CA fires 2008

Wildfires, hydrogen trains, assisted driving and more: best 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.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

Experts call for tech upgrades to help fight wildfires

Wildfires and the damage they cause are on the rise on the US West coast, and issues like retrofitting and building standards that might at first glance appear a bit boring are a vital part of efforst to prevent destruction. One of the reason so much property value was flushed down the drain in the recent California fires is that older buildings may not meet current fire standards. It's commendable that the Golden State adopted fire-safe building codes, but that only touches newly built housing. Studies suggest they work, though annoyingly they ignore the latest science that could prevent even more damage.

If you own a house in a wildfire-prone area of California and it’s one of the older designs built before 2000, you’re likely to be left to you own devices to finance changes. That could include relocating away from the wildland-urban interface (WUI). It could also mean paying for measures to cater for other fire-safe building-code-related alterations.

A 2018 US study examined houses built since the 1990s and found that many ended up in WUI areas - locations in or near natural vegetation that can light up easily. As more people want to live in these areas costs naturally go up. That needs to change for the sake of peoples’ livelihoods and their assets. The state government - of one of the richest parts of the world - needs to step in and help people to finance those changes. There are similarities to the debate about how to organise the ginormous effort to retrofit 29 million existing homes in Britain.

Also interesting was what we learned from writing this article. When I researched the corpus of various academic studies on wildfires, their spread, how climate change plays a role etc, I found that the vast majority of studies concentrated on developed nations - mainly the US, Europe and Australia. Poorer regions were left out and fire hotspots in Central Africa and South East Asia are largely ignored. That needs to change. Regions with poorer populations are less well equipped to fight and battle wildfires, an injustice that can't continue given that these areas tend to be less responsible for emissions and climate change.

Another thing we learned concerns wildfires in Europe and the UK. Climate change already increases the chance of wildfires in Britain, researchers say. Across Europe, wildfires became more prevalent and figures for 2020 show clearly that figures for the area burned across EU countries exceed the average level of hectares affected between 2008 and 2019. 

Statistics for recent European wildfires

Image credit: Ben Heubl/E&T

Lorna Sharpe, sub-editor

UK’s first hydrogen train begins trial on main rail network

Several groups are working on alternatives to conventional diesel trains, and the Government is a keen supporter. A lot of this work is only possible because of funding that supports research and innovation, but interestingly Porterbrook - a commercial rolling-stock leasing company - says that following the current trials of the Hydroflex demonstrator it plans to start putting the trains into production “due to customer demand”.

I was surprised when I saw that, because I recently read in one of the railway magazines that the German technical body VDE had published a report concluding that battery trains would be significantly cheaper than hydrogen alternatives. However, it seems that a lot depends on the underlying assumptions, particularly around the cost of hydrogen and how it is produced. Also, it’s worth pointing out that the Hydroflex isn’t a brand new train – it’s a conversion of one of the Class 319 electric trains that used to run on London’s Thameslink route.

Nearly everyone who knows anything about railways accepts that the best option for greening the system is a properly planned programme of electrification, but that will take decades and may never be economic on some branch lines, so work on alternatives will continue to be necessary. If that can be coupled with active encouragement for passenger and freight customers to use rail instead of road or air wherever it makes sense it will do a lot to improve the nation’s carbon footprint.

View from Brussels: Rail travel builds up steam but challenges remain

It’s not just in Britain that use of the railway network needs some encouragement; the same is true of Europe - but as Sam Morgan points out, there are still plenty of barriers to overcome that have nothing to do with the trains and how they are powered. Complex ticketing arrangements, poor cooperation between operators, public opposition to infrastructure projects and poor control of the projects are all familiar stories everywhere.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

‘Assisted Driving Grading’ unveiled in new car safety tests

Thatcham Research and Euro NCAP - the car crash, car safety experts - have launched brand new ‘Assisted Driving’ assessments of vehicles in order to give motorists crucial insights in understanding how to safely use today’s assisted driving technology.

There’s a lot of confusion surrounding 'assisted driving technology' and what exactly this means. It doesn't help that each auto manufacturer gives their technology a different name - usually something 'sexy and exciting', because they just want to sell more cars - even when essentially it amounts to the same thing as everyone else. Super Cruise, Traffic Jam Assist, Autopilot, Pilot Assist. None of it means you're buying a self-driving car.

As Matthew Avery, Thatcham’s director of research, says in this article: “Unfortunately, there are motorists that believe they can purchase a self-driving car today." Avery also notes that for their tests, the Tesla Model 3 "lost ground for over-selling what its ‘Autopilot’ system is capable of, while actively discouraging drivers from engaging when behind the wheel".

That doesn't sound good, does it? Or responsible, as one former owner of a Tesla car, who trusted too implicitly in their car's autonomous ability, would no doubt attest to, were they still alive to do so

The car I drive has cruise control, which makes it a little bit smart. I can set the speed, take my feet off the pedals and the car won’t deviate from that speed. I still have to steer and pay close attention to the traffic around me, applying the brake when necessary. This is Level 1 autonomy, I believe. A colleague's car has adaptive cruise control, whereby the car moderates the speed according to the traffic conditions, which makes their car a little bit smarter than mine. That's still Level 1. Both of our cars are relatively new models. You can see how far we are from cars with Level 5 capability - fully autonomous, with total control of all aspects of the vehicle - being widely used on public roads. The technology may be available now in R&D centres and on test tracks, and yes, in specific road conditions fully autonomous vehicles have been demonstrated and used on public roads. There's still a long road ahead before the majority - not even all - the cars on the road have at least Level 4 autonomy, never mind Level 5.

There's a lot of talk in the automotive industry about getting consumers ready for self-driving vehicles, overcoming the psychological barriers that inhibit trust. The truth is, though, that the cars themselves are not yet ready and manufacturers overstating their latest models' autonomous capability (Tesla, I'm looking at you) will ultimately only set progress back by years, not move it forward. You can't bully and cajole a population into blindly following your motoring bliss, even if a small percentage of a certain marque's fanboy drivers will always drink the Kool-Aid and blithely trust in the marketing promises and assurances. The majority of consumers - that critical mass necessary to cause the tipping point - will trust in autonomous vehicles only after autonomous vehicles have consistently proved they can be trusted.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

AR smart contact lens lets wearer see the world in a whole new way

Regular readers will notice straight away that this story was published back in January. A lot’s happened since then, but I’m arguing that it qualifies for the ‘best of the week’s news’ tag by virtue of how well it illustrates how something that’s been long forgotten can quickly become topical.

The E&T website’s massive archive of technology articles and news means it pulls in a significant number of readers who come across something because it’s thrown up by a search engine regardless of when it originally appeared. In web parlance, we’ve got a ‘long tail’.

That should be a good thing, and we certainly weren’t complaining when this report from the start of the year about how US startup Mojo Vision had demonstrated smart contact lenses that project a display in a user’s field of vision without the need for a headset or glasses suddenly started getting thousands of views. As soon became apparent though, the reason for this wasn’t altogether welcome.

It's not clear how it started, but someone somewhere on social media either saw the story or remembered and floated the idea, ‘Hey, maybe Joe Biden was using this tech in the US Presidential debate.’ Whatever their motivation, in no time the idea had spread until Twitter users, a lot of them with #MAGA tags and similar in their profiles, were adamant that they could see clear evidence the Democrat candidate had been fitted out with state of the art equipment that let his team feed a script to him.

It didn’t help that one of the potential applications suggested by Mojo is that their tech could act as a teleprompter, allowing users to speak from a script while keeping their line of vision directed at an audience or camera.

Of course, none of the accusations really stand up to scrutiny. As happens all too often in politics and other spheres these days, it looks like a case of people who want to score a point reasoning that if enough of them pile in, however flimsy the original evidence, what they want to believe will inevitably become ‘the truth’.

Which of the thousands of stories we’ve run over the years is going to enjoy a similar second lease of life next, purely by chance? I only wish we knew….

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