Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Arctic Ocean - Soaring Temp., Loss of Ice Cover - How Much and Why? What is the Future? A Community Education Feature

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Global temperatures are rising - 2016 was the warmest year in two centuries.  But Arctic Ocean is warming much faster than the rest of the planet.  I want to look at the science behind this to understand why?  First the evidence:
Global temperatures have risen over the past 200 years. The following slide shows the temperature trends.  Data is expressed as temperature anomaly - this simply means that the average temperature between the years 1950 and 1980 is taken as the reference temperature.  Temperatures in other years are measured relative to this reference value.  



A couple of things to note in this graph:  Year to year variation (the weather) can be quite significant but the trend over a few decades (the climate) point to a warming world - about one degree hotter now than it was 100 years ago. Different regions of the globe warm at different rates - the equatorial regions have warmed slower than the Arctic Circle. Mean temperature change in Antarctica has been even less. This is shown in the next slide:



A consequence of warming is that the Arctic ice extent is diminishing - satellite data has mapped this accurately since 1978.  It is not only how many square kilometers the ice covers that matters, the thickness and age of the ice is also very important.  In the Arctic, temperatures rise above freezing during the summer months and some ice melts.  In the winter, water freezes to increase the amount of ice present. Snowfalls also deposit fresh snow during the cold months extending ice cover in the Arctic.  With age, snow compacts into harder ice that melts more slowly.  That is why the thickness of ice sheet is also important in determining the changes in the extent of ice cover (volume of ice) from the summer to the winter in any year. The loss of old compacted ice in the Arctic has been catastrophic: 

The volume of ice is obtained by multiplying its thickness by ice covered area and is a direct measure of total ice present. The following slides show how these parameters have been changing over the past 40 years.  The first slide shows the area covered in ice (old and new) and how this changes over the course of the year.  Other slides show the volume of ice and how it has changed since 1979.

          Changes in the Volume of Arctic Ice 

The graphs show that loss of Arctic sea ice has been equivalent to 3000 km3 per decade.  Put it another way, Arctic has lost over 12 trillion tons of ice since 1980!  (1 km3  ice weighs a billion tons). Molten ice converts into water - in the Arctic, the ice is floating on water already and melting does not affect the sea level. It is the ice that is located on solid ground - mainly on Greenland - that on melting, will add new water to the ocean and result in sea level rise.  The ice sheets in Greenland are relatively stable (although they have been losing ice at a rate of 140 billion tons per year).   However, parts of the glaciers that are sticking out beyond land are in contact with warmer sea water and are melting faster and also moving faster.  Loss of such glaciers will take away the blocking effect on the movement of glaciers further inland and will accelerate their journey to the sea. This is expected to happen in due course, but not imminently in the next few decades. 

The energy required to melt such large quantities of ice is enormous and is supplied by the redistribution of energy that the Sun radiates on our planet. Vast quantities of solar power reaches Earth's surface - 164 W/m2 averaged over 24 hours. Equatorial regions receive most of the energy but this gets redistributed to polar regions by atmospheric and ocean currents.  

As part of the natural annual cycle, about 16,000 km3 of ice is lost every year from April to September in the Arctic sea.  
Taking the density of ice as 1000 kg/m3, the mass of ice lost per year is 16 x 1015 kg.  
The latent heat of ice is 333 kJ/kg – it takes 333 kJ of energy to melt 1 kg of ice.
Energy required to melt the arctic ice is 333 kJ/kg x 16 x 1015 kg = 5.33 x 1021 Joules.
For comparison, the U.S. Energy consumption for 2009 was about 1 x 1020 J.  It takes about 50 times the annual U.S. energy consumption to melt the Arctic ice every year.

The loss of sea ice due to warming Arctic was estimated as 300 km3 per year which is equivalent to about 20% of ice lost annually between April and September - this means that a fifth of the ice lost in the summer is no longer replaced in the winter months. This corresponds to 1021 Joules of energy absorbed by the Arctic sea from the atmosphere and the ocean currents. This energy is stored in the water and goes to raise the temperature of the sea.

Let us look at the science to understand why the Arctic has been warming up faster than the rest of the Globe. Global climate is determined by a complex interaction of many processes.  To change a huge system over a period of time, some type of positive feedback mechanism is generally required - something that takes the system away from a condition of stability to a new condition (1, 2, 3). 

In positive feedack, a small change in one parameter causes other changes which then amplify the magnitude of the original change.  This step is repeated to make the overall change significant. 

I describe the processes that might be responsible for Arctic warming in the following. 

1.  The Albedo Effect: It is a classic example of positive feedback operating in the climate system.  See also.


















Arctic ice is highly reflective and sends a good fraction (about 90%) of sun's energy back into space. On melting, ice is replaced by darker looking water which reflects less light (5 to 10%) and absorbs more of the incident energy causing additional warming. This warming then melts even more ice which then results in still greater absorption of solar energy. And so the cycle goes on, feeding on itself. 


We can make a rough estimate of the extra heat energy that a change in albedo might deliver to the Arctic sea.  
Melting of the ice causes a loss in albedo from 0.9 to 0.1 - a reduction of 0.8 (instead of 90%, only 10% of incident solar energy is reflected to space). 
The amount of solar power falling per square meter in the northern latitudes is about 15% of that near the equator or 23 W/m2
The energy received by the sea over four summer months is  23 W/m2 X 0.8 X (4 X 30 X 24 X 3600) seconds = 2 X 108 J/m2
From measurements of ice extent (see slide), each summer 107 km2  (or 1013 m2) of arctic ice is changed to water.  Over this area, change in albedo traps 2 x 1021 J energy into the sea water.  
This is within a factor of 2.5 of our estimate of the energy required to melt the ice in the summer months.  It seems to me that the albedo effect is responsible for the loss of a good part of sea ice in the Arctic.  With positive feedback, as more of the sea ice disappears, the albedo effect will cause even greater ice loss in successive years.

Burning of fossil fuels produces black soot which is carried by winds to the Arctic.  The soot in the atmosphere increases absorption of solar light further warming the region.  Some soot precipitates on the ice and darkens it.  Darkened ice has lower albedo - less of the sunlight is reflected, increasing warming.


2.  More water vapour in the Arctic Atmosphere: As the temperatures in the Arctic have risen, more water vapour is present in the atmosphere.  Ice has very low vapour pressure and there is little water present in the atmosphere over areas covered with ice.  With ice melting into water, the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere will increase.  As it happens, water vapour is a potent greenhouse gas that is effective in absorbing the higher wavelength infrared spectrum emitted by the Earth and not absorbed by carbon dioxide. Higher moisture levels will thus trap more of the heat radiated from the Arctic and prevent it from escaping into space. Following two slides describe the potency of various greenhouse gases:



Increased amounts of water vapour and carbon di-oxide in the atmosphere also trap reflected energy.  Trapped energy goes directly into heating the atmosphere and not in evaporation (as is the case at lower latitudes).  This causes Arctic air temperature to increase faster than in the rest of the globe.
An interesting bye-product of reduced ice cover in the Arctic is the higher vapour pressure of water which can result in increased snowfall during the winter months.

3. Stronger Thunderstorms are Transporting More Energy to the Arctic:  Research at NASA points to the excess amount of energy that is being transported to the poles by large weather systems.  Even though the frequency of thunderstorms has not increased, they are stronger and bring lot more energy to the polar regions.   Obviously much more work is required to quantify this effect but it is felt that this may be quite important.

Future Evolution of Arctic Sea Ice Extent:  Max Plank Institute has modeled the evolution of Arctic sea ice area. The model finds that Arctic temperatures and sea-ice area depend directly on global carbon di-oxide concentration. Their results are shown in the next slide:
The summer ice cover is lowest in September and the model predicts that Arctic will be ice free when the mean temperatures in the 60 to 90 degree latitude North reach above 5 degrees centigrade and this might happen for CO2 concentrations of 700 ppm.  The winter ice cover will vanish for CO2 concentration levels of 1500 ppm or higher.  

Some consequences of above-normal Arctic Warming: 

Arctic Circle climate is an integral part of the global climate system and the more extreme changes in the Arctic Circle will affect the climate of the world.  The impact of a warming Arctic has been the subject of an extensive report that is available on the Web.  I refer you to the report for a detailed (146 pages) analysis.  In the following I discuss a few points only.

Changes in northern hemisphere climate:  Arctic temperatures are rising at least twice as fast as other regions of the Earth and causing accelerated loss of Arctic sea ice  - in extent, thickness and age.  This will influence atmospheric and ocean circulations and weather, particularly in the northern hemisphere.  The temperature and rainfall patterns shall change, and their effect on forests, agriculture, water supplies etc will be significant. 

Gulf Stream:  Gulf stream brings warm saline water from the tropics to the north. Melting ice and increased river run-offs have added large quantities of freshwater to the North Atlantic ocean.  This reduces the salinity and hence the density of sea water.  It is likely that this will affect the ocean circulation pattern with major impact on the climate of regional areas - for example - Gulf Stream might change course or stop completely ushering severely cold temperatures to northern European countries.

Permafrost: For thousands of years, permafrost (frozen soil) and wetlands in high northern latitudes have stored vast amounts of carbon - they cover 9% of the land area but contain 25 to 50% of world's organic carbon.  With warmer temperatures, permafrost will start to thaw and release carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane - two potent greenhouse gases.  This can set up a positive feedback loop and contribute significantly to an accelerated global warming.  Most climate models do not include permafrost thawing in their calculations. 
Permafrost's southern limit is expected to shift several hundred kilometres northwards by the end of this century.
Thawing of permafrost will weaken frozen coastal lines, increasing coastal erosion by the rising sea-levels.
Vegetation will start to cover thawing permafrost in due course - it will be less reflective and increase warming.  However, new vegetation will absorb more carbon di-oxide from the atmosphere counteracting some of the warming.

Thawing of the permafrost will change the hard solid ground to soft marshy land.  Buildings, bridges, roads built in the region will be destabilized and will have to be redesigned and replaced.  This will be disruptive for the locals and very expensive.

Ocean Acidity:  Oceans have been absorbing vast quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and acidity of the oceans has increased by 30% in the past 100 years. Cold oceans absorb more carbon dioxide - Arctic is acidifying twice as fast as the rest of the oceans.  Acidic water dissolves calcium carbonate, and therefore interferes with the development of coral reefs and the shells of see animals like oysters, crabs, snails, plankton etc.

Sea-level Rise:  Melting of arctic sea ice does not affect sea levels.   However, ice sheets in Greenland have been losing water at increasingly higher rates.  Historically, when the temperatures were as warm as they are today, sea levels had settled at much higher levels than at present.  I hope to look at this question in a future publication but the following slide shows the effect on coastal areas due to the expected sea level rise sometime in the future.  If global warming continues unabated then the situation could be much worse.




http://www.greenfacts.org/en/arctic-climate-change/figtableboxes/surface-reflectivity.htm








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Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Third (+ Fourth ??) Industrial (Technological) Revolution; Globalization, Global Poverty & Inequality

Blog Index - Blogger Profile      Category - Self-indulgence

Technology is the application of science to solve a problem, create tools and processes. 

Technology is the purposeful application of information in the design, production and utilization of goods and services, and in the organization of human activities.  


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Humans have used technology for over 5000 years - I would even say that advancements in technology have always benefited the way we live. Energy (a system's ability to perform work) has been the key in this regard.  A gallon of petrol costs £5 and provides energy equivalent to 500 hours of human labour worth £3700.  In other words, the amount of work that oil performs for you is equivalent to having hundreds of slaves working round the clock! Even the kings did not have the comfortable & luxurious life style that an average middle class family now enjoys - thanks to technological breakthroughs that made all this possible.

Technology evolves incrementally except on occasions when some breakthrough (generally, the availability of a cheaper & more efficient source of energy) engenders a quantum shift in our capabilities. This can create a big improvement in the way we live - an industrial revolution (IR). For example:

1784:  Water and steam power helped to mechanize production - First IR

1870:  Electric power made mass production possible  - Second IR

1970:  Electronics, information technology allowed automated production  - Third IR 

Now, a fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the third.  It is characterized by a fusion of the physical, digital and biological technologies. The fourth IR will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another.  In its scale, scope and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. Technological capabilities are increasing exponentially - changes are happening at unprecedented speed throughout the world - changes that are disrupting all industries in every respect. Transport, communications, efficiency and productivity in manufacturing will benefit and steer economic growth. 
All aspects of peoples' personal lives will be impacted seriously with unforeseen consequences for privacy, identity etc.     
Automation will disrupt the job market, many occupations will go as robots can perform them better - we already see industrial robots becoming more ubiquitous - but the changes in the next few decades will be far-reaching.  
Our civilization has a big task ahead of adjustment to the looming challenges.

Who will gain from the technological advances? 
Will the richest in society grab all the benefits as they are best placed to exploit the situation? 
Will inequality increase in the world? 
Will the poor be looked after and their standard of living improve? 

We do not know the answers. In the rest of this blog, I shall examine how things have changed over the past several decades and address the issue of global poverty and inequality.   In this endeavour, I have been guided by extensive data in reports from the World Economic Forum, World Bank and other prestigious institutions.  But first let us define what a benchmark for poverty is and how inequality may be understood.  Defining poverty and inequality is no mean task but let us try this in the following slides: 



The third IR really made a difference.  Technology behind this IR made transportation of goods and communications exceedingly efficient.  Developing countries in Asia and Latin America could produce all the goods and provide lot of the services that the OECD countries wanted and they could do it rather inexpensively - the labour was cheap.  The result was that the period from 1970 onward saw a massive increase in manufacturing and services transferred to countries like China and India and others.  Globalization became established and benefited the indigenous populations in the developing countries. Their incomes rose and poverty levels came down.  
The following slides, adopted from Ref. show how income levels changed in China and the USA between 1970 and 2006:  


The next two slides show how the world distribution of income has changed since 1970 and that the absolute number of poor people has been decreasing steadily over the years against the backdrop of a rising world population. This is mainly due to the large number of people taken out of poverty in China and India and neighbouring Asian-Pacific countries. In the slide, y-axis shows number of people.


It appears that since the onset of the third IR, globalization has been instrumental in decreasing poverty throughout the globe.  This is a positive outcome of technological advancements that have also helped to provide greater understanding of human health issues and tackling the food and water problems.  Much more needs to be done in this respect - particularly in the African continent where people have not benefited anywhere near to the same degree by globalization.  Of course, the industrial progress have had many negative impacts like global warming (climate change), increased pollution, mass migration, loss of biodiversity etc. These problems must be addressed with some urgency.

Returning to inequality, we are talking about economic inequality here, can one argue that reducing inequality should be a major goal of policy makers?  There does not appear to be a strong positive correlation between poverty (income levels) and inequality - rising incomes take people out of poverty but generally enhances inequality.  It is reasonable to suggest that inequality  would enhance political instability & social unrest; thus impacting negatively on economic growth.  On the other hand, inequality could spur more economic growth via higher incentives for wealthier people to make productive investments - as indeed most of the wealth is owned by a small percentage of the population.
OECD data show that historically there has been a negative correlation between inequality and economic growth within nations in Europe and the OECD countries in the Americas. Following slides look at the trend in inequality and demonstrate how unequal the world is:
The World Gini increased from 0.43 in 1820 to 0.61 in 1913. Since 1913, Gini has been creeping up and stands at 0.68 in 2005.  


See Also:

Unintended Consequenses of Globalization:  During the 3rd IR, good efficient transport (energy has been cheap) and communications have helped the rise of globalisation. Goods made in developing countries - supported by low wage rates - could be transported to consumers in the developed countries.  Out-sourcing of manufacturing and services has helped in reducing the poverty levels in developing countries. In this process, middle classes in the developed countries saw their jobs in manufacturing and servicing disappear causing stagnation of real wages and escalating job insecurity. The following slide shows  this remarkable situation over the period 1988 to 2008.  
First, I explain the way data is generally broken into sub-divisions or quantiles:
Global income growth is shown for the 20 income ventile groups (Global population is divided into 20 groups). The first ventile (0 to 5%) are the lowest income group; the second ventile (6 to 10%) is the next lowest group and so on. The 20th ventile (96 to 100%) is shown by dividing it into a quartile (96 to 99%) and a percentile (99 to 100%) to emphasize how much more the richest in the top 1% have gained.


The distribution shows that the groups around the 50th percentile made the largest gains, ~75%, in income growth. The global top 1% also increased their incomes by about 65%.  For the very poorest (0 to 5 percentile) and those around 80 to 90 percentiles, gains were negligible over the period of 20 years. Because the absolute income of the top 5% is much larger, they accounted for 44% of the increase in global income between 1988 and 2008.


People are apprehensive about job security and fear that automation/robotics will make a large fraction of jobs redundant. Of course, new job opportunities will appear.  This will require retraining which may be uncomfortable for many. In addition to automation, migration is also a big concern.  Migrant workers generally are younger, work harder and show more flexibility.  Under these circumstances, workers in the developed countries feel thtreatened and have started to react to the prevailing uncertainties.

I am not surprised that the attitude towards globalization is not positive in most countries.  In a 2015 YouGov poll, majority of people thought that life was better in the old days.

The situation is much worse than described above

I have discussed the evolving economic situation in the world and tried to make sense of some recent political developments in the Western countries - notably UK and USA.  While it is true that economic climate drives many of the social and political trends in a country, it may no longer be the whole story.  Technological developments have infiltrated personal lives of citizens in a serious way; social media, smart phones, internet have been widely adopted and life without them is unimaginable.  Gadgets now play an important part in setting the cultural norms in a society.  What information is delivered to you is not under your control any more - the online service providers decide.  Who controls the service providers?  A handful of companies indeed.  These companies wield huge power by influencing the way we think.  Controlling information is subtle and is nothing like the historic way of doing so as practiced in totalitarian regimes. Your personal profile determines what information should be sent to you.

Final Word:  Economic poverty and inequality have received much attention by policy makers.  Extreme poverty is much reduced globally but inequality has been creeping up.  There is more to life than income and wealth.  After a certain stage, money loses its charm and people search for other attributes in the society - like social inclusion and fairness.  Happiness is not determined by GDP alone.  
Taken to extreme, total equality (Gini = 1.0) will be most undesirable. The policymakers have a daunting task to first decide on the parameters that make life fulfilling and then devise policies to achieve those goals.  

Love to hear from you - write to ektalks@yahoo.co.uk


Thursday, 29 December 2016

Disruptive Innovation - Part 2 - Electric Vehicles shall Substitute the Current 'Not Fit For Purpose' Road Transport System


Blog Content - Ravi Singhal Profile      Category:  Future Technology
       
(Click on a slide to see its full size image - Esc to return to text)

"The way we drive cars has not changed much over the past century. Finally, new technologies are about to completely redefine how we travel. Autonomous vehicles will be a disruptive game changer."
In Part 1, I had looked at disruptive innovation (DI) in transport during the 19th and 20th centuries.  I wish to extend the discussion to point out the current shocking state of transportation and how the situation is ripe for a new entrant to substitute automobiles running on fossil fuel.  Certain conditions are necessary for quick adoption of DI - I feel that such conditions are now in place.  We have a transport system - I am referring here to road transport infrastructure - that is overcrowded, inefficient, highly polluting, unsafe and inconvenient to use.  At the same time, the necessary technology for electric vehicles (EV) - battery technology, miniaturized sensor/digital devices and network software - has reached a maturity level that EVs look very attractive and have started to become competitive in the traditional car market.  EV and its younger sibling, the driver-less car or autonomous vehicle (AV), promise to remove most of the negative features of the current transport system. 

The idea of a driver-less car (AV) is that it will operate under software control with zero human input. Getting rid of a human driver has potential advantages: Computers don't get drunk, don't get distracted by kids, don't rush when they are late, with computers driver fatigue is completely eliminated.  AVs will obey traffic rules which are designed for safe, efficient driving. In fact, with AVs, one would not need to own a car but sharing it will make far more sense and will be highly economical - you are not paying a driver! Shared AVs - let us call them aTaxis - will 
  • reduce the number of cars on the road by 50% 
  • seriously cut down on pollutant emissions - help climate change too 
  • allow freedom of movement to disabled and old people and also the very young
  • free passengers to use the travel time for personal purposes
  • more comfortable rides - smoother acceleration and braking
  • reduce the number of accidents by 90%
  • by platooning - reduced distance between cars - increase fuel efficiency and also significantly increase highway capacity
  • shared EVs will greatly reduce the need of parking spaces
      • will allow land in cities to be used beneficially - for housing, parks etc.
      • train station parking will not be necessary, allowing all day greater use of commuter trains

Present Car Infrastructure is not fit for purpose:  

It is highly Inefficient:  Currently, a car travels about 30 miles a day with an average speed of 30 miles per hour - in use for 1 hour per day.  It stands idle for >95% of the time and carries only 1.6 occupant on average.
Much of the time on the road, the car is either stationary or crawling - this is inefficient use of fuel and transport infrastructure.  I tell about my personal experience:

My daughter lives in a town 20 miles outside London.  She allows half an hour to drive the 1.3 miles to the train station in the morning.  When visiting her, I offered to do the driving and during one week, she missed the train two times (it wasn't because I was driving!) - it took 35 to 40 minutes to cover 1.3 miles.  The petrol consumption over the whole week was 22.3 mpg instead of the expected 42 mpg.

The road infrastructure is in place, but most of the time only a few cars are using it - less than 5% of the time roads are used to their full design capacity.  This is inefficient.

It is highly Polluting:  Less than 1% of the fuel energy is used in moving the car from A to B - the rest is wasted.  Both petrol and diesel vehicles emit pollutants.  Carbon-di-oxide has been responsible for climate change, oxides of nitrogen are damaging to health. Particulates from diesel cars have large surface area, they efficiently adsorb chemicals - many of them harmful - and find their way into the lungs and aggravate health issues like cancers and premature deaths.  



It is Overcrowded:  Our city roads are congested because of car traffic.  We have all experienced the frustration of driving from A to B during peak rush hours.  Many useful productive hours are wasted sitting in traffic jams.  Global urban population is projected to increase from 3.8 billion in 2010 to 6.5 billion by 2050.  1.5 million people are added to the urban population each week! Cities are going to get geographically bigger and overcrowded.  Transport infrastructure is already inefficient and will get even more so in the future.

It is Unsafe:  IN USA, 5.5 million transport related accidents are recorded of which 93.6% are due to human error.  They result in 33000 deaths (globally 1.2 million die per year), 2 million hospital visits and $300 billion in lost productivity. Why is our society accepting the epidemic of car crashes!!

It is Wasteful:  Average family in OECD countries spend about 17% of annual income on automobiles.  A car owner spends £0.50 in UK ($0.90 in USA) to drive her car one mile. The average car occupancy is 1.6 

What are the Reasons for Poor Transport Conditions:  Only humans are to be blamed for the poor transport infrastructure and inefficiency that it represents.  In my view, car manufacturers and oil conglomerates have conspired to block the development and adoption of alternate technology and have used their lobbying power to the fullest extent to frustrate attempts to shift to alternate technologies and foster better, more pragmatic use of auto transport.  The mantra of 'personal transport' has been successfully sold to all and our society is wedded to the idea of car ownership - even though 96% of the time it is not moving - a good example of how to waste resources.  A consequence of personal car ownership culture is that efficient and good public transport systems did not develop properly to address the needs of our society.  Rather, we have a transport system that is inefficient and not fit for purpose.  It is failing to meet the current needs of the society and the situation is likely to get much worse. It is a two trillion dollar industry and it is a shame that people who control these companies are unable to see the fast approaching day of reckoning. Unfortunately, highly inefficient systems are most vulnerable to disruptive innovation and the current road transport is an ideal target for DI. 

Cars as Personal Transport:  'Breaking the link between ownership and access is a vital stepping stone to adopting AVs'.  Ownership of cars by individuals is valued highly in our society.  Globally, there were 1.2 billion cars in 2014, with car ownership expected to double to 2.5 billion by 2050 - in the business as usual scenario.  Also, the road length appears to have reached saturation levels in OECD countries. The result is that congestion will increase in time - it is already a serious problem.  Shared cars will help to significantly moderate the problem of congestion. Studies suggest that if everybody used shared vehicles then the number of vehicles required will drop by at least 50%.  Already in cities, many people do not own cars and use buses or other public transport.  This trend will continue.  Shared taxis reduce the expense of going from A to B considerably but increase journey time and require a greater acceptance of a move from personal transport.

Electric cars as the new disruptor:  Electric cars have been around for a long time - they were not suitable for personal road transport because technology lacked a way of storing energy to provide an acceptable driving range.  This has now changed and a 200+ miles range between charging the car battery is now possible.  Battery technology is expected to improve further along with a network of battery charging points; it is widely accepted that electric vehicles have passed the tipping point needed for their adoption as a reliable means of transport.  EVs are still expensive with small cars priced around US$40,000.  This should come down as volumes and competition increase.  Cheverlot Bolt, is probably the most versatile of EVs available at present and is described in the following two slides:
(However, see also the newly announced car Faraday Future with bigger range and specifications)






The Bolt, and many of petrol-driven cars, now incorporate many safety features which are being developed for autonomous (driver-less vehicles) and this trend will continue.The  take-up of EVs will increase rapidly.

Distracting Devices in Cars (featuritis):  
'you can't be looking at the road and the screen at the same time'.  
'In today's super-connected world, it seems driving is a distraction'
The operation of the car today is already controlled by a powerful computer - GPS, ignition control, adaptive cruise control, adaptive headlights, front crash prevention, parallel parking, lane departure warning and prevention, brake assist are some of the features available widely in cars. Many devices are fitted on dashboards, worn on wrists or body, carried on seats and pockets, HUDs - head-up displays are transparent screens that present data without requiring users to look away from their usual viewpoint.  These distract the driver and compromise safety. The trend of fitting features that are developed for AVs - like adaptive cruise control, lane-changing etc., gives a feeling of security that encourages the driver to be less attentive.  Many experts feel that partially automated vehicles are even more dangerous because the potential of distracting the driver; a transition from human driven cars to driver-less cars should be made not slowly in steps but as a quantum change.  Let us look at the AVs and discuss where we are:

Driver-less or Autonomous Vehicles will be a game changer and will be a true disruptive innovation with ability to substitute fossil fuel transport, hopefully, by around 2050.  AVs could reduce the number of cars by 50%, road traffic accidents by 90% and substantially cut commute time and wasted energy in transport. There is a body of opinion which claims that AVs will never happen because software could not possibly replace humans in making decisions on the roads and there are safety concerns relating to hacking of the car's computers.  I think such opinion make many valid points but the vantage point is not right. Technology is at its most efficient when faced with a specific problem - none of the problems in transport are insurmountable especially given the vast markets worth two trillion dollars and the current need to replace road infrastructure.  All factors required to spur technological breakthroughs are present including competition among several manufacturers developing AVs.  I do feel that AVs will totally replace human controlled cars at some stage - may be not by 2030 or 2040 as some claim, but very possibly in 50 years time.  

The Current Situation:  AVs have developed mainly over the past 15 years. Successful trials of AVs have been taking place - particularly by Google and Tesla. An AV was tested by Google in 2008 on a closed road at 25 miles per hour.  Today, the car can operate at 75 miles per hour in real-life conditions.  Listen to Google Self-drive car project here.  Google AVs have clocked over 1.7 million miles on designated urban routes and has been a great learning exercise.  Tesla has been installing AV software in their electric cars and have collected data over 1.2 billion miles under varied driving conditions. Autonomous trucks are being used successfully in mining for the past several years.

There are many outstanding issues to be resolved before a fully autonomous car could be ready for urban driving in all weather conditions etc.  Currently, AVs do not deal well with inclement weather - heavy rain or snow.  They also do not recognize new features in signaling or changes made on the roads to deal with emergencies etc.  Obviously there is lot more work to be done.  
The issue of security against hacking of AV's computer system is an interesting one.  A hack proof software is never going to be possible.  If one looks at the history of hacking computer systems, it is almost always to steal information. Controlling the software operation is not generally attempted.  That is why, systems of national importance like electricity grids, air traffic control systems etc. have operated satisfactorily for many years - but are no less vulnerable than the software in AVs.  Also hacking an individual computer is easier than a network of computers. Therefore, the problem of malicious acts against the network is real and in theory will always be a possibility; one has to develop procedures and checks to guard against external hostile acts.

Some Consequences of AV Dominance: There are some unexpected consequences if and when autonomous vehicles take the major market share.  If, as predicted, the number of cars is reduced to 50%, what will the current car manufacturers do?  Most of them wouldn't be making AVs anyway.  One could expect massive bankruptcies with loss of jobs.  In a shared-AVs society, taxi drivers will not be needed - another lot of massive loss of jobs.  On the other hand, many new jobs will be created in software and digital industry.  The situation will be interesting to say the least. 

I have also stated that AVs will allow freedom to travel to the disabled, very old and the young.  The extra demand will increase vehicle traveled miles (VTM).  This will create more pollution and also more congestion.  People might decide to live further away from city centres - increasing VTM further. It is difficult to quantify the increase in VTM at this stage but they could be significant.  Interesting times ahead.
However, remember Jevons Paradox:  An increase in efficiency tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource.

Final Word:  The megatrend of substitution of current transport by autonomous vehicles is firmly established and all barriers to penetration of AVs into transport will be resolved over the next 50 years.  The initial stages will see AVs adopted in areas where the journeys are not complex - trucks in mining industry are already being used successfully.  Other promising area might be buses on long distance routes.  In the mean time, many features being developed for AVs will be installed in electric vehicles driven by humans.  This development could have distracting effects and can also generate feeling of security making human driven car journeys even more dangerous.  
At present, AV technology is expensive but with large uptake the cost will come down to about $3000.  To start with AVs will be shared cars - aTaxis - and people will not own personal vehicles.  This will result in a paradigm shift in the way we view transport.  
Rapid charging points with a sensible pricing structure is a pre-requisite for a wide adoption of electric cars. Governments and private enterprises are encouraging the development of such networks; hopefully, a viable network will be available within the next decade.  

More on autonomous vehicles a recent article - see and links therein.  

Will love to hear your comments - please send them to ektalks@yahoo.co.uk