This week, we’re getting revved up about the cars of the future! What needs to change for future car travel to be sustainable? And in the news, as Hitachi pulls the plug on a UK nuclear deal, could the answer to the country’s energy crisis lie in compressed air? Also, is “blue Monday” science fact, or science fiction?
In this episode
00:51 - Storing energy in undersea rock
Storing energy in undersea rock
with Stuart Haszeldine, University of Edinburgh
In the UK we get about 30% of our energy from renewable sources; this number is rising and will help to make a major contribution to reducing the country's carbon footprint. But the problem is that, unlike a conventional power station, which we can turn on when we need it, we can't make the wind blow or the sun shine on demand. And when both of those things are happening, we might not need the energy that's being produced. Instead what's needed is an ability to store energy on a massive scale. UK scientists have published a report that explores the feasibility of using surplus electricity to compress air into underground rock formations. The idea is that the pressurised gas can then be used later to drive turbines and generate electricity. Chris Smith spoke to Stuart Haszeldine from the University of Edinburgh...
Stuart - In the UK we're accustomed to having electricity 24 hours a day seven days a week. In the past we've done that by storing energy by having a great big pile of coal next to a coal fired power station, and then it's been done for the past 10 or 15 years by having gas pipes coming out of the North Sea gas fields and when we wanted a bit more gas in the winter to provide heat and electricity, we've basically turned the taps on a bit more and produce more gas. But now our gas production from the North Sea is declining. We're not using coal fuel power stations anymore because of the carbon dioxide emissions and we've gone over to building more and more wind power, and more and more solar power and with wind and with solar power you cannot control when the electricity comes.
Chris - So in essence we need some kind of energy sponge where we can shove surplus energy during the good times, so we have a supply for the bad times.
Stuart - That's right and the good times and the bad times worth thinking about particularly the difference between summer and winter. We're thinking about storing energy for months at a time.
Chris - And the mechanism of that storage. What do you have in mind?
Stuart - Well it's well known that the storage is available for very short timescales with batteries for minutes and seconds. You can also do storage for hours and days with pumping water uphill. We're thinking of using the surplus extra electricity from when it's a very windy day or a very sunny day. We turn that into driving a compressor, compress air put that down a borehole and that compressed air spreads out into porous sandstone deep beneath the seabed, so it's filling up like a rigid sponge by compressing more and more air into it.
Chris - And then how do you get the energy back from the gas you've compressed underground?
Stuart - We basically release the valve and the trapped gas under pressure in that rock expands back out up the borehole and can then turn a turbine and turning the turbine generates electricity in a conventional way.
Chris - Now how much energy do you think that we can store?
Stuart - We've looked at how much sandstone and how much microscopic pore space there is all around the UK. So what we're looking at is storing a very large amount of energy and it's equivalent to all of the electricity supply for the UK for about six weeks at a winter rate of usage. So that's a huge amount of energy, equivalent to like 10 or 20 coal fuelled power stations running at the time but of course this would be much much much cleaner energy.
Chris - In terms of practical application though, yes you could store all that gas but what about all the infrastructure needed in order to liberate that energy and get it back into a useful form electricity that can then be brought ashore. Wouldn't that take enormous amounts of infrastructure to do that?
Stuart - Well you're right in that there'll be compressors needed offshore. We think though the smartest place to use this is around the large existing wind farms in the future wind farms which are being built offshore of the UK. So if we develop the storage underneath these wind farms we minimise the transport distance for the compressed air it just goes straight down the boreholes which we can reuse existing boreholes in many cases, but we've also priced in the cost of drilling new boreholes. And so we put the air down there, we bring the air back up, generate the electricity and we use the existing wires from the windfarm to bring the electricity into the national grid.
Chris - Are there any geological consequences to doing this because people will worry because we've seen connections between people doing deep injections for fracking for example and subsequent seismic outcomes. Could the same thing happen under the North Sea?
Stuart - I think that's a good question and that's one of the reasons for going offshore and that is if we create small tremors with this activity then people will not be very worried about those because nobody's living on top, there's no damage to property, but importantly no damage to the site either. We know offshore there are small earth tremors all the time and we know what amounts of rock stress triggers that. So we know how much pressure we can put in till the rock starts to move and how much pressure we can take out. And still the rock starts to move the mechanics of the rocks known quite well so we can control that.
Chris - And obviously the world is bigger than just the UK. Could other people also exploit this?
Stuart - Well one of the great things about this is that the the principles of what we're outlining here around the UK could be transferred and applied anywhere that there are thick sandstones has the opportunity to do this. So it's very very portable type of approach.
06:47 - Dangerous drones
with Peter Cowley, angel investor
Holiday makers at Gatwick Airport in the UK won’t be forgetting the hundreds of flights cancelled around Christmas 2018 as a result of drones flying in the area. 140,000 passengers were affected, and the airline EasyJet said last week that it cost just them £10 million. So why are drones such a headache for air travel and what can we do to prevent a repeat? Katie Haylor spoke with tech expert and angel investor Peter Cowley...
Peter - A drone, as we've seen many times on television, is basically a flying robot. It can weigh just a few grams or it can weigh several times that depending on its use. It's used for things like aerial photography, surveillance, but it flies in the same way as a helicopter. It is usually almost always battery powered, it's got multiple rotors both for directions stability and redundancy, then it's connected via radio link to the ground and it's almost always controlled by a human being.
Katie - OK. So why are they a problem for airports?
Peter - I think the main reason is danger of a collision. Now that could be something really important like the airspeed indicator but I think the main problem seems to be the engines.
You might remember, 10 years ago, there was an aircraft that crashed on the Hudson River in New York - which was made into a movie - and that was because it hit a flock of Canada geese. But you've got to bear in mind this isn't that often. I mean, obviously, the drones around the airports are causing a problem but there are 10 billion birds flying around most the time in the US but they're only a few hundred bird strikes per year.
Katie - Actually, why do people have drones in the first place? What are they used for?
Peter - These are fun! I actually flew one on this program and I uttered a word I shouldn't have done and it had to be deleted!
Chris - The fact is, Peter, you compounded your naughtiness by then swearing because you said “I [pause] swore”...
Katie - Uh oh! But let’s get back. People have them for a variety of surveillance…
Peter - Spotting poachers, for instance, cargo...
Katie - They can actually present a real danger in this context?
Peter - Yes. They are heavy. The CAA in the states said 250 grams is okay to be dropped on from the air. There are other studies which says it's actually a bit more than that but can you imagine a drone dropping onto one's head? What effect that could have? And the issue of course is you get ingested into an engine. What could happen to that engine?
Katie - Are there restrictions then on why you can fly these things?
Peter - There are. It’s a certain distance away from an airport. The people were clearly breaking the rules. The issue is trying to catch them; catch the people and catch the drone.
Katie - And that seems like quite a difficult thing to do...
Peter - Yes. And, first of all, you’ve got to detect them and there are a couple of detection methods… There’s a very cheap one that costs 5000 dollars. It detects it, tells you where it's from, where it is. But more importantly there's a way of actually modifying the radio frequency so you can get the drone to land or lose connection with the pilot. There are various ways of doing it.
Eagles have been trained to catch them! Can you imagine that, an eagle coming in and doing that? There are other drones that drop nets onto them which, of course, then stops and drops to the ground. People are talking about shooting them but apparently that's similar to shooting down an aircraft which is totally illegal in the States. And, of course, if you shot at something and the bullet went through the air and it misses, it's going to make it to somebody else. There are jamming machines as well. So there are a number of ways of catching them, destroying them and causing them to crash. None of which really work well enough yet.
Katie - Okay. So what needs to happen then? Refined technological solutions?
Peter - Exactly. Yeah well obviously some cases where people were caught and prosecuted, some technology that's better, probably jamming but that could cause jamming to other things as well in the area which might affect the aircraft... There was a big disruption before Christmas so society is very much on the side of things changing and improving and it will happen but it will take time.
Chris - I feel this is a bit of a shame though because in the same way as the Internet was born out of high ideals and has delivered enormous benefit to people. So have drones. But at the same time the Internet is being abused and now people are bearing down on it saying we need regulation. They're saying the same thing about drones now and they say in the same way that the people who liked shooting, for example, have now faced enormous amounts of legislation to pursue a hobby that was safe for them but others have abused. We may see a loss of freedom to fly your drones.
Peter - We will. This is societal change isn't it? We talk about the big tech giants Facebook and fake news, et cetera. There's a lot happening where society has to learn to control in the way that doesn't remove the flexibility but at the same time makes it safe for all of us.
11:59 - "Blue Monday" - science fact or fiction?
"Blue Monday" - science fact or fiction?
Have you ever felt a bit low in the weeks post Christmas? Could it be related to a phenomenon known as Blue Monday? Or is that just a “mythconception”? Georgia Mills has been finding out...
You may have seen a recent flurry of activity about Blue Monday which is apparently the most depressing day of the year. According to the many websites and outlets that cover the dismal day, a mixture of things contributes to our low moods - lack of sunshine and warmth. post Christmas blues and lack of funds and of course Monday being the first day of the working week.
Although this all stands to reason it's a load of bunk. Blue Monday was made up by Sky Travel to sell winter holidays. In 2005 they put out a press release with an equation for sadness under the name of a psychologist Cliff Arnall. The equation - pay attention was weather plus debt minus monthly salary times time since Christmas and since failing your New Year's resolutions.
Got it? All that divided by low motivation times the feeling of the need to take action. If this seems a little incoherent to you i.e. what number would weather be? you're in good company. The psychologist himself has since refuted it as total pseudoscience. Fast forward 14 years later and companies everywhere are trying to leap on the Blue Monday bandwagon and persuade people to part with their cash to cheer themselves up, willfully ignoring the fact that lack of funds is one of the reasons people are meant to be depressed in the first place.
To some the very idea of Blue Monday is offensive. Depression is a serious and long term condition, not something that hits you on one day a year because you failed your New Year's resolutions or one that can be cured by going to the Maldives. It's also been criticized as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tell people they'll be sad on a specific day and they will be.
Depression does strike some people much worse over winter. This is partly due to something called seasonal affective disorder a.k.a. winter depression. The causes of this aren't totally understood but thought to be down to a lack of sunlight in the winter months which means a part of your brain called the hypothalamus stops working so well. This can lead to levels of important hormones like melatonin which helps with energy and serotonin which can boost happiness get lower leading to lethargy and low mood. The good news is that lightbox treatments can be a very effective therapy, as can changing a lifestyle to be outside during those few precious hours of sunlight.
But in general conflating temporary weather gripes and post Christmas fund gaps with genuine depression isn't particularly helpful. However while Blue Monday sprang up as a cynical cash grab, charities are now using it as a day to reach out to people who are struggling and provide support and information as well as raising awareness of mental illness. So that's something to be happy about.
15:01 - Tracking lung cancer
Tracking lung cancer
with Sam Janes, University College London
Lung cancer is one of the world’s most common malignancies. Regrettably, most of the patients that doctors see tend to present late, and with relatively advanced disease. So we actually know very little about how this disease begins and therefore what signs to look out for or how to stop it. On the other hand, if we can catch it early, there’s every chance we can prevent it. And with this in mind, what Sam Janes has managed to do, at University College London, is to follow a group of patients with changes in their airways that can be considered precursors to cancer. Some of these patients did later develop tumours, but others didn’t; and by looking back at biopsies taken right at the start of the study and comparing the DNA and the chemistry of the cells - the team have begun to uncover the molecular fingerprints that signal when a cancer could be starting. Chris Smith spoke to Sam Janes...
Sam - As many people will know lung cancer is a pretty fearsome disease. It's the biggest cancer killer of men and women in the UK, and sadly 10 year survival for people that get lung cancer is only about 5 percent. My ambition is, we try and detect lung cancer at a much earlier stage when it's potentially curable, and secondly understand much more about the biology of lung cancer at the earliest stages. We think if we know more about that then we'll be able to perhaps design ways of understanding whether people need urgent treatments and indeed, perhaps we can even develop treatments in the future which stop lung cancer forming at all.
Chris - When you say whether or not people need treatment under what circumstances might someone not need treatment.
Sam - Yes. So this is quite interesting. So one of the types of lung cancer develops in the airways and that's called a squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma appears to develop from what we call a precancerous lesion. What that means is that when we look at the lining of the lung the cells look abnormal but in fact they're still behaving in a fairly normal manner. Some do progress to form invasive cancer whereas some actually regress or disappear over time and we think if we understand the difference between these lesions then we can start to understand how we can stop cancer forming.
Chris - And equally, presumably there will be people whom you could diagnose with these precancerous lesions that are never gonna turn into a cancer and therefore they don't actually need aggressive treatment. They may just be safely left and watched.
Sam - That's exactly right. So around half of these lesions will actually never progress and in many cases just disappear. So if we were to give people treatments such as surgery or something like that for these lesions then that's really what we call an overtreatment. Whilst the other half, they do progress to invasive cancer. So if we knew which ones they were, then we can treat their cancer or even these precancerous lesions really early.
Chris - So how can you sort this out, this is a sort of wheat and chaff sorting exercise, how can you do that?
Sam - Yes. So we've spent 10 years or more now mapping out, what were really previously uncharted waters of the biology of these cells that we term precancerous. And what we've looked at is the genetic code. We've also looked at how much the genes are actually expressed. And then finally the methylation on the DNA. So these are little proteins on DNA which basically switch on or off whether the DNA is being read and the proteins are being produced. And what we found is really pretty stark, and that is we can really accurately predict whether this lesion will become a cancer in the future.
Chris - How did you actually do this because this is proper patient data isn't it?
Sam - Yeah. This is an incredible study and I owe a huge debt of thanks. Many of these people have actually been coming up to the hospital now for 10 years or more. And what we do is a telescope test where we look down into the lung with a special fluorescent light and that enables us to see these really early, what we call these precancerous lesions we can see them because they fluoresce slightly abnormally. We take a biopsy and from those cells we then look at their DNA, RNA, and proteins.
Chris - And then because you know the outcomes in these people having watched them for the best part of a decade, you can go back to those samples collected really early and ask; “Are there any chemical messages or changes in here that would have told me if I'd known this at Day Zero that the outcome for that patient was going to be what we've seen”?
Sam - That's exactly right. So we very much worked in reverse, where we followed our patients and now we know which of the lesions developed into a cancer and which disappeared. And then we've gone back and got those biopsies out of the freezer and then we look at the DNA and RNA and proteins to decipher which of those are abnormal in the people that eventually formed cancer.
Chris - And with what degree of accuracy can you make those predictions?
Sam - Really pretty good. So 90 percent accurate
Chris - And what have you learned about how these cancers do, or don't progress, and why they happen in the first place?
Sam - Yeah. So that's going to be the real challenge because the amount of data that we've produced and now published in our paper this week in Nature Medicine is enormous. And actually is going to take us and many groups around the world now, to dissect out which pathways and genes we think are the most important so that we can in the future perhaps develop a therapy or a treatment to target these abnormal pathways.
20:56 - Science of sitting down
Science of sitting down
with Paddy Dempsey, Cambridge University
At the start of the new year, some of us might have made resolutions to be a bit more active - and we need to be: according to one study the average brit will spend more than 18 years of their adult lifetime sitting down! But why is being sedentary so bad? Izzie Clarke spoke to Paddy Dempsey from Cambridge University...
Izzie - James Brown kinda hit the nail on the head. Get up off of that thing! And when it comes to sedentary behavior, getting up from that thing - whether it's a chair, sofa, or any other of your favorite seats for that fact is good for you. General moving or walking will do the trick, but in true James Brown style, I guess you could also dance till you feel better. And even if you exercise regularly, spending too much time sat down can be bad for you.
Paddy - I do a lot of research on sedentary behavior, physical activity, and its implications for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Izzie - That's Paddy Dempsey from the MRC Medical Research Institute in Cambridge.
Paddy - If we break down sitting to its actual behavior in terms of posture and not burning very many calories, basically when we sit throughout the day we're not contracting our muscles and when we're not contracting muscles, there's no metabolic demand on our body. And so that means it's going to be less blood flow to those muscles and all those things in combination; so low blood flow, low demand for energy means our bodies aren't really working as efficiently as I should be in a metabolic sense. And over the long term this can cause problems for our health. The opposite of sitting is being physically active and when you're being physically active you're basically stressing various bodily systems and in doing so they adapt in a positive way for our health. And basically everything we do that's good for us by being physically active sitting kind of does the opposite.
Izzie - Oh dear... We also talk about being physically active also helps your brain as well. Does sitting have an impact on the brain?
Paddy - We do know that physical activity can boost your mood, sharpen your focus, reduce your stress, improve your sleep. And it makes sense that spending a lot of time being inactive and sitting a lot would do the opposite of that. And in a number of our clinical trials that we've run we have seen anecdotally that participants find that at the end of a day where they've been sitting all day they feel more fatigued, more sluggish, less mentally alert. And that's an important point because from a cognitive and productivity point of view, if you're sitting all day and it's affecting your productivity, it's at least an acute reason to be concerned about your mental health in the long term, but I guess also your acute productivity in the workplace.
Izzie - But why does sitting down actually have these negative effects?
Paddy - One way to think about it is: sitting is a bit like turning on your brand new Jaguar or Ferrari and letting it idle all day. It sort of gets all gunked up. Things are gonna go wrong, and that's not too dissimilar to what's going on in our bodies. Blood is pooling, muscles aren't contracting and they're not being used. That notion of use it or lose it as a simple slogan but with profound implications for health
Izzie - The large muscles of the lower body are essentially switched off and the amount of blood circulating slows dramatically. And sticking with the car analogy, our body is a bit like a gearbox. Shifting from neutral (sitting down) straight to fifth gear (the equivalent of a high intensity workout) is difficult. It's easier if we work through the gears and build up how much we move about. Say: how can we do that without the marathon-esque training?
Paddy - I guess you could break it down in terms of what your day looks like. So you get up in the morning, you might eat breakfast and then you've got to get to work and depending on your context you may (if you're close enough to your workplace) be able to actively commute to work. So if it's a short trip you might be able to try walking or cycling or leaving the car at home. If it's a longer trip you could try walking or cycling part of the way - so leave your car further way and walk the last bit, or jump on the train and get off a stop early. So there's ways to embed activity into your commute.
Izzie - As someone who drives an hour to and from work, Paddy suggested I could simply park my car further away from the office so I get a bit of a walk at the beginning and end of each day. He even had a few tips of how to be more active in the office.
Paddy - One of the most obvious ones is something like a sit/stand desk. The basic thing there is it gives you the option to stand and sit throughout the day. A few other tips, I suppose, that people find useful are if you drink lots of water you need to go to the toilet more, so they often think “stay hydrated! I'll get a water bottle”, which means now I don't need to leave my desk all day. But going and getting a glass of water is a good trick to keep refilling.
Izzie - Plus those return trips to the bathroom actually counts as being active. You could even travel to the toilets furthest away, if you're feeling really daring.
Paddy - Another really good one in the workplace can be standing or walking meetings, so active meetings. One of the good things about them is they actually tend to be shorter. But at the end of the day it's finding opportunities throughout the day where you can be active.
Izzie - But this all assumes you're in a position to leave your desk or are physically able to walk.
Paddy - There's actually some work out there that shows that fidgeting is beneficial because, again, you’re contracting muscles more regularly than if you were just sitting there, static. There are a lot of chair exercises you can do with your upper body. A study was actually recently done with that particular point in mind, where participants who were unable to actually stand up because they were amputees. And they did upper body grinding, instead of using their legs for a cycle, they used their arms for a cycle, and they found that that was equally as beneficial as doing lower body movements. So there's all sorts of ways, and I think if there were particular functional limitations, a really good idea is to chat to a physio because they'll have all sorts of ideas to work around a certain injury or a certain limitation. And there's always a way.
Carbon neutral cars
with Richard Black, Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit
If you’ve got a car, chances are it runs on a fossil fuel, like petrol or diesel. And worldwide, cars are a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions. So how far are we from a carbon neutral car? And are greener alternatives practical and affordable? Katie Haylor spoke to Richard Black, who directs the London-based think tank the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. First up, Katie asked, how are the current cars most of us use actually impacting the environment?
Richard - Yeah you’ve got two separate issues really with cars. One is air pollution and the other is climate change. So on the air pollution side in the UK it's estimated that air pollution causes about 40,000 premature deaths each year. But really that's only part of the impact because there were studies coming out last year for example showing that particulates part of the air pollution can actually go across the placenta from a pregnant woman to the baby for example. There are also studies showing impacts on dementia so there's a health impact apart from those premature deaths caused, so that's air pollution that's nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter tiny particles of soot essentially. On the climate change side, transport is responsible for just over a quarter of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions, it's actually the biggest sector now and it's the only sector where emissions are not falling. So there's a big issue there.
Katie - So what are the alternatives then, if you want a car and you don't want a petrol or diesel?
Richard - And you don’t want a bicycle which is my favourite means of transport. Making up for those cakes that we've all been eating over the last few weeks! If you'd asked this question 10 years ago there were really three separate technologies in the running, you had biofuels, electric and hydrogen and I think there's no doubt that electrics are winning. That's where manufacturers are putting their resources, most manufacturers anyway. There are now something like three million electric cars on the road worldwide. In the UK less than 1 percent of the overall car fleet are electric or hydrogen but that's increasing. So last year about one in 30 cars bought in the UK was a plug in model so it's either pure electric or a plug in hybrid.
Katie - Are they affordable? How much does it cost?
Richard - So last year moneysupermarket.com did a little study on this and they compared the lifetime cost so that's buying plus running of an electric, petrol and a diesel and they considered on that basis electric cars are already cost competitive because yes it costs more to buy, but actually you're running costs are lower because you fuel costs are slower and your maintenance costs are much lower. Deloitte had a survey out just last week suggesting that even on purchase price alone we can expect them to be cost competitive within two or three years.
Katie - OK so ballpark figure if you were to buy an electric car now, how much would you be shelling out?
Richard - It entirely depends what model you want to buy. I mean you've got your Teslas which are you know many tens of thousands, but it's equally worth pointing out that What Car’s Car of the Year award last week went to an economy model it's the Kia e-Nero which is a small car. One of the other issues that they addressed in their award is the range - that electric cars don't go on forever. They reckon that the Kia e-Nero range is more than 250 miles.
Katie - So our electric cars actually greener? Can we decide where we get the electricity from to put in the car?
Richard - So there have been a number of studies on this and really you've got to take it from cradle to grave from manufacturer through running to disposal. There was a study on this that came out last year for example from the European Climate Foundation, which looked in different European countries and asked the question now is it greener than a petrol diesel model? And the answer in every case was yes. Now it depends where you are. So in France for example virtually all of the electricity is low carbon, it's nuclear or renewable. So if you drive a car in France and you drive the same car in the UK, it's going to be greener in France than in the UK but in the UK we're already getting more than half of our electricity from zero carbon sources. Renewables are nuclear put together. So the situation is that all the studies show that it's going to get better because as electricity gets greener obviously the greenness of your driving - and also the manufacturers are starting to get greener with things so more and more steel for example is being recycled. So you're reducing emissions from that for example.
Katie - So are there any hurdles then to get zero emissions cars on the roads?
Richard - I think one of them is just what are people used to, you know? If you've always bought a petrol car that's probably what you're going to do. Range is still an issue if you're in rural areas or if you're an area it doesn't have very many charging stations. So up and down the UK there are something like 200,000 electric cars on the road now but only about a tenth as many charging stations. So depending on where you are - I mean you'll have one at home as well but you know depending on what your habits are. So that's an issue and I think there's no massive supply side constraints. There obviously will be a finite supply of some of the materials like lithium that used in batteries but then again the mining industry always explores more when demand increases. And also there are alternative ways of making batteries that are coming on so you can't see immediate constraints from that point of view.
Katie - Just going back to the point you're making about range. There is this concept of range anxiety, isn’t there? People being really worried - am I actually going to be able to get to the next junction on the motorway?
Richard - Yes that's right. But the range is increasing all the time. And of course you know I've been in a car and I've run out of petrol so it's not something that's unique to electric cars. Katie - What about safety, because electric cars can be super quiet which is lovely on the one hand, but can it be a bit of a safety issue?
Richard - I had a personal one with this about a month or six weeks ago when I didn't look, stepped out into the lane just in the bus station near where I live, and nearly got taken out by an electric taxi. I just hadn’t looked. So in one sense it's my own fault right? But there is an issue here. This has been flagged up in the US as well. Experts estimate that you are statistically more likely, particularly your sight impaired or something like this, to have a risk of collision from an electric vehicle. But the European Commission is on top of this in Europe. So within two years basically all electric cars are going to have to have some sort of alarm fitted which is going to have to work particularly when you're at low speeds. When you think about it, it is actually an opportunity to do something quite good because petrol or diesel cars you’re left with whatever noise they produce. With an electric car you can think about what sort of noise is actually going to be the best one to use. So can you for example have a noise that tells you more accurately which direction the vehicle is coming from.
33:58 - Rolling out cars of the future
Rolling out cars of the future
with Darren Capes, Institution of Engineering and Technology
Carbon neutral cars certainly sound like a good idea, but could towns and cities actually cope if they were adopted en-masse? How might infrastructure need to change to make electric cars viable at scale? Chris Smith spoke with Darren Capes, a transport expert from the Institution of Engineering and Technology. First up, Chris asked, what's actually involved in powering an electric car?
Darren - Simply, we plug it in and away it goes. But of course there's an awful lot of technology behind that and the way this develops is likely to be that more and more charging gets done at home. As range increases the need for you to to charge the vehicle away from home or at the shops or at work will reduce and most people will find themselves charged in the car overnight at home.
Chris - What sort of energy demand though Darren?When I plug my car in how much energy a I transferring from the grid into that vehicle. What's the electrical tank capacity if you like in an electric car?
Darren - It's actually quite high and it depends what type of vehicle you buy but it is quite high. But but but the issue really is how fast you charge the vehicle and if you want to charge the vehicle very quickly you end up with a very high amperage you end up with a very high amount of power, that's quite difficult to accommodate in a domestic setting. If you're willing to charge the vehicle overnight then that becomes more acceptable and you find that actually you could charge a vehicle overnight for 13 amp socket for example, depends on the kind of where we want to do this in the future.
Chris - I know lots of people who live on a street and they park their car on the street. They certainly don't have a cable that they could easily put the car into because their cars off of their property it's on the street. So we're going to have to think about this aren't we, because there is not just the huge amount of energy. You know are domestic power lines capable of delivering that amount of energy if everyone in the street plugs in their car at the same time but there's also the how do we get access to the grid in the first place for a parked car.
Darren - Absolutely and there are two challenges, well there are three challenges, the first challenge is people tripping over cables draped across footways which we would like to avoid. But the two main challenges there are how do you charge your vehicle when you live in a terrace house. Do we alters street lights? Or do street lights have plug in points, or do we put plug in points in the ground and recess them in footwear. And that's really a challenge that we're working on and some of the larger cities certainly some of the boroughs in London have been looking at that. The second question you read is the important one about how we actually distribute that amount of power to vehicles. One line of thought is yes actually we made double the amount of power that we need to provide to homes if every vehicle became electric.
Chris - This is literally the mains cables might have to double in diameter in order to deliver that much energy.
Darren - And it probably wouldn't be that because batteries are becoming more efficient and the way that we use power in the home is reducing. So it won't be that but it's of that order of magnitude, actually providing the power in the home isn't a problem. But getting the power to the home is and we have a distribution network around our cities which just is not ready for that level of electrical usage at the moment.
Chris - People are talking though about maybe rederiving and rebuilding our entire energy grid anyway with what they dub a ‘smart grid’ in mind whereby we were talking earlier in the program about trying to store electricity because renewables like wind, like solar produce a surfeit of power at one time, but that doesn't necessarily line up with when we need the energy so we need a way to store it. People are saying car batteries are extremely good at storing large amounts of energy and then releasing large amounts of energy very quickly. Therefore maybe we see a future coming where people share their car battery storage capacity with the national grid. So when you plug your car in you agree your car could be borrowed for a bit in energy terms to top up the grid. That will definitely need us to have better supplies to homes won't it.
Darren - Absolutely. As we move towards electric vehicles, vehicles will not only become electric but they will become a lot more intelligent and they will have a lot more monitoring technology. They will have a lot more communication technology on them. So the ability of us individually to know how our vehicles are charging and how we're using them and the ability for the city to know collectively what the vehicle is in in the city are doing and how much power they're using and when when it's available, means that there will be a lot more opportunity to do that to work out strategies for sharing power and keeping vehicles plugged in so that we charge them at quiet times and then lend the power back to the grid at busy times. These are all opportunities and this is something that's really been looked at now, how an intelligent vehicle can act as an intelligent ourselves as well as just been charged from the grid.
Chris - I think the statistic I saw was that the car is on average the second most expensive asset the average family buys after the house and it's the one that they get the least use out of because it spends more than 90 percent of its time just park doing absolutely nothing. So that would be a one way to make your investment go a bit further wouldn't it. But what about the roads we drive these cars on and the cities we drive them around? Because at the moment the infrastructure is all rigged up with the petrol engine in mind. Have people actually gone away and started to look at the feasibility of wide scale mass adoption of these sorts of vehicles?
Darren - Certainly. Again there's some really interesting questions. I think one thing to say is that truly autonomous vehicles without any steering wheel at all is probably a long way in the future. Actually what we're looking at now is increasing levels of autonomy and that has benefits of cars because as we're already starting to see with things like adaptive braking and adaptive cruise control we can build better surface systems into the vehicles by taking some of the responsibility off the driver. Autonomy can help us with that. We have to think about how vehicles they react to road signs and road markings. At the moment they don't. But people are now looking at systems where vehicles can read road signs and road markings while argument is actually we won't need any of that. You can just program all the rules into the vehicle and you won't need any road markings or anything like that, but of course the road markings and road signs and junctions and pelican crossings are also used to cyclists and pedestrians not just vehicles. So they're likely to be with us for an awfully long time and until we get to a sort of golden future where vehicles are completely self aware and completely autonomous which is a long way away, it's very much going to be about how we accommodate autonomy and how we use the growing levels of autonomy in a city which fundamentally because of the other uses of the city won't change that much.
40:28 - Navigating better satnav
Navigating better satnav
with Ramsey Faragher, Cambridge University and Focal Point Positioning
Many of us would be - literally - lost without a satnav, but sometimes this technology can lead you up the garden path and other times it loses the lock on the satellite signal at the just the wrong moment and you end up on a one way system with no escape! You could look upon it that at least there’s a human behind the wheel to keep things under control. But what about autonomous cars, which will depend upon satellite navigation to determine their position? Will they end up driving into walls or at a standstill because they can’t tell where they are? Katie Haylor went to Queens College in Cambridge to meet Ramsey Faragher who’s developing technology to improve the accuracy of satnav positioning. First up, she asked Ramsey, when we dial up a destination on our smart phones, what’s actually going on in order to get us there?
Ramsay - Firstly, your satnav is a radio receiver that picks up satellite signals from space. They come from 20,000 kilometers away, so they're very, very weak by the time they get to your satnav. And your satnav performs some maths and it allows it to calculate where it is. Then the second important technological part, a layer on top of that, is the actual navigation part. That routes you to the destination you want to go. So completely separate to the maths and the science of satellites and radio are algorithms that try to work out the most efficient way for you to get where you want to go from where you are.
Katie - Now, in theory this is great, but I can't be the only one who's been taken literally around the houses by my satnav. How accurate are they?
Ramsay - You can have all sorts of issues, so there might be a bug in the routing algorithms and the navigation part. The GPS might be suffering problems and when you're in cities it's quite likely that the GPS part will be suffering problems. The basic accuracy of the sort of GPS chip that's in your satnav is about one meter on a very good day, if you stood on top of a mountain with perfect clear view of the entire sky. There are really clever really expensive really complicated ways of processing GPS to get down to like one millimeter positioning but that's not the stuff that's in the cheap receivers in our handsets. The problem with being in a city is that the signals can be blocked by the buildings and you want as many signals as you can possibly get. And the second more serious problem is that the signals bounce around between the buildings before they get to your device. But all of the maths that goes on inside your receiver assumes that the signals are travelled in a straight line. If the signals have bounced off buildings before your receiver picks them up, they've actually gone further than they would have done otherwise, and the calculated position is wrong.
Katie - So we've come out to the back of Queen’s College. Which road are we on?
Ramsay - I think this one's called Queen's Lane, conveniently. But yes, it runs down the side of Queens College and round the back of St. Catharine’s and past King’s College as well. So we're in a very narrow street and we're in what in my world we call an urban canyon. And it means those you can see we have a very thin strip of the sky above us so we can't see the entire set of satellites that are up there. And that's one problem: you want a really good geometry to get a good position fix. You want the satellites to be in all angles in the sky. But these walls on either side of us are making the signals bounce repeatedly before they come down to the ground. So the signals from the sides have travelled further than they should have done. And that's why when we look at the little dots on the map as we walk along you'll see that it's not actually doing a good job of keeping us in the passageway. As you can see it thinks we're inside St. Catharines college at the moment and we're not. And it's just moved to the other side of the street.
Katie - It's not even on the street right now.
Ramsay - That's bouncing around 15 metres either side of the road. If we took this receiver to the top of the mountain it would be accurate to a couple of meters, but it's giving us a 15 metre error just because of these buildings around us.
Katie - Famously, no mountains in Cambridge.
Ramsay - Exactly.
Katie - So we're going to test not just the little blue dot but how your phone is actually going to direct us somewhere, so King's College Chapel is a very nice destination to pick. Once it's found the routes, we'll get going.
GPS audio - Turn right onto King’s Lane
Ramsay - It's certainly putting us near Queen's Lane. It still thinks we're in the middle of St Catherine’s College. But it knows that we need to get ourselves onto King’s Lake even though the GPS bit is struggling at the moment. The routing algorithms that plan the quickest route from A to B are still able to do their bit, even if the GPS is a bit wonky.
GPS audio - Turn right onto Kings Lane
Katie - Of course this is all very well. For a human. You can just use a common sense and say I'm not in St. Catharine’s College, I'm outside in the street. If we are to have autonomous vehicles on the road in the mainstream, I'm guessing a robot doesn't really have that kind of common sense.
Ramsay - That's right. Right now, today, people building these autonomous systems, they can pick a path, right? They can either build robots that don't trust the world and think they're being lied to, and maybe go against the rules sometimes or decide to do their own thing - that might be a dangerous path for us to go along. Or, we make the sensors and the technology that the robots rely on much more reliable and make them tell the truth more often. This is actually a key thing my company is doing: the software change that we make the GPS receivers, we prevent the GPS received from lying to the rest of the system. So we give an error estimate that's true and we improve the accuracy as well. And so that increase in integrity is what's really important for autonomous vehicles. So they don't mind being told an inaccurate measurement, as long as they're told that it has a large error on it. The big problem is if you pass some measurement to an autonomous platform which has a very small error but in fact was a very wrong measurement. So high integrity sensors are what needed to ensure that the future autonomous vehicles are as good as we are
Katie - So you managed to successfully navigate our way back to your office, even though your GPS got lost. I mean, we obviously knew where we were going. How can satnav be made more accurate?
Ramsay - So the good news is there's three important changes that are coming that will make GPS much better for both us humans and for the coming robots as well. So the first one is simply that the more satellites there are in the sky, the better the performance you get. And what we all call satnav GPS, sometimes casually GPS, is the American system. There's a Russian system, a Chinese system, and a European system. And in the future there might be a British system, after Brexit. So there'll be hundreds of satellites in the sky. That will help.
The second important change coming is that the satellites do improve gradually over the decades and have new technologies in them, and there is a new signal type that is rolling out at the moment, and the fundamental performance of that new signal tape is about 10 times higher than what we get today. So up on a mountain you'll get 30 centimetre accurate positioning instead of sort of 1 to 2 metres. In cities you'll still have the problems that we've already discussed about the signals bouncing around, and there being extra path length in there, and the maths being a bit wrong for cities.
And so the third important change is the sort of change that my company is providing, where we provide a software upgrade to GPS receivers that changes how they work; accounts for this sort of physics that goes on in the cities. That means that the receiver can cope and understand and deal with signals that come from different directions and aren't coming from the satellite itself. Over the course of the next few years, all of those things will come together to provide much better performance in cities than we have at the moment.
48:10 - Will we be driving in the future?
Will we be driving in the future?
with Richard Black, Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit; Darren Capes, IET
Are the days of car ownership - and car driving full stop - numbered? Chris Smith spoke with Richard Black from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, and Darren Capes from the Institution of Engineering and Technology...
Richard - I would have thought that cars will be around for a while but I'm not sure they'll be around in such amounts as they are now particularly not in cities. I think there's a generational thing here. I've got two children in their early 20s. Only one of them learned to drive. Neither actually drives, most of the friends don't want to drive.
Chris - Someone said to me the other day “my daughter - I'm not going to bother to urge her to get driving lessons because she'll never need to drive”.
Richard - That's right. I don't have a car I belong to a car share scheme. I used it once in a blue moon. It's so much easier than owning a car.
Chris - Darren?
Darren - Yeah I think that's right. I think there's a lot of interest now in what we call mobility as a service. You basically use the car when you need it and you maybe don't own it. And this is kind of what car sharing is and I think as technology grows that will just get more complex and we may well see the point which the car turns up it takes you for the journey you want, you get out and it goes off and it fulfills somebody else's journey.
Chris - I mean notwithstanding what we were saying earlier about the idea of your lending your car battery to the national grid to help that topped up, I must admit I do feel a significant pang of guilt when I'm sitting in the traffic jam in my car with my one passenger, me, in it and there's this enormous jam with - I don't know how many - hundreds of cars that look identical, having a car share scheme where cars arrive, pick you up, take you may want to go, would give you all the convenience and none of the disadvantages, wouldn't it?
Darren - I think it's also worth remembering that cars may get a lot more expensive as they get more technology onboard. You can't imagine something like EasyJet buying a very high tech very expensive aeroplane and only using it 5 percent of the time which is kind of what we do with cars. So in the future it may be that to get the benefits from the technology, cars will become more expensive and they will make more sense as a shared proposition.
Chris - Richard?
Richard - Yeah I think it's that fact that you mentioned earlier Chris that does make a nonsense of the way we do things now as you said cars are expensive and we leave them on the driveway. So why not share them?
One key thing here about autonomous cars is safety. We've already heard these stories from the States for example where you know cars that are being driven in autonomous mode having collided with pedestrians and you don't need that to happen too often before politicians, not to mention people, become very very scared of that.
50:54 - If you're deaf, what language do you think in?
If you're deaf, what language do you think in?
Mariana - We put this question on our forum and one of the answers came from Doug, who says he’s profoundly deaf and thinks in associations and pictures. He doesn’t think "I'm going to get a glass of water", he just tends to visualize the glass of water and associate it with thirst. To elaborate on this, we got in touch with Dr Mairead MacSweeney, who’s the director of the Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre at University College London.
Mairead - The answer to this question very much depends on the type of communication the deaf person uses in their daily life.Their language choices and preferences can depend on many different factors. For example, whether they were born deaf or became deaf later in life; how much useful information they can hear from either hearing aids or cochlear implants; and whether they were exposed to a sign language early. Sign languages are interesting because they are different in different countries. Deaf people are most likely to think in their dominant, their most used language, which could be a signed or spoken language.
Mariana - But how exactly are the thoughts shaped in their minds?
Mairead - When deaf people think in sign language, they report having a motoric feeling of themselves signing. This could be thought of as ‘inner sign’ in the same way that hearing people report ‘inner speech’. Others think in spoken language, either that they might be able to feel the mouth movements of speech, or they can visualise lip patterns, or in some cases ‘hear’ the speech. This auditory imagery is most likely to reflect their own auditory experience of speech. Deaf people have also reported switching between imagining themselves communicating and imagining perceiving, or watching the communication of others. Some deaf people have even reported that they think in written English, describing visualising subtitles or Star Wars text, disappearing off into the distance.
Mariana - That would certainly make everyday tasks more interesting! Deaf people also report thinking in different languages depending on what they are thinking about.
Mairead - So, a deaf person who uses sign language at home with their family might think of a shopping list in sign language, but if they use speech at work, they might be more likely to report thinking about their work-related tasks in speech. The deaf population is very diverse. It is these differences in language backgrounds and personal experience that affect which languages they acquire and therefore what language they think in.