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Electric and driverless cars, cheerleader robots, lagoon power: E&T editors look at the week’s news

E&T staff pick their favourite news stories from the past week and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them.

Georgina Bloomfield, digital content editor

Brits keen to wear employer-sponsored health tech

The majority of British workers participating in a recent survey would be keen to use a wearable health monitor at work as long as it’s fully paid for by their employer. Sharing sensitive data about health didn’t worry most of the participants. I had a few questions with this topic. As long as employees don’t have to pay and as long as the data received by the employer is used only for the health and well being of the employee then the idea of health trackers at work was welcomed. However, what are the catches? If you call in sick to work with an unexpected stomach bug, will your employer respond with contradictary data about your health from last week? If your health looks like it’s declining, would an employer use this data to change your job – or give you early retirement? I’m sceptical.

Book review: ‘The End of Ownership’ by Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz

I really liked this review because the subject matter is so significant when you start thinking about it a bit more. If you buy a book at the bookshop, you own it, and are free to do exactly as you wish with it. You might be surprised to hear that the same is not true of e-books and other downloaded media. Have you ever been bothered about the fact that if you downloaded a book, you don’t actually own it? No, probably not. However, because you don’t technically own it, vendors such as Amazon can remove your lovely e-book at a moment’s notice. When I was at university we sometimes had to study particular versions of books, especially for classics. So naturally I purchased a Kindle as much of this content was free and it was the version I needed. If Amazon had randomly deleted my study material a day before an assignment was due (and inevitably when the assignment was started) I would’ve been pretty heartbroken.

Tereza Pultarova, news reporter

Volvo takes ‘human-centric’ approach to driverless cars

Volvo has just jumped on the driverless car bandwagon but has done it differently, so they say. No one in the industry has so far put users into the equation to see whether the technology really works for them. Volvo has recruited a bunch of commoners to use the company’s self-driving hybrid SUV XC90 on pre-selected routes in Gothenburg, the Swedish car-maker’s base. A local family has been announced as the first participants of the research project, which will eventually expand to other cities around the world including London.

Very Large Telescope upgrade enhances our hunt for new Earth

The Breakthrough Initiative founded by billionaire Yuri Milner and supported by physicist Stephen Hawking is very serious about sending a spacecraft smaller than an SD card to Alpha Centauri to visit Earth-like planets at some point around the middle of this century. They know how to do it – the microspacecraft, of which there will be hundreds, will be attached to a massive sail, which will be propelled from the Earth with a powerful laser beam. First, however, they need to find those habitable planets in the nearest neighbouring star system some 4.37 light-years away from the Earth. It’s not an easy task since the planets are overshadowed by the brightness of their life-giving stars. The team has now found a powerful assistant. The initiative will pay for an upgrade to the Very Large Telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile that will make its eyes sharper and more capable of distinguishing the promised planets so that mankind has a place to go to once Mars becomes too crowded (or too hot, or whatever).

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Driverless cars may increase congestion, at least temporarily

How driverless cars behave on the roads and interact with other road users and pedestrians will be crucial to their success. It's not a trivial problem to solve. Safety comes first, because the first accident caused by a driverless car will hit the headlines and dent public confidence. Yet make them too cautious and drivers will take advantage of that, always asserting their own right of way on the assumption that unmanned vehicles have to stop for them. Want to sit in a driverless car stuck waiting to turn at a junction? Or want to be stuck behind one? This is why driverless cars could increase congestion before they ease it. Automotive companies are working on the problem now, even employing anthropologists to try to get the cars' behaviour right for different cultures. They recognise its importance because most of the public will experience driverless cars from the outside before they experience the inside.

Katia Moskvitch, technology features editor

Chinese electric car sales eclipse the rest of the world

China loves bicycles - and it turns out that it loves electric cars, too. The country is experiencing a true electric car boom, with more of them sold there than in the rest of the world combined. Most of the cars are locally-branded and cheaper than those made in the West. It also helps that Chinese-branded electric vehicle market is heavily subsidised by the government. Sales of battery electric and plug-in hybrids increased by 60 per cent in January to November, to 402,000 vehicles. By 2020, China wants 5 million plug-in cars on its roads - a noble aim, especially coming from the world's biggest polluter.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Cheap electricity from tidal lagoons ‘could power the UK for 120 years’

This seems like a great idea for the UK. Unlike solar, wind, and other renewable alternatives, tidal lagoons provide constant, reliable energy day and night. While energy generation will fluctuate to a degree due to the varying intensity of the tides, this is far less severe than the alternatives such as solar which cannot produce any energy during the night for example. But while this seems like a perfect solution to our energy woes, political motivation to construct the first tidal lagoon project seems relatively weak. The primary concern is the high cost; admittedly at £1.3bn it doesn’t come cheap, but as the recent report points out, these facilities will last for 120 years and over its lifetime the energy produced will actually be cheaper than any alternative. Unfortunately, the Government is typically focused on the short term, with maintaining the appearance of balancing the books considered a higher priority than the long-term gains from a carbon-free energy future. Renewable technology is typically wrapped up in long-term spending with minimal returns seen in the short term, something that doesn’t chime well with the four-year terms mandated by our electoral system. But investment in this sector is crucial -  climate change and global warming are only going to get worse, that’s not up for debate anymore.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Murata's cheerleader robots make US dancing debut at CES 2017

I think I need these in my life. Not sure what for yet, but I want them. If you look at our exclusive video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8deIs8U6J0Y of the robots moving, quite slowly, around, ‘the infinite possibility of electronics’ is apparently on display here, as the tiny dancers do their thing to some really catchy music. Now, I’m not saying this isn’t cool. But when they say ‘infinite possibility’, I’m not super convinced. They’d make a great gift for family members into novelty tech, or kids who have grown out of swallowing small parts. There’s a whole lot of techy jargon getting thrown around when describing how the cheerleading team work together, but it’s not that impressive, really. Super cute, though.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Wireless system allows three-lead pacemaker insertion without open-chest surgery

I have developed a vested (if totally unmaterialistic) interest in cardiology and associated technologies of late. The reason is that I am in for major heart surgery later this year. Sure enough, I’ve been trying to stay abreast of the latest developments in the area of cardiology. These developments are breathtaking (please forgive my totally unintended and fairly gruesome pun), and their main result is that the formerly highly intrusive and cumbersome surgical procedures can now be carried out with special super-fine and super-strong catheters inserted into the patient’s vein (as was the case with my recent angiogram and an angioplasty with stents installation several years ago), or by means of keyhole surgery. The still pioneering procedure of installing a pacemaker without open-chest surgery, via a tiny hole in the heart, described in the above news story, is truly astounding. Unfortunately, the operation I am in for is too complicated to be carried out through a keyhole. But I have little doubt that it will be made possible in the future. My only regret is that  it will come too late to help my scientist father, who died many years ago while still relatively young (at 56) from a cardio condition that would have been easily treatable by modern technological standards. I should consider myself very lucky indeed.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Cheap electricity from tidal lagoons ‘could power the UK for 120 years’

Great image with this article, positing a very positive energy future for the UK, if only our honourable leaders in government would get off their oily, gassy, fossil-fuelled backsides and endorse a much greater commitment to renewable sources.  

Snapchat to establish headquarters in London

Sounds good, but will it disappear after 24 hours?

Jade Fell, assistant features editor

Toyota’s Concept-i next-gen car reads passenger emotions

I’ve read so much about driverless cars over the last week, with so many different models and concepts unveiled at CES. Some of the self-driving designs that have been unveiled are a little ‘out there’ for my liking, but the Toyota Concept-i is without a doubt the most handsome future car I have ever set my eyes on. I’m not normally one to swoon after Toyotas – seriously what the hell is up with the Aygo? – but the sleek design of the Concept-i is something of which I wholly approve. And there’s more than just the appearance to get excited about, the car also comes with a built-in virtual assistant, Yui, which uses artificial intelligence to measure passenger emotions and alters the car’s settings accordingly. Feeling a little stressed while stuck in traffic? Never fear, here comes Yui with some soothing music and ambient lighting to get that heart rate down a little. A little too relaxed before a big meeting? Cue heavy death metal. Sad? You need a YouTube video entitled ‘Cats being jerks’. Yui, you’re my hero.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Volvo takes ‘human-centric’ approach to driverless cars

Everyone retains bit of a soft spot for the first model of car they own. The fact that mine was a Volvo was a fluke, the result of the Vauxhall dealer I’d gone visited to look at second hand Astras having a well-used hatchback they’d taken in part exchange on their forecourt at just the right price for me. Like the stereotypical Volvo driver I thrashed it all over Europe over the course of several years, putting many miles on the clock and going on to stay loyal with bigger and more expensive models as my family grew up. So it’s good to see the Swedish carmaker joining the driverless vehicle parade by recruiting a family from Gothenburg to see how they get on with a hybrid SUV in real-world situations. One thing they won’t get the benefit of is the opportunity I had to open up the bonnet and tinker around with the engine. It didn’t always end well, and resulted in a couple of desperate calls to rescue services, but gave me the confidence to ask the right questions when dealing with garages and buying new cars. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the luxury hybrid XC90 the Hain family will be driving around is actually sealed, iPhone style, to prevent the curious owner from having a go at their own running repairs.

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