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Disruption, Cars and Climate Change

I am indebted to my friend James Catmur for sharing an amazing presentation by Tony Seba called ‘Clean Disruption Energy & Transportation’. It’s just over an hour long and totally absorbing, really worth watching. It covers a few things I already knew, kind of, like Moore’s law whereby computing power per dollar doubles every two years; and the ’S’ curve adoption of new technology which is slow to get started but then takes off. Mix that with technology convergence, like lithium-ion batteries meeting great computer power, touch screens and sensors and you see how technologies coming together enable game changers like the smartphone to arise.

I have observed in previous posts that the problem with renewable energy is storing the energy for use when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Well Tony says that the cost of lithium-ion batteries has been coming down by 20% a year between 2010 to 2016 and this now means that by 2020 a U.S. consumer will be able to store a day’s worth of electricity in Lithium-Ion batteries for $1. Without storage, generating capacity has to be rated to meet peak demand, which means that these fossil fuel powered “peakers” are utilised around 6% of the time. You may not be surprised to know that the cost of photo-voltaic (PV) solar panels has been coming down too. In 1970 the cost was $100 per watt and in 2016 it was 33 cents per watt. The installed capacity of solar panels globally has been doubling every two years since 2000. That means that in another 6 years almost all of the worlds electricity will be solar. Already Tuscon Electric are selling solar + storage at less than 5 cents per kWh whilst fossil fuel generation is 20 cents per kWh.

Now take electric vehicles (EV’s). The electric motor is 5 times as efficient as an internal combustion engine (ICE) and ten times cheaper to fuel. An ICE vehicle has 2000 moving parts and an EV has 20. An EV powertrain currently has a life of 500,000 miles whereas an ICE powertrain has a life of around 140,000 miles. We are also moving towards Autonomous Vehicles (AV’s) which drive themselves. To achieve that you need an amazing sensor called LIDAR which uses lasers and radar to sense what’s going on around the vehicle, and a super computer to crunch the data and navigate the car safely to its destination. In 2012 a LIDAR was $70,000 and by 2016 it was $250 and a tiny fraction of the size. Super computers are measured in Tera Flops apparently. In 2000 a 1 Tera Flop computer would take up 150m2 of space, consume 850 watts of power and cost $46 million. In 2016 a 2 Tera Flop computer used 15 watts, cost $59 and you could hold it in your hand. Wow! Tony says that by 2025 every new road vehicle will be an Electric AV. Couple that with a business model like Uber and you can see how a fleet of Electric AV’s roaming around and summoned by us to take us to work or pick us up from the shopping centre makes sound economic sense. The average car today is used 4% of the time. 96% of the time it is parked somewhere. Would you own a car at a cost of $10,000 per year over 5 years if you could easily achieve all your journeys at a cost of $1,000 per year? Tony says that by 2030 95% of all passenger miles will be by TAAS (Transport As A Service) or Hailed Electric AV.

It seems to me that this is very good news for the climate if not for professional drivers, car and oil workers.


Outcomes not Outputs

Another thumping good read dropped onto the doormat this morning in the shape of New Civil Engineer magazine. The problem of air pollution is brought into sharp focus by an OECD graph which shows that air pollution currently accounts for 3 million premature deaths globally every year, with that set to rise to 9 million by the year 2060. The EU and Russia are the only regions charted which show a significant fall in predicted air pollution deaths, whilst India and China deaths are predicted to more than double.

Another chart shows that UK CO2 emissions arising from power generation have fallen from 180 metric tonnes in 2005 to 100 metric tonnes in 2015. However transport hasn’t improved, with 130 Mt in 2005 and 130 Mt in 2015. So it is not surprising that other articles focus on how transport can be made greener.

There is an interesting piece on aviation with an eye-catching photo of a blended wing aircraft being developed by Boeing and NASA. The idea seems to be that by making the aircraft virtually all wing, and putting the seats in the wing, you end up with something much more efficient. Other, perhaps less ambitious developments, include making the drink and food carts lighter as well as other items like seats.

Of course we don’t have to be aircraft engineers to save a life. We can avoid unnecessary car journeys by walking or cycling where possible. Apparently just 20 minutes brisk walking a day brings us significant health benefits, yet only a third of Londoners report achieving this much activity. In Scotland physical inactivity results in 2,500 premature deaths a year, seven a day. There is a great article describing how we can make our city streets more pedestrian friendly through simple things like de-cluttering pavements to remove extraneous signs, improving crossings, providing seating and public toilets on walking routes.

I checked the front cover, when I wondered if I was the victim of an April fool story, but no, putting cat litter into concrete really is a way to cut CO2 emissions. There is a Bath University research project showing that the absorbent granules present in cat litter can be used to carry a material which can absorb or release heat depending on temperature, thereby helping to keep a building at a constant temperature.

In the editorial, civil engineers are asked to open their (our) minds and learn more quickly what people need; to be focussed on outcomes rather than outputs. Sounds like Project Sponsorship to me.

A wake up call

As I drove to the station this morning I heard on the radio that Kodak, who invented the hand-held camera, has filed for bankruptcy. The name Kodak is synonymous with film, for those grey-hairs amongst us, and they simply weren’t able to adapt to the digital age. One of the things I learnt from studying for a MBA with the Open University was STEEPLE, an acronym for remembering the environmental factors that can affect an organization and which should be constantly monitored for change.
I also remembered writing the chapter The Value of Project Sponsorship to the Organization in my book. I gave examples of how technology is changing ever faster, citing the long reign of 78s followed by vinyl, then CDs and now digital music and followed up with “The transition from film to digital photography is a similar example of technological change matching and stimulating customer demand and in the process completely changing the status quo of an industry.”
My first thought was sorrow for the loss of another great name from my childhood. My first camera was a Kodak and it was my favourite film. Then a feeling of panic crept up on me. Not at the unrelenting advance of age, rather a concern that I might not be applying STEEPLE as rigorously to my personal investment portfolio as I do at work. I tend to follow the advice about investing for the long term and I also don’t like paying brokers for constantly buying and selling. It is a policy that has worked well for me, but have I got a Kodak in there? I thought it through and I haven’t, yet. However my Carnival shares took a knock this week with the tragic loss of the Costa Concordia and the infinitely greater tragedy of (so far) eleven lives lost and over twenty missing. Sadly I don’t think STEEPLE would have helped anyone there. How do you stop a captain (who’s pretty much a god on board his ship) from doing a daft thing, from showing off perhaps? It’s a lesson the banking industry might be interested in too. I also noted, from this morning’s radio, the campaign to strip a former captain of the banking world of his knighthood; gets my vote, I have shares in RBS too!
Perhaps we should look at the airline industry. There has been a problem there with captains getting it wrong and first officers being reluctant to question their judgement. Fortunately much research, effort and training has gone into making the airline cockpit more of a team environment, with the result that we don’t often get airliners flying close to tower blocks to waggle their wings at ex-colleagues. It’s called Cockpit Resource Management or CRM. To quote Robert J. Bosier at “It has contributed significantly towards the prevention of “pilot error” accidents; it has saved airplanes and lives. But there seems to be great reluctance to even discuss the idea that there are times when the captain’s authority must be countermanded. It is clear, from the accidents noted above, crashes could have been prevented if the second-in-command had overruled the captain.” Let’s all learn from that.

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