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February 7, 2016

Two-wheeled Uber

You know Uber, right? Started in San Francisco (where else?), you can now hail Uber drivers in major cities on all continents. They're even in China, even though Didi Kuaidi is giving it a run for its money, offering buses and chauffeur service along with ridesharing. Its Didi Hitch service is expected to pick up quite a few riders over the Chinese New Year holiday.

Uber also operates in Jakarta, but is plagued by the same issue afflicting every car driver: the legendary traffic jams. It is not unusual for riders to request a stop and treat their drivers to a meal so both can resume the trip without the growling stomach.

Enter Gojek.

Gojek is like Uber, but the driver pulls up in front of your door on a motorcycle. They give you the trademark green helmet to wear, which makes you not only their paying customer but also their involuntary mobile billboard, and you climb on the back.

Like Uber, it's a door-to-door service, you reserve and pay online, and you can leave ratings on the drivers. Recently they have introduced the woman-friendly option of asking for a female driver, which is important in this Muslim country. And for foodies (or the plain lazy), you can order a Gojek ride for your lunch or dinner: the driver picks up your order at the restaurant, pays for it, and you pay for both the food and its ride. They also have more conventional courier service.

January 31, 2016

Reclaiming Cities From The Car

Something gives me the feeling we're living in watershed years. Fossil fuel companies are smarting. That's nothing new: fossil fuels are prone to booms and brutal busts through their history. What is new is the relentless rise of what used to be called "alternative" energy, but what is set to become the energy source: Renewables are slated to be the main game way sooner than you may think.

In another realm, the power of the nation state is waning. You only have to look at trade agreements like TTIP and the TPP to see evidence of the rising power of transnational corporations. And when coal kings put a billion dollars into an election, you can see how so many have proclaimed the death of democracy.

But there's pushback. Most notably, mayors have decided to not wait for their national governments to start moving toward a zero-carbon future. They are supporting each other through collectives such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, the Compact of Mayors and other organisations.

And they are moving to circumvent the national gridlock.

In one notable example, they are starting to reclaim the city streets from the dominance of the car. Cars and car culture have managed to - let's be blunt - ruin our cities. Downtowns are clogged with traffic, to the point that ambulances and firetrucks can't do their live-saving work. Tailpipes emit a cocktail of toxic fumes that are a danger to public health. Highways have fractured cities into divided neighbourhoods. Cities stink, in more than one way.


And yet, cities are attracting more and more people. Accomodating them requires thinking out of the box: in particular, mayors and city councils need to think outside the box with four wheels..

January 22, 2016

Smog kills

There are places that are traditionally visited by a dense fog so often, that printers capitalise on it and offer tourists a postcard which is all grey with the words "Greetings From X" emblazoned on it.

It's funny when it's fog we're talking about (except, of course, if the postcard is actually appropriate for your vacation). It is not so funny when it's smog. Because smog kills. It's pretty bad when it's a veil that's thrown over your city on hot days. But when it's so thick you can't see through it, it is a real killer. Who needs cigarettes? All you have to do is go out for a breath of air, as the Tom Lehrer song goes.

December 1, 2015

785,000 People on the Streets, 40,000 Under a Tent

What was supposed to be the mother of all climate marches was scotched after terrorist attacks shook Paris and left it in a state of emergency on the eve of the global climate negotiations, COP21, the 21st Conference of the Parties.

That didn't stop people from taking to the streets. In Paris, thousands of people joined hands all along the route planned for the march. 20,000 pairs of shoes were placed on the Place de la République, symbolising the marchers who were banned from marching on the streets.

 


But streets elsewhere did see marchers. 785,000 of them, according to organizer Avaaz, in thousands of cities large and small, from Alaska to the Antarctic, from Melbourne to Mumbai to Mexico City. If the large march in Paris had happened, the total would beat one million people. That's huge.

And what a march!

November 26, 2015

2015 Turkey Award: Volkswagen AG

Why hesitate? Without a doubt, Volkswagen AG more than deserves CelloMom's Turkey award this year, for installing devious software in huge numbers of its cars to pretend that they pass the NOx emissions limits while really they don't in real-life, on-the-road use. In the US, VW owners are now offered $1000 to bring in their - our - NOx spewing machines into the dealer for the fix. Of that, $500 is in cash, and $500 is in credit for parts of work done by the dealerships.

The toxic cloud around the issue is still spreading, eveloping an ever growing number of cars, brand and locations, and casting a finally crticial public eye also on the inadequacies of the European test cycle in general, and especially where it overstates fuel efficiency, in some cases up to an egregious 40%. This last bit has been a public secret for quite some time, but now people are calling it out for what it is: scandalous.

Adding to the smog, Volkswagen has denied that its sales have been negatively affected by the "Dieselgate" scandal. But who is going to believe them now?

Happy Thanksgiving! And remember what your mom said: don't lie. Afterward, people won't trust you, ever again.

 

 

You may also like:
1. Can you trust MPG specs?
2. Why VW diesel fix comes later to American drivers
3. How much horsepower do you need?

 


November 22, 2015

Architectural solar cells

You know that photo of a parking lot where the rows and rows of cars are covered with a canopy of solar cells? "Share and Like if you think every parking lot should look like this!".

Umm no. I've always argued that the ideal parking lot, say, for a mall, should have several dozen parking spots close to the entrances, all for handicapped parking. Plus a bus stop.

As a sign that I've been living in small-town America for a long time, I had forgotten to advocate for bicycle parking. So here is my bit on that conversation: Share and Like if you think every parking lot should look like THIS:


This is a typical bike lot in the Netherlands. It can accomodate a dozen bikes in the space ordinarily taken up by a single car. A roof protects the bikes against frequent Dutch rains.

But this one has a novel catch: solar panels on the pleasingly curved surface. These are architectural thin-film solar cells that are bendable: so you don't need a flat surface to mount them on; they can be applied to buildings with visually interesting curved surfaces. Think of what an archtect like Zaha Hadid could do with that!

 

 

You may also like:
1. EV Unplugged: the TRULY zero emission electric car
2. Solar Energy From a Road Surface is Now a Reality
3. How to Slash Transportation Emissions

 

November 16, 2015

#BadDino vs Our Children

Imagine that, sixty-five million years ago, a comet did not hit the earth, and kick up a dust cloud. Nuclear-winter-like conditions did not follow. The planet remained balmy, and dinosaurs prospered. Further, imagine that even though dinosaurs roamed the earth, there was still enough biological space for mammals to develop, finally producing homo sapiens sapiens with all our ingenuity, our agriculture, our technology, and our addiction to such things as "Call of Duty" and "Candy Crush Saga".

Now suppose that there has been genetic cross-talk, and evolution, and that the dinosaurs that survive after all that time have taken on the shape of businesses. Some are small, some are large; some are behemoths. Some of the most successful ones do trade in those things that are even older than dinosaurs, fossilised carbon in all its forms: coal, oil and natural gas.

This carbon was largely deposited around 300 million years ago, in a geological era called, fittingly, the Carboniferous. So those carbon deposits were already ancient when dinosaurs came on the scene, 230 million years ago. The burning of that carbon yields the carbon dioxide that is now de-stabilising our planet's atmosphere.


Photo by Marcin Polak

Here's the thing about dinosaurs: They have - by definition - a reptile brain. This brain governs the quests for food and for mates. It is associated with such behaviours as aggression, dominance, and defense of territory. These properties are all manifest in the behaviour of today's dinosaurs surrounding their digging up, refining and selling of carbon-based fossil fuels, which they call business.

Think also of the Gary Larson cartoon of the crocodile in the witness box saying, "Well of course I did it in cold blood, you idiot! ... I'm a reptile!"

October 11, 2015

Why VW diesel fix comes later to American drivers

European drivers of VW diesel cars are, if anything, even more frustrated than their American counterparts. This is partly because VW is a fixture on European streets: world's largerst car manufacturers makes most of its cars for Europe. It has long been a popular brand known for making sensible and affordable cars, and people (like me!) have a soft spot for its iconic models like the beetle and the campervan.

So when my brother in law in Holland forwarded me a Q&A page on VW diesels, I glommed onto it the way I studied for my driver's test (yes, it's in Dutch; but Google translate does a decent job of turning it into other languages). The page is on the website of ANWB, the Dutch automobile association (even though it's still called a cyclists' association for historic reasons).


Photo by Art of Nature and Life

The questions sent in by its members are very much like those asked by American diesel owners: What will the fix do to my fuel efficiency? The horsepower and torque? The resale value of my car? Should I sue VW? Will I need to pay extra emissions tax on the car purchase retroactively? (the answer is no: the Dutch government intends to make VW responsible for those damages).

And the one big question: WHEN will my car get the fix?

October 4, 2015

Martian SUV

On Mars as in the USA, vehicles are getting larger with time. You can see why: payload is tough to get into orbit, and expensive. I don't actually know what the postage for, say, the Mars Rovers' communications devices, but I bet it's larger than the total annual revenue of the postal services of a small country.


The first Mars rover, the 1997 Sojourner, was barely larger than a skateboard. The ones in the next mission in 2004, Spirit and Opportunity, were about the size of a bicycle, albeit one with six wheels and solar-panel wings. And Curiosity, which landed on Mars in 2012, is the size of a car, crammed with cool instrumentation for exploring the Martian surface.

The next one will be the size of a large SUV - electric, of course. There's a great side-by-side comparison of how things happen in the movie The Martian and how NASA's engineers are designing things for the #JourneyToMars project; one of them shows an exploration vehicle designed to house and move two people.

October 1, 2015

In-Car Smoking Ban

Smokers take note: starting on October 1, 2015, you may no longer smoke in your own car (or anyone else's) if you're sharing the car with a child under 18. The ban covers England and Wales (and the Scottish parliament is considering a similar ban).

This is a Good Thing, especially for the chidren we love. Why expose them to the risks of second-hand smoke? The anger unleashed by the Volkswagen diesel scandal shows clearly that we value the health of our lungs, and there's no worse attach on a child's developing lungs than having them share a small confined space with a cigarette smoker.

September 27, 2015

What to do if you own a Volkswagen diesel car

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard about the emissions fraud perpetrated by Volkswagen, which installed software that enabled some VW models to behave like saints during the EPA emissions tests, while allowing devilish behaviour out on the road while you are at the wheel going about your daily business.

During the tests, the NOx emissions come in under the legal limit, while in real-life conditions it can be 10 to 40 times larger than that legal limit. NOx is a gas that contributes to small-particle pollution (better known as smog) that's bad for lung health.

Why did Volkswagen do this?
Why, to save money, why else?

This is not cool. I bought my diesel Golf because it offered decently high mpg without the environmental and maintenance problems of the battery in a hybrid, and without the range issues of most affordable EVs. I did know about the particulate emissions but made a conscious decision that the low carbon emissions was worth the added pollution, especially since I live in a small town where the dust from unpaved roads make a larger contribution to the particulate levels in the air.

But I didn't buy it so that I can spray egregious NOx emissions.

September 23, 2015

The Popemobile is a Fiat 500

Pope Francis, arriving in the United States, landed at the Andrews Air Force Base, was enthusiastically greeted by a welcoming committee headed by President Obama and Vice-President Biden, walked the red carpet, was cheered by the crowd inside the terminal building - and drove away in a Fiat 500.


To be precise, it's a Fiat 500L, the larger version with more space in the back. But it's a Fiat 500 nevertheless. And this is fitting for a pope who has chosen simplicity over pomp (just look at the saint whose name he has adopted). This is the man who, as Cardinal of Buenos Aires, used to take the bus to work.

And now, Pope Francis has skipped over the Rolls Royces and the Cadillacs, and climbs into a Fiat 500.