Monthly Archives: March 2015

Press button for an exciting ride

Painting by Katy Gibson

Artist: Katy Gibson

Someone has suggested that I should write more about what engineers do.  So here is the first in a series of posts in that vein.

A few weeks ago, I went to the ‘Future Powertrains Conference‘ held at the National Motorcycle Museum near Birmingham, UK.  A ‘powertrain’ is the system that creates and delivers power to the wheels of vehicles.  It is at the heart of a motorcycle but they were not discussed at the conference and instead the discussion was about cars and commercial vehicles.  There was a big focus on achieving the EU commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) to below 18% of 1990 levels.

Electric powertrains figured strongly and would certainly improve the air quality in our urban environment but they shift the GHG emissions problem to our powerstations [see my post on ‘Energy Blending‘ on May 22nd, 2013 and on ‘Small is beautiful and affordable in nuclear powerstations‘ on January 14th, 2015]. Even so, the high energy density of fossil fuels means that they remain a very attractive option.  The question that engineers are trying to answer is whether their GHG emissions can be reduced to below 18% of their 1990 levels.

CO2 emissions vs mass of light commercial vehicles (see source below)

CO2 emissions vs mass of light commercial vehicles

When you plot CO2 emissions as a function of kerb weight for all passenger cars the graph reveals that the best in class achieve about 0.1 grams CO2 emitted per kilogram of kerb weight.  Kerb weight is the term used for the weight of a car without passengers or luggage but with a full fuel tank.  Of course, this means the simple answer is that we should all drive lighter cars!

The EU has assumed that most of us will not opt for lighter cars and has introduced legislation which is forcing manufacturers towards 0.02 grams CO2 per kg, which is a huge challenge that is being tackled at the moment by engineers, such as Paul Freeman at Mahle Powertrain Ltd who spoke at the conference.  To help meet this challenge, the UK Automotive Council has produced a series of technology roadmaps such as the one shown below and discussed by Dr Martin Davy from Oxford University during the conference.

As an alternative, we could move more quickly towards driverless cars which would both use the powertrain more efficiently and reduce the risk of accidents to almost zero.  A very small risk of accidents would allow lighter cars to be designed without a heavy crash-resistant cage.  But, as one conference delegate commented on ‘driving’ a driverless car “where would be the fun in that!”  Perhaps that shows a lack of imagination. After all, we can create exciting and safe fairground rides in which you have no control over the ‘vehicle’ into which you are strapped.  So why shouldn’t there be an ‘extra excitement’ button in a driverless car in just the same way that some modern cars have a ‘sport’ button.



Top graphic:

Bottom graphic:


Thinking out-of-the-skull

bustLast year after the relaxation of our annual vacation, I wrote about the benefits of ‘Mind wandering‘ [see my post on September 3rd, 2014].  Our brains work in two modes known as central executive mode, for those tasks requiring focussed attention, and mind-wandering mode that involves day-dreaming and surfing from one idea to another leading to the emergence of new ideas.  We tend to feel tired and stressed when we try to switch between the two modes repeatedly.  At the moment, I struggle to set aside time for mind-wandering and indeed writing a weekly blog can induce a headache!

Perhaps this is because our brains are of finite size; and sometimes it feels as if we have reached their limitations.  I wrote about our attention capacity in my post entitled ‘Silence is golden‘ on January 14th, 2014.  More recently, Antonio Macaro and Julian Baggini have written that ‘savants who remember everything often understand very little’.  Probably this is because if you fill your brain with information there is less capacity for processing ideas to create understanding.  I would like to think that maintaining space for understanding is why I can’t remember anything whereas in fact it is probably just the impact of growing old!  However, Macaro and Baggini also suggest that we should use our smart phones and tablet computers as mental prosthetics to extend the capacity of our brains.  In other words, we should let these mental prostheses handle all of the routine processing of information associated with central executive mode tasks and keep the mental processes in our skulls for the creative thinking associated with mind-wandering.

Traditionally, engineers have followed Leonardo di Vinci‘s example by writing and drawing in a series of notebooks;  perhaps in the hope of emulating his creativity but also to extend the capacity of our minds by recording and ordering thoughts.  However, the processing capacity of modern devices creates the opportunity to go even further.  So that thinking out-of-the-skull could lead to more thinking out-of-the-box!

Source: Macaro, A. & Baggini, J., ‘Do we need props?’ in Financial Times magazine, January 10/11, 2015.

Photo credit: Tom

Ada Lovelace astride two cultures

Ada LovelaceRegular readers will have noticed my recent predilection for poetry.  I am going to deviate from the theme, but only slightly, by highlighting the work of Ada Lovelace who has been described as writing about differential calculus with the same passion that her father, Lord Byron wrote about forbidden love.  As I observed last week, we need more people who can write with passion about engineering and science; so it is appropriate following International Women’s Day on Sunday to highlight the work of Ada Lovelace who worked on programs for Babbage’s analytical engine. She could be described as the world’s first computer programmer.  However, she was much more than that because in her writings she foresaw a world in which computers would be aesthetic tools capable of creating language and art.  She was at least hundred years ahead of her time.  Perhaps growing up surrounded by poetry gave her the skills to express her passion for technology and the vision to see its potential.  If that is the case then we should encourage prospective engineers to read English literature and not books on engineering as implied in my post entitled ‘Good reads for budding engineers‘ on February 25th, 2015.  We need engineers to stand astride the boundary between the ‘Two Cultures‘ [see post of the same title on March 5th, 2013].

For more on modern female scientists and the gender imbalance in science watch the short film from the Royal Society entitled ‘A Chemical Imbalance‘  [see my post on of the same title on October 2nd, 2013]

Sources: Steven Johnson, A glitch in time, Financial Times, 18/19 October 2014.

Poetasting engineers

donegal ruinA few weeks ago we spent a long weekend in Dublin. Its a capital city on a small scale but well-endowed with world-class museums, galleries and civic grandeur with good victuals available nearly everywhere.  We are frequent visitors to Dublin and, for me, no visit would be complete without half-an-hour or so spent sitting in the National Library listening to recordings of Yeats’ poems being read out loud.  You can listen on-line by visiting the ‘Verse and Vision‘ exhibit at the National Library of Ireland website.  I find reading poetry really challenging but I enjoy listening to someone else reading it.

My link to John Updike’s poem ‘Ode to Entropy‘ in my post entitled ‘Cosmic Heat Death‘ didn’t work – sorry about that!  It is reproduced in full on Clutterbuck.  I made another mistake last week and unintentionally published two posts, which perhaps reduced the impact of my request for ‘Good reads for budding engineers‘.  I have had no responses yet…

Staying with poetry.  Engineers appear to have a poor reputation for writing poetry.  Hilary Mantel in her short story ‘How shall I know you‘ describes reading clubs founded ‘by master drapers and their shop-girl wives; by poetasting engineers, and uxorious physicians with long winter evenings to pass.‘  Poetasting means writing indifferent verse.  Admittedly writing good poetry is not part of the role of an engineer but writing clear and concise prose is an essential skill.  Unfortunately most young engineers and many older colleagues are the prose equivalent of poetasters –  they write terribly turgid text.  Our inability to communicate in sparkling prose means that our profession appears uninspiring to potential recruits and remains hidden and obscure to most of society.  Climate change, poor air quality, autonomous machines and ubiquitous big data  are amongst the many challenges facing society for which we need engineering and science-literate citizens and lawmakers.  The responsibility for educating society lies with engineers who understand the technology and must strive to communicate more effectively [see my post entitled the ‘Charismatic Engineer‘ on June 4th, 2014].

Source: Hilary Mantel, ‘Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ Henry Holt & Co, New York, September 2014.

Photo credit: Tom