The Need for Seamlessness

Question: How do we rid ourselves of the “car or nothing” mindset?

Geoff Wardle: If you’re going to ask people to use an alternative to the car, or maybe the car is only part of their journey and they use other means of transportation as well, it has to be as seamless as possible.  So people need to know that if they use their car for the first mile of the journey to the railroad station, or the transit station that they can just drive straight there, find somewhere to park, and then they can step pretty much straight onto the next transportation system.  They need to know in advance whether there are likely to be any hiccups in the service.  Passengers need to know that they are in control of the journey.  The physical environment has to be safe.  The physical environment has to be comfortable, and these are quite large tasks. 

But multi-model transport works a lot in established cities already.  If you go to the east coast, New York or some of the European or Asian cities; London, Paris, Tokyo, people do have a lot of options in multi-model transit.  In those cities, there are a lot of people who choose not to own a vehicle because they know they have an array of buses or subways, other forms of transit, which they can hop, on and off and it all connects well.  It surprises a lot of people to know how much public transit there is, for instance, in Los Angeles.  And I have to say that there are huge efforts going on in Los Angeles to make it work better.  There’s a way to go yet.  But the issues in the past have been that each part of the system, whether it’s the surface buses, or the light rail system, they operate as autonomous systems and they don’t speak to each other.  So, we’ve got the multi-model transit, but what we haven’t got is the seamlessness of being able to go from one to the other and knowing very easily how to get from point A to B in the city even if you’re not particularly familiar with the city. 

Question: What do you see as the future for hybrids and electric plug-ins?

Geoff Wardle: Well, I think there’s an inevitability that we’re going to see a lot more hybrid vehicles of various categories and plug-in electrics.  There are people who have significant doubts about them and then there are other people who think they are the holy grail of automobiles at the moment.  The plug-in electric vehicle, plug-in hybrid, makes total sense when the source energy that creates the electricity to charge them up is clean and totally renewable and when the batteries which store the electricity for the duration of the journey, also have life cycle analysis that are totally ecologically clean.  And we’re a ways away from that right now. 

The vehicle companies that are investing a lot of money into R&D in hybrids and plug-in hybrids are doing the right thing because they are discovering a lot of aspects of these technologies that will be a great help later on.  I run a hybrid myself and have done for a long time.  I figured I’d better put my money where my mouth was and see what it means.  If I were to do a complete life cycle analysis of the hybrid vehicle, it’s a little touch and go as to whether it’s better than a regular car.  But I feel that in some ways that as a consumer, I’m contributing to the knowledge curve of building these.  There are a number of advantages, of course, of battery electric vehicles or hybrids.  The point of the vehicle itself has much lower emissions, they’re much quieter, which actually is causing a little bit of a debate now because they are too quiet.  But in the long run, I think there is a great future.  But as I said, it’s really dependent on the future of our source energy generation and the ability to develop batteries, which are clean and completely recyclable. My gut feeling is I have some optimism that we will see a lot more of these. 

And the other thing that we have to remember is that whilst the car industry has done a fantastic job, admittedly under some protest in the beginning, to clean internal combustion engines up, the fact is that we are arguably at or beyond peak oil and quite soon the cost of oil-based products is going to start going up and up and up; at least going through a state of volatility as well.  And so we really do have to figure out how to eek out the oil that we’ve got left much more efficiently than we have up to now.  We’ve kind of been spoiled because a liter or a gallon of gasoline or diesel oil contains so much energy compared to it’s equivalent weight of a battery that its hands down the winner in terms of energy efficiency.  The problem is, we’ve squandered it and we have used it in applications where we’ve assumed that we have finite supplies of it.  That isn’t the case any longer. 

So I think we’re going to see forms of hybrids which inevitably going to use internal combustion engines for a while, but in ways that greatly reduce the amount of gas consumption of those engines while they are in use. 

Question: What modes of transportation have we been ignoring that we should focus on collectively? 

Geoff Wardle: Well, I would say all of them really because there is not one answer that fits all.  As I say, we have some cities that function quite nicely with alternative transportation systems now.  If you visit a lot of those cities you’ll find that those systems are quite old.  They’ve been so successful that they are pretty tired because of the economic and political climate that we live in, in say Europe and particularly in the United States, there hasn’t been so much political or economic will to invest public money in keeping those systems up to scratch.  So we’ve been ignoring those in some ways. 

I think we’ve been definitely ignoring in the U.S.A. the role that trains can play in the total landscape.  Trains are not necessarily the most energy efficient way of getting people around under certain conditions compared to other forms of ground transportation, but on the other hand, they have the opportunity to being quite convenient, safe, and clean where I think they do have an opportunity is against air traffic particularly for cities that are only 200 or 300 miles apart using a high speed train between two cities becomes quite compelling compared to using aircraft.  

Buses, I would say, offer significant opportunities, particularly in somewhere like Southern California which the predominant infrastructure are roads and highways, where it is very difficult to retrofit light rail or subways for a variety of reasons.  We need to make much better bus systems.  Unfortunately, compared to Europe or Asia or perhaps even on the East Coast where people are more comfortable using buses, in Southern California people would rather do penal servitude in Venezuela than actually ride on a bus.  And yet, there are huge, huge advantages from a systems point of view of introducing bus fleet.  And one must take their hat off to MTA in Los Angeles; they’ve been doing a fantastic job of building better bus systems and bus routes for us all to use.  We need to keep on doing that.  

We need to make it easier for people to make those journeys which really, they shouldn’t be using an automobile, not particularly convenient to use a bus, and certainly doesn’t make sense to use a subway.  We need to consider those.  And lots of people have been working with the question of the first and last mile of journey; so, helping people use bicycles, or electric bicycles, or Segways, or other very personal systems to help make those journeys.  And of course we shouldn’t forget that actually the best way of getting around from a health – an ecological point of view is to walk.  And we need to get better as we redevelop cities and as we build new cities to make it much more compelling for people to walk. 

Of course, you can look at some cities that have done this very well, if you look at cities like Montreal, or Toronto in Canada where, of course, they have very severe winters, it’s still possible to walk around downtown, underground.  It’s important.  We need to make sure that people feel not only able to, but quite interested in the idea of walking.  And again, I’m sure our listeners are familiar with certain cities or town in their life where it’s fun to walk places, or it’s fun to cycle somewhere.  And then there are other places where it either feels threatening, or it feels dangerous, or there’s no facility to be able to walk.

Question: What are the major challenges in the realm of goods transportation? 

Geoff Wardle: Well, probably the biggest challenge is, as the global economy proceeds, the cost of energy is going to, as I said earlier, is inevitably arise and it will start to make, in some ways, less and less economic sense to ship goods that are being made in one continent halfway around the world to the other.  It’s already part of the daily conversations about the wisdom of drinking water that has been bottled in Fiji when you live in California or Paris, or somewhere like that.  But it could also apply to a lot of other things. 

So, I think with transportation, we may see a reduction in a few decades of a lot of long-distance transportation of goods as we get better and better at producing goods and food much closer to where we live.  So, I think the cost of energy is going to be one of the challenges.  And we see it already.  Most people who complain that the cost of food in the supermarkets is going up think it’s all a conspiracy against them.  It’s probably because the costs of actually transporting the goods let alone the raw materials, which have to be transported as well, are increasing quite dramatically. 

Recorded on February 4, 2010

Can consumers rid themselves of the "car or nothing" mentality?

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One of the scientists with the Viking missions says yes.

Image source: David Williams/NASA
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Gilbert V. Levin is clearly aggravated with NASA, frustrated by the agency's apparent unwillingness to acknowledge what he considers a fact: That NASA has had dispositive proof of living microorganisms on Mars since 1976, and a great deal of additional evidence since then. Levin is no conspiracy theorist, either. He's an engineer, a respected inventor, founder of scientific-research company Spherix, and a participant in that 1976 NASA mission. He's written an opinion piece in Scientific American that asks why NASA won't follow up on what he believes they should already know.

In 1976

Image source: NASA/JPL

Sunset at the Viking 1 site

As the developer of methods for rapidly detecting and identifying microorganisms, Levin took part in the Labeled Release (LR) experiment landed on Mars by NASA's Viking 1 and 2.

At both landing sites, the Vikings picked up samples of Mars soil, treating each with a drop of a dilute nutrient solution. This solution was tagged with radioactive carbon-14, and so if there were any microorganisms in the samples, they would metabolize it. This would lead to the production of radioactive carbon or radioactive methane. Sensors were positioned above the soil samples to detect the presence of either as signifiers of life.

At both landing sites, four positive indications of life were recorded, backed up by five controls. As a guarantee, the samples were then heated to 160°, hot enough to kill any living organisms in the soil, and then tested again. No further indicators of life were detected.

According to many, including Levin, had this test been performed on Earth, there would have been no doubt that life had been found. In fact, parallel control tests were performed on Earth on two samples known to be lifeless, one from the Moon and one from Iceland's volcanic Surtsey island, and no life was indicated.

However, on Mars, another experiment, a search for organic molecules, had been performed prior to the LR test and found nothing, leaving NASA in doubt regarding the results of the LR experiment, and concluding, according to Levin, that they'd found something imitating life, but not life itself. From there, notes Levin, "Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA's subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results."

Subsequent evidence

Image source: NASA

A thin coating of water ice on the rocks and soil photographed by Viking 2

Levin presents in his opinion piece 17 discoveries by subsequent Mars landers that support the results of the LR experiment. Among these:

  • Surface water sufficient to sustain microorganisms has been found on the red planet by Viking, Pathfinder, Phoenix and Curiosity.
  • The excess of carbon-13 over carbon-12 in the Martian atmosphere indicates biological activity since organisms prefer ingesting carbon-12.
  • Mars' CO2should long ago have been converted to CO by the sun's UV light, but CO2 is being regenerated, possibly by microorganisms as happens on Earth.
  • Ghost-like moving lights, resembling Earth's will-O'-the-wisps produced by spontaneous ignition of methane, have been seen and recorded on the Martian surface.
  • "No factor inimical to life has been found on Mars." This is a direct rebuttal of NASA's claim cited above.

Frustration

Image source: NASA

A technician checks the soil sampler of a Viking lander.

By 1997, Levin was convinced that NASA was wrong and set out to publish followup research supporting his conclusion. It took nearly 20 years to find a venue, he believes due to his controversial certainty that the LR experiment did indeed find life on Mars.

Levin tells phys.org, "Since I first concluded that the LR had detected life (in 1997), major juried journals had refused our publications. I and my co-Experimenter, Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, then published mainly in the astrobiology section of the SPIE Proceedings, after presenting the papers at the annual SPIE conventions. Though these were invited papers, they were largely ignored by the bulk of astrobiologists in their publications." (Staat is the author of To Mars with Love, about her experience as co-experimenter with Levin for the LR experiments.)

Finally, he and Straat decided to craft a paper that answers every objection anyone ever had to their earlier versions, finally publishing it in Astrobiology's October 2016 issue. "You may not agree with the conclusion," he says, "but you cannot disparage the steps leading there. You can say only that the steps are insufficient. But, to us, that seems a tenuous defense, since no one would refute these results had they been obtained on Earth."

Nonetheless, NASA's seeming reluctance to address the LR experiment's finding remains an issue for Levin. He and Straat have petitioned NASA to send a new LR test to the red planets, but, alas, Levin reports that "NASA has already announced that its 2020 Mars lander will not contain a life-detection test."

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