07 April 2014

Sustainable Mobility

I always have mixed views when I see the latest statistics from the UK's Society of Motor Manufactures and Traders (SMMT), as I enjoy cars, but also care passionately about sustainability.  Is selling lots of new cars a good thing for the planet? And it's got me thinking about where the industry might be heading for the 'green motorist'.  What might motoring be like in the coming 10-20 years?

March 2014

By the end of Q1 2014, year-to-date registrations were up 13.7% to 688,122 units.  Superficially, this might look bad for sustainability, as more new cars are on the road, with purchases perhaps fueled by extra cash in the pockets from PPI payouts.  Of course, a large proportion of these cars are either bought as fleets, or using one of the range of car finance options available by dealers (nudging towards a different ownership model?).

The great news within these statistics is the ongoing path towards more efficient cars.  In fact, March 2014 was the biggest-ever month for alternatively-fueled vehicles as volumes reach 8,713 units, a growth of 63.8% on 2013.

CO2 emissions for new cars are 26% lower than a decade ago...

...and 67.2% of the market was below 130g/km, so paid no VED in the first year, compared with only 6.5% of registrations in March 2004.

So some really positive news about the improvement made over the last decade and being seen on the forecourts of Britain.  

So that's today.  What about tomorrow? Below I've outlined my thoughts about what might happen in the medium-term...


Tailpipe emission reductions will continue at-pace, driven by the EU regulation, and with the really encouraging sign that buyers are more and more conscious of the running costs of their vehicles (and therefore these criteria will be marketed more, creating a virtuous circle).  Manufacturers will continue to roll-out technologies across their fleet to drive down emissions, for example:

  • Alternative and hybrid powertrains
  • Turbocharging with smaller engines
  • Variable valve technology and 'cylinder on demand'
  • Auto start/stop
  • Regenerative braking
  • Improved aerodynamics
  • Lightweighting of materials
Here's Audi's rundown of the technologies they are including within their range now (click to see larger):

Audi's sustainability innovations

Private car ownership will continue to dwindle, with the growth of car clubs and car sharing continuing, in both cities, and on high-density commuting routes.

The near ubiquity of sat-nav should reduce congestion.

And of course manufacturers will continue to introduce new innovations, which will find their way into high-end models.  A great example of this is Audi's integration with city-wide traffic lights management systems, helping the driver time their approach to traffic lights for when they are green:

Audi: traffic light integration

In the world of regulation, we'll be seeing more city-level initiatives to suppress emissions.  Paris has recently had to introduce alternate day travelling, and with London having recently faced very high pollution levels, it's only a matter of time when more is required there, albeit taxis being zero-emission capable from 2018 will help.

With the volatility and security of supply of many materials coming under the spotlight, there will be an even greater focus on the use of renewable materials, and ensuring that vehicles can be easily dismantled, with parts clearly identified at the end of their life for recycling (in fact, by 2015, in the EU, 85% of a car must be recyclable, and a further 10% suitable for energy recovery).

Finally, behind the scenes to the average driver, manufacturers will face greater pressure to be more environmentally aware in their facilities.  Carbon, waste and water usage will all be reduced.


From 2020, there may be a decade of opportunity where people will be able to enjoy independent motoring, without being as worried about the environmental impact.  Powertrain developments will have meant that it's much cheaper and cleaner to run a car (time will tell which combination of ultra-efficient diesel/petrol, fuel cell, electric, etc. will be optimal).

Private ownership of cars will have dwindled even further, with 'mobility solutions' meaning individuals can 'subscribe' to a service allowing them to choose suitable vehicles for different purposes, like Peugeot already run with their Mu Service and BMW is developing.



From 2030 onwards, the age of the independent motorist will have almost disappeared.  Cars will be part of a mesh of inter-connected modules, driven automatically, without driver input required.  Sounds like science fiction, e.g. Minority Report, which showcased the Lexus 2054 concept?  Well, look at what Volvo have already been trialing, and inevitably, Google have been working on this too. [UPDATE MAY 2014: In fact, Google have announced they will develop their own driverless cars - perhaps 2030+ is too pessimistic!]

Volvo: Autonomous driving in traffic queues

A prototype of a Google driverless car

Maybe, each 'train' of vehicles will optimise the use of the available powertrains within each module, to drastically reduce overall consumption, perhaps with wireless charging from under the road?  And of course, road accidents will be reduced, making journeys quicker and safer.

Wireless charging a Rolls Royce

So, a fascinating and optimistic transition as we move from independent motoring to sustainable mobility in the coming years...

01 April 2014

James Lovelock - "A Rough Guide to the Future"

This evening, I was lucky enough to watch James Lovelock be interviewed at Conway Hall, by John Gray.  He was launching his new book, "A Rough Ride to the Future ", which I'll read when I get a chance, and add my thoughts to this blog entry.

James is over Ninety years young now, but the audience could hardly tell, as he sat in a particularly challenging chair, and brought to life some of the key themes of his book so passionately.

James Lovelock being interviewed by John Gray

Of course, the audience were aware that James is well-recognised as being a leading thinker in Earth being a self-regulating system, with the 'Gaia Theory'. And he didn't disagree when it was suggested that some of the latest thinking around climate change, and the need to balance mitigation with adaptation, were ideas he's been a forefather of.  Here's a very quick skip through some of the other ideas which caught my attention as I listened - hopefully I haven't misrepresented him...


The anthropocene is an era of time (which we're in currently), when "mankind began to exert a noticeable effect on the living environment (a definition which has been extended to include "changes to the Earth's atmosphere and surface sufficiently great to be discernible by observers viewing the Earth from space".  James suggests that us Brits started it all off, when Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine back in 1712.

Concurrently to the anthropocene, James also recognises an accelerated evolution, leaving Darwinian timescales, and piggy-backing off things like Moore's Law - the doubling of computing power roughly every two years. Humankind can turn the sun's energy into information and rather than be alarmist about how this could lead to robots taking over from humans, he suggests that much like his own pacemaker, computing will supplement humans, either in an isolated fashion, or perhaps as a shared consciousness (I think Twitter is already doing this).


James looked to nature and saw inspiration in "...social insects like ants, bees and wasps."  He went on to reference the perfectly controlled micro-climate of a termite mound in Australia. Relating that to human-scale, he then considered Singapore, a city which is highly successful, surrounded by fertile land, yet averages 12 degrees higher than the Earth's average.  He ponders whether human's sustainable future will be found in gravitating towards cities.


Although geo-engineering has its detractors, and certainly it's important to understand the longer-term unintended consequences of actions, James was supportive of certain measures needing to be utilised as the climate worsens. In particular, he supported giant aerosols spraying fine seawater mist from cargo ships, to help clouds form, wherever they were required.  However, the political barriers may be harder to overcome than the engineering ones, as humans are fundamentally a tribal species with allegiances to our own nations.


Controversially perhaps, James is a supporter of Nuclear power and thought that it was "... given to society as an incredible gift..".  The challenge was that it was misused initially, and thinks that society still feels guilty about it.  When questioned about radioactive waste by an audience member, he suggested we should look across the English Channel, where the French burn their waste.


James acknowledged that climate scientists had "got it wrong", assuming that the linear relationship between atmospheric carbon and temperature still held in the anthropocene. He argues that climate science is more complex due to the pollutants in the atmosphere which reflect the sun's rays (e.g. aerosols), and also the incredible importance of our oceans - an area of almost 2/3 the Earth's surface, but hardly understood at all.

Science vs. Inventors

As well as being an eminent scientist, with over 200 scientific papers published, he sees himself as 50% an inventor.  And that we shouldn't underestimate the potential breakthroughs that inventions may bring, perhaps even without understanding the science.  Just think of Faraday...

In wrapping-up with audience questions, when asked what James considered 'progress' to be, he suggested that, given the sun has a worse case of global warming than Earth, it is simply "...measured by success in an ever worsening environment."

Hearing an optimist speak about such serious issues is refreshing - climate science can often seem like a doomsday scenario, so fans of human ingenuity like James should be given a louder voice.  And it certainly helps put in perspective the day-to-day challenges of corporate and political sustainability and helps reflect on the (even) bigger picture.