Updated: Dec 12, 2019
On November 16th 2015, I went to an after school lecture by Professor Gary Hawley, Dean and Medlock Chair of Engineering and Design, from the University of Bath where I was fully entertained for an hour on the topic of 'The Future of Transport'. It was my first time attending a university style lecture and it did truly inspired me to the extent of reconsidering the possibility of becoming an engineer.
The lecture topic was quite general, as in it was more of a discussion of current technologies and ones that may be developed in the future rather than engineering-specific things, and so I found it quite easy to understand; this means that I still do not know whether I will learn efficiently in an atmosphere as such or not when it comes to hardcore mathematics or high-level technical things. I personally think I should also put this in consideration when I choose the universities I apply to since I may as well be needing extra support if I were to apply for a program that challenges me, which I most likely will otherwise I would not be able to learn anything new! Regardless of future prospects, I found the presentation extremely intriguing as the broadness of the subject allowed me to ask questions from many perspectives and discuss potential solutions to issues from multiple perspectives rather than a yes-no boolean logic styled one, noting that this does not necessarily mean that all mathematical or logical questions cannot be discussed.
Here is a little recount of the lecture:
Issues of transport
The lecture started off with acknowledging the current trends of increasing global population and the correlatively increasing demand for transport. This concept is then expanded to the issues of pollution, particularly air pollution, congestion and other key detrimental effects transport may bring.
Once the current and potential issues were addressed, Professor Hawley then shifted the focus to a familiar mode of transport - cars. Cars are the transport of today but will they remain the same for the future?
Economically speaking, cars have become a common luxury amongst the people and much of the residents of nations with developed economies have them. As previously mentioned, cars certainly do contribute to the escalating rates of air pollution. Laws and regulations have been made to counteract the enormous amount of pollution and congestion inflicted by them: Beijing, for example, has laws which prohibit the use of cars with certain number plates on certain days as an effort to relieve the deathly air and the depressing traffic.
Another solution introduced was the use of electric cars. Electric cars, or even cars with hybrid technology, are viewed as the eco-friendly vehicles of the future when in reality, they are still very much incapable of tackling a wide range of usage, for the fact that they can only run for around a hundred miles before having to recharge, a process that takes up around three to four hours. Another key issue is in fact - extremely ironic. Electric cars run on electricity as a method of saving the combustion of fossil fuels, primarily oil, but simultaneously, electricity is currently mostly produced by the combustion of fossil fuels! This means that by using electric cars unless the widespread generation of electricity from renewable sources occurs, would only be a diversion of the emission of greenhouse gases from the individual scale to the larger industrial scale. The question remains: "Is this a solution or just another problem?".
A principal focus of the lecture was on the currently developing autonomous vehicles or driverless cars. It was not a surprise that cars as such were already on the streets of Southern California as prototypes as I have recently read about it in the news, but something I learnt was the legalisation of such futuristic automobiles. From the eyes of the law, vehicles may be classified as the following five types:
With the idea of self-automated cars in perspective, platooning may be the 'future of freeways'. Platooning is the queuing up of digitally linked cars in a line, which enables the driver to rest whilst the 'train of vehicles' parade on, thus allowing the driver, if not the car itself, to refrain from worrying about the road for a while, but also the freedom to choose to leave this connection whenever they want. This may also be the future of freight transportation as it can merely be viewed as a freight train on the road!
We also discussed cars in the Q&A session at the end. One of the questions which I think is a critical area of concern is the fact that terrorists may hack into the system of the self-automated cars, potentially leading to mass destruction, numerous accidents and death. Another point of discussion that arose was the fact that, with automobile technologies advancing and becoming increasingly comfortable, people may prefer to live in cars. Professor Hawley said it could only be answered with the preferences of the people. In contrary to all those thoughts, I envision a Wall-E world...
I also asked a question regarding to this section, which the Professor told he would note down (this really made my day). The question was whether it is possible to engineer special roads that can convert the kinetic energy produced by cars or heat energy from the friction caused by the tyres into energy which can be used to power the vehicle itself? A suggestion was made later by another member of the audience, a sixth-former, that perhaps energy harvesting methods can be utilised as unlike the conventional way of producing power, energy harvesting only requires the ambient background which already contains the energy. A con side of this however, is the fact that technologies regarding to energy harvesting present can only provide for small autonomous devices and still have a long way to go before they can be used to power gigantic metal vehicles.
We are currently finding smarter, faster and more efficient ways of transporting through air. Though being a relatively frequent flyer in the past year, my knowledge when it comes to the topic of air travel is somewhere near the bare minimum and so I learnt tonnes more about it in the lecture; one of the things that impressed me the most was the statistics of how much planes have improved when it comes to speed...
The currently existing jumbo jets we fly in, like the Boeing 747, is moving at a subsonic speed, taking 6-8 hours to fly from London to New York. This is quite slow in comparison to the Concorde, which only takes 3-4 hours. The most impressive one, however, is the SON OF CONCORDE which only takes an hour!
The field of air travel is continuously expanding. In the present day, many new innovations and ideas are already being conceptualised. One of the current projects being developed is the Skreemr - a plane that uses magnetic railgun to launch, rocket powers to accelerate and speed to ignite its engines, enabling it to reach up to 10 Machs (this means that the journey between London and New York could only take half an hour)! It is planned to be used first as drones and possibly as passenger aircrafts in the distant future. I find this advancement very exciting and look forwards to seeing it being in actual use.
Trains may be the mass transportation of the future although there is a long way to go from today. Professor Hawley pointed out a few issues with the Bangkok Train System (BTS) which he commuted by. Firstly, the flow is excessively slow due to numerous procedures needed for people without Rabbit cards to get onto the platform: queue up to exchange for coins, queue up to buy the ticket and queue up again to insert the ticket and get through the barrier. This process could be eliminated via methods and technologies of the near future; to illustrate this, the Professor projected an image of a lighting system that turns red when a person's card/ticket needs to be topped up.
Maglev trains were also mentioned. Maglev trains use the basic principle of "two opposite poles of a magnet repels" to levitate a train from its track and also to create propulsion. This means that without the train in physical contact with the track, there is no friction and so the train can move at a significantly faster speed. The current Maglev train in operation right now runs a distance of 30.5km between the Shanghai Pudong International Airport and the outskirts of central Pudong, Shanghai within eight minutes - the maximum speed of this Transrapid train is impressively high at 430km/h. Japan is also planning to build a Maglev train route between Tokyo and Osaka which is due to be completed by 2045 and costs around $64 Billion. This is a key issue for the technology - cost. The 30.5km route in Shanghai itself took up to a billion dollars to construct the rail alone, this is tremendously pricey compared to the other options available. Another point of concern is the timeframe it is to be constructed in: technological advancements are made at an exponentially increasing rate and so by the time the Japanese had finished constructing the Tokyo-Osaka route, better technologies may be available, thus putting its massive $64 billion investment to a waste.
On a personal note, I think maglev trains may be inspired by a particular episode of Doraemon, a famed Japanese cartoon that I watched a lot as a child, where Nobita, the persistently late protagonist, asks Doraemon, his cat robot friend from the 22nd century, to help him get to school early.
Integrated Transport Systems
A point was raised on the creation of an integrated system where all forms of transportation can be linked. This is largely a fantasy in the context of today but may as well be achieved through the construction of a new metropolis in the future.
On that note, I also asked another question in the extended engineering discussion at the Chatrium hotel of what does Professor Hawley see the future of transportation via water to be like. The answer was a statement followed by a question: "Many modern cities are built upon a waterway: London, Paris, Shanghai etc. Do you think we should extend our transportation systems into the water or should we build new cities - cities that are capable of supporting the new forms of transportation currently being developed? And with the idea of building cities, should we demolish the current cities and build a new one on top of it, or should we build it in other places?" The answer provoked the memory of a scientific novel I read back in Year 7 or 8 called 'The Inventors'. The plot is that an evil mastermind/inventor invites child prodigies and geniuses into his invention program and uses computer graphic versions of their parents to fool the children that the parents approve it. The lab is equipped with all facilities so that the kids would not want to go out. The entire building is then submerged underground and the scenery the inventors-in-the-making see is just a large screen. The intention of this evil genius is to demolish the current world and create a new one, only inhabited by geniuses. Having the plot of this similar to a James Bond movie, which I have never watched, the sixth-formers surrounding me then got engaged into an analytical conversation on 007 movies.
At the end of the presentation, a Question and Answer session was hosted. This was when I asked about the engineering of roads and also about the possibility of having a 'Willy Wonka Elevator City' since I heard that elevators are the safest form of transport.
After the intriguing lecture, I joined an optional extended engineering talk session at the Chatrium hotel coffee shop where I continued to get immersed in the new knowledge flooding in. The people involved in the discussion were either sixth formers or teachers with a variety of areas of expertise or passion, allowing the topic to be viewed on a broad basis, ranging from physics to formula one cars to virtual reality and international relations.
In this extended Q&A session, I asked even more questions including the possibility of having a vertical city where gravity takes care of transportation and the only form of transport you will ever need is upwards - on a second thought, this is actually what an office tower is but less efficient because the elevators did not carry anyone down! I also asked whether developed versions of exoskeletons could potentially replace transport since, with exoskeletons, you could run 10km with ease. This directed the conversation towards the development of military equipment and eventually, towards the increasingly widespread use of drones. A very concerning issue raised with the accelerated usage of air transportation is that one day, the sky above us would also be congested - as if congestion in the roads of today are not enough to reduce city-dwellers' everyday efficiency.
We do live in a materialistic world indeed - or perhaps, a 'material driven' world. Through the ages, materials had played a major role in society, from the stone age to the copper age to the iron age, mankind had continuously utilised these materials. The key issue is however, the economic problem that whilst there are unlimited wants, supply is scarce and so, how do we allocate these resources for a sustainable future so that we still have an abundant supply of these materials left for the future generation? A solution to this, of course, can be the creation of new materials.
Could graphene potentially be the material of the future? Scientists have developed graphene, a one atom thick version of graphite, an ultimately durable substance. Maybe cars in the future could be made from graphene making them able to save even more energy since graphene is only one atom thick and certainly, really light.
As you can see, the conversation ranges from scientific perspectives to that of an economist or even to that of a Bonds fan, but regardless of the perspective, one thing everyone in the discussion shared was the level of engagement. I must thank Professor Hawley with all my heart for the respect he had ideas that were of the wildest dreams and way beyond bizarre. I must also thank the teachers and the Sixth Form Society that gave me the opportunity to attend such a mentally stimulating lecture and for the exclusive opportunity to get further immersed in the discussion. It was truly inspirational and really motivated me to work hard so perhaps, I can one day be part of a team that invent the century's most innovative technology.
Note: Originally published on Monday 16 Nov 2015 via Firefly