Red relations and green water

So what’s new in the world?

Big news: Theresa May says its time to repair relations with Russia. That’s sticking it to A LOT of people, here and especially in the US. How the UK right wing media, who’ve been dutifully following the neocon line these past years, will take it remains to be seen.

Little news: The Olympic diving pool in Rio turned soupy green overnight. Global warming? Bad plumbing? A spell?

Bad news: Trump ‘jokingly’ hints that good ol’ boys might exercise their gun rights to ‘stop’ Hillary. As The Donald is the candidate most likely to be ‘stopped’ that way by Dark Forces from deep in the state, it’s hardly a funny line. Anyway, everyone knows that Clinton couldn’t and wouldn’t do anything to upset gun owners.

Chew news: Dogs in Britain are getting less fertile for the same reason as Californian condors are. It’s their diet, which is increasingly laden with toxins from the environment. Who’s next? People? That’s what the stories are saying.

Painful news: A hospital in Lincolnshire may have to close its A&E at night. One in Liverpool is planning to stop routine operations and axe its IVF programme. Staffing and funds are at the root of the problems. Actually, that’s more or less the same thing. No money, no staff. No-one’s saying so but the hot money would have to be on PFI repayments sucking the life out of the Trusts running them. No wonder those shadowy financiers gratefully funnel so much money to Tony.

Saucy news: HP Sauce is the favourite brand of Brexit voters. They also like Bisto, Birds Eye, Cathedral City and Richmond sausages (is the last one a brand?). Remain voters like BBC.co.uk, iPlayer, Instagram, Spotify,  London Underground, AirBnB, Virgin Trains and EasyJet. Obvious conclusion: Brexiteers are salt of the earth types, though probably somewhat prone to body odour. Remainers are masochistic, narcissitic  metropolitanites with their heads in the Cloud. Less obvious conclusion: remainers’ brand choices are ”progressive, up to date, visionary, innovative, socially responsible [EasyJet???], intelligent.”  You’d never have guessed that the conclusions were drawn by a bunch of metropolitan ad-men and the story appeared on BBC.co.uk

Tippy-toes news: Will Young is the second celebrity to make the line up for Strictly Come Dancing. No, I don’t know what any of that means. Nor the name of the first celebrity.

Repent at leisure news: More than a third of recent graduates regret having gone to uni. Reason? A bucket-load of student debt to pay off (average £44,000) and jobs that give them an average monthly disposable income of £160. Funny how the media that’s endlessly cheered for universal student debt, sorry, degrees for all, is all of a sudden discovering what a complete crock Tony’s companion debt-wheeze to PFI was bound to turn into.

Quis custodiat? news: Yesterday all the stories were about the Competition and Markets Authority giving the banks a hearty slap over their treatment of customers. Today, everyone’s suddenly discovered that it amounts to little more than a loud ‘tut’. Needless to say, the job of policing banks’ better behaviour has been left with … the banks.

Who that? news: Charles W Sweeney. Now, if I’d written Paul Tibbett, people would have got it easily. Yesterday was the anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Nagasaki. It would have been tomorrow but the weather forecast was apparently bad. Sweeney flew the plane –  whose name no-one remembers either.

Shouty Americans news: Trump is reckless and not qualified to be a US president, say republicans. Apparently that means he’s not a complete two-faced puppet of corporate interests who’ll go back on all his promises as soon as he’s elected. Anyway, aren’t all the Republican high-ups promising to vote for Hillary?

We’ll never hear the last of this news: Tesla driver gets chest pains. Puts car in ‘auto pilot’ mode and it drives him 20 miles to hospital. He’s treated for a dangerous blood clot. Fans of autonomous cars will be all over that one like a rash. Anyone want to give me £60k to buy a Tesla?

Turn back 10 pages news: Tomorrow’s graduates will be applying for jobs working in virtual worlds and outer space, according to ‘experts.’ Future careers will include Virtual Habitual Designers, Ethical Technology Advocates, Space Tour Guides (I kid you not, these people will “use their knowledge to construct visits to the more interesting parts of Earth’s orbit”), and Personal Content Curators. The latter will manage software-brain interfaces, organising thoughts and memories for fellow graduates who are too busy spending their meagre £160 monthly disposable income and worrying about their student debt to think for themselves.

Whatever happened to the driverless car?

 

Is that a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a flying car.

Doubtless egged-on by the hype lavished on driverless cars, wild promises of levitating family autos are all the rage again.

Yup, the prospect of flying to meetings in your own car instead of a helicopter is right back on the agenda.

Terrafugia Flying Car Prototype on Road

See – here is the TF-X, Terrafugia’s bid for aero-motoring immortality. A deeply unsexy prototype that could become a sleek, er, road-legal helicopter-cum-plane.

fly-car-rendering

Call me a bit skeptical but to my untrained eye the TF-X visualised in the pics displays all the aerodynamic qualities of a Corgi toy attached to a lolly stick. Those skinny wings might lift a super-flyweight body – but not something that would conceivably get an NCAP collision rating for a family vehicle.

Since the first object you encounter on the project’s web page is a button labelled “$ Invest”, it’s a safe bet that there’s a long way to go and a lot of cash to burn before ‘une brique volante’ lands in a back garden near you. Ad astra per pecunia you could say.

(And by the way, what’s with the utterly crapola and mega-depressing, round-the-back-of-in-industrial-unit-next-to-the-dumpsters destination of the TF-X in the promo? Failure of imagination or a teeny hint that flying cars won’t fit in normal workplace parking bays?)

But each to his own, I say. It’s your money. If you’re excited enough to invest, be my guest. Really, if you think that road-legal helicopters have a future, I think someone might have a Moller M400 Skycar to sell you.

With driverless cars, at least there are a few potential benefits – like having multi-user vehicles that deliver themselves to drivers. The reason flying cars have remained a pipe dream since the 1950s is they’re basically a solution looking for a problem.

On wait! Silly me. Of course, we’ll soon have self-driving flying cars. Where else could today’s utterly fabulous technology lead us?

The title of this article? Oh, that’s just irony.

London’s (gonna be) burning

No, no, no listeners! I’m not calling for mayhem or trying to organise socially-networked insurrection.

I’m just paraphrasing today’s front page article in the Guardian.

Looming London transport crisis ‘risks sparking riots’, says TfL chief | The Guardian

London could see riots again unless more trains and buses are provided at affordable fares for the poorest communities as the population soars, the city’s transport commissioner has warned.

He said the city will face “overwhelming” overcrowding on its congested transport networks by 2030 without urgent progress on new rail lines.

“London’s poor don’t live in Harrow Road, they live in Enfield and Tolworth and if you can’t get them to jobs they want, your city’s going to be in a bad way: it’s not going to progress and contribute to national economic growth,” [head of Transport for London, Peter] Hendy said. “The stakes are pretty high. If you’re not able to increase transport capacity, and people find accessing work impossible, you risk social unrest. You can expect trouble.”

Read the whole thing. You rarely get to enjoy quite so rich a mix of unconscious irony and unusual candour, even in the dear old Grauniad.

Maybe its something to do with the fallout from the referendum but all of a sudden we’re dropping the euphemisms and talking about people in honest four-letter words. Not ‘socially and financially disadvantaged householders’ or whatever. Poor people. And that’s good because once you start calling the poor the poor you can also start calling the rich the rich. Then you can begin to have a proper debate about trying to spread the wealth around a little more evenly, rather than indulging in hand-waving about transit investment corridors and strategic regeneration plans.

Unfortunately that’s where this promising story goes off the rails. I mean, instead of threatening fire and brimstone unless the rest of the UK’s taxpayers stump up billions to buy the capital a load of new rail and tram networks, wouldn’t it be cheaper and quicker to move the jobs to where London’s poor people already are?

Yeah, but that wouldn’t work, would it? They’re not the kind of jobs you can relocate. They’re cooks, bar staff, cleaners, ticket collectors, doormen, domestics. The people who lived in or around and between the well-to-do classes in imperial Rome or Victorian London. Ugh …such a primitive arrangement. The modern way is so much better: we simply allow poor people to ‘find their own level’ geographically-speaking, by moving to where they can afford to buy or rent a place. Like Tolworth.

Of course the big downside to this approach is that it makes it harder and harder to get everyone into the centre to do their jobs and then get them all out again. Go down that tunnel and you’re going to get – and Mr Hendy does not flinch from using the word – ‘overcrowding.’ Lest we miss the point, he mentions Mumbai and Rio de Janeiro as the kind of hell-holes plagued by fare price riots that London is en route to becoming (unless the rest of the country subsidises ticket prices, infrastructure, etc, etc).

This story has ‘exercise in trying to sustain the unsustainable’ written all over it. As the global economy goes through the transition from fossil energy to renewables, we’re entering a long stretch where we won’t have the capital or the juice to keep on pushing people further and further from their jobs in the expectation that we’ll simply build costly and complex transportation systems to ship them back in again every morning.

Perhaps that is what Mr Hendy is really trying to get people to understand. After all ‘poor’ is a great dog whistle word for getting the attention of folk for whom these issues are usually, shall we say, ‘remote’. He does say:

“But if the poor are not living in Tower Hamlets, Stockwell, Hackney and Southwark any more and all the places where people on low incomes used to live, they are living a long way away and a future mayor is going to have to make sure they can afford to get to work.”

So, hey son-of-Boris. Like maybe stop allowing the developers to push them out, man? Could we, like, try that?

But if Mr Hendy is serious, it goes to show how hard-wired our leaders’ imaginations still are to the cheap energy paradigm. As the saying goes, to a hammer every problem looks like a nail. If London’s problem is that its poor people are increasingly in the wrong places, perhaps it’s a pretty dumb idea, in a world where transport is only going to get more and more expensive by historical standards, to ask a transport planner to provide the answer.

Car-boom!

Yesterday’s Guardian G2 section led with the somewhat self-consciously juvenile word, ‘Vroom!’.

Subtitled ‘Why Britain can’t stop buying new cars‘, the cover story tried to answer why car sales are rising in the UK while stagnating everywhere else in Europe.

It provided a handy platform for assorted industry mouthpieces to congratulate Britons on being clever little consumers. Apparently we are becoming adept at signing personal leases and/or rushing into car dealerships to blow PPI payouts on deposits on car loans.

And to be fair, £69 a month for a brand new Skoda Citigo runaround isn’t a lot more than a his’n’hers iPhone/iPad contract. Assuming of course that you can chop your old car in for the £2,500 deposit.

And to be fairer than fair, the writer did ask some awkward questions. Why are fewer and fewer young people bothering to learn to drive? Why are annual mileages dropping?

Naturally, the industry came back with ready-prepared answers. Young people just need the right kind of ‘marketing’ to turn them back on to car ownership: cue ‘cool’ car ads that are so painful you want to stick needles in your eyes. Mileages are really falling only in London and the south east, because public transport is quite good there and executive-level company car users all use Skype or the phone these days.

To be honest, it all sounded rather defensive. The overall picture painted by the article was that of an industry whose existing customers are happy to use alternatives when they become available while potential new customers are increasingly disinclined, not to mention financially unable, to contemplate buying its products.

Cheap credit and the fact that Britain is not in the euro are behind this mini boom in UK car sales. The article pointed out that carmakers are assiduously pumping production into the UK to try to keep their factories humming as demand in the eurozone collapses.

The big risk to the UK car business is that it is storing up big problems further down the road. Sales are being bought expensively through wafer thin margins, heightened credit risks and discounts that end up depressing second values and thus hurting the all important fleet sector, which makes up half the market.

So the answer to the Guardian’s question appears to be: ‘Because British car buyers are easily-influenced novelty-seekers with an underdeveloped sense of consequences. Rather like four-year-olds.

A much more interesting question, which hopefully the Guardian will get round to investigating, is why so many Europeans have apparently broken themselves of the new car habit?

What do they see that we don’t?

I’ll never see a white elephant fly

There’s much to ponder in last week’s recommendation by UK MPs that their government should back further expansion of Heathrow.

As anyone with even a smidgen of energy literacy knows, there is a huge question mark hanging over the future of mass aviation.

So the question isn’t really whether Heathrow or ‘Boris island’ is the better way to ‘secure Britain’s future as a major air transport hub’. It’s why anyone should still want to keep flogging what looks like a very dead horse.

That’s where things start to get interesting. But first let’s recap why the outlook for civil aviation is increasingly uncertain.

planescrap

Mass aviation is a creature of liquid fossil fuels. Raw oil is now about four times as expensive as it was 15 years ago. Although the airlines have weathered that move – just about – they can’t go where oil is going next.

That’s to perhaps $150 a barrel, which will happen when the balance of oil demand shifts from the OECD countries to the ‘developing’ countries sometime in the next two years. Head over to Gregor Macdonald’sTerrajoule.US site to read how and why this repricing will take place.

Bear in mind that $100 oil has already caused a significant transfer of oil consumption away from the West, where the per capita rate of oil ‘waste’ (think SUVs and millions of holiday flights) is much higher than in the rest of the world.

The UK is in the initial phase of ‘the long rebalancing’ of its economy. We’re sliding toward lower levels of liquid fossil fuel consumption because that is what we can afford. We can expect commercial flying to decline in line with affordability. In short, the growth projections for air travel in Britain and Europe are mostly pie in the sky.

So where does this leave the national debate about expanding London’s airport capacity? Well there are three ways to look at the glaring disconnect between the expansionist rhetoric and the energy/capital reality on the ground.

  1. The protagonists are all energy-illiterate worshippers of the god of progress, who don’t realise the world has changed.
  2. They’re not bothered about the long-term outlook for UK civil aviation: they’re really angling to cash in on the infrastructure investment bonanza that would be unleashed by airport expansion.
  3. They’ve weighed everything up in private and decided that, between now and the inevitable contraction of airline traffic, the UK/London economies risk losing more if runway capacity isn’t expanded than if we decided to get out of the doomed game gracefully, and sooner rather than later.

There’s a lot of (1) around, and undoubtedly a lot of (2) involved too. But (3) is intriguingly credible. After all, it’s characteristic of bubbles that the majority of players want to stay in the game even when it’s obvious that things are heading for a crunch.

One prize the UK establishment might have its eye on is to own the last major international air hub standing in Europe when flying turns into an elites-only game. The airport that claims that prize will doubtless be – for a while – a real honeypot: a key staging post for those involved in the transfer out of Europe of whatever chunks of knowledge, property and power that still have value to developing economies.

But why they imagine that such a hub would be at Heathrow – poorly connected and on the far side of Europe from the new customers for Europe’s wherewithal – is anyone’s guess. National pride, maybe? How very 18th century.

There’s something cargo cultish about politicians’ touching faith that building runways will keep the planes coming. Are those shining spears of tarmac really all we have left with which to fend off the loss of the rest of Britain’s greatness? Letting go of expansion would be like allowing the ravens to fly away from the Tower of London .… presumably to Frankfurt or Schiphol.

That kind of hubris could conceivably keep the Heathrow expansion panjandrum rolling drunkenly onward for another five or 10 years.

All the same, I hope the UK motoring industry is paying close attention to this issue. Because although Birmingham airport today staked its claim for the hub expansion lolly, this isn’t a fight over runways. It’s a fight over who gets to burn the shrinking oil supply.

Behind its brave, business-as-usual face, the auto business is feeling the heat from too-costly fuel. Only corporates and a relatively small number of private buyers are willing to pay the price of the increasingly frugal new models it produces. Fewer young people see car ownership as a priority. Used car buyers, who outnumber new buyers by 10 to one, struggle with motoring costs.

At some point, the auto industry is going to have to fight back against the airports’ special pleading. If I were the SMMT or the RAC, I’d be making noises to the Government about the very different quid pro quos that operate in motoring and aviation.

Although, motoring still gets plenty of public cash support in the form of road maintenance and improvements, it pays stiff taxes on fuel and vehicles in return. The air cavalry are lobbying for massive public funding for necessary infrastructure (e.g. tunnelling the M25 to allow Heathrow to expand westwards) in return for a paltry airport tax bill and no tax on fuel at all.

I don’t expect the car lobby to let that sleeping dog lie for very much longer.

No friends for electric cars

That fizzling noise in the marketing-o-sphere is the sound of something terminal happening to Electric Cars 1.0.

By now, the UK’s roads were supposed to be filling rapidly with the silent swooshing of a juiced EV market. Instead, the EV scene is flatter than an iPhone 4 battery at 2.30 in the afternoon.

Leasing companies are lining up to tell their customers not to waste any more time on mains powered motors.

“Slow burning” is how the kindest commentators in the fleet car sector are describing battery-powered cars’ potential. After all, what is the commercial point of acquiring them for fleet use?

On a coalface-to-wheel basis, EVs emit more CO2 than dozens of more-capable combustion models. Functionally, they’re pants. In return for costing a small fortune to buy, their pathetic range is designed to keep a driver on tenterhooks most of the way from London to (nearly) Swindon – or Newbury if it’s cold, dark and raining.

Cargo cult

QuadRanting has always averred that current EVs are simply a cargo cult response to the withdrawal of the cheap liquid fossil fuel that enabled the Age of Happy Motoring; facsimiles of real cars.

Driving an EV is not a happy thing to do. The EV-makers’ latest throw of the dice – the Tesla S – is said to be good for 300 miles on a charge. But so what? Buying the additional 140 miles-worth of batteries adds £15,000 to the price of the 160-mile base model, which already costs thirty grand.

You could buy an equally roomy, year-old, ex-demo Passat or A4 with 12,000 miles on the clock for that £15k and then, if you wished, spend the £30k you’d saved by avoiding the Tesla on approximately 230,000 miles worth of diesel.

OK, so the Tesla’s a luxury car but, again, so what? If the answer to EVs’ shortcomings is to make toys for rich boys at the meagre rate of 12,000 units a year, that’s the biggest ‘sod off’ to the herd since Marie Antoinette urged starving commoners to switch to cake.

Trick question

So, if EVs are neither cheap nor cheerful nor plentiful nor environmentally sound, what are they for? It turns out that the answer to that question is the same as the response the trick question on QI: nobody knows.

The makers, who are being sucked into a monster whirlpool of overcapacity and disappearing demand for combustion cars in Europe, can barely give their pricey, heavy, range-crippled EVs away.

Nissan has sold 12,000 Leafs so far instead of the 44,000 p.a. it was counting on. It is planning to sell a ‘budget’ version of the car next year at a £4k discount to the current tag of £30,000 after we taxpayers chip in for the £5k Government subsidy per car.

Look dearie, if I wanted a budget Nissan that’d only do 70 miles before needing a good rest, I’d buy a knackered £950 Micra with two gallons of petrol in its tank.

Plain stupid

That’s the circle that EVs in their current form cannot square. If the proles are being priced out of conventional cars by the global debt implosion and peak oil, it’s plain stupid to try offering them super-pricey, barely functional EVs instead.

The future of mass vehicle ownership is in 2-wheelers and microlight cars – a shift the manufacturers are resisting as furiously as you’d expect of corporations with billions tied up in the wrong products.

Even so, I reckon we’ll see the first Ford scooters and GM microlight prototypes before 2020. Of course, this will require a complete rethink of road rules and infrastructure design to accommodate millions of lightweights among the legacy of conventional cars.

Ironically, by then Europe will have shovelled trillions of euros into perpetuating the current, doomed automotive infrastructure as it tries to stimulate its way out of GD2. It’s going to be interesting.

La fine della strada

Ugo Bardi reports a summary of a September press release from the Italian “Unione Petrolifera” in “Italy implodes” on his Cassandra’s Legacy blog

Automotive fuels have shown the following trends: gasoline has seen a reduction of 18.2% in consumption while diesel fuel has seen a 15.6% reduction, both compared with September 2011. Summed together, the consumption of the two fuels was 16.3% lower than in Sept 2011. In this month, the sales of new cars have shown a contraction of 25.5% compared with Sept 2011. The first nine months of 2012 have seen a contraction of 20.4% in the sales of new cars.

Those falls in the space of a year are breathtaking. Fuel and auto sales are falling in the UK too, but nowhere near so far or so fast.

The difference is due more to Quantitative Easing than to fundamental economic differences. Outside the euro, and with some of its own oil remaining  the UK can delay the day of reckoning but it cannot avoid its appointment with destiny (in the form of declining ERoEI) for ever.

Italy is the UK writ larger and sooner, and Spain and France are not far behind. Three of Europe’s ‘big five’ auto economies are undergoing unprecedented contraction.

This collapse will expose how deeply the ‘real’ (i.e manufacturing and trading) economies of these countries, as well as the UK and Germany, rely on auto making, trading and servicing.

Some of the commenters on Bardi’s blog entry view what’s happening as simply a cyclical economic downturn. One even speculates that the ‘savings’ Italians are making from eschewing cars and gasoline will flow into other domestically-made goods and services.

Energy slaves

Savings? There are no meaningful savings when the average European person requires the daily services of 200 ‘energy slaves’ – 95% of which come from fossil fuels.

What’s happening in Italy (and Spain and France) is deadly serious. It is the weakening and incipient collapse of a main pillar of the real economy.

Moreover, it is a positive feed back loop. If the economy does not burn oil, it doesn’t generate the real purchasing power to buy and drive autos. Without auto activity, the country burns less oil.

The simple answer would be to pump cheaper oil into Italy and Europe’s other struggling economies. But the end of ‘easy’ oil and declining net exports have blocked that escape route.

For once, Senna the Soothsayer from the old BBC sitcom Up Pompeii would be on the money with her catchphrase “Woe, woe and thrice woe.”

All the same, I’ll give the last word to a 21st century Cassandra. No, not Bardi but Massimo de Carlo of the “Mondo Elettrico” blog:

I have no words. An abyss, an abyss, an abyss. No movement because there is no work. No consumption because there is no money. Oil is not used because it is not there. Stop.