Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Another attack on the car industry - from Forbes

Three days after my post on why the world's car industry needs to re-think its entire business model, this piece from that bastion of American free-market capitalism, Forbes, essentially arguing a very similar case. If you can't be bothered to read the whole thing, here's the intro...
Young people are losing interest in driver’s licenses. Cars have climbed to near-record prices. Increasingly, Americans are looking at alternatives to cars, like public transportation, bike sharing and rides from Uber.
So it's not just in western Europe that peak car is happening. The US auto industry is also facing a serious demographic threat from young consumers.

Another factor I didn't mention in my previous post related to the car is air pollution. Not yet an issue out in the open in Warsaw as it is in London, Paris, Athens or Beijing - but it will be.

See this survey by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe about how many lives could be saved if the same number of people across Europe travelled by bicycle as they do in Copenhagen (where 26% of the population cycles to work). The UNECE report suggests that in London alone, raising the number of journeys undertaken by bicycle from 3% to 25% would cut the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution by over 540 a year. In Warsaw, where 5% of journeys are by bike, the number of deaths prevented would be over 190 a year.

London was hit by some serious air pollution at the beginning of this month, with warnings on TV not to conduct strenuous exercise outdoors, and to keep vulnerable groups of people inside.

This article on Politics.co.uk suggests that 4,000 Londoners a year die from air pollution, and yet politicians are afraid to tackle the issue. Again, here's a highlight...
Across the UK, more than one in twenty deaths each year are now caused in part by air pollution. That's almost 30,000 people whose deaths could be avoided. But while politicians queue up to warn about the dangers of sugar and passive smoking to children, very few are willing to say anything about the deaths our addiction to cars has caused.
In London, no doubt here in Warsaw air quality will get worse before it gets better. In the meantime, don't drive if you really don't have to.

This time last year:
Bicycle shake-down day

This time two years ago:
40 years on - Roxy Music's first two albums

This time four years ago:
Twenty years, ten months, six days
[Spooky coincidence]

This time six years ago:
Swans still in Jeziorki

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Challenges for the car industry

From 1970 to 2010, the aviation industry has managed to decrease the amount of fuel consumed per passenger by 73%, the car industry managed a meagre 17% decrease. Why? Cars have been getting bigger and heavier, needing ever more powerful engines to propel them, which all but mitigate the efforts to make those engines more efficient. Why? Because the motor industry tells us that's what we want.

Since its launch in 1974, the Volkswagen Golf, now in its seventh generation, has become progressively longer and wider. Although the latest Golf has shed some weight and a little height, it's still over 50% heavier than the original Mk I. Indeed, the VW Polo, one segment smaller than the Golf, outgrew its original bigger brother after just three generations. Since the Polo grew so big, VW launched the Up! as a car for the smallest 'A' segment - and yet the Up! is longer, wider, taller and heavier than the original Mk I Polo. The current Golf, meanwhile, is now bigger than a 1970s Ford Cortina Mk III, which at the time was classed as a large family car. And, at over 1.2 tonnes, the Golf is as weighty as a 1970s Ford Zephyr Mk IV - a full-size luxury car.

VW Golf   Launch year   Length (m)   Width (m)   Height (m)   Weight* (kg)  
Mk 1 1974 3.705 1.610 1.395 790
Mk 2 1982 3.985 1.665 1.415 910
Mk 3 1992 4.074 1.694 1.422 960
Mk 4 1997 4.148 1.735 1.440 1050
Mk 5 2003 4.205 1.759 1.479 1155
Mk 6 2009 4.199 1.779 1.479 1217
Mk 7 2013 4.255 1.799 1.452 1205
* Unladen weight of base model in range.      Data source: de.wikipedia.org.  

The main reason that cars have nearly doubled in weight over the past half-century has been because they are being engineered to be safer in the event of a high-speed impact, a side effect of the fact that the car industry has been making the cars ever more powerful, with faster acceleration and higher top speeds.

It's a vicious circle from which the car industry needs to snap free, especially in view of the industrialisation of China, India and behind them, Africa.

On Thursday, I went to BP's Energy Outlook to 2035, a fascinating presentation about how the oil company sees the world energy supply and demand shaping up over the next two decades. Today, there are 1.1 billion cars on our planet, serving 7 billion people. By 2035, BP forecasts that 8.7 billion people will be driving around in 2.3 billion cars. The energy demand for these vehicles, the equivalent of 2 billion tonnes of oil, is around half of all of mankind's energy needs in 1965.

The biggest growth in energy demand for transportation is expected to come from China (up by 120% to 2035). In Europe, 'peak car' has been reached, along with a demographic peak. Young Europeans are less eager to spend their hard-earned money on a car. As I pointed out two months ago, western Europe has ceased to be a growth market for the car makers; the average age of a new car buyer in German is over 52 years and only 27% of all new car buyers in Germany were under 45.

Will China and India catch up with the West in terms of car ownership? For the sake of the planet - let's hope not - at least if we're talking about fossil-fuel powered cars. There are signs of hope - in China at least. The current smogs plaguing Beijing and other Chinese cities will no doubt cause the monolithic Communist Party to quickly pass laws to reduce emissions. And China's leaders are keeping their cities from sprawling outward into endless exurbs, as well as investing heavily in public transport.

But all the same, the car industry must show signs that it is moving in a more sustainable way. Lighter materials such as aluminium (which costs more to smelt, but which is more resistant to corrosion than steel) is one solution. But in general, the car industry must start to built cars that are smaller, less powerful, use less energy to build and to propel.

We really don't need to drive as much as we do. Certainly in cities, public transport, walking and cycling are better and healthier than commuting by car. Inter-urban transport is best served by coach, rail or air, with hire cars at the destination for those who really need them. IT solutions, collaborative consumption models (car sharing, car pooling) assisted by accelerating urbanisation will all help slow down the growth of demand for car ownership. IT can also make cars much safer; linking the car via a black box and GPS to an insurance provider, safe, energy-efficient driving can be rewarded with lower premiums. And lower taxes?

BP's forecasts suggest that despite global GDP rising by around 30% between now and 2035, CO2 emissions will rise by 10%. Still way too much from the point of climate change, but at least we can see a decoupling of economic activity from fossil-fuel usage. BP also sees production of conventional petrol, diesel or LNG-powered cars falling to some 25% of the total by 2035, with LNG taking a rising share of that; hybrids and pure battery-powered cars are expected to account for three-quarters of the cars manufactured in 20 years time.

But at the heart of it, car design must change. To date, it's been focused on building something to impress. Grand image-statements that project power, authority and prestige. By playing on mankind's inherent insecurity, the car industry has been able to sell people something bigger, more powerful and ultimately more wasteful than is necessary. (Unlike the aviation industry. Airlines will always chose the most cost effective product.) This wastefulness cannot continue. From time to time something rare happens and the industry comes up with something classless and stylish - like the original Mini or the new Fiat 500 - small, frugal cars that trendy people can appear fashionable in. (Can you think of any others?)

Cars should be made as small and as light as practicable, built for fuel efficiency and reliability rather than for speed and ego-boosting appeal. If not, the developed markets of North America, the EU and Japan will see declining car sales over the forthcoming decades.

This time two years ago:
Painting the Novotel Orange

This time five years ago:
That's what I like about the North

Friday, 11 April 2014

Wes Anderson's Central Europe: The Grand Hotel Budapest

Moni has long been a huge fan of the works of director-screenwriter Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Darjeeling Express), so his latest film, The Grand Hotel Budapest, was one to see. Set mainly in flashbacks to 1932, in the Republic of Zubrowka , an Anglo-Saxon invention equating to Anthony Hope's Ruritania or the Marx Brothers' Freedonia, employing a blend of Germanic, Slavic and Hungarian-sounding place names.

The film itself is a delightful confection, beautifully shot, pleasing on the eye. And it's laugh-out-loud hilarious, its humour deriving from witty dialogue, situation, slapstick and sight gags in equal measure.

Wes Anderson's vision of Central and Eastern Europe, its physical appearance and its bloody 20th Century history is of particular interest. His visual depictions of Zubrowka (its currency, the Klübeck), were marvellous; the faded grandeur contrasting with its imperial splendour, the cobbled streets, the misty mountains, snow-covered fields; and the history with its social inequalities, jackbooted invasions, ethnic cleansing, and a communist takeover.

Bearing in mind that 80% of Americans don't know where Ukraine's borders are (something they have in common with Mr Putin), Wes Anderson's childlike knowledge of this part of the world is intriguing. We're playing with stereotypes here, as did Sacha Baron-Cohen with Borat's Kazakhstan.

As a teenager growing up in West London, then later as a student in Warwickshire, I too had a fascination with that same atmosphere. I could have placed that Mitteleuropäische klimat within a wide arc from Mazovia to Moravia, memories of travels to Poland through Czechoslovakia as a child in the 1960s, driving at night along cobbles through walled mediaeval towns; shuttered windows, turreted roofs, tramlines, unfamiliar signs, funny cars, militia men with lollipop sticks, steam trains and a pervasive smell of low-octane petroleum.

A film I must see again, although I must confess while a delight for the eye and the funny bone, not one with much depth to it. So much effort went into the sets, the costumes, the artwork - a bit more could have gone into the scriptwriting to make the audience ponder...

Towards the end of the jailbreak sequence, and during the entire ski chase sequence, I found myself feeling that I'm not learning anything here - it's not like spending 90 minutes with the Coen Brothers. But it's not the characters nor the story that I'd go to see The Grand Hotel Budapest again for, nor to look for some message; rather I'd return for that splendid and rather playful depiction for a world that has vanished. We can still pick up echoes of it in Poland, as I did this very morning in Wrocław, getting off the night train on my way to chair a conference...

Just arrived at Wrocław Główny station...
Tramlines at dawn. Time to find a bank and change my Klübecks
Work goes on to preserve the character of 19th Century Breslau
This time last year:
Warsaw 1935: a 3D depiction of a city that's no longer with us

This time two years ago:
Cats and awareness

This time four years ago:
Why did this happen?

This time five years ago:
Britain's grey squirrels turning red

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Happy 91st to my father!

Friday's Gazeta Stołeczna states that there are currently 3,430 soldiers from the Warsaw Uprising still alive, average age 89. Given that the maximum number of Polish combatants taking part in the fighting has been estimated at up to 49,000, with 16,000 being killed or missing, that leaves one in ten of the survivors still with us, 70 years on. A goodly number. My father is one of the 3,430; today he celebrates his 91st birthday.

Here is a birthday portrait of my father Bohdan with my mother Marysia (86), a study of optimism and strength in old age together.

My father is still active, moving around without a walking stick; on Sunday he walked the 480m from home to the Polish chapel on Courtfield Gardens in nine minutes - a very brisk pace of over 6 km per hour! As I've written in the past, I get great strength and inspiration from my parents at their advanced age and wish them a vast amount of health and happiness - may they enjoy life as fully as possible for as long as possible (and thank you for the genes)!

This time last year:
My father at 90

This time two years ago:
An independent Scotland - what if?

This time three years ago:
Królikarnia - Warsaw's 'rabbit house'

This time six years ago:
My father at 85

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Should schools teach languages - or Language?

Were I to be raising children afresh, the question of which languages (other than Polish and English) should they learn next would be a difficult one. Parents in England, speaking only English, have a tough task. But anywhere in the non-English speaking world, the choice is clear - it must be English, the de facto lingua franca of Planet Earth.

The withering away of foreign language teaching in the UK on the basis that "Wherever I go today, Johnny Foreigner speaks reasonable English" is leading to a dangerously lazy insularity. But it's true - which language gives students the best return on the time they spent learning it? German? "Germans all speak English". French? "A spent force." Mandarin? "Too complicated". So the default setting becomes "no foreign languages at all".

I offer a proposal for Britain's schools - radical and daring - which would at least prevent Brits from being dull monoglots and cultural hegemonists.

Children from first year primary right through to GCSE and 'A' Level should learn but one subject - Language. This course should offer, over the course of 14 years, a thorough overview of the major linguistic groups spoken on this planet, explaining alphabets - Roman, Arabic, Cyrillic, Hebrew - Far Eastern logograms; the main Indo-European linguistic groups, grammar, syntax, morphology; tone.

In other words - what language is, what languages have in common (doing words, naming words, describing words), what makes languages different (vocabulary, word order, inflections), and how we write in those languages.

Over 14 years, seven years in primary school, seven years in secondary school, the pupil will have become familiar with the script and the sound of Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese and Swahili as well as being able to tell German from Dutch, Russian from Ukrainian, Czech from Slovak, Serbian from Croatian, Korean from Vietnamese and Portuguese from Spanish.

Learning basic phrases of use in travel or business - ordering a taxi over the phone or asking directions to the train station - in many languages, rather than being able to read Flaubert or Nietzsche in the original, is more useful in today's globalised economy.

Rather than choosing one or two languages in great depth (which very few pupils do), the emphasis should be on appreciating the diversity of human language and being equipped with a basic tool kit that gives a broad understanding of the building blocks of verbal and written communication.

This would give the edge to the English-speaking world; the rest of the planet's population would be busily learning English, while native speakers of English could all get to grips with the concept of Language from and early age. They'd never master any foreign language fully, but at least they would not find themselves fish out of water wherever they went, able to decypher a menu in Greek, recognise the Thai for 'fire escape' or say 'good morning' in Welsh.

I'd be very interested to know what you, dear reader, think of my proposal.

This time last year:
More moaning about Karczunkowska's pavement deficit

This time two years ago:
Architectural detail from Edinburgh

This time three years ago:
Spring explodes in Jeziorki
(+18C! Today it's around zero and snowing!)

This time four years ago:
Along the way for Warsaw's southern bypass

This time five years ago:
Quintessential Warsaw vista

This time six years ago:
Jeziorki on Google Earth

This time seven years ago:
Okęcie airport, our near neighbour