The case for electric cars

This blog post started when I signed a Greenpeace petition aimed at Volkswagen to stop producing diesel cars https://secure.greenpeace.org.uk/page/s/volkswagen-ditch-diesel-now

I posted the following on Facebook: Well worth signing IMHO, transport emissions are the big problem with regard to global warming so it would be good for diesel to go followed in fairly short order by petroleum

Dave Hills Taylor replied : I have one of their TSI petrol engines that they are currently pushing – these give the performance people want from a VW but with smaller engines and at much lower revs and hence lower emissions. VW have made a mess of things with dieselgate but this is a step in the right direction. Obviously electric cars have to be the future long term.

Then my son Tom joined in: Problem with electric cars is that they don’t go anywhere near as far on a single charge as a liquid fuelled car does on one tank of petrol or diesel. The idea of stopping every two hours (at least) to put my car on charge for 30 minutes – complete nightmare. Once that’s changed maybe they’ll be a more attractive option.

I replied: I agree but battery technology is rapidly improving. I know they aren’t meant for cars but Elon Musk’s battery development in Oz is impressive,  so I think it’s only a  matter of time.471769860.0-1

Then Tom wrote: Will happily make the swap in the future once the technology is delivering at a reasonable cost. Electric cars are stupidly expensive compared to ‘old fashioned’ ones.

And I replied: Not if you added to the cost of old fashioned cars a tax that accounted for the environmental damage they do. And there is so much less to go wrong with an electric car lots less parts.

Then Tom wrote: The nearest I’d get to electric at the moment due to the size of car I’d need is a hybrid. And just looked at my lease pricing for appropriately sized car for our family needs and it’s more than 50% extra every month. Price needs to come down before the man on the street will adopt.

I replied: You’re right but with the right incentives the price will come down and we all need to think of the planet.

Tom wrote: It’s quite simple really, the manufactures need to take the lead, if they were thinking of the planet then they’d make the cars affordable then more people would buy them and we’d have greater adoption the electric car. But the problem of battery life means purely electric cars are only good for short around town journeys. Another couple years and I’m sure the picture will be different. Fingers crossed.

I replied: Dead right – manufacturers are key but government and the people can have an influence so I’m keen for a bit more support for environmental groups and their lobbying and pressure on manufacturers to become an election issue.

Tom wrote: If you really want to get into it you also need property developers to be building housing with car charging facilities from the outset. That’s another cost that will need to be considered at some point as and when we get one to add to our 116 year old property. (Not really into the idea of trailing a lead out the living room window). Also not quite sure how you deal with charging of cars where residents have to park on the roadside, i.e. don’t have garage or off road parking on their property. The ambulance chasers will have a field day with claims from people who’ve tripped over or injured themselves on electric cables lying over the paths to the road.

I replied: All these technical problems can be solved if there is political will. I remember when it was economically expedient to stop baking coal to produce coal gas and use North Sea gas instead. Every gas cooker in the country had to be modified and cooker manufacturers started producing cookers that worked on natural as opposed to coal gas. If we could do that then we ought to be able to do something similar with regard to charging electric cars.

Tom wrote: And just another thing, well two things, 1) if we did have an electric car and came to visit you in an electric car where could we charge up once we’d got to yours. And 2) Louise has just informed me that different makes of car have different style plugs (FFS that’s as bad as these electric / gas smart meters not being a standard so you can’t switch suppliers and stay SMART) and there’s a number 3. So 3) you actually have to subscribe to different charging point suppliers. Change is always different and something businesses are always facing so doing that with a population is a massive challenge.

I replied: Definitely a massive challenge but what else would one expect when the fate of the planet is at stake. Oh and by the way, this is a great conversation.

All this led me to think about the way we might teach young people about the problems facing the planet and the role of electric cars in the solutions. It’s easy to say we should go electric but as Tom pointed out it’s much easier said than done. We certainly won’t be able to go electric without auto manufacturers stepping up to the plate and playing a major role. Government will have a major role in providing incentives both to the manufacturer and the motorist. And in democracies the general populace will have a role in voting in such a way that government has a mandate to provide these incentives. As with all technology it’s a complex combination of the technical, the political, the economic and the social. This is by no means an ‘easy teach’ but if we are to produce an informed general public that plays its part in lobbying government then its something D&T teachers should prioritise.

And then by chance just before I began to write this post I came across an article in January 29 edition of Time entitled China takes pole position in the electric car race. Some key quotes:

  • China (not a democracy) has offered subsidies to buyers to the tune of $15,000 per vehicle,
  • Threatened to block automakers that don’t make electric vehicles from selling traditional cars,
  • Funded electric vehicle infrastructure like charging stations across the country’s highway network.
  • China is expected to spend $60 billion in electric-vehicle subsidies in the half decade preceding 2020.
  • Chinese automakers are expected to produce more than 4.5 million electric vehicles annually in 2020 compared with 1 million from Tesla.

To come full circle, elsewhere in this issue of Time a piece about the future of transport commented on the cooperation between Google and Volkwagen to build a quantum computer which will enable research to focus on three areas: traffic optimization, materials simulation for vehicle construction and battery research, and the development of new learning processes and AI processes needed for self driving cars. The CIO of Volkswagen, Martin Hofmann, is quoted as saying, “Quantum computers give us a completely new dimension. In 10 years, they will be orchestrating mobility in metropolitan areas, routing autonomous vehicles, predicting traffic flows and optimizing urban mobility.

I’ll finish with a quote Alfonso Albaisa, SVP for Global Design Nissan Motor Company, “It is a thrilling time to be a designer. We are being asked to dream.” How often do we enable the young people we teach to dream designerly dreams?

As always comments welcome

PS

As a courtesy I ran the post by Tom and he commented, “As a teacher I personally would probably make more of a point of medium term change. For example, it currently takes me 10 minutes (max) to refuel my car (and pay for the fuel) enabling it to travel a distance of up to 500 miles. Lots of vehicles can use a petrol station in a single day. That isn’t currently possible with an electric car due to the amount of time required to fully charge an electric car or the distance it can travel on a single charge. We aren’t going to get an electric equivalent over night therefore we need to think about changes that move us in the right direction and enable people to adopt electric cars and this isn’t just getting government backing but also I think local authority. One way of recognising this in a class room environment would be to ask the students where they (or their parents) would charge an electric car if they owned one. Or what changes would need to be made to enable them to have an electric car. And that would come back to my point about charging cables out of windows and over pavements.

Now here’s a thought, a class of year 11 or 12 students using what their parents have said about charging electric cars as the basis for interviewing a local councillor about transport policy. All part of their ‘considering the consequences of technology’ D&T lessons focusing on important local issues.

 

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Teaching about new and emerging technologies in design and technology

A guest post by Harry Gowlett

With the changes that have been made to design and technology at GCSE level and the introduction of the single GCSE Design and Technology qualification, it has now become a priority to modernise the secondary D&T curriculum at school level. Whilst GCSE D&T most probably will remain a priority to many departments, it is also important to modernise and update the way in which we teach D&T at key stage three. This is especially important in order to engage learners in wanting to continue to study the subject for GCSE and to revitalise the subject, leading to an increase in uptake.

I am a newly qualified teacher having completed my training at Nottingham Trent University on the BSc Secondary Design and Technology Course with QTS. I now realise just how well this course prepared me for my career as a secondary D&T teacher within the education sector. The main focus of the course was to prepare me to deliver a modernised D&T curriculum, alongside learning the practical skills needed to teach the subject. Since leaving university I have now started a job at Sewell Park Academy (@SewellPark), which is a small city academy in Norwich. Due to the size of department I have been lucky enough to work alongside my head of department to introduce a range of new projects at key stage three taking into account my pedagogical knowledge learnt at university. These projects all fit into four main areas of D&T: mainly making, mainly designing, designing and making and D&T in society.

One of the projects that I have introduced to key stage three is about new and emerging technologies. The National Curriculum for D&T at key stage three states that learners should investigate new and emerging technologies. This fitted into my long-term planning for key stage three as a D&T in society project, and as a smaller three-week project. This project also helped to make the learners realise that not every D&T project leads to producing a physical 3D product, something that I feel learners now tend to assume and expect in our subject.

During week one of the project learners are introduced to the project and the practicalities of it are outlined. At my current school learners in key stage three receive two hour-long lessons of D&T a week. Lesson one involved learners watching a range of video clips and participating in small group and whole class discussions about various new and emerging technologies. Whilst taking part in these discussions the learners would also develop their note making skills, helping to develop literacy skills. Lesson two would involve learners deciding on their favourite new/emerging technology and then being organised into teams to investigate their technology in more detail.

Week two is the fully learner-centred set of lessons, where each team would research their technology. This can be achieved in a number of ways, if computers are available internet research is always a popular choice. To aid differentiation, I produced a set of resource packs for each technology using real life articles and suitable pieces of information. For lower ability learners, I would highlight key points, and the higher ability members of the class would be able to synthesise the information themselves. The class would be guided during the second lesson of the week to focus their research on a given criterion (ready to prepare a presentation).

In the third and final week of the project the learners firstly focus on producing a team presentation to share with the rest of the class. This should hopefully be achievable during an hour-long lesson as the research completed during week two has been narrowed down and homework opportunities have been utilised. Communication skills are also introduced to help encourage learners to develop cross-curricular and personal skills. During the second lesson of the week is an opportunity for the teams to share their presentations with the rest of the class. Learners would be asked to think individually of questions to ask the other teams whilst they are presenting. This raised some interesting thoughts and really showed learner engagement/understanding.

My planned assessment points of this project are investigating and analysis/evaluation, which comes from learners being able to select their favourite new and emerging technology, research this and then evaluate the impact that it has on society. If more than three weeks (six lessons) are available then there is a possible chance to explore the concept of design fiction, which is something that I am hoping to do later on in the year. There is also the good opportunity to use films to help introduce this extra element of the project, such as Big Hero 6 and the idea of ‘microbots’, linking to programmable matter! This also provides me with the opportunity of something else to share later in the year.

To access the scheme of work I have produced for this project or if you would like more information, feel free to contact me via twitter @HGowlett_DT or add your comments to this post.

 

Slaughterbots!

You may consider the youtube video Slaughterbots  a piece of science fiction but that would I think sell it short. I prefer to think of it as a thought experiment with regard to how swarm robots coupled face recognition software might be used as autonomous killer robots. That is robots who can decide for themselves when to kill a human target when the face recognised matches a ‘threat’ identified by those who own and control the deployment of the swarm robots. It’s easy to see this as fanciful but many serious folk are taking the possibility of autonomous killer robots very seriously. From a government’s point of view deploying robot soldiers as opposed to human soldiers has many advantages, not the least the lack of human casualties. At the moment robot soldiers of various kinds operate in collaboration with humans who have the ultimate ‘say’ with regard to a ‘kill decision’. This was explored effectively in the film Eye in the Sky Face recognition software played a significant part in the human decision to initiate a lethal strike. So Eye in the Sky to some extent endorses the thesis in Slaughterbots of the near reality of autonomous killer robots. The use of swarms of killer robots reduces the research and development costs significantly – each bot is cheap and mass manufacture is relatively inexpensive and the software guiding swarm behaviour is not that complex – as indicated in the youtube video. Where is this issue taken seriously – look no further than the Ban Lethal Autonomous Weapons website This provides a call to action and links to a campaign to stop killer robots

This is an important issue facing society and the question for us involved in teaching young people is to what extent should such an issue be explored in school? One of the justifications for teaching design & technology as part of a general education for all young people is that it introduces them to such issues and gives them the intellectual tools to think about them in a critical yet constructive way. I look to the day when such issues feature in the written examination of the recently introduced D&T GCSE. Would this be too much to ask of a GCSE introduced to reinvigorate the subject?

As always comments welcome.

Let there be science

The book Let there be science  by David Hutchings and Tom McLeish explores the case for Biblical support for scientific activity. I found it a fascinating although in many places I think they conflate science with technology. Rather than seeing this as a weakness I think it provides an opportunity to extend the consideration of Biblical revelation as to the nature and purpose of technology and what if anything this might have to say about the teaching and learning of design & technology in the secondary school. With these thoughts in mind I have written Let there be science – considerations from a design & technology education perspective as both commentary and critique.

My friend and colleague Torben Steeg, the very opposite of a ‘faith head’, has read the piece and raised the following comments and questions:


On page 5 you write

Those without faith might see the universe as being ‘ordered’ in this way as a result of its intrinsic nature and not through its being created by God but that seems to me to be just as much an act of faith as believing in God.

I think one might argue that it’s been the exploration of science/scientists that has revealed that the universe does appear to be ordered – for whatever reason. In that case it’s a working assumption that could be falsified; but I guess it’s a bit circular since without such an assumption the enterprise of science wouldn’t make much sense. So you could label that ‘faith’; but I don’t think it’s the same kind of thing as religious faith. (Though I’m sure some scientists operate from a faith that is more like the religious type…)

On page 6 you write

And it is echoed in the writings of Robert White (2014) a prominent geophysicist.

Natural processes such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and the natural greenhouse effect are what make the world a fertile place in which to live. Without them, it would become a dead, sterile world and no one would be here to see it.

(page 10)

But… if you wanted to push this, why couldn’t an omnipotent god create a world (an the underlying science) where a fertile and rich environment wasn’t dependent on such things?

In your discussion of Chapter 10, (pages 8-9) it occurs to me that the notion of precautionary principle is useful – with practical examples being the original and the recent Asilomar conferences on, respectively, genetic engineering and AI.

On page 11 you write

However, the construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1 – 9) by which humans could reach heaven was confounded by God through the creation of multiple languages so that those building the Tower could not communicate with one another. This can be seen as a denial of technological activity when it is being used to thwart God’s purpose.

It seems to me that the Tower of Babel story is of dubious relevance; if she’s an interventionist God, why the arbitrariness of when to intervene or not? For example, why not intervene when torture or gas chambers are being built – or is she only concerned about threats to her own domain…?

But then I do think that there is a tendency for religious types to assume that God’s interventionist aims align with their own (though they would probably say that their aims align with hers…) – as when all sides in a war (or election…) pray for victory.

Nick Cave captures this nicely…

I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
Not to touch a hair on your head
To leave you as you are
And if He felt He had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms

(You can watch/hear the whole thing here)

I have heard it argued (persuasively to me) that the second of the Ten Commandments (You shall not use the Lord’s Name in vain) refers not to casual ‘blasphemy’ but rather to the use of phrases like ‘It’s God’s will’ to persuade folk to the opinion of the speaker.

You go on to say that:

Hence it seems that God is placing the responsibility on humanity to use technology in ways that are consistent with the covenant between God and his creation, in particular our world, the living creatures that inhabit it and the ecosystems that maintain it.

But this responsibility is given without, it seems, very clear guidance; my, admittedly casual, observation is that Christians seem to disagree about a lot of things that relate to “our world, the living creatures that inhabit it and the ecosystems that maintain it“.


Rev. Colin Davis, Rector of Carrowdore & Millisle, Church of Ireland has also read the piece and made the following comments:


It can sometimes be a popular misconception that science and faith (mostly Christian, but I guess others as well) are in opposition and yet in reality, as Tom and David indicate, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The Bible teaches that God created order out of chaos and although the Earth can often seem a very chaotic place, in fact it ‘operates’ by very definite ‘laws & principles’. Science rather than being a ‘spoiler’ (removing the mystery from nature through explanations that are arid and lacking in wonder) helps us to understand more of how things work and provides greater insight that we can use to appreciate the wonder therein. We can see Biblical writing as exploring and revealing the relationship between God and humanity and in revealing something of the nature of science and our obligation to pursue scientific activity also reveal something of the nature of God.

We know from experience and history that gifts can be used for good or ill, and seeing science as a gift from God places on us ‘the burden of responsible use’. The story of the Tower of Babel points very much to a warning for humanity to use God given gifts, including science and technology in the light of this burden rather than for us to raise our own sense of achievement without regard to God’s wishes putting humanity in the position of challenging or denying God. The futility and arrogance of such challenge/denial is captured well in this anecdote I remember from my days when training for the priesthood.

A group of successful scientists were so accomplished and confident that they thought to challenge God and create their own human being. God accepted the challenge and taking a handful of dust he created a human. The scientists bent down to grab some earth and God stopped them saying, “Get your own dust!”

God, in creating the Universe including the Earth and all creatures living on the planet wants a special relationship with humans. God loves us and wants us to love Him/Her in return and to love one another but in doing this takes a huge risk. We have a choice as to whether we love God, one another or not. The way we live our lives, treat one another and use the gifts of the creator will be determined by the choice we make. For the Christian St Paul sums this up in Chapter 12 of his letter to the Romans:

3 For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.

4 For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function,

5 so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.

6 Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith;

7 or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching;

8 he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

9 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good.

It is not too much a stretch of the theological imagination to envisage another verse along the lines:

Or she that is scientific or technological to pursue this with due humility and regard for consequences.


As always further comments or questions welcome.

Apple, Google, Microsoft or Amazon – which of these tech giants will help you live your life and spend your money? Whose AIs will you trust?

  • Google has Google Home, a hands free smart speaker which will be able to answer questions supported by advances in translation and image recognition.
  • Microsoft hopes to dominate the business space.
  • Apple has the HomePod to be launched in December and is investing in emotion detecting technology
  • Amazon has Alexa which will on request provide access to goods and services with more to come.

And according to an article in the September 2017 edition of Wired, authored by Liat Clark, Amazon is the front-runner. Whereas Google can provide information, Amazon can bring you things! Google Home is the smart friend at a party whereas Alexa is a benign butler. According to Liat Clark …

Amazon wants to introduce Alexa into every area of your life: your home, car, hospital, workplace. The ‘everything’ store is about to be everywhere. Alexa has to be human like because it is essential that people trust her, enough to let visual and audio ‘surveillance’ into their homes ad lives. Alexa can try to empathise with words alone at the moment but when she has cameras at her disposal she will be able to respond to visual clues as well as aural input. And in response Alexa is becoming more human like. Alexa can whisper, pause, take a breath, adjust its pitch and allow for key words such as ‘ahem’ and ‘yay’ to be emphasised in more engaging ways. Forging an apparently ‘emotional’ response from Alexa is the goal. An AI will need to know a person well to engage in a relationship based on emotional response. Amazon may well know more about you than your closest friends and so, of course, will Alexa and be able to use both what you say and do to forge, maintain and extend that relationship. The insightful film Robot and Frank asked the question, “Can an AI be your friend?” Amazon has the answer, “Of course, if you trust the AI as you might another human.” And that is Amazon’s overriding intention – to get us to trust Alexa as we might a human friend in the knowledge that she is not in fact another human and hence will not pry into your life or betray you as a human friend might.

Of course Jeff Bezos (and the CEOs of other tech giants) are constructing cathedrals of capitalism where they intend consumers to come to worship and offer up as sacrifice their wages in return for the goods and services recommended and provided by AIs they trust. But here there is a supreme irony. The very same AIs that are the heart of this new faith are also being deployed to automate many of the functions the worker-worshippers utilise to earn the wages they need to live out their consumerist lives. AIs may be simultaneously the engine of capitalism and its doom. What are we to make of this conundrum? Surely it is worth discussing with the young people whose lives will be most affected by this impact of technology on society and society’s response. And where better to do this than in design & technology lessons.

As always comments welcome.

The Importance of Technological Perspective. Or; It’s no longer OK not to understand how the Internet works.

We’ve mentioned a few times, often in the context of our Disruptive Technologies work, how important we believe it is that a part of the work of D&T in schools should be to enable young people to gain ‘Technological Perspective’. David has described this as:

(that) which provides insight into ‘how technology works’, informing a constructively critical view of technology, avoiding alienation from our technologically-based society and enabling consideration of how technology might be used to provide products and systems that help create the sort of society in which young people wish to live.

Events following the awful attacks, first in Manchester and then in London last Saturday night, have brought home to me just how important this is, as these young people will be the future decision-makers and leaders of our society – and they simply must be equipped to do a better job than our current leaders.

I’m sure you’ll have seen that, in response to the attacks, there has (once again) been an attempt to blame the Internet and a call from Theresa May for the ending of ‘safe spaces’ for terrorists on the Internet. Given that this was a thrust of government policy before the attack, it’s hard not to see this as an opportunistic attempt to shore up that policy, but perhaps now is not the time for cynicism.

It is however the time for a clear-eyed analysis of what it would mean to end safe spaces on the internet. In case you are tempted to think that that sounds a pretty good idea, I offer you three articles that explain why it’s not just a very poor idea but in fact a rather meaningless idea – all written by people who are far more articulate on this than I can be.

The first, from The Guardian’s Charles Arthur, is ‘Blame the internet’ is just not a good enough response, Theresa May; at bottom Arthur’s argument is that banning technology is not a substitute for clear-headed policy and political action. He points out that, in the 1970’s, Northern Ireland’s terrorists got on just fine organising their plots using the ordinary telephone service (since neither mobile phones nor the internet were then available) and no-one was suggesting that in response all phone calls should be monitored. Presumably if that had happened they would simply have used other communication methods (dead-letter drops?).

Arthur notes the dystopian implications of the suggestion by John Mann (MP for Bassetlaw), who said: “I repeat, yet again, my call for the internet companies who terrorists have again used to communicate to be held legally liable for content.”, and says;

The authoritarian sweep of Mann’s idea is chilling: since legal liability is meant to deter, the companies would need people to monitor every word you wrote, every video you watched, and compare it against some manual of dissent. It’s like a playbook for the dystopia of Gilead, in The Handmaid’s Tale (which, weirdly enough, most resembles Islamic State’s framework for living).

I think the summary (but please read him for yourself) of what Arthur has to say is that:

  • Banning technologies will simply drive ‘bad actors’ to other communications means,
  • But will have highly negative effect on our own technological society,
  • Rather the focus should be on disabling the source of the ideas both internationally and at home. Arthur doesn’t say this but it seems important to note that after both the recent London and Manchester attacks it has emerged that the perpetrators had  (apparently fruitlessly) been earlier reported to the authorities for their worrying behaviour and views; such reports clearly need better responses and there needs to be supportive community work to encourage this kind of reporting by taking it seriously.

The second article, from MIT’s Technology Review, Theresa May Wants to End “Safe Spaces” for Terrorists on the Internet. What Does That Even Mean?, reinforces the third point above by noting the importance of personal contact in developing extremist ideas. This article also makes the point well that there are things that the big social networks can do and be supported in doing that fall short of asking them to monitor everything you say.

The third article is Theresa May wants to ban crypto: here’s what that would cost, and here’s why it won’t work anyway by Cory Doctorow. This more technical article explains why it is that banning ‘safe spaces’ fundamentally means undermining all internet cryptography, what the appalling costs of that would be and why it still wouldn’t stop terrorists anyway. I urge you to read the full argument, but this is the summary:

This, then, is what Theresa May is proposing:

  • All Britons’ communications must be easy for criminals, voyeurs and foreign spies to intercept
  • Any firms within reach of the UK government must be banned from producing secure software
  • All major code repositories, such as Github and Sourceforge, must be blocked
  • Search engines must not answer queries about web-pages that carry secure software
  • Virtually all academic security work in the UK must cease — security research must only take place in proprietary research environments where there is no onus to publish one’s findings, such as industry R&D and the security services
  • All packets in and out of the country, and within the country, must be subject to Chinese-style deep-packet inspection and any packets that appear to originate from secure software must be dropped
  • Existing walled gardens (like iOS and games consoles) must be ordered to ban their users from installing secure software
  • Anyone visiting the country from abroad must have their smartphones held at the border until they leave
  • Proprietary operating system vendors (Microsoft and Apple) must be ordered to redesign their operating systems as walled gardens that only allow users to run software from an app store, which will not sell or give secure software to Britons
  • Free/open source operating systems — that power the energy, banking, ecommerce, and infrastructure sectors — must be banned outright

That may sound a ridiculous set of things to conclude; just read the full article.

And then, please, find ways to discuss these things with the young people in your schools; make sure they, at least, do understand how the technologies around them, including the Internet, work. Having well-informed technological perspective really does matter.