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Engineering's gone 'socially exclusive'; Google's going off road; Germany's got rid of the combustion bit in their new "triple hybrid" fuel cell bus; and Detroit is getting greener.

Engineering named among 'socially exclusive' professions

By Dominic Lenton

British engineers approaching their 40s come from a much more affluent background than the generation before them, according to a government review of how easy it is to pursue a career in different professions.

Evidence that, in common with doctors, lawyers and senior finance industry workers, the gap between an aspiring engineer's family income when they were 16 and the national average widened significantly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, appears in one of the initial reports by the Cabinet Office Panel on Fair Access to the Professions.

Announced in January as part of the UK government's 'New Opportunities' White Paper, the group was set up to review the processes and structures that govern recruitment into different professions, and recommend how access could be widened. Its 18 members are drawn from a range of sectors and include Royal Academy of Engineering president Lord Browne.

The panel will make its final recommendations in the early summer, but has already published two reports. The first was a review of key trends and issues, looking at where progress has been made and where barriers still exist.

Its findings, the panel has warned, provide evidence that many professions have become more socially exclusive and that, as a consequence, bright children from average income families, not just those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, are missing out on professional careers.

Social mobility data gathered together by researchers at the University of Bristol from previous studies shows that engineers born in 1958 came from households whose monthly net income was 9 per cent above the national average. For those born in 1970, that figure increased to 17 per cent.

A similar trend was seen in medicine, law, finance and the media. The proportion of people who grew up in families with above average incomes had fallen in only three of the 12 professions examined - teaching, academia and the arts.

The report stresses, however, that this data reflects entry to the professions as it was in previous decades, and that recent evidence of a weakening link between family background and levels of educational attainment suggests social patterns may be changing.

Alan Milburn MP, who chairs the panel, said that although many professions are working hard to make themselves more accessible, their efforts need to be intensified. "It is shocking that despite the best efforts of many professions they seem to have become more not less socially exclusive. Bright children from middle class families as well as those from poorer backgrounds are missing out on top professional jobs."

The Engineering Council UK and the Engineering and Technology Board were upbeat about the finding that, geographically at least, engineering is a relatively diverse profession with extensive opportunities available around the country. For example, an estimated 80 per cent of internships and work experience placements available are outside London.

According to ECUK chief executive Andrew Ramsay, of the 250,000 professional engineers on the Council's register who live in the UK, more than 97 per cent are based outside central London.

Engineering's long tradition of access from non-traditional backgrounds and all regions of the UK means entrants can progress through a wide variety of routes, Ramsay added. "Qualification to engineering technician level and beyond can be achieved via apprenticeships, vocational courses, higher nationals, foundation degrees and a variety of other flexible routes, providing opportunities for any individual to achieve a senior position of responsibility," he said.

Engineering also attracted praise in the panel's second report, a review of best practice initiatives aimed at encouraging more young people to pursue a professional career. Among the case studies is ECUK's work to accredit engineers through a range of professional entry routes.

Trike it or lump it

By James Hayes

Google's controversial Street View concept is going off-road. The pedal-powered Google Trike will capture street-level images at places where the car-borne camera cannot go, such as historic landmarks.

With their complement of 360º angle camera, mounting, and onboard technology, Trikes weigh-in at around 114kg. 'Specially trained super-fit' Google employees and contractors will be assigned to ride them. However, "due to operational factors such as light levels and the weather - and what could be pretty tired cyclists - the Trike will only be in the UK for a limited time during the summer", says a Google spokesman.

Google has partnered with VisitBritain to devise five categories - castles, coastal paths, natural wonders, historic buildings and monuments, and sports stadiums - under which people can choose locations for the Trike to visit.

Riders will be exposed both to the elements and to the attentions of the public, but Google does not expect any hostility towards them. "Street View has been hugely popular for most people who've used the tool," the company says.

However, Street View's global expansion is still contentious. Last month its photographing of Greek cities was reportedly put on hold while the authorities sought clarification of Google's procedures, while in Japan the company was forced to lower the height of the cameras to prevent them from seeing over boundary walls and fences.

Triple hybrid bus heads for Prague

By Lorna Sharpe

Public transport operators in Germany have been treated to the first sight of a "triple hybrid" fuel cell bus. Proton Motor gave a preview of the vehicle ahead of its official unveiling this summer, when it will go into operation in and around Prague.

The innovative bus is the product of a cooperation agreement between Skoda Electric, UJV Nuclear Research Institute Rez plc and Proton Motor. As an established manufacturer of trolley buses and electric-powered rail vehicles, Skoda Electric was responsible for the vehicle, including its electric drive system and system integration. The project was coordinated by UJV, a leading research institution in the Czech Republic. Proton Motor supplied the triple hybrid fuel cell propulsion system, which the company says is a world first.

Unlike conventional hybrid propulsion systems, this one has no combustion engine. With a nominal output of 120kW, it combines a 50kW fuel cell assembly with lithium-ion batteries for energy storage, while ultra-capacitors are used to recover energy during braking and provide a power boost. The system is said to use less than half the energy of conventional diesel buses.

The basic vehicle is a 12m standard bus with a total permissible weight of 18 tonnes. Its maximum speed is 65km/h, while its urban driving range is more than 250km per tank. The bus is filled with 20kg of gaseous hydrogen at 350 bar, and the filling process takes less than ten minutes.

Passengers will enjoy a quiet ride, with low vibration levels and smooth acceleration. The vehicle also generates much less external noise than diesel buses, as well as being completely emissions-free.

Proton Motor has just signed a five-year agreement with contract manufacturer Deutsche Mechatronics to enable volume production of its fuel cell systems.

Consumer demand set to outpace efficiency gains

By Chris Edwards

The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that surging demand for electronics gadgets and computers over the next two decades will see their total consumption of energy treble to 1700TWh.

At the launch of a book that analyses the likely growth in consumer electronics, 'Gadgets and Gigawatts', IEA executive director Nobuo Tanaka claimed improvements in energy efficiency "are likely to be overshadowed by the rising demand for technology in OECD and non-OECD countries".

The IEA study predicts that in the next seven months, the number of people using a personal computer will pass the one billion mark. Electronic devices currently account for 15 per cent of household electricity consumption but their share is rapidly rising.

"This increase is equivalent to the current combined total residential electricity consumption of the US and Japan," Tanaka claimed. "It would also cost households around the world $200bn in electricity bills and require the addition of approximately 280GW of new generating capacity between now and 2030."

By moving to the most efficient technologies, the increase in energy consumption by consumer electronics could be cut to less than 1 per cent per annum through to 2030, according to the IEA report. This would require only a 20GW increase in generating capacity.

To deliver more efficient systems, the report said hardware and software must work together more effectively and that governments need to drive these efforts.

Work is under way in both the European Union and the US to encourage manufacturers to improve the efficiency of electronic products. Version 5.0 of the US Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star specification for power-efficient personal computers comes into effect in July. The latest version calls on manufacturers to cut the power consumed when PCs are idling.

Sustainability code demands more from engineers

By Dominic Lenton

The new version of a 16-year-old environmental code of practice for engineers shifts the focus to sustainability and calls on the profession to go beyond minimum legal requirements.

The Engineering Council UK (ECUK)'s 'Guidance on Sustain-ability for the Engineering Profession' updates the 1993 'Engineers and the Environ-ment' code. It lists six principles ECUK believes will help to guide and motivate anyone who has to make decisions for clients or employers that have sustainability implications.

Among them is the need to do more than just comply with existing legislation. This may not be sufficient, and engineers should "strive to go beyond the minimum wherever possible, anticipating future legislation which may be stronger".

The other five principles call on users to:

  • Contribute to building a sustainable society, present and future;
  • Apply professional and responsible judgement and take a leadership role;
  • Use resources efficiently and effectively;
  • Seek multiple views to solve sustainability challenges;
  • Manage risk to minimise adverse impact to people or the environment.

The group that produced the guidelines brought together representatives from across the profession, including the IET. The principles are designed to be consistent with guidance already contained in documents such as UK-SPEC, the national standard for professional engineering competence.

"The purely environmental approach set out in the 1993 code is insufficient. We now need to talk about sustainability," said Professor David Bogle, who chaired the group.

Institutions had been instrumental in the initiative. "We had some fascinating debates about what to include," Bogle added.

In the spirit of the guidelines, ECUK says it has avoided printing large quantities on paper, but is offering an electronic version on its website at www.engc.org.uk/sustainability [new window]. A wallet-size card that it hopes all engineers will carry with them can be obtained by emailing info@engc.org.uk.

View from Washington:

Can green cars save Detroit?

By Paul Dempsey

The praise lavished on President Obama by environmentalists for setting the first national US fuel efficiency standards was predictable. But will they really help the country's threatened automotive industry find new, green profits?

Yes, the standards do mean the US is finally doing something at the federal level to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, US consumers do generally seem to appreciate not just the value but also the necessity of greater fuel economy. And yes, Detroit's carmakers say they are committed to the plan - as in committed to not slashing their wrists by encouraging Washington to end the federal handouts.

As the saying goes, this 'plays in Peoria', that Illinois anytown that spends more time on a spin doctor's mind than Georgia. But to European (and, I suspect, Japanese) eyes, it all looks underwhelming.

The target is average fuel consumption of 35.5 miles-per-[US]gallon* by 2016, 39mpg for passenger cars and 30mpg for light trucks. Raising a finger in the wind, the White House says this will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 900 million tonnes, the equivalent of taking 177 million of today's gas-guzzlers off the road or shutting 194 power plants that use fossil fuels. The cost per vehicle will be $1,300, but drivers will recoup that by spending less at the petrol pump over time.

It sounds good but here is the problem: it is tantamount to giving Detroit a little over six years to reach a place the industry is close to already. There are only six US cars that meet the 35.5mpg target and just two of those are domestic (Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan hybrids). However, the next generations of these vehicles and other new models (such as the much-hyped Chevrolet Volt) are set for the 2010 model year.

Of course, making bigger cars and SUVs hit the new fuel efficiency standards will be more challenging. Retooling smaller factories to make smaller vehicles will also cost a lot of money. And, let's not forget, Obama had to unveil a plan that could be implemented by an industry that is mostly on life support.

However, this is a President who sees green technologies in both environmental and economic terms. His administration believes that their stimulation will be one of the critical long-term drivers of sustainable growth in GDP. To make that happen, the question that must be asked of the fuel efficiency standards is whether they set the bar high enough.

More to the point, some European and Japanese OEMs seemed very relaxed when the numbers came out. As one privately pointed out, they expect to face much tougher regulation in other international markets, leading to technologies that they will be able to transfer to the US comfortably within its standards. In other words, they do not openly say but appear to expect the continuance of an innovation gap that has already left Detroit in near mortal danger.

Thus, by aiming relatively low, Obama may not have broken the circle of US automotive decline and his first big attempt to green the economy may not look that successful in the longer term.

An Imperial gallon is roughly 1.2 US gallons, so Obama's 35.5mpg target equates to 42.6mpg in the UK

Battery quick-swap demonstrated

By Lorna Sharpe

California-based start-up Better Place has demonstrated an automated system that swaps a depleted electric-vehicle battery for a full one in less time than it takes to fill a petrol tank.

Better Place showcased the technology in Yokohama, Japan, using a modified Nissan electric car. At the same demonstration, carried out for the Japanese Ministry of Environment, the company charged a fixed-battery electric car from a charging point linked to solar photovoltaic panels.

The Renault-Nissan Alliance is partnering with Better Place in Israel on a project to enable zero-emissions mobility throughout the country by 2011. The teams are working together to deploy battery switch stations and provide "a steady and reliable supply" of vehicles adapted to accept the required switchable-battery layout.

The automated switch process takes about a minute, and the driver remains in the vehicle the entire time. Two robotic battery shuttles work on an automated track system. One shuttle holds the fully-charged battery, which will be inserted into the vehicle, while the other removes the depleted battery and returns it to a storage bay for recharging. The battery shuttles are designed to work with a wide variety of battery enclosure sizes and shapes.

Better Place was founded by entrepreneur Shai Agassi as a provider of electric vehicle services, rather like mobile phone service providers.

Under the Better Place business model, the company plans and installs a network of charge spots and battery exchange stations, and sources renewable energy to power the network. Leading auto manufacturers produce the cars and Better Place provides the batteries. Consumers either sign up to a sustainable transportation contract or pay by the kilometre. They would normally recharge the vehicle at home, but battery swap stations would make longer journeys possible.

Agassi said the Yokohama demonstration marked "a new path forward, in which the well-being of the automotive industry is intrinsically coupled with the well-being of the environment".

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