To e-Car or Not to e-Car?

About six weeks ago, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I visited Eldest Son (ES) and his partner in their new home in Edinburgh.  We could have flown or travelled by train but wanted to take the opportunity to visit my Mum and Dad in Nottingham on the way, and decided to drive using our electric car (e-Car).  We have used it several times to visit London but this trip to Edinburgh and back via Nottingham (and York) was by far the longest journey we have undertaken in the e-Car. 

On the back of that journey I wrote an article for our local village Climate Action Network Newsletter on the experience of driving an e-Car.  I thought it would be worth setting out the main points I made here in case any readers are thinking of helping to save the planet by getting an e-Car themselves.

E-Car technology is going to play a large part in the achievement of the climate change control targets set by governments across the world.  Much has been written about the pressure this is going to place on extraction of the minerals required for current battery technology and, in turn, on the environments in which those minerals are found.  The balance between managing global temperatures by reducing carbon emissions and preserving water supplies and biodiversity is a complex one.  On balance, from what I have read, electric cars are better for the environment, in the round, than petrol, diesel or even hybrid cars.  I’m not going to address that balance in this post but instead I focus on the practicalities of using an electric car in modern day Britain.

We bought an electric VW Golf two years ago.  We sold my lovely but aging petrol Saab and then wrote off (eek!) a diesel Golf during a frantic trip to bring ES and Middle Son home for Christmas ahead of the Christmas coronavirus lockdown.  We now have just a single e-Car.

Our e-Car Getting Charged Up From Our Home Pod-Point

We keep the e-Car up charged up at home and use it primarily for short journeys around our local district.  Here, I should admit that my experience is primarily as a passenger – I don’t like driving, am not very good at it, and LSW takes the majority of the driving burden. 

My conclusion as passenger and occasional driver is that, if you have off street parking that allows charging off the mains and only use a car for local journeys like the majority of ours, I recommend moving to an e-Car as soon as your existing car becomes aged. 

However, using the car for longer journeys away from home is more of a challenge.  I set out in the rest of this post, a personal view of some of those challenges (and the upsides) that mean moving to an all-electric car is not a trivial decision.

Positives

Ongoing cost.  Fuel costs are between 4-5 times less.  To charge up our car for an incremental 100 miles costs about £5.  Charging at home enables maintenance of a range of 140-180 miles (for our car model and depending on the outside temperature) and seems to be a negligible cost.

Smooth driving.  It’s a nice, comfortable, quiet car to drive.  This seems to be a general characteristic of e-Cars regardless of size etc.  However, having the air-con on does use battery power and has to be used judiciously on a very hot or very cold day on long journeys.

Gentle driving.  The battery works optimally at less than top speed.  To preserve battery range we tend to drive at about 60mph on motorways.  That takes getting used to but is actually a pro because it’s relaxing provided you have the time and especially if the car has cruise control.

Charging time.  The fast charge time at service stations of around 25-30 minutes is fine for a brief stop for the toilet and a coffee; frankly, it’s a welcome break.  However, this can be longer if there is a (usually short) charger queue.  You need to have and allow time for this.  Increasingly, town car parks provide slow chargers to enable top ups while we are doing something else.

An Example Of A New Charge-While-You-Shop/Work Charger In A York Car Park

Challenges

Capital cost.  E-Cars are more expensive.  The technology is advancing quickly so we went for a 3-year Personal Contract Purchase scheme.  We can buy the car after 3 years if the technology and the battery are still decent.  The relative cost of a new e-Car is gradually coming down and the second-hand market is developing.

Range anxiety.  This is real while charging infrastructures are being expanded to match increasing demand and until that infrastructure is more reliable.  The Zap Map App is excellent in showing which charging systems are where but they are not always available or working!  Battery range varies by model, age and outside temperature.

Zap Map: Showing Charging Sites – All Clickable To Show Availability/Type Etc.

Variable infrastructure.  There are a lot of different charging systems and several different business models behind them.  The best just require a credit card but some require membership.  Some are easy to use but some are more difficult.  Some are more reliable than others.  Ultra-fast charges are the minority and there aren’t enough non-Tesla fast chargers yet.

Part Of The Panoply Of Charger Machine Types We Came Across

Service Stations Charger Location.  Ecotricity and Tesla (usually several unused chargers) provide fast chargers at most motorway service stations.  However, even at the newest service stations (e.g. Rugby) where there are many chargers, they are located well away from the main building and never have rain cover.  That can be very annoying when one sees petrol users under canopies in their petrol station and comfortably out of the rain!

A New Service Station Near Rugby; No Shortage Of Ecotricity (or Tesla) Fast Chargers Here!

Watch out for pedestrians!  The quietness of e-Cars means that pedestrians often can’t hear them coming.  Pedestrians tend to rely on sound when crossing the road so extra care and anticipation is required when driving near pavements and crossings.

One Final Positive

It feels like it’s doing good.  Our investigations convinced us that, on balance, e-Cars are better for the environment than conventional/hybrid carsBatteries will get better, chargers will get faster, new and less intrusive ways of charging will be introduced, and even better technologies that require fewer mineral resources will be developed.  Ideally we would all buy and use fewer cars regardless of type since they all are heavy generators of carbon emissions and pollution (from tyre wear for example).  Until then, LSW and I have reduced our day to day carbon emissions; a warm feeling.

Charging At A Covid Test Centre Near Nottingham

In summary, journeys in an electric car take longer and need more planning.  The charging infrastructure away from home (where off-street charging is a big asset) is barely keeping pace with demand and is still too variable in the UK, but it is developing rapidly.  The driving experience is different but, in my view, better – provided you are not in a hurry (and I’m usually not now I’m retired!)  On balance, LSW and I think that the move to an e-Car is a decision that has worked for us so far.

We hope to journey to Northern Ireland to visit Youngest Son and his partner later this week – coronavirus tests permitting.  There is the Irish Sea in the way so, on this journey, we are flying and not using the e-Car.  We will help to save the planet this time just by offsetting the carbon from the flight with a SolarAid donation. 

Life Drifting Along

Our Hamlet

The Westernmost Part Of Our Hamlet

This picture of our hamlet in Gloucestershire is a picture of sunny tranquillity.  That is, until you realise this is taken by a tree feller, who for two days, seared the air with the noise of his chainsaw!

Despite that aural intrusion, the last couple of weeks of lockdown has been peaceful and, frankly, have felt like a very pleasant, seamless drift from one day to the next.  The only things that keep me aware of what day it is are the maintenance of our routine of sourdough bread at the weekends and the date labels on my Guardian newspaper subscription vouchers.  I do wonder when and how the lockdown will end but, in the meantime, no complaints here yet.

Blue, Vapour Trail Free Skies Above Quintisential English Countryside

Blue, Vapour Trail Free Skies Above Quintessential English Countryside (And One Of The First Wind Turbines In The Country)

What might become boredom has been fended off by the recognition that there is always an endless number of jobs to do in the garden (and the good weather in which to do them) and some work to promote our village climate action group.  On the latter I have been interested in following up the themes that arose at out village meeting just before the lockdown that related to strengthening community cohesion, neighbourliness, sharing and mutual support.

Of course, a number of community based initiatives related to the virus outbreak are already underway in the village independent from our climate action group.  One group are making protective headgear for front line medical staff using 3-D printers.  Another, including Long-Suffering Wife (LSW), is sewing up gowns for nurses.  Our climate action group wants to build on that community spirit while focusing on things that reduce carbon emissions.

The WhatsApp Group that LSW set up in early April for sharing of services and things in our hamlet has been very successful.  Similar groups are already up and running in other hamlets around the parish.  Together with the village Facebook presence, they have served as useful support mechanisms during the lockdown.  A new group that our village climate action group established that is specifically focused on sharing seeds, seedlings, plants and surplus crops has also thrived.  Social media technology is really helping with social cohesion although we are also using old fashioned means of notice boards and local magazines to ‘spread the word’ to those who don’t use it.

Sourdogh Starter, Kombucha Scoby, Carpet Cleaner And Rhubarb - Just A Fraction Of The Things Swapped and Shared By LSW's WhatsApp Group

Sourdogh Starter, Kombucha Scoby, Carpet Cleaner And Rhubarb – Just A Fraction Of The Things Swapped And Shared By LSW’s WhatsApp Group

It is almost distasteful to imagine that there are positives arising from the coronavirus outbreak.  So many have died, so many are worried about their jobs and incomes, and so many are suffering from just being cooped up in their flats and houses.

However it is also possible to recognise that the lockdown introduced to dampen the Covid-19 infection rate has had some beneficial impact on community spirit, carbon emissions and air quality.  We are spending more time communicating with our neighbours (albeit while socially distancing) and we are working, entertaining ourselves and shopping more locally, and are therefore driving and flying less.

One Of The Innovations That Has Sprung Up In Our Hamlet - One Of Three A Joke-A-Day Boards

One Of The Innovations That Has Sprung Up In Our Hamlet – One Of Three ‘Joke-Of-The-Day’ Boards

Given that the ongoing climate emergency is going to eventually come back to be the headline risk to humanity, the question becomes: how do we sustain the effects of the lockdown that have had a positive impact on carbon emission levels and community resilience against the climate emergency, beyond the lockdown?

The area I am thinking about most at the moment is whether we can find ways of sustaining at least the majority of the extra revenue that has resulted from many more people in the using our Community Shop during the virus outbreak.  Revenues and footfall have more than doubled and so the shop is thriving relative to normal operation.  The shop has long been a great community asset but it is now even more of a hub around which neighbourliness, gossip and information can circulate.  It would be great to sustain some of those economics and the stronger social feel after the lockdown is eased, not least because local shopping will reduce carbon emissions in line with the objectives of our climate action group.

IMG_6020

Meanwhile, Zoom meetings are keeping LSW and I in touch with our sons in London and various friends – possibly more than usual in fact.  The ‘Clap for Carers’ session on Thursday evenings is becoming an ever more sophisticated event in our hamlet with a trumpet player now accompanying the saxophonist that started the musical dimension.  These events are ripples on a steady drift through a largely unchanging stream of locked down days.

Carpets Of Wild Garlic Amid Beech Trees

Carpets Of Wild Garlic Amid Beech Trees

How fortunate it is for me that the weather is so warm and sunny and I have the means to enjoy it.  The local woods have been full of bluebells and now are strewn with carpets of wild garlic.  The trees and hedgerows have that brilliant green foliage that Spring brings.  The skies are blue and populated with attractive clouds rather than the vapour trails of aeroplanes.  The birds seem louder and happier this year and the lambs more numerous.  My phone is full of pictures of sweet little lambs; how many does one need?

Stay safe!

Life on Mars

As forecast in my last blog post, Eldest Son (ES) arranged for me to pop up to London one last time before Christmas to see an exhibition at the Design Museum called Moving to Mars.  ES has always been interested in Space and films about alien life and we both enjoyed the film The Martian a few years ago which addressed many of the challenges of living on Mars.  We were both keen to go to the exhibition and it felt nice being organised to do so.

The Design Museum, Kensington, London

The Design Museum, Kensington, London

The exhibition was full of video and interactive exhibits.  It was just as well that we went at a quiet time; otherwise, the waiting to get access to each one would have been onerous.  As it was, we were able to sample everything without queues and at our own pace.

Mars

Mars

The exhibition started with a history of the astronomy relating to Mars.  Most interesting here was the build-up of the legends concerning the canals of Mars.  These were thought to be long interconnected channels on Mars’s surface that proved the past flow of water.  Some, including US astronomer Percival Lowell, thought the canals indicated that intelligent alien life had directed ice cap melt to other parts of the planet.  The presence of the canals prompted many stories, comics and films relating to this idea of alien life on Mars and there was a section in the exhibition making this connection.

It now seems however, that, although there was once water on Mars, the canals are not in fact real.  Rather, the images of a canal network were an optical illusion created by the early high-magnification telescopes reflecting the blood vessels in the retinas of the 19th and early 20th century astronomers.

The following sections of the exhibition included scaled and life size models of recent vehicles sent to Mars to explore the planet.  The science involved in getting these satellites and rovers through our atmosphere and gravitational pull and then so far away to Mars is incredible.

Scale Model Of The ExoMars Rover (Due For Launch 2020) And, Above, A Mars Satellite

Scale Model Of The ExoMars Rover (Due For Launch 2020) And, Above, A Mars Satellite

Some of these roving vehicles have been sending back photos and other information for years and the pictures of the Martian landscape on show were incredibly detailed and vivid.  However, one of the videos was of a scientist who claimed that a human operating on Mars would be able to gain more information in an hour than these robot vehicles can in years.  That is what is driving new multi-national efforts to put astronauts onto Mars.

Those efforts were showcased as an introduction to sections of the exhibition devoted to how astronauts would survive such a long journey (7-9 months) physically and mentally and then survive in Mars’s hostile environment which is very cold, radio-active and toxic.  There were interesting videos of how the astronauts on the current space station (there are six on board today) manage their daily routines of experimentation, fitness maintenance and personal hygiene.

Soviet Pressurised Spacesuits

Soviet Pressurised Spacesuits On Show At The Move To Mars Exhibition

There was portrayal of how robots might build insulated buildings in advance of human arrival on Mars and how algae and fungi might provide food and clothing materials (thereby avoiding the need to transport food and clothing to the planet).

img_51101.jpg

Boots Made From Woven From Fungal Mycelium That Could Be Grown On Mars (So Saving Transported Weight On The Spaceflight)

Algae Production Unit

Algae Production Unit For Food Production On Mars

Finally, there was a section showing an alternative to the approach to building habitats for humans that would insulate against the Martian environment.  This alternative postulated the idea that plant and animal life tolerant to the environment could be introduced onto Mars and that this could change the environment progressively to something more acceptable to humans.  This would be a very, very long process and seemed far-fetched to me.

Models Of Habitats Designed For Robot Builds and Human Habitation On Mars

Models Of Habitats Designed For Robot Builds and Human Habitation On Mars

More interesting were the relationships between innovations and ideas for living on Mars that could be used to survive the potential catastrophes that might befall Earth (fire, flood, pestilence, war etc.) or, even better, might help us prevent some of those catastrophes.

ES and I both enjoyed the exhibition.  To cap the day in London, we went off to a family drink and meal with Long-Suffering Wife, all three sons and two sons’ partners. It was a great way to kick off the festive season.

To all readers of this, have a great festive and holiday season yourselves.  Have fun!

From Writing to Artificial Intelligence

A relatively quiet week or so has been punctuated by another trip to London and the return from Australia of Youngest Son (YS).  YS and his Northern Irish girlfriend have been working (and playing) successfully in Australia for almost three years.  It’s great to have YS back in closer proximity after so long but I’m sorry we no longer have such a good excuse to visit Australia!

YS At Heathrow.  Big Hug Imminent!

YS At Heathrow. Big Hug Imminent!

It will be interesting to see how things work out for YS and his girlfriend in London during such a precarious time for the United Kingdom.  Fortunately, they very excited by the prospect and are far more optimistic about life in general than I.  They made a great life in Australia from a standing start and I’m sure they will employ their energy and contacts to do the same in London.

I continue to make the most of my opportunities to visit the excitement of London with overnight stays in my old flat.  I based my trip up to London this time around another reunion of old work colleagues – this time from a bank I worked at 15 years ago.  Once that get together was in the diary I could fit in other things around it.  I saw a film (High Life) with Eldest Son (ES) (which was more interesting than truly enjoyable) and, as has become my norm, went to The Lantern Society Folk Club and a couple of exhibitions.

The first of these exhibitions was a history of Writing at the British Library.  This shows how different types of writing emerged amongst early human communities roughly simultaneously in a several different places across the globe.  This accounts for the huge variation in language types and structures and also the variety of writing styles and media through modern history and today.

A Limestone Stela With Classical Heiroglyphs

A Limestone Stela With Classical Hieroglyphs (The Oldest Object Held By The British Library)

The exhibition then focuses on the development of our alphabet from images (e.g. an ox head shape for the letter ‘a’) used in Egypt.  These were refined progressively through simplification and transformation by the Phoenicians, the Greeks then the Italians and, especially, the Romans (who got us writing from left to right).  Further evolution of our western writing styles, fonts and media to develop readability, speed of writing and then mass production are explained clearly and interestingly with lots of tangible examples.  I became thoroughly absorbed in the exhibition.

img_3582.jpg

A Japanese ‘Four Treasures Of The Study’ – Ink (Made From Grinding An Ink Stone With Drops Of Water) And Brushes In A Beautiful Box

The British Library has such beautiful texts in its possession to illustrate every development in the art and science of writing.  In addition to the examples of writing, there were sections on writing materials spanning examples of use of clay, wax, metal, stone, skin, palm leaves and, of course, the early efforts to produce paper (by the Chinese).  Printing innovations, writing implements (including a comparison between mass produced BIC biros and Montblanc fountain pens) and much more is covered.  It is a multi-faceted and fascinating exhibition.

A 1977 Vintage Macintosh Apple II Computer

A 1977 Vintage Macintosh Apple II Computer (Part Of The Section Illustrating Progression of Typewriters to Computers And Word Processing)

Less successful is the exhibition of Artificial Intelligence (AI); More Than Human at the Barbican.  I am very interested in this topic and was looking forward to the exhibition.  It is large and I spent three hours viewing it.  However, I left vaguely unsatisfied; I’m not sure I have worked out all the reasons why yet.

I went on the first day of the exhibition and some of the interactive exhibits needed tweaking to be successful.  But a more fundamental weakness is the amount of space devoted to cultural roots relating to the human desire to animate the inanimate and to create non-human life (Frankenstein for example).  This meant that, for me, there was insufficient focus on current and future use of AI.

The history of AI is laid out in detail and was a little overwhelming.  I invested a lot of time in understanding the key developmental moments, the surges in optimism surrounding the AI technology (the ‘Golden Ages’) and the periodic ‘winters’ when that optimism seemed misplaced.  There is also good information that I recall from when I used to work in Information Technology on the differences between Expert Systems and Learning Systems, and between simulation, understanding and intelligence.

Exhibits In The AI: More Than Human Exhibition

Exhibits In The AI: More Than Human Exhibition (An Interactive Model For City Planning, Aibo The Robot Dog And A Robot Able To Mimic Human Movement)

That laid a good foundation for the latter sections of the exhibition which focus on current and, to a degree, future practical use of AI.  The examples on show, though, often seemed a little perfunctory and rather unconnected.  Some demonstrated what I would consider to be advanced computer power not, specifically, AI.

However, there were some good examples too.  These include those showing how AI is accelerating and improving areas as diverse as medical understanding and treatments, pedestrian and driver safety, city planning, customer problem solving, education and even dating.  There are also sections (too brief in my view) on the ethics of AI.  For instance, these include the dangers of AI in war, the risk of bias being built into the algorithms, and of AI being used to undermine our privacy, freedom and perception of the truth.  The exhibit showing AI helping lip-synching of Barack Obama was a rather chilling demonstration of the latter.

Since I’m a Barbican Member, I can go again for free and will plan to take ES who is also interested in the potential (and dangers) of AI.  Maybe with his insights alongside me, I will enjoy the exhibition more.

Back home, the focus is on catching up with YS (while he stays with us to gird himself for his move to London) and on gardening.  Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) has got large parts of the garden looking very full and attractive.

Foxgloves, Erigeron, Geraniums And Flowering Weeds At The Back Of Our House

Foxgloves, Erysimum, Geraniums And Other Flowers At The Back Of Our House

My vegetable seedlings are planted and just await proper rain and, no doubt, a slug onslaught.  The meadow is looking lush and healthy. Just a few more degrees of heat and summer will be here…..

Our Favourite Irises In Our Garden

Our Favourite Irises In Our Garden

 

The Future Starts Here

Immediately after our trip to Split I went to London to visit the Victoria and Albert (V&A) exhibition called The Future Starts Here with Eldest Son (ES).

I am increasingly interested in the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on work.  ES has been fascinated by this topic for a while and he lent me a book on the subject recently which I am still digesting.  In the meantime we saw this V&A exhibition of about 150 futuristic objects.  It aims to show through these objects how, already, seemingly far-fetched ideas are starting to have a real impact on our lives and may have unexpected – wanted and unwanted – impacts in the future.

Some Objects At the Future Starts Here Exhibition

Some Objects At the Future Starts Here Exhibition: A Bank Of 3D Printers, Two Tiny Devices That Hold Truly Massive Amounts Of Data (360 Terabytes), And A Long Life Kit

At the end of the exhibition we were invited to complete a survey which indicated our reaction to what we had seen and how we felt about the future impact of technology on our lives.  ES came out, perhaps unsurprisingly, as a ‘Tech Disciple’.  In contrast, I was a ‘Well Informed Worrier’.  That meant that while I am ‘on top of what is going on, [I am] most pessimistic about society’s future and the impact of technology, [and feel that I] will personally will be negatively affected by change’.

This will come as no surprise to Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) who often berates me about my worrying in a variety of areas of life.  However, I think that while I worry about change, I actually can cope with it quite well when it happens.  I think and hope this will be true of technology, automation and artificial intelligence.  I won’t rush to embrace it but, as each advance becomes main-stream, I will continue to use them and benefit from them.

Having retired, and at my age, most of my concerns are for my children and their children (should any arrive).  Yes, robots may help them rear babies by reading them stories and rocking them to sleep in optimum ways.  Driverless taxis may reduce traffic and the need to own cars.  Technology may help us live longer.  But do we really want to entrust baby care to a non-human, will driverless cars really be secure and safe, and do we really want our bodies to outlive our brains or have our brains live on as a copy in a robot?  I fear that we may be overtaken by the technological possibilities before we have even begun to properly frame the right questions about them.

Driverless Car At The V&A Future Starts Here Exhibition

Driverless Car At The V&A Future Starts Here Exhibition

Regardless, technological advance is here and accelerating.  The impact on the nature of work will be huge.  My sons seem to welcome this but I wonder if even they can envisage the depth of change that is coming.  I’ll return to this subject here when I have re-read ES’s book: The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford.  It sets out the logic for a rapid decline in the availability of human employment.  Even for someone who has retired and already moved voluntarily into post-work mode (with the backing of 40 years of work and savings), I found it pretty scary (and well written).

A true ‘post-work’ society, where robots have replaced the labour of not only routine manufacturing and distribution jobs but also many white collar and middle management roles, will certainly be very different from that of today.  I’m interested to see the development of coping mechanisms that such a society will require to combat the dangers of control by a few technology owners, growing financial inequality threatened by such concentration of power, and the sheer amount of ‘free time’ people may have.

After the exhibition, ES and I also dropped in on an V&A exhibition about modern Videogames.  We both loved this – especially ES since computer games are pre-occupation in day to day work as well as a regular pastime.  Watching and playing some of the games was very amusing and the increasing emphasis on atmosphere and emotions in modern games was interesting.  It was another well laid out exhibition and I became a member of the V&A so I can attend more for free in the future.  I’m looking forward to using some of my post-work time for that!

Examples Of Modern Videogame Artwork at the V&A Videogame Exhibition

Examples Of Modern Videogame Artwork at the V&A Videogame Exhibition (Bloodborne, The Graveyard and Journey)

That weekend was capped off by a further visit to my Best Man (BS) in Cambridgeshire.  We spent time catching up as usual but also sorted about half of his vast collection of CDs into alphabetical order – just the sort of task I love.  We also saw Forest Green Rovers eke out a fine draw at MK Dons and visited his previous place of work at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Bedfordshire.  We were blessed with lovely weather (and a great Forest Green Rovers performance) and I had a very enjoyable time.

The Royal Society For The Protection Of Birds HQ and Grounds

The Royal Society For The Protection Of Birds (RSPB) HQ and Grounds

After a relatively quiet week, the weekend just past was dominated and enhanced by the visit of Middle Son (MS), his girlfriend, her dad, his wife and their two young boys.  They were all attending a wedding nearby so stayed with us for a couple of days.  It was lovely to see MS and his girlfriend again and to meet her family.  Having all this leisure time in retirement makes accommodating such visits so much more relaxing than it would have been a couple of years ago when I would have been checking work email and rushing back to London on a Sunday afternoon.  We had a great weekend.

Now I’m off to London to make more use of my V&A membership, see a film with ES and catch up with a bunch of old London friends.  Busy, busy, busy…..