Monday 27 April 2009

on the future of Transportation

In these days of recession and financial brouhaha, people are thinking hard about all sorts of things, including the environment. General Motors and Chrysler are on life support machines (in Triage terminology I think they would be considered "likely to die, regardless of what care they receive") and there is much talk of electric vehicles. This week for example there are reports of how to make electric cars noisy and an argument over "fuel pump" connectors.

The efficiency of a coal-power station is about 35%. A nuclear power station may be as much as 45% efficient (but it's probably a lot less, for the same reasons that it's very expensive). Furthermore, there is a transmission loss of around 10% over the national grid. It should be a crime to cook with electric rather than gas, considering these levels of waste!

Diesel vehicles are about 45% efficient, and petrol (gasoline) about 30% efficient. Electric cars may waste 10% between battery and motor, so the effective efficiency of an electric car is going to be worse than that of a petrol vehicle. Electric vehicles will demand even more power from the National Grid... but in separate rumours, we'll all have brown-outs (Gordon-Brownouts?) before the Olympics.

Taking a very long term view, and trying not to scare you, we need to ask really hard questions about what sort of transport we should use. Is the personal motor car sustainable? Are electric cars really clean, or do they simply push the pollution to the edges of the map? Some say that we'll have run out of oil by about 2020 AD, and coal may have run out by 2200 AD (depending on who you talk to and how fast we use it).The people running John Cage's concert may need to budget for alternative power...

Assuming that we will run out of oil very soon and coal eventually, here are my three suggested methods of transport that will survive over the next thousand years:
  • Bicycle - perfect for short journeys, no parking problems, easy to repair, good for personal fitness, and currently fashionable.
  • Horse - currently more of a recreational activity, I think we'll see horses coming back over the next 20 years, especially for personal journeys. The skills for looking after them are readily available. Furthermore, the pollution is manageable, and can be used for other things (like growing horse-fuel).
  • Railways - except in France, they have the disadvantage of being neither fashionable or sexy - but that's probably because they are safe and dependable. Electric trains are the only transport vehicles I can think of that don't carry their own fuel (but that makes them nuclear-powered). Today, they are fast, safe and extremely comfortable. We may have to go back to steam engines, but railways are here to stay.
There are balanced arguments for and against all of these points. For example, would you rather have horse sh*t on your shoes or microparticulate dust in your lungs ? Would you rather sit in comfort for seven hours on a train from London to Frankfurt (changing in Brussels), or would you rather spend the same amount of time standing in queues and sitting in a sardine-tin attached to a rocket? In broader terms, we may or may not "run out" of oil (actually it will just get more and more expensive until it isn't commercially viable for the end-user or the producer).

The main victim of the forthcoming fuel crisis will be commuting: people will still want to live their lives in a modern way, but faced with fewer transport options, it will be the daily journeys - the ones that really clock up the miles over a year - that are first to go.

I hope this doesn't scare you. Use these opinions to improve the quality of your life in the short term by looking at the long term. Sometimes it's good to get off the treadmill. Is it really attached to a generator?