number of vehicle journeys, particularly in densely populated areas. The Hong Kong Transport Department recognises this and lists a “reduction in vehicular traffic” as its primary “environmental objective”. It targets rationalising public transport services to reduce vehicular traffic and mitigate air pollution.

All well and good. However, the 10 years between 2003 and 2013 saw the overall number of road vehicles in Hong Kong increase by 30 per cent, from 524,000 to 681,000. The Transport Bureau has a responsibility to effectively manage road use, reduce congestion, promote safety and support environmental improvement measures, but unfortunately, it puts traffic efficiency over pollution as a priority. This must change.

During the above period, the average car journey speed in urban areas in fact dropped by about 11 per cent from 25.6km/h in 2003 to 22.7km/h in 2013, so it is getting nothing right.

Pedestrianisation of city centres gained popularity in Europe about 40 years ago, and is now a feature of most developed city-centre plans. The measures used include shade for paths, adopting attractive materials that dissipate heat, greening, integration with public transport and better pedestrian corridor links.

By contrast, pedestrians in Hong Kong, similar to those in developing countries, are generally poorly served. Pavements are often too narrow, inaccessible and behind barriers, in a poor state of repair or taken over by traders and parked vehicles. The consequence is that pedestrians are often forced to walk on the road. This is not only unsafe but increases proximity to exhaust emissions while contributing to impaired traffic flow, which in turn increases emissions.

The provision of adequate pedestrian facilities improves air quality by keeping traffic away from high-exposure locations and by encouraging walking as the preferred mode for short trips. Evidence shows that the integrated planning of urban land use, urban public transport and traffic management is the best basis for improving air quality in the most dense locations.

It seems the government is well aware of all the issues and potential solutions, and yet has no stomach for the fight. The 2014 report from the Transport Advisory Committee on congestion in Hong Kong highlighted that “traffic congestion will continue to erode the environment, sustainability, quality of life and competitiveness of the city and that immediate action is warranted”. That was more than three years ago, and simply led to the third resurrection of the electronic road pricing (ERP) pilot scheme for discussion, a congestion charging proposal first floated almost 30 years ago.

With limited land available in Hong Kong, the primary vision should be to reduce road capacity in the urban centres and enhance the pedestrian environment, connectivity and urban air quality as a direct means to enhancing public health and well-being. An immediate multifaceted approach which could be easily implemented at limited cost to the public is required. It could include ERP but must also focus on a clear programme of street rationalisation and pedestrianisation; the removal of on-street parking; a reduction of parking meters, along with significant and deterrent increases in meter charges; an increased level of traffic penalties; and, increased resources for enforcement.

Such measures require little capital cost, can be immediately and flexibly applied, and may have a significant impact on urban air quality and public health.

The provision of parking generates vehicle journeys. On-street parking is hostile to pedestrians and is provided at the expense of other, more productive investments in space. Where urban density is high, such as in Central District, parking is extremely capital-intensive, making its cost substantial. Most of all, the provision of parking tacitly subsidises car ownership since the vehicles are parked most of the time and ownership is easier if a car can be cheaply and reliably stored when it is not being driven. Removal of on-street parking and idling should be a simple and low-cost first step to reduce congestion.

The fight against public cigarette smoking was a long, drawn-out battle against common sense. Today, there has been an incredible shift in the social norm towards smoke-free environments; indoor workplaces and most public places, including restaurants, are now healthy places. Today, smoking is barely raised as an issue.

The battleground has now moved from indoors to out and needs similar decisive action from the government. As the youth of today like to say, “Just do it already”.

Barry Wilson is an urbanist, lecturer and professional consultant.


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Cashless societies seem convenient, but Hong Kong should think it through first

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-10-24

Peter Kammerer says we need a debate over going cashless, which benefits shoppers, stores and governments, but also has some worrisome implications for privacy, individual financial security and also government debt

Fintech Week in Hong Kong may not seem the right occasion to raise questions about rushing headlong into a cashless future. But there are as many downsides for all the benefits of ditching banknotes and coins. They involve privacy, choice, security and, for financially troubled governments, survival. As much as we should embrace a hi-tech way of life, there’s also a need to debate what’s best.

Not being able to see makes me a natural convert to electronic payments. Give me an app or a card over a handful of notes of uncertain denomination any day. The Octopus card was a blessing when introduced in 1997 and the day of the shop that Amazon envisages, with no checkouts and apps linked to bank accounts, and where sensors deal with transactions, can’t come soon enough for some of us.

Tech giants like Alibaba and Apple see their apps driving such a future and a visit to the mainland or Sweden, where cash accounts for 2 per cent of transactions, shows just how willing some are to embrace the idea. Try to use cash in some Shenzhen restaurants and you’ll get a worried frown; some no longer accept it. It’s all about convenience and there is a concerted push for Hong Kong to follow, in order to – as Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, said recently – be “more fashionable, modern and efficient”. (Alibaba owns The South China Morning Post). Hong Kong’s government has embarked on a course of promoting innovation, science and technology.

Credit card companies, and now those involved in electronic payment systems, portray cash as backward and inefficient. It’s difficult to argue against industries that aim to make life easier and create jobs. But as the cashless supermarkets Amazon is trying out in the US show, it’s as much about job creation as making jobs redundant.

Governments may see such losses as inevitable or negligible when compared to the advantages. Going cashless eradicates money-laundering. Their most effective tools to crack down at present are resource-heavy monitoring of currency and bank accounts or scrapping the high-denomination banknotes criminals favour. They can also track transactions by having access to records and more easily shut down money supplies, as in Uganda in February last year to keep funds out of the hands of the opposition during elections.

It’s why the Swiss have been so worried about the introduction of an equivalent of the Octopus card for trains; they fear authorities will spy on their travel patterns. Many shops in Switzerland also prefer cash to credit cards and there have even been pushes by lawmakers to make the use of banknotes and coins permanent, the thinking being, as Swiss people’s party member Manuel Brandenberg put it to Bloomberg last year, “cash is property and cash is freedom. It empowers the individual because it’s tangible wealth.”

There’s another matter that the wealthy Swiss government doesn’t have to worry about, but others may fear; a cashless society will prevent a government from printing banknotes to get out of debt or induce inflation. Robust security systems are also needed to lock hackers out.

A printer watches over a press printing US$1 bills at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in March 2015, in Washington, DC. One side-effect of going cashless would be that governments could not print money to get out of debt or devalue currency. Photo: AFP

Such discussions aren’t taking place on the mainland in the scramble to be modern. Nor have we heard much in Hong Kong, although the idea that cash is king also has firm adherents here, as in Japan, where credit card use is low, too.

That reticence is still seen at bank counters, among taxi drivers who prefer tips in cash and in the surprising number of shops and restaurants that demand cash only. Such restraint offers hope for those worried about the drive to go cashless, and space for a much-needed debate of the issues.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post