Petrolheads and pistonheads, make way for electrode-heads

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Pop the bonnet on a Nissan Leaf, a Renault Zoe or a Tesla Model S, and you wont find any carburettors, plugs, sumps or turbochargers. No, these are fully electric cars without a piston in sight.

You can still talk torque and effuse efficiency, but you can’t discuss displacement or exclaim over chrome exhaust manifolds. But the electric vehicle industry is certainly breeding equally enthusiastic proponents who will wax lyrical about range, cost of ownership, and electric charging networks.

Oddly enough, the UK used to have fleets of electric vehicles roaming the streets early each morning almost half a century ago. These were milk floats, whispering around neighbourhoods on defined rounds before breakfast, returning to be plugged in each day ahead of the next trip. Their Achilles’ heal was the lead acid car battery that was needed in sizeable arrays that added weight, cost and range anxiety.

Today, the new breed of electric vehicle have replaced lead for lithium; a considerable weight saving, an improved energy density, and a better form factor. But still electric vehicles take time to charge, have a limited range, and come at a price.

Yet the advantages are also plain to see. The mechanics are much simpler with motors on each axle or wheel hub, thus dispensing with gearboxes, engines, differentials and exhaust systems. No more engine oil changes, no more oil filter changes, and significantly reduced brake disk wear as much of the stopping can be done regeneratively using the motor as a dynamo with its integral resistance to rotation.

Having recently attended the unveiling of the Tesla Model X in Birmingham, and travelled there as a passenger in a Model S, I have to say the real excitement with electric cars is the paradigm shift in how new arrivals in the automotive industry are turning the concept of motoring on its head. The idea that your car is an extension of your world of mobile apps, basically another Thing of the Internet, is intriguing. We’re starting to see integrated navigation with your calendar of meeting appointments, the ability to have a defrosted and warmed car autonomously prepped at your front door as you step out to leave, and the a system that receives updates, tweaks, improvements on your driveway without the need for costly product recalls.

Eventually it may only be fanatics that own cars; the rest of us will simply treat them as rentable pods that arrive on demand, drop us at out destination, and disappear off to recharge and transport someone else.  Of course, cars don’t need to be electric to do this, but the change of mindset around range, charging and cost models is driving innovation in how we will own and use vehicles. Tesla may be the vanguard at the moment, but expect Apple, Google and Microsoft to be in this space soon too; electric cars will just be hardware accessories built around software applications rather like an office printer or mouse.

In the future, the electric vehicle power plant may well be a lithium battery, a hydrogen fuel cell, or a biofuel jet generator. Pop the bonnet and you might catch sight of a gold plated cathode or a silver coated anode. Polished and pimped, this will herald the age of the electrode heads…

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

 

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Drones, robots and sensors coming to a field near you

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If you live in the countryside you may feel a bit isolated from modern technology. Broadband speeds are often slow, mobile phone coverage poor, and the pace of life that little bit more relaxed. Oh, and getting stuck behind a tractor on the way to work is par for the course.

This is all about to change. Although investment in rural Internet connectivity is generally on the up, oddly enough it is in the fields themselves where the harnessing and crunching of data is probably increasing most quickly. This will also drive data connectivity in the countryside.

Farmers are gathering soil data to optimise which crops to plant when and where. Tractors are equipped with telemetry and gps to log detailed information about the processes taking place during the preparation of fields, the sowing of crops, the application of chemicals, and the yield of the harvest.  Satellite images are cross-correlated with soil condition, ground features and crop history. This is crop rotation from the Agrarian revolution taken to its next level.

Next come the sensors, monitoring weather, ground conditions, environment and pollution around the fields all in real time and alerting the farmer to adverse conditions on a hyperlocal scale.

Drones will systematically, and eventually autonomously, patrol acres of land, feeding back crop condition and scheduling the workload. Couple this with artificial intelligence and machine learning, and soon the land will be delivering improved yields and meeting the ever-increasing demands for sustainably produced food and bio-fuel whilst optimising the use of energy and water.

This is all good news for the society, and we’ll hear more about it at the Festival this year.  The farmer will extract more value from his land, the consumer will benefit from affordable and nutritious food, and the countryside commuter will probably no longer get stuck behind a tractor being driven home for dinner.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

Innovation can sometimes cause a stir…

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The last few weeks have seen residents of Malvern, the home of the Festival of Innovation, gripped by a divisive proposal; that of building a cable car from the town of Great Malvern up the steep slopes of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to the highest point in Worcestershire.

Those for the scheme cite the economic benefits that such an infrastructure project would bring to the town. It might provide a new activity for tourists, it would facilitate access for all onto the Hills, and it would create jobs and spin-off opportunities. Those against fear a ruining of unspoilt vistas, damage to wildlife and the creep of other buildings onto the Hills, an area protected by a unique historic Act of the UK Parliament.

Not to be drawn one way or another, this debate highlights one key aspect of innovation: that of change. Change is always met with resistance as it upsets the status quo. People have things to gain and to lose; the balance of power shifts, and the real outcome is generally unpredictable. Disruptive innovation, be it an idea, a concept, a device or a process, creates antagonism and concern. It also creates opportunities.

Sometimes, proposed solutions to problems can lead to other more compelling ideas.  To me the idea of a cable car per se is not particularly creative, as it has been done before in many places, and the aerial structures they require can be rather ugly. As an example, one alternative suggestion has been made from residents to reintroduce donkey rides up the Hills; these are a green form of transport and have a quirkiness about them that sits well in the town!  A bit retrograde, however.

So I think we can do better still. What about trialling a fleet of green all-electric (or hydrogen fuel cell) autonomous vehicle that does not require a cable in the first place? Despite the wilderness, the Malvern Hills are unusual because there is actually a narrow tarmac track via a shallower inclined route to the summit. It would make a great rural testbed for the technology that is now being trialled in some of our major cities.

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

BBC reports the plans for a cable car in Malvern, and then shortly afterwards their dismissal!