What’s the News: Cool new apps come out every day, but not every app comes with its own car service. Starting in San Francisco, one company lets pedestrians hail a car using their iPhone or Android phone (or any old text-messaging clunker), providing a more expensive, yet faster alternative to cabs. To make this possible, computer scientists had to find a way to make driving routes as efficient as possible, which is actually quite complicated when you’re dealing with a city-ful of car-hailing people. As Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told Wired, “It’s really fun, sexy math.”
Fresh off the President’s State of the Union call to extend high speed rail to 80 percent of Americans, the Obama administration trotted out its chief train enthusiast to propose a shot in the arm to rail development. From 30th Street Station in Philadelphia yesterday, Vice President Joe Biden proposed a $53 billion plan to build high-speed rail lines all around the country.
“In a global economy, we can’t forget that infrastructure is also the veins and the arteries of commerce,” Mr. Biden said. He frequently travels between his home state of Delaware and Washington on Amtrak trains. [Wall Street Journal]
Biden says $8 billion of that will be included in the President’s budget proposal set to go to Congress next week. The rest would be parceled out over the course of six years.
Advocates say U.S. investment in high-speed rail lags many other countries and point to China, which plans to invest $451 billion to $602 billion in its high-speed rail network between 2011 and 2015, according to the China Securities Journal. [Reuters]
Nevertheless, any large transportation spending will have a hard time getting through the newly installed Republican majority in the House. The federal government would also have to grapple with Republican governors in states where this rail infrastructure would be built, who often pride themselves on symbolic opposition to such spending. Wisconsin and Ohio’s governors recently refused federal rail money, and New Jersey’s Chris Christie canceled the ARC Tunnel project, which was intended to improve the overloaded connections used by people commuting from New Jersey to New York.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s full report on Toyotas and their “sudden unintended acceleration” problem has yet to see the light of day, but the first wave of information from it suggests that driver error—not some mysterious mechanical problem in the electronic throttle control—could be to blame in many, if not most, of the reported accidents.
NHTSA has been studying data recorders from wrecked Toyotas—dozens of them—in their investigation, which will go on for months to come. Those data recorders show that the cars had their throttles open and brakes disengaged at the times of the crashes.
The early results suggest that some drivers who said their Toyotas and Lexuses surged out of control were mistakenly flooring the accelerator when they intended to jam on the brakes [Wall Street Journal].
When scientists talk up learning about transportation networks from nature, it’s often ants that get the praise for being so much more organized and efficient than we humans with our silly gridlock. But a team of Japanese researchers found, for a new study in Science, that you don’t even need a brain to be to a traffic genius. Single-celled slime molds, they found, can build networks as complex as the Tokyo subway system.
The yellow slime mold Physarum polycephalum grows as a single cell that is big enough to be seen with the naked eye. When it encounters numerous food sources separated in space, the slime mold cell surrounds the food and creates tunnels to distribute the nutrients [Science News]. To test how efficient the mold could be, Toshiyuki Nakagaki’s team duplicated the layout of the area around Tokyo: They placed the slime mold in the position of the city, and dispersed bits of oat around the “map” in the locations of 36 surrounding towns.