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PM’s EV boost, our verdict on new iPhones and more: Picks of the week’s news

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E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Theresa May announces £106m plan to push green vehicles

I visited Millbrook, the automotive test facility, this week for a low-carbon vehicle (LCV) day. A vibrant and interesting event it was too, and it left no doubt that the electric vehicle industry is on the upward trajectory. There had been a feeling that electric and hybrid vehicles are part of an industry that has been running parallel to reality – lots of people working on it but still getting into their internal-combustion-engine-powered cars to drive home every day. At best we could say that electric cars are becoming less rare these days, rather than actually common.

But at the LCV event there seemed to be more expectation that the rollout of electric cars in quantity is a realistic prospect. Not quite to the extent that Theresa May alluded to in this announcement. It is more likely that 40-50 per cent of vehicles will be electrically powered by 2040 rather than all of them, but with various research projects like those supported by this announcement it may be that technology and infrastructure will be developed to accelerate uptake.

One thing that was apparent during presentations was that various entities – like the Advanced Propulsion Centre, the Faraday Battery Challenge, Innovate UK, the Automotive Council and others – are all claiming chunks of research funding as their own. If you added up all these separate blocks of cash it would probably equate to the national debt, but even with all the double accounting, it represents a substantial amount of money. What is more, it appears to be targeted at the enabling technologies that could pave the way for more rapid commercialisation of alternatively powered and autonomous vehicles. Maybe it’s no surprise that there appeared to be quite a large contingent from the venture capital community at the LCV event – and they usually have the guiding principle of wanting a return within five years. So maybe we are at that inflection point for all things electric.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Apple launches faster iPhones and heart-health-focused watch

Apple has really under-delivered when it comes to its new iPhone. It has marginally thinner bezels than the previous generation (apparently, anyway – I couldn’t tell at all from pictures), the latest A12 processor and that’s about it. While the new processor will undoubtedly be amazing – Apple always comes top when it comes to sheer grunt in this area – 99 per cent of users won’t see any discernible difference from the A11. While a pattern of diminishing returns is becoming commonplace in the smartphone sector as it reaches maturity, Apple really needs to do something special to warrant the ludicrous prices it charges. Frankly it hasn’t done that this time.

Last year’s iPhone X actually proved that Apple could still innovate – to a degree – mainly thanks to the removal of the archaic home button and the inclusion of a massive, gorgeous OLED screen. Regardless of these advances, £999 seemed a lot for a phone, although it opened the door to others such as Samsung commanding similar prices for their devices. This year’s minor update gives no one with an iPhone X a reason to upgrade.

The XR, which is Apple’s attempt at a ‘cheap’ iPhone (still £749), effectively contains a 720p screen the likes of which can only be found on low-range Android devices these days. I use an Honor 10, which retails for around half the price of the XR, contains a higher-res screen, dual cameras (rather than the XR’s one) and the same ‘notched’ screen found on the latest iPhones. It even has its version of face ID (which is probably less secure to be fair) and a fingerprint scanner. As mid- and low-range Android devices get ever more powerful and bring flagship features at a low cost, the increasingly outrageous Apple tax gets harder and harder to justify.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

Solar and wind farms could increase vegetation and rain in the Sahara

Climate and vegetation modelling carried out at the University of Maryland shows that wind and solar farms could lead to a more than doubling of the current rainfall levels in the Sahara and a significant increase in the semi-arid Sahel region to the south. The theory is that large solar panel farms would reduce the amount of sun reflected into the atmosphere of the areas where they are installed, while wind farms would increase land surface friction and convergence of air, producing upward motion and precipitation. It’s only a model, but when we hear so much about the terrible effects of human activity on the world (especially the kind of activity that makes our lives easier and pleasanter), it would be nice to think that sometimes there are good effects too.

Cardiovascular problems could be detected wearing ultrasound patch

Wearable-sensor technology has a lot of potential uses, but there’s still a long way to go. Now researchers at the University of California, San Diego have developed a patch that can pick up signals from up to 4cm below the skin surface, and proved it by demonstrating real-time continuous monitoring of blood pressure in major arteries. It might be a while before the technique finds its way into production medical equipment, but when it does it could be really useful.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Light special: LEDs, the Internet of Things and malaria

This month’s issue of E&T is all about light and the features are all now online. We have come to take lighting for granted but after 100 years of incremental change the sector is going through a technological revolution led by LEDs. As companies come to terms with declining margins, they are leaving the business or looking to diversify and add value with connected, smart lighting. The humble light fitting could become the centre of a much bigger technology revolution in the Internet of Things. One lighting technique that has changed little in a century is the neon tube. Check out the design we commissioned from Southern Neon for our cover.

Vitali Vitaliev, features editor

Online fakes, EV sales surge, Google dilemma and more: best of the week’s news

As promised in my contribution to last week’s picks of recent news, here’s an update – the last, I hope – on my three-week-long series of attempts to make the world’s largest internet search engine, the omnipotent Google, aware of wrong and misleading links that were popping up after a routine search for my name. The latest step was a short visit to Google’s new UK HQ in London’s Kings Cross, or rather to the building’s vast and modern reception, which I was unable to bypass.

Well, I am happy to report that the links have now been removed and want to thank all those anonymous, invisible and unreachable Google staffers who played a role in solving the problem, but particularly the efficient and ever-so-helpful (as it turned out) female receptionist with a lovely Irish accent who gave her name as Caroline (or Carolyn) and promised to pass on my complaint to some appropriate people upstairs. She has obviously done so, for which I am grateful.

The lesson to be learnt here is as follows: don’t be put off by the seeming impregnability and inaccessibility of Google and other internet giants. If you’ve got a problem, persevere, even if it means a bit of leg work and door-knocking. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once said in a BBC Radio 4 interview, “My faith is the refusal to give up!”. I used to have this beautiful quote pasted above my desk.

Volvo unveils driverless tractor-truck controlled through the cloud

Proliferation of autonomous, or driverless, vehicles is threatening to turn into an obsession, or so I think. Let’s quickly sum up what we’ve got so far: cars, trains, trucks, buses and boats (or ships, as proper sailors insist on calling them). What else? Drones, of course, which can be described as driverless (or pilot-less) planes. Last week, a news story on the E&T website announced that the testing of an autonomous  tram was about to begin in Germany.

And now, a driverless tractor, or tractor-truck, unveiled by Volvo, the company that keeps producing rather nice, yet still for some reason uncharacteristically ‘driverful’, sedan cars (my first ever car was a Volvo!). I won’t be surprised if it (the tractor) is followed by a driverless digger and an equally autonomous steamroller.

What next? May I suggest a driverless, or rather cyclist-less, bicycle – both electric and ‘normal’? Or, say, a driverless scooter? Readers’ suggestions – both serious and not-too-serious – for new autonomous vehicles of the future are welcome.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Thousands of wild animals put up for sale on Facebook, NGO reveals

I’m a big lover of animals. I adore anything that isn’t an arachnid. That’s a hard limit for me. However, if I had the opportunity to buy a wild animal, even in the best circumstances, let alone on the seedy depths of Facebook, I wouldn’t do it. Wild animals aren’t meant to be sold to ignorant douches. The only rational reason to buy a wild creature is if it’s living in squalid, appalling conditions. You get the beastie out of that hellhole and hand it over to a responsible rescue organisation to get it released back into the wild, or to give it the best chance of living its best life in captivity.

More than 1,500 wild animals are put up for sale on Facebook, which is just completely insane. At least use Craigslist. (I joke.)

The wild animals most frequently advertised on Facebook were the slow loris and the African spurred tortoise. Ah man, slow lorises are the sweetest. But you should not own one. There were those ‘cute’ videos of the critters lifting up their arms when being brushed, looking like they’re enjoying it. They’re not. They’re in distress. How on earth do people think they’re experienced enough to take care of something as fragile as that? Idiots.

Other popular exotic animals advertised on Facebook include the red-whiskered bulbul (a vocal Asian bird), green iguanas, pythons and Asian palm civets (medium-sized mammals used to produce Kopi Luwak coffee).

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Climate change commitments rejected by Trump still being met by local governments

This is how the will of the people can prevail. Whatever fat-headed foolishness a government tries to push down onto the people it represents – who in a democracy are not its subjects but its bosses – the people can reject it and calmly carry on with business as usual, effectively brushing off the self-serving interests of certain one-percenters who can’t see anything beyond the pages of their bank statements.

Apple launches faster iPhones and heart-health-focused watch

Very desirable. Very expensive. ’Twas ever thus with Apple. From the very beginning, the company positioned itself as a provider of high-quality, high-value goods and services and has never wavered from this strategy. Apple doesn’t do ‘cheap’ – and became the first billion-dollar company in history because of this, despite never holding majority market share in any segment. There are more PCs in the world. There are more Android handsets in the world. There are bigger-selling wearable devices. There are more popular web browsers. Doesn’t matter: Apple makes products that people really want to own and charges a premium for them. In spite of a few rocky moments along the way, the concept of ‘think different’ has paid off handsomely for the Californian computer legend over four decades of consistently high standards in industrial design, product execution, iconic marketing and bold business decisions.

Is it the end of the road for asphalt and concrete?

If we can find ways to reuse waste plastic in the world and melt it into road surfaces, fantastic. It surely can’t be any less effective than asphalt and concrete, given the number of potholes and shredded road surfaces I regularly have the misfortune to encounter. It’s a financial fact that many UK county councils simply can’t afford to mend all the knackered roads within their boundaries using the traditional repair methods, so it’s abundantly clear that new thinking and new materials will have to be embraced sooner rather than later.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Volvo unveils driverless tractor-truck controlled through the cloud

Public shaming on social media hits hard, hits fast and can quickly snowball out of proportion to the original cause. One person who will be more aware of that than most will be the head teacher of the private school in East Sussex that tried to pull in new students with a local newspaper advert telling the story of a fictional pupil who, embarrassed by seeing the head’s own Jaguar from the window of his father’s Volvo when visiting for an open day, grows up to forge a successful career in business (due in no small measure, it’s implied, to his alma mater) and buy his poor old dad a Jag.

The Twitter mob who, probably justifiably, leapt on the advert and propelled it into the national news, focused largely on the fact that most people wouldn’t want their children to attend an establishment that promotes these kind of values. Several, though, questioned the whole logic of a Volvo driver being envious of another motorist’s Jaguar. (Not to mention that with fees in the tens of thousands a year you could afford pretty much any dream car by just sending your avaricious offspring to a state school where you wouldn’t be subsidising the head’s lavish motor.)

Perhaps its Volvo’s association with commercial vehicles like the driverless lorries it’s developing for short and repetitive journeys that, along with its reputation for no-nonsense safety and reliability, make it the obvious candidate for a respectable but dull contrast with the swish and romantic Jaguar. You can’t imagine the latter brand benefitting much from innovation that links electric vehicles with a control centre through a cloud service, doing away with the need for drivers.

Without reinforcing the stereotype, I suspect a reluctance to hand over control of your vehicle to external agents is one of the fundamental factors that distinguishes the typical Jaguar driver from the Volvo-driving counterpart. One group want motoring to be ‘fun’, the other lot are probably less aspirational and happy to get to their destination in one piece whoever’s behind the wheel.

Either way, despite not splashing out on private education, I won’t complain if any of my children present me with a new car when I retire, Volvo or Jaguar.

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