No, we probably won't have talking cars driven by reincarnated mammoths

Science "news" stories to avoid.

There are two types of stories about exciting technology. They can look very similar to the unwary optimist, since both generally start with a phrase along the lines of "it seems like the stuff of science fiction, but…"

Nevertheless, the difference between them is crucial.

The first type, and the most familiar, is the "scientists say" piece, usually accompanied by an engaging proof-of-concept video and hooking a society-changing event on the result of research by an academic somewhere.

You will know these: a good example are stories featuring Kevin Warwick, the Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, whose research into interfaces between computers and the human nervous system has mind-blowing implications.

But without seeking to discredit Warwick in any way, these implications tend to remain just implications. There’s no doubt the work conducted in his field provides constant incremental benefits to medical science – particularly in the field of prosthetics. Nevertheless it does not, and could not, immediately lead to the sort of dramatic, Robocop-style stuff conjured by the headlines and standfirsts that journalists usually dress it with.

Probably the most prolifically repeated "science fiction to become reality" narrative is the "scientists say they can bring back mammoths" story that comes floating out of Russia every couple of years. It has spawned documentaries, broadsheet features and endless daydreams from anyone who had a bag of plastic dinosaurs as a kid, but it never bloody well leads anywhere. It has reached "boy who cried hairy elephant" status, and as such receives serious diminishing returns in terms of public interest.

The very worst of these stories, however, are the ones concerning flying cars. The machines themselves are now eminently possible, but the practical issues around their use are so many that they seem doomed to remain forever trapped at proof-of-concept stage.

We have gotten to the point where “where’s my flying car?” has become the battlecry of those who find themselves perpetually disappointed by the lack of dramatic futurism in their everyday life. Of course, the fact that most of the people issuing this complaint have, within the last five years, come to own a handheld box providing access to a near-infinite repository of human knowledge, is an irony that’s generally lost.

But there you go – no matter how astonishing and accessible information technology becomes, it’s flying cars that people really want.

And talking of IT and cars, here’s the second type of "science fiction" story – the type where company names get mentioned. Here’s a story the BBC ran today, about the onrushing development of cars that "talk" to other vehicles and the world around them. Note the first line of the piece.

The extremely important thing to note when reading this story is that not only is it a business, rather than an academic, driving the development (Frankfurt-based Safe Intelligent Mobility Testfield, or Sim TD), it is backed by the corporate muscle of Daimler, BMW, Volkswagen Group, Ford and Opel.

What’s more, Sim TD goes so far as to state, clearly and without ambiguity in the sixth paragraph of the story, that we will see talking cars in our everyday lives starting from 2015. Whether they will have a more dramatic takeup than electric cars is in the hands of those who will be selling them – the important thing is, we are being given a clear date for their arrival.

So, while cars that fly may be stuck forever in the purgatory of the cloned mammoths, at least soon they will be able to talk.

Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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