Technology has redefined normal life…

A century ago, the world started emerging from the Spanish Flu pandemic that followed World War 1. After years of turmoil people wanted change, and the 1920s certainly provided it.  A century later we’re emerging from another pandemic, and the 2020s looks destined to be transformational too. History might repeat itself!  For most people, of course, life today is very different to that in the 1920s. Scientific and engineering advances, and especially the internet and information revolution of recent decades, have put technology at our fingertips and redefined what constitutes normal life for most of us.  

Just how much normal life in the UK has changed since the 1920s can be illustrated, for example, by reflecting on the motor car. In the early 1920s when the UK population was ~40 million, there were only 383,525 cars .  By 1930 the number of cars had risen to 1 million with ~ 7,300 annual road deaths. Today the UK population is ~67 million, and there are 33 million registered cars and around 1800 annual road deaths.  The first traffic light on a road appeared in the mid-1920s, and driving tests became law in the mid-1930s. Cars of the 1920s were ostensibly fuelled mechanical devices owned by a tiny minority of households, whereas today they are essentially fuelled electronic devices with mechanical components which are owned by nearly every household.  Roads are also vastly different, and its amusing to think that any concept of a ‘Smart Motorway’ suggested in the 1920s would have been considered as the ramblings of a lunatic.   

The car and it’s embedded technology has become an essential in the average UK person’s life in less than a century. It’s not only changed the landscape and infrastructure of our country, but also become a fundamental part of our personal freedoms. The 2020s will see cars become powered by electricity, filled with ever more technology to control our driving habits, and become taxed differently to compensate for the reduction in the £28 billion annual revenues currently generated fuel duty on petrol and diesel.  The car as a metaphor for technology has redefined what constitutes normal life over the last 100 years, and that redefinition will continue throughout the 2020s.   

However, there’s something that hasn’t changed since the 1920s, namely primeval human behaviour.  Today’s global connectivity and social media platforms readily bring the most unattractive aspects of this to the fore for all to see. That’s a worry, because the end of the 1920s saw the Great Depression, and if history repeats itself then we could see some similar crisis at the end of this decade, triggered perhaps by a serious failure in the world’s technology infrastructure. If this were to happen, then primeval human instincts will take over and the ensuing anarchy might highlight that life without cars and modern technology is actually survivable, just as it was in the 1920s a century ago

All-lane running motorways and electric car breakdowns…

The Badger often flicks through the television channels before retiring for the night. It’s a habit, and it’s rare that something grabs the attention sufficiently to delay bedtime. One night recently, however, the ‘Smart Motorway Committee’ on the BBC Parliament channel proved an exception. A yawn was stifled as the channel was sampled, but the Badger was suddenly hooked when one of the politicians on the committee asked senior representatives from the Police, motoring, and haulage organisations, a clever question. It was this: ‘If your loved ones were driving on the motorway, or you were driving with your loved ones as passengers, which would you prefer it to be a) a controlled motorway with a permanent hard-shoulder lane, or b) an all-lane running motorway with refuge areas that could be more than 800 metres apart’.  

The politician asked for their personal opinion, not that of the organisation they represented. The respondents each plumped for (a), explaining their choice in terms of the human reality and anxiety of breaking down surrounded by live traffic lanes when young children, the disabled, or elderly parents are on board and refuge is some distance away.  To ensure smart motorways are safe, Highways England, of course, are currently implementing the 2020 Stocktake and Action Plan, and their recent report continues to make the case for all-lane running, all be it with further technology-centred  safety improvements. However, as the respondent’s answers illustrate, it’s obvious that people remain unpersuaded that foregoing a permanent hard-shoulder lane is wise.

Although it was late, the Badger’s programme delivery, IT, systems, and risk management experience and instincts kicked into gear with the following point bubbling to the fore.  Smart motorways were conceived mainly to increase traffic capacity and reduce congestion. It feels like ‘safety’ is being bolted on to avoid facing up to a possible uncomfortable truth, namely that all-lane running motorways may not have been such a good idea in the first place. With this point on his mind, the Badger turned off the television and retired for the night.

The next morning a chance conversation, when the Badger was told about someone’s experience of a new electric car that stopped working on a railway crossing, seem to reinforce this point.  The Badger hadn’t really appreciated the difficulty, which can get a sense of here and here, in moving electric vehicles if they stop functioning for any reason. It appears that the days of getting people to help you push it to a safer place are gone!  What will happen when the mix of electric cars on all-lane running motorways is substantially higher than today and more of them breakdown?  Even more expensive technology seems to be the answer to everything these days, but it feels like it would have been better, safer, and cheaper never to have ditched permanent hard-shoulder lanes in the first place!  

Four wheels and a motor…

The UK government announced in 2020 that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned from 2030. Electric cars, powered by batteries or fuel cells, are the future but there’s a very long way to achieve their mass adoption by the public. The marketing of current rechargeable, battery-powered, electric models trying to persuade us to buy one seems to rise weekly. So far, however, none of it seems to have triggered a truly massive step-change in mass demand from the public who, like the Badger, are still a long way from giving up their existing vehicles for an electric alternative.

New figures show that the average age of cars on UK roads is 8.4 years, that only 1.3% are plug-in hybrid or battery electric, and that more than 60% of cars are 7 or more years old.  Indeed, the Badger’s own trusty vehicle is 10 years old, and fossil fuelled. It’s comfortable, practical, reliable, economic, easy to maintain, 95% recyclable at end of life, and it’s used in a climate-friendly way. Electric car evangelists may think this is heresy, but there’s currently no hard-nosed economic case for the Badger to relinquish it for a used or new electric vehicle. Many people appear to have come to the same conclusion and a recent OFGEM announcement about putting ~1800 new ultra-rapid charging points across the UK motorway network’s service stations  is unlikely to persuade people otherwise.  

The transformation of society to electric cars is a marathon rather than a sprint. We may have started on this marathon but there’s an awfully long way to go with lots of opportunity for bumps on the way. Battery technology continues to advance rapidly and batteries with a 5-minute charge time could be in mass production by 2024. If that’s so, then it shouldn’t be a surprise if people decide against spending their money on new or used electric cars that use today’s battery technology. Range anxiety and effective and convenient charging infrastructure remain barriers to adoption. There are also strategic and geo-political issues associated with sourcing many of the materials necessary for battery manufacture. There are also significant recycling challenges  – see here and here – regarding the recovery of valuable elements from end of life batteries.  Whereas the recycling of fossil-fuelled vehicles, where ~70% is of ferrous metals, is well established and straightforward, electric vehicles contain a far greater variety of metals that are much more complex to recover.

There’s much more to the electric car picture than just zero tail-pipe emissions, and that’s why there’s a very long way to go in this marathon transformation yet. That’s also why the Badger’s own trusty vehicle, which still fulfils its primary function of taking occupants from A to B safely with maximum flexibility and minimum fuss, has some years left before it takes its final journey to the scrap heap to be, perhaps, reincarnated as the bodywork of an electric vehicle…