Friday, April 08, 2016

Who’s driving?

Published as a podcast on Friday 8th April at

Hello, yes, it’s Anthony Day, it’s Friday 8th April 2016, there’s less than a week to go to the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange and this is the Sustainable Futures Report.


A while ago we were talking about Peak Stuff. Now people are talking about Peak Car. What are we going to drive, or are we all going to stop driving? And how will that change where we live? This week I'm talking about the new Tesla - 300,000 people want one -  about self driving cars, and about where we get the power from to run them. That could be a problem in the UK where we are closing power stations, but an opportunity in Saudi Arabia where Jeremy Leggett reports a major project to exploit solar energy. Must be good news for air quality. I'll talk about that as well. While some see the UK as a basket case in terms of energy and carbon reductions policies, the committee on climate change soldiers on with a new report out this week. And I expect we’ll slip in something about Hinkley C.

Yes, somebody has suggested that we’re approaching Peak Car, and from here on fewer and fewer people will own their own cars and fewer will drive. For the moment people are still wedded to cars, but they’re looking for something new. Elon Musk, inventor of PayPal and CEO of Spacex the rocket company, has just announced the launch of Tesla Model 3, his third electric car. Electric cars are already very sophisticated. If you’ve looked at the BMW i3 or the Nissan Leaf the comfort and specification is extremely high. The problem, though, is range anxiety. People are afraid that they will run out of charge, and they know that it takes at least 30 minutes to partially recharge and that’s only possible if there’s a handy charge point. The typical range of current models is 80 miles. More than enough for the average commute, but not enough for that unexpected journey or diversion. Tesla has addressed that problem. The original Model S has a range of over 300 miles. The new compact Model 3 has a range of over 200 miles. OK, that’s significantly less than the Model S, but the Model 3 costs $35,000 instead of $120,000. Nearly 300,000 people have already placed pre-orders for the new car, and to do that they have had to put down $1,000 or £1,000. Good news for Tesla’s cash flow.

If you go to the Tesla website it features Autopilot, a system of automatic steering, braking, lane changing and parking. Most of the technology for self-driving cars is therefore already available. It’s no secret that Google are trialling self-driving cars and Apple are strongly rumoured to be developing an electric car to rival Tesla. Apple should be well placed to turn it into a self-driving car. (Self-driving car: that’s a bit of a clumsy phrase. Time for a new name. Suggestions on an email please. The winner will receive a valuable prize.)

This week Highways England announced that it would spend £150m on trials of wirelessly connected vehicles and driverless cars on UK roads. These vehicles will be on motorways by the end of 2017. You can find out more from the Innovation strategy report which is available from 

What will driverless cars mean for the way we live?

Prof Andry Rakotonirainy of The Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia believes that a road network full of self-driving cars will be far safer than today’s human-directed traffic, but what has him concerned is how to make the transition.
“We know that in over 90% of cases, crashes are due to human error,” he says,  “But we face a transition period of a mixture of automated cars, human driven cars and other road users like pedestrians and cyclists who are not automated.”

However, once cars are fully automated it opens a whole range of new possibilities. For example, when vehicles are able to continue driving, by themselves, after dropping their passengers at a destination, they can carry on to meet the needs of other commuters rather than taking up space in a car park. Car parks can be smaller as well. At present, car parks have to be designed so that every car always has a route to the exit. If cars are shared you just take the one nearest the door.
Jonathan Roberts, professor of robotics at QUT, foresees companies preferring to offer their cars as a taxi-style service rather than selling them directly to motorists. This is servicisation (horrible word) which we’ve discussed several times recently. It’s promoted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as one of the routes to the circular economy.
Regardless of whether such an arrangement becomes the transport norm, Roberts believes it is likely to be how driverless cars start out: Uber is investing heavily in robotics technology with dreams of an efficient fleet of self-driving vehicles.
“Uber hired dozens, if not hundreds, of robotics researchers,” Roberts says. “They are clearly serious and aren’t thinking 20 or 30 years ahead, but autonomous taxis in the next 10 years.” Bad news for Uber drivers!

Gilles Vesco is the politician responsible for sustainable transport in Lyon.
He has a vision of cities in which residents no longer rely on their cars but on public transport, shared cars and bikes and, above all, on real-time data on their smartphones. He anticipates a revolution which will transform not just transport but the cities themselves. “The goal is to rebalance the public space and create a city for people,” he says. “There will be less pollution, less noise, less stress; it will be a more walkable city.”
Vesco, played a leading role in introducing the city’s Vélo’v bike-sharing scheme a decade ago. Now he is convinced that digital technology has changed the rules of the game, and will make possible the move away from cars that was unimaginable when Vélo’v launched in May 2005. “Digital information is the fuel of mobility,” he says. “Some transport sociologists say that information about mobility is 50% of mobility. The car will become an accessory to the smartphone.”
The Vélo’v scheme is being extended, car clubs that use electric vehicles are being encouraged, and what Vesco calls a “collaborative platform” has been built to encourage ride-sharing by matching drivers with people seeking lifts. There is, he says, no longer any need for residents of Lyon to own a car. And he practises what he preaches – he doesn’t own one himself.”

Birmingham, which vies with Manchester for the title of England’s second city, (strange, when I lived in Manchester everyone there  thought the second city was London.) Anyway, Birmingham has been following the experience of Lyon and other European cities closely, and is now embarking on its own 20-year plan called Birmingham Connected, to reduce dependence on cars. For a city so associated in the public mind with car manufacturing, this is quite a step. The initiative is being driven by the veteran leader of Birmingham city council, Sir Albert Bore, who talks airily about imposing a three-dimensional transport plan on the two-dimensional geography of the city: “French and German cities all have an infrastructure which has a far better understanding of how you need to map the city with layers of travel.”
“Multi-modal” and “interconnectivity” are now the words on every urban planner’s lips. In Munich, says Bore, planners told him that the city dwellers of the future would no longer need cars. Bikes and more efficient public transport would be the norm; for occasional trips out of the city, they could hire a car or join a car club that facilitated inter-city travel. The statistic everyone trots out is that your car sits outside, idle and depreciating, for 96% of its life. There has to be a more efficient way to provide for the average of seven hours a week when you want it.

Bikes are great. Except when it rains.

Car clubs offer a second statistic. Whereas a personally owned car caters for an individual or a family, a car-club car can service 60 people.

London, which has pioneered congestion charging and has a well-integrated system of public transport, has led the move away from cars over the past decade, during which time 9% of car commuters have switched to other forms of transport. “People in London have a lot of options and there’s been huge growth across all modes,” says Isabel Dedring, the deputy mayor for transport in the capital. “There’s been a massive increase in investment in public transport.”

I think that’s well known. Not everyone is happy that the investment per head in London is 10 or 20 times the investment per head in other parts of the UK.

Dedring says the past decade has seen a 30% reduction in traffic in central London.
“Traffic levels have gone down massively, partly because of the congestion charge, but also because we are taking away space from private vehicles and giving it to buses through bus lanes and to people through public realm [developments].” And now to cyclists, too, with the planned “cycle superhighways” and cycle-friendly neighbourhoods being trialled in three London boroughs.

Many city developments are now predicated on there being no car spaces for residents. Developers worried about this initially, but have come to realise it doesn’t pose a problem for the young professionals likely to be buying their flats, so have accepted the demands of council planning departments. 

There’s a lot more on how cities all over the world are adapting to cars in a Guardian article by Stephen Moss entitled “End of the car age: how cities are outgrowing the automobile” Find the link in the text version of this episode at  


Back to Tesla’s new car launch. CNBC asks, “With reservations for Tesla's new Model 3 topping 276,000 in less than three days, one key question remains for those who want to get in line: Will they be able to get a $7,500 federal tax credit for purchasing the electric car?
The Plug-In Electric Drive Vehicle Credit was created in 2009 as an incentive to get Americans to buy electric cars. It's offered to the first 200,000 buyers of an electric vehicle in the U.S. from each automaker. After a manufacturer hits that electric vehicle sales number, the credit is phased out.

There’s a grant of up to £4,500 for new plug-in cars here in the UK, but if electric cars and plug-in hybrids become popular maybe that will be abolished too. Probably at short notice.


If electric transport is the future, where will the electricity come from? In the UK we closed two coal-fired power stations on 31st March: Ferrybridge C and Longannet, with a combined output of 4.4GW. Rugeley B (1GW) is scheduled to close in the summer. Eggborough and part of Fiddlers Ferry power stations were also to close this year, but have been retained by National Grid on standby contracts. That means we will have lost 5.4GW by the end of the summer, and a further 3.5GW when those standby contracts expire. Total 8.9GW. Hinkley C, the new nuclear power station, will have an output of 4GW, so despite being the UK’s largest generator when it opens and accounting for 7% of the nation’s electricity, it won’t nearly fill the gap. And in any case it’s not scheduled to come into production until 2025 at the earliest.

Last winter the National Grid predicted a safety margin of just over 1% between electricity supply and demand in the event of a harsh winter. Of course it was very mild so there were no problems. Can they be as lucky in 2016? I’m looking forward to the Grid’s Winter Outlook Report.

In the UK  we’ll probably fill the gap - a gap which takes no account of significant use of electric transport - by using more gas power stations and diesel generators. 

According to Chandrakant Isis, quoted in my newspaper this morning: “As opposed to what Tesla supporters believe, electricity is not harvested from unicorns. In most countries, including the US, the majority of the electricity is generated by burning coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels.” True, but petrol and diesel cars pollute, and particularly on short runs when the engine is cold. Cars running on electricity, even from fossil fuels, can be cleaner.

But in Saudi Arabia the approach is very different.


I’ve mentioned Jeremy Leggett and his book “The Winning of the Carbon War” in previous episodes. He’s a tireless campaigner for clean energy with a string of academic and business credentials. You can find more at

Anyway, he was recently invited by Saudi Arabia’s national finance daily to write a piece for publication on Saudi Arabia’s solar opportunities. Why should the world’s biggest oil exporter need to bother about another source of energy?

Well, if it stopped using oil to generate electricity it would have more  oil to export. But more than that, the Saudi government has just announced a plan to set up a two trillion dollar investment fund for the post-oil era. Here is an oil giant preparing for the end of oil.

In his article Leggett identifies the trends and developments which are making the move away from oil and fossil fuels inevitable. The most important factor is that the cost of solar installations has fallen by 80% since 2008 and is continuing to fall. In some areas solar power plants are already cheaper than those running on natural gas, leading to new solar plants being built in Dubai and Colorado. The one in Dubai was built by a Saudi company. Within three years Leggett expects solar to be cheaper in the UK, even with its much lower levels of sunlight. The rapidity of the change has taken many by surprise; even industry insiders. Up to 2007 the International Energy Agency was forecasting an installed solar base of no more than 20GW by 2014. The actual figure for 2014 was 180GW.

Apple, apparently, will have solar-powered cars within four years. Tesla, not just a car company, is producing battery packs for home and industry so that surplus solar energy can be stored for use after dark.

Maybe Saudi Arabia can be a world leader in this new industry. Certainly many saw the UN Paris Climate Conference as the beginning of the end for fossil fuels. Time for an oil state such as Saudi to consider diversification. Fortunately it has two trillion dollars to throw at the problem.

If we all go electric, it can only improve the world’s air quality.


At a recent lecture on atmospheric chemistry Prof Lucy Carpenter of the Wolfson Atmospheric Chemistry Laboratories at the  University of York told us that atmospheric pollution is second only to smoking as a cause of death in the UK, and way ahead of obesity. She explained that the atmosphere is far more  complex than was thought and new insights are due to advances in analytical technology. It is now possible to detect trace gases in the atmosphere when the concentration is as little as a few parts per trillion. Such gases may be unstable, so air samples cannot be shipped back to the lab for examination. They need to be analysed in the field, which could be the Cape Verde islands, the Antarctic or somewhere up in an aircraft.

It’s not just gases that affect the quality of the air, it’s particulate matter as well, which has been identified as causing heart disease, strokes and other illnesses. Many particulates come from motor vehicles and recent revelations have shown that emissions from cars are far greater than official tests seem to indicate.

Professor Carpenter told us about CFCs, the refrigerant gases which caused the hole in the ozone layer, and how the Montreal protocol brought countries together do something about it. As a result CFCs, which can persist in the atmosphere for 100 years, are declining and the ozone layer should be back to its 1980 thickness by 2030. CFCs are greenhouse gases and it has been estimated that removing them from the atmosphere has had an effect five times the size of the effect that was expected from the Kyoto Protocol.  That was the outcome of the UN Climate Change Conference held in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. An example of unintended consequences - this time, benign.

While CFC levels have been declining, so have levels of ethane and methane; both potent greenhouse gases. But since 2008 these two have been rising again. Climate change is causing increased emissions from wetlands, but the increase is more than expected. Professor Carpenter and her team have prepared a paper suggesting that fugitive emissions from fracking sites across the US could be responsible for this anomaly. Once it is published I hope someone in government takes time to read it.

So there we are, that’s another week. The world is going electric, our cars will drive themselves, this will change the character of our cities, we’ll get our electricity from solar power even in Britain (although obviously not under the present government) and we’ll all enjoy cleaner air.

And the Committee on Climate Change? Sorry - deadlines. I’ll look at that next week, along with floods in Karachi, Bernie Sanders’ strategy for renewable energy and any thing else sustainable which catches my eye.

For the moment this is Anthony Day, less than a week away from the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange which looks like being an amazing event. I hope I shall see you there - you’ll be sorry you missed it!

That was the Sustainable Futures Report and yes, there will be another episode next week. I’d better start writing it now!

No comments: