Colin Pillinger, who died on 7 May, must not drift into history. Photo: Getty
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Never forget Colin Pillinger – and all he did for the UK space industry

Hopefully, we'll soon be launching a mission to Mars from the UK.

“Pillinger, we have a problem.” OK, maybe it doesn’t have the cachet of Houston but it’s a no-brainer. The UK’s spaceport should bear the name of our greatest space champion.

Colin Pillinger, who died on 7 May, must not drift into history. It’s a peculiarly British phenomenon to play down our scientific movers and shakers. The US celebrates its space science heroes – Edwin Hubble, David Wilkinson, James Webb – by naming billions of dollars’ worth of telescopes and probes after them. As the UK becomes an ever bigger player in the new space race, Colin Pillinger’s name should be imprinted permanently on to the British landscape.

Pillinger was best known for his leadership of the Beagle 2 mission to Mars. Usually it is referred to as “the failed mission to Mars” but it failed only in some respects. That it came so close to succeeding – it went from conception to design to construction to launch and almost to Mars – was in its own right an enormous success. The first Soviet, American and Chinese missions to Mars all failed, too.

Pillinger negotiated with governments, businessmen, artists, musicians and senior scientists to pull the project together for a paltry £25m. And all was not lost when (as far as we know) Beagle 2 careened into the surface of Mars. The UK is still benefiting from technologies developed for that mission. Pillinger was tough-headed, passionate, intelligent and far too little celebrated.

The same could be said of the UK space industry. It is worth about £9bn annually to the British economy and is second to none in terms of its technological abilities and facilities. The government’s plan to open a spaceport on these shores will be a boost to that industry, bringing it out of the shadows and into the public consciousness.

Being British, I find it hard to imagine a UK spaceport: the notion conjures up images of the seedy Mos Eisley in Star Wars, rather than the sleek departure points in the latest Star Trek movies. The world’s launch facilities are usually in exotic locations: the austere ex-Soviet glamour of Baikonur, sun-kissed Florida, the jungles of French Guyana. These are nothing like Grimsby, South Shields or Aberystwyth. But any region should welcome the spaceport: it would bring jobs and investment.

The chance to watch as rockets (and, perhaps, shuttles) launch into space will inspire a new generation to think big about their place and role in the universe. A direct connection with outer space is always a boon, whether we are looking to produce artists such as Damien Hirst or the musicians of Blur (whom Pillinger persuaded to contribute to the Beagle 2 mission) or simply more scientists and engineers.

There is competition for a northern European launch site. The Spaceport Sweden initiative has its eye on Kiruna in Lapland. Sweden’s northernmost town is already home to the state-owned Esrange Space Centre, which hosts a clutch of scientific projects and basic rocket-launching facilities.

The big prize is surely a contract with Virgin Galactic, the UK company believed most likely to be the first to get space tourism off the ground. Though it is based in the Mojave Desert to the north of Los Angeles, a European departure port will eventually become desirable. For the UK to miss out on this opportunity would be unconscionable. You can already hear the dinner-table conversations, can’t you? Where are you flying from? Oh, Pillinger – of course. Welcome to the future.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Which companies are making driverless cars, and what are their competing visions for the future?

An increasing number of tech giants are populating the driverless car market. Where do each of them stand on ambition, innovation, and safety?

The driverless car has metamorphosed from a superfluous autonomous machine to the vehicle of choice for tech giants hoping to boast their technical prowess and visionary thinking.

The name of the Silicon Valley game has always been innovation, and the chance to merge quadruped hardware with self-regulating software has offered companies a new way to reinvent themselves and their visions. A new means by which to edge each other out in a race to the top of a Fritz Lang-style global metropolis, whose technocratic ruler would be the company capable of aligning their driverless transportation dreams with those of the public.

Racing quite literally out of the blocks in this race to showcase its driverless vehicles has been Uber. Having already expanded its operations as a taxi service from the streets of San Francisco to more than 300 countries worldwide, Uber went and pushed out its sample line of driverless cars in Pittsburgh last week.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has previously stated that the need for the company to delve into driverless cars is “basically existential”, which explains why Uber seems to be so keen to come out with a working model first. It’s a vision that seeks to cut the cost of ride-hailing by slashing the cost of human drivers, and hopes to offer a safer alternative for passengers who must place an unwarranted trust in a driver they’ve never met to shuttle them safely to their destinations.

Uber’s driverless cars are designed with Volvo, and currently require technicians at hand for potential intervention, but aims to phase these out. It has had the distinct advantage of analysing data from all the road miles made by Uber drivers so far. If Uber has its way, car ownership could be a thing of the past. Speaking to Reuters, an Uber spokesperson confirmed this, saying: “Our goal is to replace private car ownership.”

There are a number of issues at hand with Uber’s approach. The fleet of cars displayed in Pittsburgh was in fact not a fleet – there was a grand total of four for viewing, making it impossible to visualise how a fully-fledged system would work.

A more pressing issue is Uber’s timeframe: in comparison to other companies in the market, Uber is aiming for mass-market spread within a few years – far too soon according to experts who think that safety measures will be compromised, and adherence to future regulations avoided, as a result. Uber currently lacks an ethics committee, creating a grey area in determining what happens if one of these cars is involved in an accident.

Perhaps demonstrating even greater ambition, given its sheer dominance over the market, is Google. Taking on the challenge of autonomy and safety on busy city streets, Google seems to be well-equipped given its unrivalled mapping data.

First revealed in 2010, Google’s self-driving car project is expected to come into service sometime in the 2020s. Accidents and traffic could be a thing of the past, they say. Chris Urmson, who headed the project until recently, believes that these cars will work based on a positive feedback system, one which allows them to improve the more they are put into practice. As one car learns, every car will learn. Shared data means the rate of improvement for Google’s driverless cars will be exponential.

Showing no sign of a slow-up in its ambitions, Apple, a company which has found a way into the psyche of its acolytes, is thought to be getting involved in the cars of the future too. Links have been made between Apple and McLaren, with a £1.2bn acquisition rumoured. It would come as no surprise if Apple did this; its greatest successes came in convincing consumers that they needed their products, and a possible iCar could do the same.

A tamer approach to driverless cars is coming from the companies who identify themselves as automotive ones as opposed to tech ones. Tesla has led the pack with its driver-assist technology. Its Model S is “designed to get better over time”, using a “unique combination of cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors and data to automatically steer down the highway, change lanes, and adjust speed in response to traffic”.

Following the first death of a person in an autopilot mode Tesla Model S car in May this year, the media and consumers were quick to issue warnings over the safety of the Tesla autopilot mode. Though Tesla CEO Elon Musk was quick to offer his condolences to the family of Joshua Brown, the driver who crashed in the vehicle in Florida, he was firm in his insistence that Tesla was not to blame. Musk explained that this was the first documented death of a person in a Tesla on autopilot mode after an accumulative total of 130 million miles driven by its customers, whereas “among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles”.

When put into perspective, it’s clear to see how a paranoid hysteria surrounds the rolling out of driverless vehicles. Safety has always been one of the key proponents for their use; by removing the risk of human error, we are able to create a safer road environment, as highlighted by Musk.

Earlier this year, Ford launched Ford Smart Mobility – its start-up-styled initiative designed to encourage ride sharing. By creating a small subset team to work on the technology, Ford is safeguarding itself from unforeseeable failures with driverless cars by maintaining its production of normal ones. Its cars have had elements of automation introduced incrementally, such as implanted sensors that enable these cars to park themselves. Ford hopes to have some sort of ride-sharing service in action by 2021.

BMW, Volvo and Audi are taking the cautious road too. BMW is making use of GPS to chart safe routes for its cars. In comparison to Google’s mapping, BMW’s system seems much more primitive, suggesting that the pace of development is dictated by accessibility to technology beyond vehicles. Volvo focuses on safety too and hopes that Volvo cars will be involved in no accidents by 2020 due to automation.

As we enter a market in which the top tech companies will be meeting at crossroads in their driverless cars, competing visions and levels of ambition will create a new relationship of trust between consumers and driverless car producers. There is no doubt that driverless cars will be here to stay, our roads one day teeming with passengers who get to relax on the roads. Taking your hands off the wheel will eventually become the norm, but don’t expect to be free-wheeling worldwide for a while yet.