Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Wednesday 28/04/2004It's hard these days to recall John Major's period as prime minister. Oh, there was financial meltdown, sleaze, scandal and all manner of fin de siecle skank.

Wednesday 28/04/2004
It's hard these days to recall John Major's period as prime minister. Oh, there was financial meltdown, sleaze, scandal and all manner of fin de siecle skank. But history will remember him for the one initiative that really caught the public mind and accelerated him into richly deserved obscurity: the Cones Hotline. Set up nine and dismantled eight and a half years ago, this remarkable piece of civil society engineering was stunning in its simplicity. If you, a driver, were to see large numbers of traffic cones on the road in a place where they were clearly doing nothing, the Cones Hotline was waiting. Call that number, give the location and -- wham! To be honest, nobody was ever quite sure what happened then -- presumably, some bloke in a van went out and picked them up -- because nobody ever called it.

Which was just as well, as research now shows that deploying and picking up traffic cones is frightfully dangerous, second only to tightrope-walking across the legendary River of Starving Piranhas in the lost Jungle of the Rope-Eating Termites. You're out scooping up the plastic when along comes a sleep-deprived lorry driver rattling with benzedrine after a three day drive across Europe. Wham! indeed: strike one coniferous public servant. Actually, that could explain why such a high profile idea was so quietly dropped. After losing a few hundred traffic guidance operatives in the tarmac'd field of combat, and quite probably sending in the SAS in a final desperate attempt to rid the M25 of its superabundance of conical orange, the body count would have forced an emergency cabinet meeting and a big fat cover-up.

If only John had stuck it out until the present day! Listen, all those whose days are blighted by uncollected strobiloids. Can you hear it? From the West? It is the sound of a revolutionary army on the march -- rather, on the roll. From the heart of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln come the Robot Traffic Cones!

Self-propelled, self-organising and utterly ruthless, this battle fleet of lane-closing cyber-Lancelots has a three-layer command structure. To one side of the road, safely cosseted in a lorry-proof pod, the human operator scans the lanes with a video camera and marks the point on the image where the closure is to take place. From then on, the robots take over. A pack of dumb drones follows the lead or 'shepherd' robot cone, which uses a combination of satellite guidance and instructions from the truck to manoeuvre into position. It constantly checks on itself and its flock by scanning the surroundings with lasers. Within moments, the road is closed and the watchful machines hunker down, awaiting the command to return.

It's easy to see how the idea can expand. A national Cone Control Centre could easily be set up, with the position of each and every robotic road warrior lovingly detailed on the Big Screen. At the first hint of trouble, vast reserves could be mobilised, converging on their destination in implacable phalanxes.

Peace and safety restored.

Until one day, they turn on their masters and bring the country to its knees in hours -- the first but not the last act of a shadowy, power-crazed figure known only as The Grey Man... He has returned!