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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .
The topic burning to be discussed this month almost calls for a black border around the page. Worse, I feel an urge to go out and cover up the insignias on my loyal and lovely car – and then to search back through previous columns and erase all references to its make and model. I’m even wondering what the future holds for any conventional sort of family car...
Admittedly, mine is petrol-driven, whereas the emissions scandel that has hit the motoring world mainly surrounds diesels. Though I have seen hints that petrol models could also be drawn into it. And why not? If a team within a car-manufacturer’s organization was capable of conceiving and putting into practice (worldwide!) a scheme for cheating official emissions tests on one class of car, there must have been a temptation to do the same for the other, even if the advantage gained would be smaller.
Anyway, for how long did they think they could get away with it: indefinitely? Or supposing they accepted that it would be uncovered eventually, what did they expect the consequences would be – just a rap on the knuckles?
As for their superiors in the company, did they not even raise an eyebrow when, presumably (and suddenly), the awkward problem of how to get an obnoxiously emitting diesel model through the test seemed magically to disappear? Even if there was only this implied complicity, perhaps a mere rap on the team’s knuckles was a reasonable expectation, for when it all came out (so to speak).
A further puzzle is why this didn’t happen until last month, when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a Notice of Violation of the Clean Air Act. At least two years ago, I’ve read, there were official warnings within the EU that some diesels “substantially exceeded” (on the road) the EU emissions limits. And it was already being recognized that the electronics in modern cars were quite capable of being programmed to detect when a formal test was being carried out, and immediately react by cutting the emissions to bring them within the limit.
Yet another question in my mind is why the whistle wasn’t blown by another car-maker: in any competitive manufacturing industry all companies test each other’s products, and you would think that excessive emissions might have been noticed and queried. Though a possible answer to this does come to mind...
By the way, the term ‘defeat device’ that has suddenly appeared actually dates back to that US Clean Air Act of 1970. From then on, apparently, vehicle manufacturers were regularly in conflict with the EPA, over the installing of switches and sensors intended to improve the engine efficiency under certain conditions, but which also increased emissions. In recent years, as we now know, the ‘device’ only needed to be a reprogramming of the engine control unit (ECU) so as to pass the test, or to boost efficiency, as required.
Who can say where all this will lead: to the death of diesel propulsion? To further improvements in petrol engines, or alternatively to their demise as well, ultimately? To greater efforts in developing other cleaner fuels? To the rise and rise of electric cars? I think this last could be the most likely outcome – if the twin problems of battery capacity and of quick and easy recharging (or at least how to swap a flat battery for a charged one speedily) can first be overcome.
Which reminds me of a report earlier this year that a two-seater electric plane was demonstrated at the Paris Air Show. This may sound impressive, but with a maximum speed of 136 mph and a flying time of one hour, it wouldn’t get you much further than an electric car could! Of course the journey would be much quicker, but if you ran out of juice and had to land in a field with no mains supply to it, how could you possibly take off again?
Also in Paris, there are plans firstly to put 1000 electric scooters on the streets very soon, for anyone (having registered for them) to use – and secondly to ban all fuel-burning cars from the capital, progressively, starting with pre-1997 models next year. This (and the car-free day in the city centre last month) is all the initiative of the Mayor, Anne Hidalgo. Whether the long-term scheme reaches completion depends, I guess, on whether she is re-elected in 2020!
Now let me return to the subject of driverless cars, which I first discussed here a year ago. I still haven’t seen a short snappy name suggested for them, so again I’ll call them autos. Nor have I yet read any reports of the UK trials that I said had been announced (prematurely, perhaps?) for early this year. Though I believe that Milton Keynes, with its extensive loose grid-system of roads, is laying claim to being the place most suited to the serious adoption of these vehicles.
But even in that model metropolis, how will autos escape difficulties such as a stalemate at mini-roundabouts (which I discussed before), and the recently reported fact that they cannot recognize temporary traffic-lights, only permanent ones? And how on earth can autos be protected against what is, so I understand, a simple method (for someone who is both technical and mischievous) of stopping them in their tracks – by pointing a laser pen at them, pulsed in a certain way, to fool them into thinking that there’s an obstacle ahead, reflecting back the detector-ray? In heavy rain, snow or fog, on the other hand, I doubt if an auto would be able to detect anything in front of it, real or bogus...
Actually, a short and (I suppose) snappy name has emerged: pod, which refers to a particular type of on-call, two-seater auto designed to run on pavements and paths, at up to 15 mph. The obstacle that it faces, in this country at least, is the Highways Act, which permits only invalid carriages to be driven on a foot-way! But even if the law is suitably amended, what will happen when two pods come face to face on a path and are unable to pass each other? My recommendation is that the occupants get out, change pods, and then instruct them to go into reverse.
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