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Diesel train replacement, Galaxy Fold delay and more: best of the week's news

Image credit: Network Rail

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.

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

MPs launch inquiry into replacements for diesel trains

I’m a fan of parliamentary select committees. Usually, once their members have served for a while they become pretty knowledgeable about their areas of interest, and they are good at asking awkward questions when they suspect that a ministerial or commercial sales pitch is overoptimistic. In this case, it looks as if the Transport Committee’s scrutiny of ‘alternatively fuelled trains’ will want to know not only what technology is being developed but also how feasible its implementation will be, and whether the government is really willing to pay for it. There are also questions about how new trains should be designed in order to attract passengers, and a heavy hint that maybe electrification should be higher up the agenda.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen a report about an EU study of fuel-cell trains which suggests that infrastructure costs will be a problem where there are few trains or low daily mileage (in other words, where electrification would be a low priority). On the other hand, the UK government's Infrastructure and Projects Authority has just put out a report called ‘Lessons from transport on the sponsorship of major projects’, which includes this telling sentence: "Sponsors can inadvertently increase technical systems integration risk by establishing requirements which encourage ‘bleeding edge’ specifications and require solutions that cannot be met with proven technology and require new technologies or new combinations of technology to address.” On that basis, maybe it would be as well to begin running highly innovative trains on a minor branch line where there’s no interaction with anything else, despite the cost, then gradually introduce them on slightly busier and more complex routes, ironing out the snags one step at a time.

Also, just this morning I came across an article about transport biofuels that led me to wonder whether biodiesel might have a role on the railways. It wouldn’t be a zero-emission solution, but might still be cleaner overall than fossil-fuel diesel. At the moment I believe it would be too expensive, but does anyone know whether it’s technically feasible as a drop-in alternative? I’d like to know. And given that battery/hydrogen alternatives are a long way off for the heaviest trains, how much ‘greener’ do diesel freight trains have to become for government policy to encourage freight off the roads and onto rail (given that heavy lorries are also getting cleaner)? I know my musings are now getting beyond the scope of the inquiry that triggered them, but these are all interesting topics to discuss.

Hilary Lamb, technology reporter

Women engineers: are more role models the answer?

It can’t do any harm to continue promoting forgotten historic women and brilliant modern women in STEM, and few would want to accuse organisations like WISE and WES (as well as many corporations) of wasting time by including role models in their campaigns to redress the stark gender disparity in STEM careers – particularly engineering. However, as Dr Jess Wade is quoted as saying: “None of them [are] evidence-based and none of them work.”

I do feel some scepticism about the intense focus put on role models when it comes to encouraging young women to consider technical careers. First, because there are so many other barriers that exist to keep women out: study after study has shown that female candidates are perceived as weaker than identical male candidates, women continue to be paid considerably less than their male colleagues in engineering, women report widespread casual sexism and harassment in the industry, and from the moment they are born women have it hammered into them that their male peers are naturally better suited to logical tasks (which make for the most prestigious and lucrative careers). There’s also the small matter of most women having to take a break from their careers to push a new human being out of their body and recover from that trauma while becoming responsible for that dependent person. Ensuring that women engineers are prominent – especially for children – is obviously insufficient for overcoming these enormous barriers.

The second reason I am sceptical about these role-model-focused campaigns is that most children never choose strangers as their role models. Ask a group of children who their role models are, and they will list a) famous people: historic figures and modern celebrities (including celebrity engineers like Elon Musk) and b) people close to them, such as their parents. The women in engineering who go into schools and talk to children about STEM careers are doing laudable work challenging assumptions about what engineers look like and what they do, but to call them ‘role models’ is to use the term very loosely.

I truly hate to be sceptical about these campaigns, but I can’t help but feel that parading ‘role models’ for women in STEM is like putting a plaster over a leg which broke long ago and never got set straight. As far as I can see (and I would be delighted to be proved wrong) organisations have been trying to promote technical careers to young women for years with limited success in driving down the gender divide in engineering, and nothing short of massive social upheaval will do the trick.

Jack Loughran, news reporter

Apple CEO Tim Cook renews call for regulation of technology

An apparently honourable statement from the Apple boss, although I can’t help but feel a little sceptical about his intentions. Apple’s business model differs from rivals such as Google in that hardware sales are what bring in the majority of revenue. Google, on other hand, uses its services, such as Android OS and search, to effectively mine users for data that it can sell to advertisers.

Cook realises that legislative restrictions on mining user data would not be good for companies such as Google, which makes Apple inherently more competitive. While Apple is much more privacy focused than its rivals – a selling point in its own right, many would agree – where is Cook’s criticism of atrocious working practices in China? Foxconn, the largest manufacturer of iPhones, has long been associated with awful conditions in its factories, a situation that has been alleged to be linked to suicides by its workers.

Cook has been mysteriously quiet about this since he visited the Foxconn factories in 2011; his morals around user privacy clearly don’t extend this far. Furthermore, this is something that Apple could have a major impact on, when the profit margins per iPhone are the largest in the industry and it is the most popular smartphone globally. The company could enshrine ethical manufacturing processes in its supply chain and even make it another selling point for consumers by removing some of the background guilt associated with buying tech from China. But this would result in marginal profit degradation unlike tighter privacy restrictions. This is clearly where Cook’s motivations lie.

Rebecca Northfield, assistant features editor

Samsung delays Galaxy Fold release after reviewers complain about display issues

Ah, Samsung. You tried. First you had an exploding phone. Now you have a bendy one that snaps.

So, the multinational conglomerate has delayed the launch of its Galaxy Fold smartphone after people complained the early units are riddled with issues. No surprise there, seeing as you want to make a foldable phone that doesn’t break. A usually solid, complex piece of technology.

When closed, Samsung’s latest smartphone is about the same size as a chunky smartphone, but opens up to become tablet-sized. The durability of the devices, however, came into question following reports that the screens were malfunctioning after a matter of days. To be honest, when you have that kind of tech in your hands, it’s no wonder there was a lot of bend and snap.

Some reviewers removed what they thought was a screen protector, which turned out to be a key component. Apparently, that wasn’t made clear to them. Gutted.

There were also problems with the hinge that caused display issues, despite Samsung’s claims the Fold can be opened and closed 200,000 times, or 100 times a day for five years.

I guess it’s back to the bendy drawing board, guys.

Siobhan Doyle, assistant technology editor

Musk claims Tesla is less than two years from fully driverless vehicle production

Elon Musk has announced that Tesla will make a driverless vehicle without steering wheels or pedal controls by the second quarter of next year. He spoke of this during a webcast, unveiling a microchip that he says will give his vehicles fully autonomous capabilities.

Musk’s ambitious claims about what the company can achieve have been met with scepticism from many experts in the field. Steven E Shladover, a retired engineer at the University of California, is one of the many who have questioned Musk’s motives, describing the company’s ambitions as “hype” and saying that the technology doesn’t exist to do what Musk is claiming.

Not only has Musk’s driverless chip been the talk of the town, but it has also added to the never-ending criticism of “full self-driving” and concerns over fully autonomous vehicles taking over our roads. And I don’t blame those who feel uneasy about this concept.

The idea that a car will handle all aspects of driving in most circumstances with no intervention is a rather scary one. You’d want to have some sort of control of the car as safety precaution more than anything, and Musk’s ambitions to not have steering wheels or pedals is quite frankly terrifying to think about. There’s no way that I would purchase a vehicle I have no control over.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Huawei cleared to build the UK’s 5G networks with catch

Now, this is what I believe you would call a ‘rum do’. We live in an age when one of our most progressive technologies – communications – is widely distrusted by the vast majority of people who use it. I think that we all now believe that being the victim of some sort of cyber-security scam or breach in the not too distant future is inevitable and merely hope we don’t get hit too hard. At the same time we place more and more of our personal information into cyberspace, where it makes us vulnerable. There is, of course, nothing new in this; it is the social trend of our times.

Equally, good old-fashioned ‘nationalism’ remains as strong as ever. Not just evidenced by the British Brexit vote really being an anti-immigrant vote, but also across the globe as Trump, Putin et al thump chests to appeal to those with limited horizons. And the Chinese, with their fingers in every international pie these days, are who the finger points at when it comes to mistrust and conspiracy theories. There is, of course, also nothing new in this; it is the geopolitical trend of our times.

Two things have emerged from this current story. The first is that we are all at last converging on a common pronunciation for Huawei, which will probably turn out to be useful when we buy phones in the future. The second is that it is laughable that it is British politicians casting the first stone in the trust debate. Here we have our security council – surely the impregnable nucleus of the inner sanctum of British intelligence – leaking details to the press about a supposedly untrustworthy foreign company. And the UK is supposed to be the home of irony!

We are so used to our MPs disappointing us with their behaviour that this aspect may go under the radar, although it seems that this story could be gathering momentum at the time of writing. But by treating this issue as just a routine chapter in the manual of political machinations, these senior government officials further diminish the public’s faith in them and the institution of government. In my opinion all of them should be suspended until an enquiry reveals who the culprit is. And that individual should not work in public office again.

There is, of course, nothing new in politicians letting us down, but complete lack of moral fibre and sense of public service appear to be the British political trend of our times. National security is important, but it seems that if we want that security to be tight we need to look much closer to home before pointing an accusatory finger to the East.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Austrian government floats ban on online anonymity

Austria is proposing a new law that would require operators of larger online forums to provide authorities with the names and addresses of users who post comments and contribute content. This is mainly to feed investigators with information to stop those suspected of defamation or who have caused a stir with insults. Implementation is planned for 2020.

Whoever is furious and outraged now, I am entirely with you. I would argue that the main problem is that the proposal is badly thought through. Let me start with the more healthy side of things. There are gaps in the proposal that could cause changes in Austria’s online commenting culture; perhaps not entirely bad ones. 

Online comments on larger forums and social media platforms could migrate to smaller sites. The stipulation merely includes platforms with more than 100,000 users and a higher revenue. For those living in Austria (who want to stay anonymous in their ranting), this is a chance to revive your blog domain again and moan at great length about politicians like Christian Schilcher – a member of the anti-immigration Freedom Party, who published a racist poem in the Easter edition of his partys regional newspaper.

This bring up another major problem. Smaller forums, many of them tiny and perhaps hate-spreading sites – like those extreme right communication portals such as ‘unzensuriert.at – will not fall under this ruling and could be off the hook without receiving the attention that they deserve. This would need to be solved, and is currently ignored by the proposal.

Enforcement of the law will become a whole different issue – not so much for authorities but for larger online platforms that are required to submit data and then to be left to their own devices. It will emerge as a double-edged sword to comply but not lose readers and commentators (and, let’s be honest, sometimes the comments are the most entertaining part of a story). On the one hand, platforms will want to keep those who want to engage in content, on the other, they will definitely want to avoid paying hefty fines.

Some, including me, see a constitutional problem in the law, perhaps colliding with the human right to freedom of expression, according to European conventions. The proposal would need to be fundamentally reworked to satisfy my standards – but then I am not living in Austria. Lets just hope that the rest of Europe is not acting as the next copycat adopter for such a proposal.

Dickon Ross, editor in chief

Climate change: how to save the world in 12 years

Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, whatever you think of the climate change protestors in London over the last few weeks, they have raised the profile of the issue. Underlying their pessimism over the state of the environment is a kind of optimism that it is not too late. Is that misplaced? Can anything really effective be done to meet environmental targets or will it just all be too late? We hope that ingenuity will find a way, that engineering will come to the rescue where policy has fallen short of whats needed. But can it come quickly enough? In our latest issue, Tereza Pultarova asks a range of energy industry experts what can be done in time to really make a difference if the will was really there. Simon Harrison, chair of the IETs Energy Policy Panel, says a decade would be too short to start research into new technologies to solve the crisis but thankfully sufficient technologies are already there and could, in theory, be brought on to make the difference. So we have the technology, but do we have the will? Perhaps the protestors are right to be optimistic after all. Read our feature and see what you think. 

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Government information made accessible via smart speakers

This sounds like a good idea on the face of it. With so many households now equipped with voice-activated smart speakers and virtual assistants, doesnt it make sense to tailor government services so that the public can get answers to commonly asked questions just by asking out loud?

I can perhaps buy into the idea that this would work for simple queries like when the next bank holiday is or how to apply for a passport, two of 12,000 examples that were tested in a six-month trial by the Government Digital Service. Having tried to deal with the HMRC’s existing telephone ‘helpline’ for queries about tax issues, though, I’m sceptical about how useful it’ll be for anything even a little bit more complex. On at least one occasion, I found myself in a loop where the robot call handler kept prompting me to describe what I wanted to discuss, but because it couldn’t understand my reply would end up cutting me off completely. That was simply frustrating. I can imagine that another situation I’ve been in when trying to explain to a similar interface that I needed to find out what to do following a family bereavement and took a few goes to find words the system could recognise would be genuinely distressing if the conversation was with a home assistant.

Of course, there’s an Orwellian aspect of this, when it’s recently been revealed that Amazon has thousands of staff who spend their day going through recordings of customers’ Alexa voice requests as part of efforts to improve Alexa’s language-processing ability. How happy would you be about them listening in on you asking about a sensitive topic like how to go about getting married, which is another of the examples the government believes could be handled in this way?

On the lighter side, you can’t help suspecting from gov.uk’s suggestion that this will be a boon for “people who find computers and phones hard to use”, that a big target audience are elderly people who are reluctant to seek information online and prefer the relatively expensive alternative of phoning up and talking to a real human being. Without being uncharitable, I think we can all imagine how a lot of those conversations between Alexa and irate pensioners chasing up their winter fuel allowance or free TV licence are going to go.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Ford invests $500m in EV start-up Rivian

The modern world in microcosm: how a major worldwide brand, with over 100 years of expertise behind it, throws a vast sum of money at a new start-up, in order, hopefully, for the old guard to be able to continue to dominate its market for the next 100 years. Ford throwing down half a billion dollars for that business classic, the ‘strategic partnership’, with all-electric auto debutant Rivian, in order to secure a piece of Rivian’s flexible chassis platform action, is essentially like a hawk circling above the cornfield, hungry and watching with a keen eye for any mouse that causes significant movement in the crop below. When it does – bam!

The story is also revealing for the ungodly amount of money that Rivian has attracted from venture capitalists and investment consortiums in a relatively short space of time: just from the figures mentioned in this story alone, it’s at least $1.7bn over the last year or two. That, by any stretch of the imagination, is an awful lot of money. And this is a company that hasn’t even released a commercial vehicle yet.

It’s startling how quickly companies expect to get to a certain level and how quickly investors expect a return on their investments. These days, you have to go big or go home: there is no other way. To quote one of my favourite lines from that classic rockumentary ‘Spinal Tap, money talks and bullshit walks. Sure, give us $1.7bn, we’ll build ourselves an amazing manufacturing facility, the envy of every old car company, using only the very latest design, instrumentation, robotics and digital production techniques – because that’s the world we grew up in, it’s the only world we know – then we’ll start banging out some cutting-edge, luxury-segment, all-electric cars and we’ll see how we get on, yeah? With this massive cash mountain you’ve been kind enough to give us, we can’t fail, right?

It’s a far cry from the hard work (the long, arduous, relentless hard work) of building up a brand from scratch, surviving decades of dizzying highs and crushing lows (*cough* Dieselgate *cough*) to establish your company’s name and reputation – until you somehow end up with your stock price sliding, your profits halved, the industry you thought you knew changing rapidly and irrevocably and you have to desperately cast around for one of the new kids on the block to help you gain a foothold amid the technological avalanche you find yourself caught up in.  

The question is: how many brand-new car companies can the marketplace stand? Sure, there have been a handful of new car brands successfully established in recent decades, but the future of transport is looking very different to the past. Manufacturing, marketing, selling and supporting cars is a very expensive business. Are enough customers going to choose an entirely new, virtually untested brand over a well-established marque? It’s different when you’re buying a £10,000 car, such as a Dacia, when the financial risk is relatively low, but when you’re putting down £40,000-plus for a Tesla, that is more of a mental challenge, for both the customer and the supplier. At the moment, people are buying Teslas not because they’re the best in their class, but because they’re pretty much the only one in their class. If an all-electric, futuristic car is what you crave, only Tesla can really satisfy that desire. Once the big boys such as VW, Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Ford et al muscle in on Tesla’s all-electric territory – as they will over the next few years – it’s going to be a very different story. At that point, we will really get to see the resilience – or otherwise – in Tesla’s mettle.

Maybe the end game, the exit strategy, for these electric start-ups is that they hope to attract the serious money of the big boys. It’s much the same in Silicon Valley (the convergence of the auto industry and the computer world being an interesting side-note here), where small, young companies start doing cool cutting-edge stuff, playing around with what’s hot – AI, AR, VR, machine learning – but really not making much money or commercial headway. If they can attract enough industry attention, soon enough Apple or Google or Facebook will come along and write them a huge cheque, then assimilate their new technology into their own products. It will be much the same with cars. A realistic entrepreneur is likely to already be aware of, and open to, the prospect of a partial or total takeover bid by a much bigger, more established rival, provided said entrepreneur is not bogged down by the kind of raging ego issues that appear to beset Elon Musk, who seems determined to succeed on his own terms and in his own image, gracelessly disparaging the competition in spite of Tesla’s own serious shortcomings and huge financial losses.

It will be a very interesting journey for all involved on the road ahead, that’s for sure, with many twists, turns and hairpin bends still to come. Whatever happens to individual companies, for the end user (i.e. you and me), all these changes, mergers, acquisitions, innovations and technologies should at least keep motoring life exciting.

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