What is an Ordinary way of Life?

The definition of an ordinary life. Well, it depends of course on who you are, where you live and what you do. These factors affect what you eat, how you get around and something slightly more philosophical – how happy you are. An ordinary meal for a person living in Thailand will be a reserved for special nights out in the UK. Risking life and limb to cater for Dubai’s gluttonous appetite for skyscrapers would be seen as an impossibility for the ground dwelling Inuit populations of Greenland. There are a countless number of examples demonstrating how we differ from one another. It is our demographic that defines what we see as the norm. So where then, are we similar? Because it is our similarities that help us answer the question posed in the titled. Well to begin with, we are all life forms. And I refer to my GCSE biology for a useful mnemonic – MRS GREN: Movement, Respiration, Sensitivity, Growth, Reproduction, Excretion and Nutrition.

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Mrs Gren

Apart from movement and nutrition, we are all pretty much identical. Sure, there are some people that are more actively reproducing…And some people that are taller than others. There are those that excrete more, both literally and metaphorically. In fact, some people emit so much hot air from their mouth that I wonder whether they were put together backwards…I digress…

I believe the fundamental parameters that control our way of living, are movement and nutrition. These two dictate what separates the rich from the poor, the powerful from the weak, and the ignorant from the knowledgeable. Ultimately, these two parameters can be influenced to a higher degree by us, and therefore help us to recognize what we mean by ordinary.

Let’s begin with nutrition. We are all human and generally speaking we need the same amounts of vitamins, minerals and various nutrients to sustain healthy bodily functions. Of course, this does depend on where you live and what you do for a living i.e. you’re requirement for various substances will depend on your lifestyle.

In the West, the lifestyle we seem to be living presents us with more time constraints than ever. This in turn prevents us from properly focusing our attention to where exactly we are getting these nutrients from.

We can be foolish and get all the energy we need from fast food and ready meals. We will however, without a shadow of a doubt, feel undernourished a short time after being constantly exposed to such foods. For instance, I could eat McDonalds three times a day and save a lot of time (while going well over my recommended intake of calories.) Not only would I gain weight – I’d also be lethargic, more susceptible to heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome and probably bad breath. Despite this, the consumption of ready meals is higher than it’s ever been. They may not be as bad as Maccy D’s, but I wouldn’t say they are a great deal better.

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The Ready Meal Trend

So instead let us consider what is deemed a decidedly less foolish route. Let me eat salads, fruits and vegetables. I’ll pick the finest eggs, the best meat and go organic. But…we face a problem. Although choosing good food like this works out perhaps a little more expensive, the issues besides the fissure now residing in your wallet are more concerning. Firstly, the fruit and veg we get are already a week old when they hit the supermarket. The food only has 40% of the nutrients it started with. When I throw it in the pan, I lose even more. While this healthier diet is not putting bad stuff in my body, it’s certainly not doing much good either! Secondly, and this is the crux of the matter in my opinion, is we lack TIME…

Do you really have time to faff around with slicing up veggies when you get back from work? Do you really want to go through all that washing up after the meal? We want to just get back, whip something together in a few minutes and plonk ourselves in front of the TV. Work was tough. So many meetings. Bloody reports. Maybe let off some steam in the gym, go out for a game of squash. Browse the internet. Write a useless blog…

We feel there are better, more productive things to get on with than cooking. I’m not going to deny that is exactly how I feel sometimes.

Sometimes there really isn’t enough time in the day. How often do we sit down and reflect on the learnings of the day? Do we ever give ourselves and opportunity to look after ourselves? Or are we always considering whether the time we have is being best utilised? We run around trying to make money. We use this money to buy materialistic objects, gadgets and gizmos – over what is actually good for us. We buy stuff and then we are forced to make the time to use it, read it, watch it, play it. We don’t have time for us. This is my, somewhat bleak view, of the typical Western lifestyle. Every city and town in Western Europe and the U.S.-  it’s the same, everyone is always: ‘too busy’. We sometimes have the audacity to sneer at those that we feel are not doing anything with their life. The ones that take it easy and come what may. You know the ones I mean. They maintain a smile, and move around doing whatever comes their way. Always relaxed. Always…happy?

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Contemplation

This running around like headless chickens. This has become our ordinary way of life. It is not a pretty picture. Perhaps you don’t live your life like this, and I apologise for being presumptive. But forgive me for assuming that you know at least one person that fits snugly in the profile I have woven.

And I sense this is not how we are supposed to live it.

Food is our fuel. It becomes us. We genuinely, literally, factually, exactly are what we eat. Nothing more. Nothing less. Why then, do some of us invest so much in electronic gismos but turn our noses up at the choice between organic free range and battery hen eggs. Our justification for choosing the latter is ‘because it’s cheaper, and they all come from the same place anyway.’ We need good food. We don’t need a new laptop. Not enough time? Make it. If we can make time to browse Facebook, 9GAG, YouTube and useless entries on WordPress, then we have time to spend an extra half hour in the kitchen. Invariably, this will require a change in our approach to the way we live.

A change we may not all be willing to embrace. One that would require planning. Reducing our ability to take spontaneous decisions such that our general lifestyle flexibility is diminished. A change that may be inconvenient, time consuming and sometimes tiring.

Let us now move onto the second parameter I felt was of importance in determining what an ordinary way of life is: movement. The movement of the earliest homosapiens have shaped, formed and developed humanity to the state it is now. Mobility is how we socialise, learn, earn, eat, and grow. The ability to move runs our very economy. We have countless ways of doing it. Crawling, walking, running, cycling, sailing, driving, flying, the list goes on. With the passage of time and technological advancements, the speed of our mobility and the range has continued to increase allowing us to develop further personally, educate ourselves more and so on and so forth. So, despite it being a simple part of our life, it is fundamental to life’s existence.

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Movement out of Africa; The numbers represent years it took to arrive to the given location

And we have become used to it haven’t we? The ability to just walk outside, hop into the car and drive to the destination that would have taken only 15 minutes to walk. Yet we rarely take the opportunity to walk. Again, the problem is time. Our way of life prevents us investing time in alternatives that we deem unnecessarily arduous.

For those that have made it this far in this entry, I’m sure you are expecting a connection with cars in some way or another. To avoid disappointment, I will now present the challenge we are facing in the automotive industry.

I am working on the manufacturing and design of hydrogen fuel cells for automotive applications (which will be covered in detail in my next blog.) The biggest issue I foresee for the commercialisation of this technology is not the reliability, the safety or indeed the method for obtaining hydrogen. The real barrier is changing the consumer lifestyle.  We inevitably need to change the way we live if we are to use this tech. Despite the best efforts of engineers, we will not be able to operate the vehicle in the same way we do when we are using one with an internal combustion engine. We need people to accept this change and embrace it, at the moment we are (me included) are unwilling to even give it a go.

Disagree?

Let us use electric cars as example as they have been around for a while now. Why do we not see more of them? Of course cost is an issue. Yet people go around buying the combustion offerings of Mercedes, Audi, Range Rover and indeed Bentley. It’s a lifestyle choice, nothing more complex than that. It’s cool to go round town astride a Jaguar. A Leaf is too far down the food chain. And you have to wait an age to charge it. And you don’t get much range. And it’s a bit ugly.

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G-Wiz, that’s fugly

I can’t disagree with the last one. But the first two certainly are based on our desire to have the maximum amount of flexibility and not to have to plan our day too much. We may know, for instance, that we’ve only got a few litres left in the tank. Yet we also know it will only take add an extra 10 minutes to my journey to fill it up. Our timetable can accommodate that delay. It cannot accommodate the delay associated with charging the car for 4 hours. I hear you say, ‘well we would need to plan for that!’ Of course you are right, but how many of us are willing to plan like that?

So you have sat here reading the stream of thoughts, wondering what the conclusion to all this is. Firstly, imminent change to our lifestyles is neither possible nor probable, it is inevitable. There will be those among us who will do their utmost to fight the change. They will try and corrupt the minds of those around them to slow the change, perhaps stalling it for a time. But it will happen. Be prepared to change how you live. And wherever possible, try to embrace it. It makes our lives as engineers that much easier – when we know there is one less challenge to overcome, the challenge of accommodating for unchanging people.

An ordinary way of life. Something we can all relate to is change. Changing the way we eat. Changing the way we move.

I leave you with a quote from Churchill:

“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often”

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Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill

Embrace the change. It’s the ordinary thing to do.

Thanks for reading.

Danger is in the Eye of the Beholder

I recently rewatched the video of Felix Baumgartner’s jump from space. For those that don’t know, he broke the sound barrier when jumping from a height of nearly 39km and reaching a speed of over 1300km/h. I know that there were a lot of clever scientists sponsored by Red Bull to make it happen, but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous. It wouldn’t have taken much for Fearless Felix to break the record for being the man who fell the furthest to his death.

Before the Big Jump

Before the Big Jump

I was thinking about this as I was driving on the stretch of the M40 between Warwick and Beaconsfield. I have to make this journey quite often and it’s usually in the evening. The motorway at that time is pretty empty. Sure you have the odd vehicle every now and then, but there’s nothing to stop you pelting it down the fast lane (or even the middle lane) at 100mph. And some people do of course. In their big Jags. And Mercs. And Beamers. Recently however, I’ve noted that even the little cars are flying down the fast lane. For instance, last night I saw a little i20 shoot past me. I was going around 80 and had only enough time to note that it was a 1.2. Some people would say he or she was being reckless, but I disagree (as I’m sure you knew I would).

The thing is – car manufacturers are being forced to make their vehicles lighter and more efficient in an effort to reduce their CO2 emissions. I remember a time, not long ago, we used to compare cars by likening them to the number of horses they were equivalent too. Now we talk about how many grams of CO2 we are throwing out of the tailpipe every km and how that affects the penguins, the polar bears and the common housefly. It’s all about climate change and global warming these days and an effort to combat or at the very least, manage it. However, there is an argument that people in the industry will be well aware of and that’s the amount of CO2 emitted to make the end product emit less CO2 – the good old well to wheel analysis (which by the way paints a much more realistic picture). That is however, a discussion for another time. Back to car manufacturers making their cars more efficient and relatively lighter (take this with a pinch of salt as most cars are actually getting heavier, but relative to the power produced and the embedded technology – they are lighter) – this has the ultimate effect that the brake horsepower per ton of vehicle is on the rise. The consequence of this increased power density is that it’s a lot easier for the 1.2 litre of today to drive comfortably at 80-90mph than it was 10-15 years ago. You’ll be relatively comfortable, relaxed and most importantly – safe. Let’s have a look at that last one in details shall we…

Power Up!

Power Up!

Obviously car manufacturers know this i.e. the fact that the cars they are making are getting more powerful. They also know that we aren’t very good drivers. So they have implemented all sorted of driver aids to stop us killing ourselves (or others). Such systems include antilock braking system (ABS) which prevents your wheels from locking up when you slam the brakes. Some people think that this is to help you stop faster, but actually that’s not strictly true! Often when you slam the brakes it’s because there is something on the road that you are trying to avoid. Your secondary instinct after slamming the brakes is to turn your wheel. For those that have been in a situation where your wheels lock and then try to steer you will note that there is little to no change in direction. The reason is very simple, braking and turning both require grip which is why it’s impossible to do either when you are on ice. When you lock the wheels you’ve run out of grip, the wheels are just sliding along thus if you turn them, you won’t change direction. By rapidly applying and releasing the brakes, the ABS system allows you to maintain grip thus avoid the obstacle safely and effectively when you steer away from it. Of course we also have disc brakes rather than the old drums which make a huge difference to the braking power available, reducing the stopping distance which means we may not have to avoid the obstacle at all!

You may also have heard of other systems with acronyms such as ESP or ESC – there are too many variations to name. Essentially they exist to maintain vehicle stability when you do a manoeuvre to avoid an obstacle and prevent oversteer or understeer depending on the drivetrain of your vehicle. They do this either by applying the brakes in a strategic manner, throttling the engine or a combination of the two. Extremely clever but complex systems and I don’t envy the guys that have to program them and am jealous of the guys that get to test them!

In addition to these systems vehicle manufacturers have implemented lane assist, active cruise control, blind spot sensors and so many other things that you will have seen in ads or read about in the media.

The upshot of all this technology is that it is a lot safer to drive and potentially more difficult than ever to crash. In addition, with all the crash tests and safety standards it’s also more likely you’ll walk away unscathed if you do mess up (as you probably will). Of course a serious crash at 80mph vs 100 mph has a more similar outcome compared to 20mph vs 40mph where the difference is literally life and death.

Modena Massacre

Modena Massacre

So this makes me wonder why on earth we have (in the UK at least) the prehistoric national speed limit of 70mph while we have the capability to go to at least 20mph more than that – safely. In addition to this I think there should be a higher minimum speed limit set for driving on the motorway. The times I’ve almost crashed on the motorway are when someone is trundling along at 50mph. Their car comes at you so quickly you barely have time to react whereas when someone is coming behind you at 90mph, you generally have space to move out of their way because you can move to the middle or left lane depending on where he or she is.

But really – my blog this time around isn’t about changing the UK speed limit even though I would like to. They tried changing it but were scared of losing the female vote. Don’t ask – politician logic is beyond me. My blog is actually about the crazy suggestion of manually pumping a highly flammable liquid into a vehicle with nothing to stop us pouring it all over the floor and lighting a match and blowing the whole place up (if your that way inclined). My frustration is that people are whining about the safety concerns with hydrogen and don’t bat an eye about driving around with 50 litres of gasoline strapped to the underside of their vehicle.

I do wonder if we tried introducing hydrogen fuelling at the same time as gasoline whether we’d be fighting to meet so many standards. The poor guys working on hydrogen fuelling and storage have to jump through a gazillion hoops and processes which is really hindering the mass roll out of fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen fuelled reciprocating internal combustion engines (which would be super awesome by the way). The biggest problem is ignorance. More specifically it shares its first 5 letters with hindering. That is of course the Hindenburg. Every time I try and have an intelligent conversion with someone about hydrogen fuel cell vehicles they have only one word for me – the Hindenburg. The Hindenburg was an airship that caught fire in 1937 killing 35 people. This event brought an abrupt end to the era of the airship. There is no doubt that the death of innocent people is terrible and high levels of investment need to be made to avoid such catastrophes. The primary concern when implementing new technologies should always be: Is this safe? Can we make it safer? However, since the implementation of the automobile, millions have suffered car related fatalities. But we don’t see the motor vehicle becoming obsolete any time soon.

End of the Airship Era

End of the Airship Era

The other thing major ignoramuses talk about is the fact that it costs more energy to produce hydrogen than we get out of it. Welcome to physics. Again, a conversation for another time.

So in conclusion, everything is dangerous. In the right hands, I’m sure a toilet roll can be a murder weapon. The point is managing and understanding risk and appreciating that as we begin to embrace new technology we will learn how best to use it safely. As engineers we need data to improve products. This data comes from real world usage, which comes from real people using products and feeding back. This is how Felix managed his world record jump. He had practice runs and data was captured, analysed and the system was improved iteratively. He put his faith in engineers and scientists, who (generally) work tirelessly to improve safety, manage risk and make life better for humanity. If everyone had thought the internal combustion engine and the manual refuelling of liquid hydrocarbons was dangerous, we’d still riding round on horseback. I say give the new technology a chance, critique it all you like, feed it back and we will work to improve it.

victorian on horseback

Giddy up!

I leave you with a quote from Ernest Hemmingway:

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them”

Hemingway

Hemingway

Thanks for reading.

It’s only a good idea if you can sell it…

Four weeks into my PhD and my head is full of countless fuel cell and electric vehicles, as well as hybrids of both systems. So many great success stories – but the ones that stick in my mind are the failures, some astronomical sums are invested and my first thought is – well that was a waste of money!

Let me backtrack slightly. I’m doing a PhD at Warwick University, based in the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) and also working with the High Speed Sustainable Manufacturing Institute (HSSMI). Indeed that is a bit of a mouthful. I also have access to Ford intellectual property and with a company that size, let me tell you – that’s lot of property.

My PhD looks at the current technologies we have to reduce our CO2 emissions in the automotive industry and asks the question – why aren’t we at zero emissions already? Of course, there are a plethora of issues with the technologies and one of the most influential (and definitely why I don’t drive a Nissan LEAF around) is the love the human race has for the internal combustion engine.

Ultimately at the end of my studies, I would like to think I have contributed in some way towards the industry’s aim of reducing the impact we are having on our environment. If you’re a global warming sceptic then let me remind you that the Earth revolves around the Sun, you share about 98% of your DNA with a chimp and man has landed on the moon. If you don’t get where I’m going with that – science has advanced enough to know with 95% certainty that the planet is changing – not because of volcanoes or farting cows – but because we humans are belching out tons of a multitude of gases into the atmosphere. We are causing a potentially devastating change to our climate and it’s our job to fix it.

Cute Chimp

I’ve definitely digressed. I’m concerned that my thesis will be subject to the same treatment resulting in: a meaningless, vain attempt at trying to justify what I’ve been doing with myself for three years and where the money the EPSRC invested in me has disappeared to. Wait. That’s just like any thesis. Not to worry.

Waste of money. Let’s get back to my original point. I’ve had discussions with friends and colleagues about how incompetent the intellects of our planet are and if such and such an idea was implemented we’d have world peace, unlimited energy and freedom for all. But – it’s not really that easy is it? I mean the simplest thing that we want to do can end up costing us so much time and money that we end up at the end of the process wondering why we bothered at all.

Looks Comfy

I’ve talked about ideas for battery swapping for electric cars (because the batteries of our time are crap). I’ve said that the EU is useless and doing nothing active to reduce our impact on the planet. I’ve felt that the UK government just wants to milk us of money and will find a way to tax the very air we breathe. I think that we would be so much further down the road of zero emissions if we as drivers weren’t so fussy – I don’t need AC, cruise control, padded leather seats, 5 star NCAP safety rating, power steering, speakers, radio, rear seats. I’m going too far. I really like having AC and cruise control is bloody useful.

The problem is: all these things add weight. They add money. They add carbon. They require energy to be implemented. Despite the argument that energy cannot be created or destroyed, the quality of that energy is always decreasing. We are prisoners. Time is our jailor. By time I mean of course, our greatest adversary – entropy.

So we must manage our energy, remove the non-essential – but how do we decide our non-essentials? My grandparents always tell me – back in my day we use to play with clay toys and didn’t even have a TV. Cool story gran, but we don’t live in your day. Today it’s all about Apple vs. Android (the latter wins), Facebook, Google, Richard Branson and eating your five a day. To fit all this new stuff in we need more time. Saving time requires money. Money buys energy. So in order to grow our economies and look at cat pictures, we need more energy. But, I’m afraid we don’t have enough. At least, not enough of the one we like the most. The black gooey stuff. Not marmite.

So, some clever people have started looking at other ways of getting us more energy. We have battery powered cars, fuel cells, combinations of the two and of course interesting ways to make the ICE friendlier.

There are people much more intelligent and experienced than me that have thought up fantastic and novel ideas that work. They work perfectly. The problem is, that you and I are only comfortable with what we are used to. We wait for the weird guy to go off and buy a Prius. When we realise that it’s safe and comfortable and hey – it’s saving me money too. Then the whole thing takes off and we get to 5 million Prius’ sold. Woop. It’s not enough. More importantly, it’s not happening fast enough.

V8 Monster

The problem is. We are engineers. We are not good at selling things. We think everyone will understand the brilliance of this new technology and it will catch on like wildfire. But it won’t. Not because it’s a bad idea. We are just bad at selling things. I’d struggle to sell gasoline to a petrolhead. I’d end up talking about its viscosity, combustion characteristics and how he can tune his engine to make the most of it. Do you know what he wants to hear? He wants to hear his engine roar. The guttural sound brings a smile to his face. And he wants it to happen now. He doesn’t have time to waste, he’s missing out on cat pictures.

We have to learn to tell people that this is going to benefit your life personally and directly. Not: three generations down, your family will have drowned in a freak flood in the Sahara desert unless you drive this poor excuse for transportation. We have to make that statement loud and clear and quickly. You will save time. You will save money. (You will save the planet).

Better Place. Read up on it. Fantastic idea. Great company. It should have worked. Why didn’t it work? They couldn’t sell the idea. The statement wasn’t clear.

We are all geniuses in our own way. Even Justin Bieber. We all have great ideas. Game changing ideas. You know the ones that work? The ones that sell. Ask Apple.

And if you fail? Try again! Keep trying. Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Not really true is it? If I keep kicking a ball, my legs will get stronger. The ball will go further and further each time with more power and accuracy.

I know what Einstein meant.

But do you know what I mean? 

Good Ol' Bertie