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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .
A rare scientific event is being planned for later in the year: I shall be setting out to find a newish car to buy – even though my trusty Corolla has clocked up only 110,000 miles, and recently had gearbox and exhaust overhauls. But why scientific? Because that’s the manner in which I think I must face the tricky problem of making a purchase that will have to satisfy quite a number of specific needs, in a market I’m not exactly familiar with.
My main reason for aiming to change cars soon is something I covered in this column last November: the disappearing spare wheel. I don’t want to be caught out some time in the future, unable to find a young replacement car equipped with a proper spare. So that’s one requirement. Another will be auto-gears, not just for my extra relaxation but also so that Mrs S can take over the wheel sometimes (not having driven manual for 25 years). OK, this will be a double benefit for me!
Then I shall want ‘conventional’ lighting front and rear – nothing that will distract other drivers by displaying any sort of pattern: I’ve pointed out before that the human brain evolved to react strongly to visual patterns, and mine certainly does so, every time I see car lights that are hollow circles or arrangements of dots.
Next on the list is headlights with bulbs that I can change as soon as they fail (I don’t understand how so many motorists tolerate having to drive with one dark headlight, presumably because putting it right is a job for the garage). I shall also inspect the front indicators to make sure they don’t disappear in the glare of the headlights. And at the rear I’ll want the lights to be down at a sensible level, not up high where they will dazzle and annoy drivers behind. Then inside the car, I would like the washer and indicator stalks to be the same way round as on our two vehicles now, and the in-car technology (if I’m obliged to use it) to be as undistracting as possible...
This last item is serious. The magazine Which? recently printed a ten-point charter for making technology systems less distracting. The first point alone was enough to frighten me: Drivers shouldn’t need to look away for more than two seconds at a time to operate any device. But you can easily kill yourself and/or others in less than two seconds of inattention, either by not seeing a sudden hazard or by simply drifting off course, especially on a bend. I said in January (and previously) that looking away from the road while you’re fiddling with something is a recipe for disaster. First glance down at whatever it is, and then fiddle by touch!
But I digress. Another desirable feature for the new car would be for it to generate interesting topics for this column – though I ought to be able to engineer that without too much difficulty (I wish there was a verb, equivalent to “engineer”, derived from the equally respectable profession of physicist). Anyway, let’s hope that my long wants-list still allows me a choice between a few models.
Choice ... now there’s a beguiling word. More than a dozen brands of motor fuel compete with each other for motorists’ custom in the UK. But doesn’t most of the petrol here in the south flow from just one refinery, near Southampton? Don’t ask me how and where the stuff becomes special to each brand. Are different additives stirred in surreptitiously while it’s being driven by tanker to the filling stations, or what? I haven’t really investigated this, but I suspect there’s almost no difference between brands, just the two available octane levels (premium and regular).
[A couple of readers who know about fuel additives and distribution (one being a tanker driver) have kindly responded to the above paragraph. In my May column I shall try to give a clearer picture of how our fuel is distributed and given its different flavours.]
This reminds me of yet another consumer market I’ve never really understood: there are, I believe, 24 different suppliers of mains energy in this country, all offering us gas and nearly all electricity. Some are ‘big’, some ‘small’. Some suppliers claim to be green, and one says it is ethical (whatever that means). Confusingly, Southern Electric provides gas, and British Gas electricity. As for Sainsbury’s and M&S, they used to be just high-street stores and supermarkets but now, extraordinarily, they have set themselves up not only as banks but also as energy suppliers, to join all the other middlemen between us consumers and the companies that actually produce the fuels.
The big puzzle is this: whichever supplier(s) you are signed up to, exactly the same gas and electricity come to you through the pipes and wires. So in what sense are you supplied by your supplier? For example, how can you be consuming electricity only from renewable sources, just because you are paying money to Green Energy UK?
The answer is, I believe, that Green Energy (which has an illuminating motto: “Our energy is green – our thinking is multicoloured.”) takes a guess at your usage and buys that amount from ‘green’ generator companies which then feed it into the national grid. And presumably all the other ‘suppliers’ of electricity and gas deal with the producers in a similar way. Then later, I guess, they will use everyone’s meter readings to make the necessary adjustments and corrections between themselves.
How horribly (and expensively) complicated this seems. And amid all the confusion is it really impossible for someone, either by accident or intentionally, to be drawing electricity and gas from the mains just like the rest of us, while not actually being ‘connected’ to one of the suppliers at all?
But I have another more serious worry: one minute we are being told to switch to the cheapest tariff that we can find (though myself, I also try to take into account the supposed reliability and reputation of the supplier). The next, we hear that not nearly enough planning is being done and investment made, by the industry, to ensure that in future decades the lights stay on and we don’t become totally dependant on imported gas. But the funding for such development has to come ultimately from consumers (in the main anyway). How then can it be a good thing for us all to be paying the least possible for our power?
It’s rather as if new-car buyers were spending as little money as possible in the showrooms, and manufacturers therefore couldn’t afford to develop ever more complicated in-car technology ... now there’s a thought!
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