Episode 3: Can science defeat ageing? CRISPR for CF; How will autonomous cars change our cities?

The AI robot doctor will see you now

My doctor is an algorithm: ‘Medicine has always welcomed new technology’

With the advance of artificial intelligence, medical practises are being overtaken. Could the GP become a relic of a bygone age

Just what the doctor ordered: Baymax, an inflatable healthcare companion with a big 'heart', gives his young charge, Hiro, a lollipop in the children's animated movie, Big Hero Six
Just what the doctor ordered: Baymax, an inflatable healthcare companion with a big ‘heart’, gives his young charge, Hiro, a lollipop in the children’s animated movie, Big Hero Six

Seán Duke

April 13 2017 2:30 AM

‘Good afternoon, the AI will see you now.” This could be the future of family practice medicine as machines become better equipped to do many of the things that traditionally made up the GP’s job description.

Machines have always threatened human jobs, but up to the 21st century they were only a serious threat to repetitive, low-skilled jobs. Times have changed and the higher skilled jobs today are threatened by the advance of artificial intelligence (AI). In the past few years, intelligent machines have begun to perform complex tasks far better and quicker than intelligent, skilled humans.

The ‘good GP’ we know will always know his patients well; their medical history, their personality, details about their family and their foibles, and will retain this background information and call on it when assessing patients. The good GP would know, for example, that Mr Murphy is probably upset, rather than clinically depressed, because his father died last week and he has no depression history.

However, unlike the good GP, who may be overworked, and stressed by the demands of a busy clinic, computers with built-in AI have an almost unlimited capacity to store information in medical records, and to recognise patterns that may have been missed by the GP. They are also excellent at measuring things, such as blood pressure, and analysing results, such as a routine blood test.

In recent years, scientists working in AI made a breakthrough when they developed software based on the working of the human brain, rather than, as was the case before, sticking to a rigid rule book. This software could learn from the environment, making mistakes, and correcting them, like a child learns. The world saw its first artificial ‘self-learning systems’.

There were implications from this for the GP, and other professionals, as suddenly it wasn’t just the old story of machines replacing low-skilled workers; their jobs were on the line too. GPs faced the prospect of being confined to a decreasing number of areas where they are still superior to artificial rivals, or worse still, to become redundant; a charming medical relic of a bygone age.

The role of specialist medical consultants – not just GPs – is also coming under threat too from sophisticated ‘deep learning systems’ which are already outperforming doctors in specialised areas of medicine, says Professor Barry O’Sullivan, director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at the Department of Computer Science, in University College Cork, and a leading AI researcher.

“Dermatology is one such field,” he says. “A very recent paper that appeared in (research journal) Nature showed that a deep learning system could outperform human dermatologists at identifying skin cancer by quite a margin.”

Another area where AI is already better than doctors is radiology, adds O’Sullivan. A radiologist can recognise patterns in scans, based on years of experience. However, no matter how experienced the radiologist, he can’t store the amount of scans that AI can, while comparing them to a particular scan in order to assess, for example, the likelihood of a stroke or epilepsy. Meanwhile, there are further reasons for GPs not to be cheerful about the future with plans in the UK, supported by the NHS, to use smartphones to bypass the GP clinic altogether. A pilot scheme, run by private firm Babylon Health is encouraging people to consult a ‘chatbot’, equipped with AI, rather than a human being when they contact the 111 non-emergency line.

Patients key in symptoms, and AI determines how urgent each case is, and whether the user should be told to go straight to A&E, the chemist or simply go home to bed. The AI system makes decisions based on 300 million pieces of information, and the company says trials have shown the system is faster and more accurate than doctors. Certainly, most experts agree the future of medicine is ‘personalised medicine’, with disease treatments being tailored to suit personal needs. This is an area that AI excels, as it is very good at looking at medical data and finding specific treatments for patients which can, in some cases, even save their lives.

“For example, organisations such as Cancer Commons have assisted cancer patients survive conditions that were regarded as fatal in their situations by combining AI with extremely rich and individual-level data,” says Prof O’Sullivan. “The founder of Cancer Commons, Marty Tenenbaum, is one such survivor.”

Brendan Kelly, professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, says: “Computers and electronic diagnostic aids are delivering more and more information every year in medicine. And it is likely that computers and other devices, with their essentially infinite data storage and pattern recognition abilities, will continue to add increasing value to medical care.

He adds: “AI is especially useful in diagnosis: recognising skin lesions, monitoring measurable indices of body function, and identifying known patterns of symptoms and signs.

“It is less useful for other dimensions of medical care: contextualising findings in the context of the patient’s life, moving from recognising a pattern to agreeing a narrative between doctor and patient, and providing reassurance.

“AI is also less useful for picking up on the unexpected elements in a patient’s presentation: noting, for example, that a patient presenting with a lesion on his ear also has swollen ankles. Or noticing that someone with chest pain smells strongly of alcohol at 11 in the morning and might have an alcohol problem (which might or might not be related to the chest pain). Or noticing that a woman who comes to have a prescription renewed brings along her child, whom the nurse remembers has missed a vaccination, and can receive it today.”

Kelly isn’t worried about his job just yet though.

“Medicine has always welcomed new technologies and benefited hugely from them: stethoscopes, x-ray machines, MRI. But these tools amplify the effectiveness of healthcare professionals, rather than replacing them.”

The doctor will still see you now

2017-04-12_lif_30233196_I1.JPG

Dr Mark Murphy, GP, and chair of Communications with the Irish College of General Practitioners, responds:

“It is unlikely that AI will make a meaningful difference in the GP setting, given the significant human factors at play in a consultation.

“There is a requirement for the GP to conduct face-to-face consultation to develop a rapport, to physically examine a patient and read nonverbal cues.”

“AI systems cannot get rid of the complex uncertainty and greyness at the heart of the undifferentiated presentations to General Practice.

“However, AI and machine learning will help with the handling of information in the healthcare system, and may be able to assist with complicated ‘black and white’ diagnostic process, such as imaging or to make sense of the complex genomic factors with rare-disease treatment.”

Irish Independent

Ireland and the Race to Mars

First broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke (23-11-2016)

mars
The Martian landscape as depicted in The Martian, a film by 20th Century Fox (Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Both NASA and China have announced plans to land rovers on Mars in 2020, while a number of ambitious non governmental organisations also joining the dash to the Red Planet. It is anticipated that a manned mission from Earth to Mars and back will take five years, and Irish researchers and companies are part of global efforts to make sure that a manned Mars mission is a success.

The ‘Race to Mars’ has well and truly started, and, it’s about time some might argue, as it is now 47 years since Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, and those of us around back then might have expected to see more progress by now.

Unlike the 1960s, when the technology was really being stretched to the limit to get to the Moon, there are far less technical obstacles in the way of us reaching Mars, and the reason we haven’t done so is due to US politics and money.

That said the scientific challenges of getting humans to Mars, establishing a permanent presence there, and returning them safely to Earth are enormous. In October, President Obama set a goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s, and commented that he expects to be still around to see it happen.

But, what drove NASA on in the 1960s, of course, was fear of the Soviet Union and the militarisation of space. There is no Soviet Union threatening US existence anymore, but China is showing signs of emerging as viable new rival. The emergence of China as a space rival can only help efforts to get to Mars.

Challenges

Mars is 34 million miles away, and that is more than 140 times further than the Moon. The entire duration of the mission to the Moon in 1969 was just over 8 days, but getting to Mars safely, spending time there and returning safely to Earth will take in the region of 5 years.

On the journey to Mars, the craft must be designed so that it protects the astronauts from cosmic radiation, while providing them with healthy food to eat, and a means to exercise and stay physically and mentally healthy, and prevent the muscle and bone tissue wastage that will impact astronauts living in microgravity.

NASA are planning to have a habitat module where astronauts will eat a healthy diet from crops grown on ‘green walls’ inside the craft. The air and water will be constantly recycled, and the people chosen will be individuals with a high level of psychological resilience who can endure boredom and are not prone to conflict.

The NASA timeline is that Mars astronauts will spend one year preparing for the launch, one year travelling to Mars, 18 months orbiting and then landing on Mars, and 18 further months on the surface of Mars. They will come home when the Earth and Mars are again favourably aligned to make the return trip home.

This will be a space mission like none in human history requiring a lot of material, some experimental, some to sustain life, some of which would be sent ahead of the crew, such a descent vehicle which would await the astronauts while in Mars orbit, and a shelter on the surface of Mars, assembled by robots.

Cost

There are some who doubt that NASA will be able to get humans to Mars by the 2030s, or even 2040s because of some financial realities. It is estimated that the Apollo moon landings cost $140 billion in today’s dollars, while the realistic price tag to get humans on Mars is somewhere around $450 billion.

NASA’s annual budget for human spaceflight is currently around $9 billion, which is a long, long way short. There needs to be another JFK figure to set out the vision, and secure the budget, but the US has little competition, and there is no ‘clear and present danger’ such as the old Soviet Union to give it a push. That said, ‘Red’ China is creeping up again as a threat to the US psyche.

Will it happen? It is probably unlikely that the US taxpayer will be prepared to pay the entire $450 billion bill to do something for the vague good of mankind.

Commercial 

The answer might come from NASA taking on Mars as a kind of joint venture with commercial companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX. This can help secure private investment and access to potential useful new technologies. For example,

SpaceX are working on cheaper rockets, costing about $1 million to launch.

Some other companies involved are Inspiration Mars, which is a non profit company founded by Dennis Tito the first space tourist. He is planning a trip for a select crew of Americans, who will travel to Mars, orbit, but not land. The plan here is to leave Earth in 2018, or failing that to try again in 2021. The estimated cost of this flyby mission is between $1 and $2 billion.

Then there is the Mars One mission, the one way trip, proposed by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp. This is regarded by some as a ‘suicide mission’ as once people are there, there is no way home. Despite that, there were 2,782 applications to be astronauts on the trip, some of which came from Ireland, including Trinity College astrophysicist, Dr Joseph Roche. The plan is that these applicants will be whittled down six groups of four astronauts, and the first crew of four will leave Earth in 2024. Mars One plan to document the trip on a reality TV show, which they hope will provide much of the finance for the trip.

But, Space X is a serious, space exploration company founded by Elon Musk, a billionaire, playboy who has also made a success out of Tesla electric cars. He is working on developing a fleet of reusable rockets, launch vehicles and space capsules to transport humans to Mars and back again. He wants to build a self sustaining Martian city of 80,000 people, which could be a bolt hole for humanity in the event of some natural or manmade catastrophe here. The plan is to have a human step on Mars by 2026 (10 years!) and for it to be a round trip.

Musk may charge people as little as $0.5 million for a round trip to Mars.

Ireland 

There are a surprising number of researchers and companies based in Ireland doing work that can help make the mission to Mars a success.

For example, the work of Brian Caulfield, Professor of Physiotherapy at UCD, has led to the design and development of a device that can enable astronauts exercise properly so that their physical and mental health can be maintained on the long voyage to Mars. The work has been funded by the European Space Agency (ESA).

The device stimulates the large muscles of the legs to produce aerobic exercise training and muscle strengthening effects in space. This ‘Neuromuscular Electrical Muscle Stimulation Technology’ has been successfully tested by the ESA and was developed as a collaboration between UCD and researchers at the Galway based Biomedical Research Limited.

Research by Trinity College’s Mary Bourke, and Ulster University’s Derek Jackson has investigated Martian wind patterns and how they shape the giant sand dunes that can be seen on the surface of Mars – like a red Saudi Arabia.

Scientists know that Martian weather can be volatile and potentially very dangerous for a Martian landing as well as for human colonists, with huge sandstorms from time to time, for example.

The research is of potential value to NASA and others planning to go to Mars as it shows how the enormous sand dunes on mars influence the local wind speeds on the planet, and how these wind speeds, then in turn shape the sand dunes.

It is like developing a Martian wind and weather forecasting ability on Earth.

In Athlone Institute of Technology Dr Diana Cooper is working on the effects of microgravity on human physiology. The insights gained from this work could be crucial to developing methods to ensure that humans can survive long periods in space, travelling between Earth and Mars, without their bone tissue being reabsorbed back into the blood, or losing significant muscle mass.

Mathematics 

Something less obvious and immediate, but of enormous importance to the success of any space mission to Mars concerns something invented by an Irish mathematical genius in 1843. These are quaternions, which are mathematical equations, which are used to represent the relative movement of 3D objects in space, and the man that invented then was called William Rowan Hamilton.

A few years back, after the NASA curiosity rover landed on Mars, I spoke to one of the mission controllers, a man called Miguel San Martin. He told me that the incredibly precise landing of the car sized curiosity, near an area which NASA believed may show former evidence for life on Mars, was only possible because the precise navigation of curiosity was underpinned by quaternions.

So, incredibly, something invented by a Dubliner, while walking along the banks of the Royal Canal in 1843 with his wife, will be vital to ensure that any future Mars mission lands close to a pre-planned safe, and viable landing site.

Industry

There are a number of companies in Ireland who are doing work which feeds to the development of the technology required to get to Mars.

For example, A specific type of engine, called a Mars Apogee Engine is under development at Moog, Dublin, in work supported by Enterprise Ireland.

This engine is a liquid propellant engine capable of providing more thrust, with less fuel, than is possible with existing propulsion systems. The idea is that these new engines will be efficient enough to save 150kg of propellant on a Mars mission, which will make space available for other things, such as scientific instruments, which will give any Mars mission more ‘bang for its buck’.

The Curtiss-Wright Aviation and Electronic company, which has its origins all the way back to the Wright brothers, has a branch in Dublin. The people here are working on launch vehicles that can take payloads into orbit and build the Martian ‘in orbit’ infrastructure that will be required to supply and sustain human missions to Mars. This will build a supply chain if you like.

Curtiss-Wright are also developing technologies to enable the safe re-entry of spacecraft through planetary atmospheres including Mars, as well as technology that will be central to sustaining life & generating fuel for human explorers on the surface of Mars

Danny Gleeson, Chairman of the Irish Space Industry Group, said that development of human missions to Mars will take decades and that it was unlikely that the human mission  to Mars will be a single shot but rather a choreographed series of missions that build the necessary infrastructure in Earth orbit and Mars orbit & surface to sustain human missions.

“The good news is that there is a plan to get to Mars and back again and the technologies required are almost all available now,” said Danny.

Can the next JFK please step up.

Why diesel cars are bad for our health

Broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke [24-08-2016]

Diesel Smoke
Tiny particles of soot pollution from diesel cars and vehicles have been linked with cancer and life-threatening lung diseases (source: http://www.dpfcleaningservices.co.uk)

Tax incentives for those buying diesel cars over the last decade has fueled a move to diesel on Irish roads, with diesel cars now outnumbering petrol cars.

This has been widely regarded as a welcome move, as diesel cars are considered ‘better for the environment’ because they produce less carbon dioxide gases than petrol cars – the gases that have been linked with causing global warming.

However, scientific evidence is emerging which shows that the level of diesel particulates, which are damaging to human health, has increased in line with the growing popularity of diesel and that Irish people are dying as a result of this. The European Environment Agency has, for example, estimated that 1,200 people in Ireland per year are dying as a result of diseases caused by particulate pollution.

Research

Until relatively recently, there has not been a significant amount of research into the impact of diesel pollution on public health, particularly in Europe, but the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal certainly gave it an added push.

The evidence that is emerging from the US primarily – where research has been going on for longer – suggests that there is real reason for concern when it comes to health effects, and environmental effects, or air pollution from diesel engines. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the World Health Organisation and the UK Department of Transport have all produced reports in the last year or two which point to a real problem here.

As well as pointing to increased emissions of particulate matter (PM) and Nitrogen Dioxide gas, which are known to damage human health, the authorities in Europe and the US have started to make a direct link between an increase in numbers of people dying from respiratory diseases and cancers, and this increase in pollution.

The US EPA, who support a lot of work in this area, has led the way with publication of figures of increased numbers of premature deaths, cancers and respiratory diseases due to air pollution from diesel vehicles. There is a tangible link, a ‘smoking gun’ if you link that is linking cause and effect.

Ireland 

There has been little research into subject in Ireland until this year. In January 2016, a research project began at Trinity College Dublin, with funding from the Irish EPA, which is looking to precisely determine the amount of a certain type of damaging particulate, called PM 2.5 which is produced by diesel vehicles here.

It is a multi-disciplinary research effort, involving experts in air pollution, chemistry and transportation and will take place over 24 months. At the end of it, they say they will be able to determine precisely, using computer software modeling, how many deaths and illnesses here are caused by diesel vehicles.

One of the researchers involved, Dr Bidisha Ghosh, is a transportation expert, and said that the plan is to look at diesel particulates first, and to then to a follow up study where the impact of NO2 is measured and assessed.

Measuring 

The Irish EPA has a number of monitoring sites around Ireland that will be used as measuring points. One of the key challenges – and this is the first time anyone in the world has done this – will be to distinguish the percentage of PM 2.5 (particulate matter 2.5, a size of particulate) that is from diesel cars as opposed to other potential sources, such as sand, or the burning of coal.

The measuring sites will be near to roads as that is where diesel fumes are strongest, and another part of the study will determine how quickly dangerous diesel pollution dissipates as you move away from a busy road.

The researchers will be looking closely at what comes out of the diesel particulate filters that are attached to diesel cars. This is in order to get the chemical composition, or signature of PMs to better identify those PMs that are from diesel cars or other diesel vehicles. This is a difficult task and will involve using specialised machines to look at tiny quantities of polluting chemicals.

Dr Ghosh said that by the end of their project, in the latter part of 2017 they will be in a position to give precise numbers on the health effects of the growing use of diesel cars in Ireland. At that stage, she said they will have precise numbers on how many extra deaths, or premature deaths are being caused or what kind of extra number of lung cancers and other respiratory diseases are happening in Ireland due to us driving more diesel cars.

The calculations are based on knowledge of the car fleet, the type and age of cars on Irish roads, and knowledge of what the standard pollution emission from a certain vehicle of a certain age will be. This makes it possible to do comparison such as comparing the 2000 level of emissions versus the 2015 levels and matching the increase in pollution with the increase in deaths and diseases.

The project will also make it possible to predict, based on a number of scenarios – such as increasing use of diesel cars at the current rate – what Ireland can expect in 2020 or 2030 in terms of death rates from air pollution. This, it is hoped, will produce a solid basis for policy makers to address this problem.

Diesel cars 

The new new diesel cars on the market have very good particle filters and if you are sitting inside one of these cars you wouldn’t get a whole lot of this PM pollution, and the newer models may not pollute the atmosphere that much. The old diesels is where the big problem lies, and there are still a lot of old diesel cars being driven on Irish roads today, as they have vastly inferior emissions control technology to more modern cars.

It is also true that the bigger diesel car engines are far more polluting. The researchers at TCD, who have access to pollution figures in Ireland between 2010 and 2015 said there was a very significant increase in diesel PMs in those years, and this finding was what prompted a more detailed air pollution study.

The researchers also strongly suspect that the VW scandal wasn’t just a VW issue, and that many other diesel car makers have been cooking the books, in the sense that the emissions reported in the car manual does not bear much resemblance to the real on road emissions. The real figures, I was told, are likely to be far, far higher than what we see in the new diesel car manuals.

Supports

The Irish government started to actively support diesel from 20o8, with various tax incentives, in order to help Ireland meet its carbon dioxide ‘greenhouse gas’ targets. In fairness to the Irish government back then, the extent of the public health risk from diesel cars was not widely known.

It was initially thought that certain types of PMs were not harmful, but that thinking has changed, and now scientists are looking at the damage caused by diesel particulates that can remain wedged in the lungs. For example, the particulate, PM 1, is very hard to remove from the lung once in.

The evidence that is now emerging, however, is that not only is diesel bad for public health, it is also, by producing NO2, bad for the environment.

The science around this is all still quite new, and emerging. It is only in 2015 that a report was published by the UK authorities which stated that NO2 can also be very harmful to children, their respiratory development, their lung development and that it can cause irreversible changes.

The initial findings about the problem with diesel took time to emerge, as they didn’t perhaps fit with the green image of diesel, especially in Europe. However, the more research on this that is being done, the clearly the scientific picture becomes, and eventually, governments will have to act on the results.

NO2 

Nitrous oxide, and nitrous dioxide gases from diesel cars and vehicles are also linked with health problems, and the data can be collected again by using standard emissions and examining the national car fleet. This is likely to be supported by specific EPA funded research in future, which will, like the TCD project looking at PMs, look into NO2 levels at certain EPA monitoring sites, near busy roads around the country.

Aside from being linked with respiratory disease and death, NO2 is known to have a negative impact on vegetation and acts to break down the ozone layer.

Alternatives? 

There are emerging fuels out there, such as hydrogen gas, which is being made available at existing petrol stations in the UK this summer.

However, experts believe that because the infrastructure and global distribution network is built for diesel and petrol cars, and that huge investment has been made in this system, that it will be impossible to envisage a change to any other fuel or transport type in the near, or even distant future.

Electric cars are still rare in Ireland despite significant government support, as people don’t like some of the unanswered questions that remain on it, such as how long does an electric car last, and what to do should a battery die out?

There is also the fact that a very high amount of energy can be liberated from diesel or petrol, and there is nothing that can rival petroleum on that score.

The solution, some suggest, is to truly move towards a sustainable transport system, where people walk if they can, and only use a car when they have to. Those countries that do this, and that promote public transport have far less emissions from petroleum car engines. It is also very important to think about where we locate our busy roads, as studies have shown that irreversible damage can be done to schoolchildren from air pollution in schools near such roads.

For those that need a car, the advice is to look at getting rid of the old diesel and replacing it with a new one, with better a particulate filter. Also, to avoid buying one of the high performance diesel cars and go for a more modest option.

There is also the issue in Ireland of people removing diesel particulate filters when they start to affect car performance. They can be expensive to replace, and some garages in Ireland are openly offering services on the internet to remove and not replace the filters.

 

A diesel car can run without a filter, and not replacing a malfunctioning filter can save hundreds if not a few thousand euros. However, from a public health and environmental perspective removing a filter is “disastrous, really, really bad” according to Dr Ghosh.

Actively preventing the removal of diesel particulate filters from diesel cars, and insisting on a high standard of operation of diesel filters as part of the NCT test, might be how the Irish government might start trying to tackle this important public health issue.

 

Towards the Zero Carbon House

Listen to discussion above with Keelin Shanley broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke on RTE Radio 1 (19.04.16)

Zero Carbon House
The ‘zero carbon’ house is a realistic aspiration Irish homeowners (Credit: http://www.treehuggers.com)

There are many reasons to make a house more energy efficient; from reducing the amount of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere to reducing energy costs and increasing home comforts.

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland has a range of grant supports that can improve the insulation, and heating systems in your home.

This is all part of a long-term drive to move towards Zero Carbon Housing, where homes not longer use fossil fuels, such as gas or oil.

Ultimately we are moving in Europe towards the ‘Near Zero Energy Home’ (NZEB) where homes are self-sufficient in energy, and no longer need to be connected to the grid.

Electric cars set to go driverless

Click above to hear discussion broadcast on Today with Sean O’Rourke, RTE Radio 1, 30th November, ’15

Google Car
Google plans to bring a driverless electric car to market in 2018, and is already road testing driverless vehicles in California (Credit: Google)

Electric cars have been around the late 19th century, but they have never matched the appeal of cars run on either petrol or diesel.

That is all set to change, as the most popular cars on the market in coming decades are likely to be both electric and driverless.

The question is, is Ireland ready for electric, driverless cars, how do they work, are they safe? and how will they potentially make our lives better?

History 

The first commercial electric cars appeared as early as the 1880s and ‘electric drive’ cars as they were called were popular with early drivers.

However, from the turn of the 20th century, there was a growing demand for cheaper automobiles, from the general public.

From the 1920s, petrol was becoming more easily available and cheaper, petrol driven cars had a longer range, had greater horsepower, and the introduction of automatic starting mechanisms in petrol cars increased their appeal to all groups.

Yet, from as early as 1908, when the first Model T Ford’s were mass produced, the popularity of the electric car was waning.

In the mid 1960s the United States Congress introduced the first bills recommending support for the development of a new generation of commercial electric cars to try and deal with the issue of air pollution.

This paved the way for a revival of interest in electric cars in the 1970s, a revival which was further helped following the soar in oil prices following the Oil Crisis of 1973, and the birth of the environmental movement.

It seemed to many back then, 40 years ago, that the time had come for electric cars, but people resisted buying them, due to their cost, so-called ‘range anxiety’ and the daily hassle of recharging their batteries.

The situation stayed like that for the following decades, with electric cars remaining a niche market, but in the last decade two things happened.

Governments, including the Irish government, began actively promoting e cars as a way to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide greenhouse gas, and to reduce reliance on imports of fossil fuels from The Middle East.

In Ireland this mean grants for people buying e cars (there is a 5k grant in place) and tax relief. Allied to that the ESB began building a network of public charging points, and there are now about 2,000 on the island.

The other thing that happened is that battery technology – which has been slow to develop for technical reasons – has started to improve.

Fully electric cars (there are also electric/petrol and electric/diesel hybrids) are totally dependent on batteries, usually lithium ion types.

These batteries, like the ones in our smartphones, are efficient, but the are expensive. This of course, affects the sale price of e cars.

The e car batteries need to be 80 per cent cheaper, some industry analysts say, in order for e cars to break through into mass use, and truly  compete with cars based on the internal combustion engine (ICE).

Some believe it will be possible to make cost cutting improvements to the lithium ion battery, while others say a new battery technology is needed.

Technology 

Electric are based on pretty simple technology, which hasn’t changed all that much since the first electric cars appeared in the 19th century.

One hundred per cent electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf, the Ford Focus Electric and the VW e golf all make use of an electric motor.

There is a battery, of a series of connected batteries, that link to the electric motor and provide the power to drive the car forward.

They are green because they are based on electricity rather than petrol or diesel, but, of course, electricity can be produced by burning fossil fuels.

The battery is vital, as it charges the electric motor, and determines how far the car can travel without a charge, and its performance.

The first battery used in any electric vehicle was an old fashioned lead-acid battery which was itself invented in 1859.

The batteries that are, these days, used in electric cars are lithium ion batteries which are light, and have a good ability to store energy.

The problem with lithium ion batteries, as many of us will know from using smartphones, is that they need to be regularly recharged, and that after hundreds of recharges, they can become depleted, and just ‘die’.

So, there is a desperate need for a new battery technology that do not need to be recharged as often, and don’t die with lots of re charges.

From the buyers point of view, the big downside with electric cars is that they have to be recharged for hours, overnight, and that the driver might still, with a long journey, feel that he might needed a top up recharge.

This is something called ‘range anxiety’ and it’s a well known factor that has turns off buyers and that e car makers are trying to address.

Cost

Yes, there are a few competing options. Perhaps the most promising is one being developed in the UK at Cambridge University.

Scientists there last month announced they had found a way to develop batteries that are one-fifth the coast and weight of current e car batteries.

The technology is called lithium air technology and it’s important because it can reduce the cost of electric cars, while also enabling them to match the range of petrol and diesel cars.

Electric cars, based on these, the scientists say, could drive from London to Edinburgh with a single charge, hugely increasing the range of e cars.

This new technology also produces batteries which can store a lot of energy, and can recharge thousands of times without the battery dying.

Yet, lithium ion batteries, as well all know from our smartphones, have to be recharged often, and after repeated charging they can gradually die.

A lithium air battery can create a voltage from oxygen molecules – air – in the vicinity of the positive electrode. It appears to be a big breakthrough.

This all looks promising, but it is just emerging from the lab, is at the development stage, and may be a decade before it enters the real world.

Disappointing

Sales of e cars in Ireland remain disappointing low, despite the efforts of Government to promote e cars through subsidies, grants and tax breaks.

The ESB have been actively promoting the greater use of e cars in Ireland by building a network of public charging points and grants. Grants are of 5k are available from  the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland for buyers of new e cars.

Minister Coveney has been pictured driving a fully electric Nissan Leaf, and the ESB has been busy building infrastructure to support e cars.

Yet, in 2014, Ireland’s Central Statistics Office reported that just 222 electric cars were sold, which, is poor, but significantly up on the 55 cars that were sold in 2013.

The Government has set itself a target of 230,000 e cars being in use in Ireland by 2020. We currently have a little over 10,000 e cars here.

To compare, there were 13,929 petrol cars sold in 2014, and 47,559 diesel cars. So, electric is still very much a niche market in Ireland.

Ireland might use Norway as a comparison, a country of similar size, where 23, 390 electric vehicles were registered in 2014 alone.

The Norwegians have encouraged this through the lack of VAT on e cars, and free car parking, free access to bus lanes and free public charging points for e car owners. Ireland has followed some of these measures.

Barriers 

People are still reluctant to purchase e cars, and one of the mainr reasons is the ‘range anxiety’ already mentioned  as well as the perceived hassle of charging batteries for hours overnight.

People might also enjoy driving, and feel that an electric car, running silently without gear changes, is not what they traditionally enjoy.

For e cars to really take hold here, the Government might have to follow Norway’s lead and allow e cars travel in bus lanes, and park for free.

Allied to that, the cost of e cars needs to come down. I think they really need to be cheaper than existing petrol or diesel cars to break through.

They might also need to have a ‘unique selling point’ that marks them out as distinctly different or superior to petrol or diesel cars.

There are signs that this might happen, as electric cars are set to become driverless, and that this will happen a lot faster than we might imagine.

Driverless 

Hard-nosed analysts of the global car industry are convinced driverless cars WILL happen, and will happen in the near future.

Certainly, companies with huge reputations like Google, and Apple are reportedly investing in developing a driverless, electric car.

Volvo are working on one too, as are BMW, and legislation has already been passed in some US states permitting cars to be driverless.

VW too, who are under huge pressure these days of course, are reportedly work on an electric driverless car of their own.

The people who look at these things closely are expecting that a driverless car will be for sale inside the next five years.

The market potential is huge, according to the Boston Consulting Group, who estimate the driverless car market will be worth $42 billion by 2015.

The Google X driverless car is expected to hit the market in 2018, with Apple’s Project Titan to arrive in or around the same time.

It is very interesting that technology companies like Google and Apple are investing so heavily and secretively in driverless cars.

These giants clearly believe that people will be travelling in driverless, electric cars in future, using the Net, Apps, or whatever else freely.

Inside a Google car, Google have a captive audience to promote all kinds of other technology which people will use freely on their way to work.

Many of the barriers that would have blocking the development of the driverless car are being removed.

The two biggest blocks are legislation and the willingness of people to use them. A lot is happening on the legislation side.

For example, six states in the US have already passed legislation allowing the testing of driverless cars out on the public roads.

The world has already had its first driverless car crash, which happened in July last when a driverless Lexus crashed and three Google employees got minor injuries.

Also, just last week a the Google driverless car had an encounter with the law in Silicon Valley California for driving 24 mph in a 35 mph zone.

The police officer pulled over the prototype car and spoke with the people inside, but no ticket was issued.

Legislation

Irish and UK legislation would have to be substantially changed to allow for driverless cars to operate here, but it needs to happen urgently.

The UK is addressing this in law, and we need to too.

The other legal issue people would have is who is to blame if a driverless car crashes. People don’t want to be held account for something that is not under their control – understandably.

This led Volvo last month to say that it would take liability for any crash of any of its driverless cars – others will probably follow.

But, generally speaking the driverless car will be far safer than a car piloted by a human, who may be tired, distracted, or drunk.

Game changer 

We have had technologies in our cars which are not under our control already for years.

The best example perhaps would be ABS braking. This has been around since the 1980s, where control of the braking is taken from the driver to best ensure that wheels don’t lock, and spin out of control.

There are also systems which help us to park -self parking systems – where sensors guide a car as well as cruise control.

But, the vision for a driverless car goes way beyond these familiar features to a situation where a person, or persons, sit in, type or speak in a destination point, and then sit back and relax, read or work.

The driverless car will be able to sense its surrounding using existing technologies like RADAR, GPS and computer vision.

They will update their maps based on sensory input, and be able to track their position everywhere and adjust to all driving conditions.

Most of the ideas for driverless envisage a person in a driver’s seat, with a cloud, or wifi connection to other vehicles all around them.

The vehicles will communicate each other’s position and destination, and share the sensory input on road blocks,  accidents or weather conditions.

All that intelligence will better get everyone safely from A to B. Dublin might have a swarm of electric vehicles, efficiently moving all of us.

A giant, traffic management system, with zero pollution, and an order of magnitude safer than what have. Safety, and efficiency might drive this.

It is not about breakthrough technology it is about incorporating a range of existing technology into a 21st century vehicle, which has, up to now, been run on an internal combustion engines, born in the 19th century.

 

 

 

Sexist toys putting girls off science; 9am school start too early for teenagers; 30,000 old virus brought back to life; mental health ‘apps’ review

Click above to listen to discussion on The Morning Show with Declan Meehan.

This was first broadcast on East Coast FM on 10th September 2015

Sexist Toys
Are sexist toys turning girls off science? Many scientists believe they are (Source: Independent, UK)

A quick visit to a toy store confirms that many toys are heavily marketed towards either boys or girls, not both.

Sexist toys, critics say,  encourage nurturing and a pretty appearance, while boys focus on building things, and competing with other boys.

This is sending an early message to girls that activities which involve building, creating and problem solving are not meant for them.

This, according to  Professor Dame Athena Donald, the new President of the British Science Association, explains why girls are often turned off by science, and particularly hard science subjects like physics.

Sleep research is finding that teenagers starting school at 9am are sleep deprived, and suggest 10am as a time more in keeping with youngster’s natural body clocks.

Scientists have brought a 30,000 year old virus back to life. It was frozen in Siberian ice, melted due to global warming. There is a concern that the virus may be dangerous to humans, and safety testing is underway.

Up to 60% of people that have a mental health problem do not access health professionals, for a variety of reasons. Mental health ‘apps’ – against this background – are proving popular with many first time therapy users.