The role of regulatory bodies, An engineering solution to greenhouse effects of transport, The nature of engineering, Sustainable growth


The role of regulatory bodies

Dear Sir

In writing about the supposed dangers of regulation Sir William Barlow very successfully points out the mistakes of regulatory bodies while completely misunderstanding their role in society (Ingenia opinion piece, February 2002).

Regulators don't spring into existence out of thin air, nor do they operate in a vacuum. They are put there by governments to take on a wider role than organisations in a particlular industry or sector can, or wish to, take on. Almost all of the supposed problems Sir William lists in his piece stem from the wider remit each regulator is obliged to follow. Sir William points out the mess on the railways. As everyone knows, the regulator did not create that mess. Rather, the environment was created by a Treasury refusing investment for many years and then a government setting out to privitise for doctrinal reasons and going through with this decision in the utmost haste, without any regard for those who use the railways, purely to queer the pitch for the incoming government. What can a regulator or company do under that start to life?

Companies operate for the good of their shareholders while regulators operate for the good of society as a whole. One is a simple role whilst the other is very complex. It is only by accident that companies operate for the good of society, hence there has to be a way to make them meet their social obligations and not lapse into bad practices, such as monopoly. Mistakes and problems will occur with regulation but historical events such as Enron, the Windscale disaster and Chernobyl show us the frightening and uneconomic alternatives to regulation.

Sir William neglected to point out some of the successes of regulation. One great success has to be in the sphere of the environment, where for years many businesses have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into compliance, only to find that cleaning up our mess has resulted in new technologies, new markets, new jobs and, paradoxically, reduced costs for doing business.

Regulation is quite often about the 'why' of what we are doing. Unfortunately, as engineers we are more interested in the 'how' of what we are doing. This is because the 'how' is very interesting to us and we perhaps think that if we get caught up in the 'why' then we will miss out on all those interesting projects we trained to do. Lawyers and accountants have no such problem with getting involved in the ‘why’, as their jobs are mostly not very interesting so getting involved in the 'why' is easy for them. It is our fault that we are not at the heart of regulation.

These days engineers talk much about the social context of engineering. Social context is at the heart of regulation. To complain about the existence of regulation shows that as engineers we do not yet understand what we are saying about social context but that rather we are still stuck in the 'how' of things.

Yours faithfully

Jeremy Cavanagh

An engineering solution to greenhouse effects of transport

Dear Sir

I wish to make a suggestion that would not only bring about a significant reduction in the emission of CO2 over the whole developed world but would also be of enormous benefit to the British economy.

I am firmly convinced that if we started from scratch, using our hundred years of study of internal combustion engines in vehicles, we could develop a four-seater car which would perform well using only 2 litres of gasoline to do 100 km. Gasoline is the right fuel because so much of the barrel of oil can be converted to it. This means that the present refining and distribution system could be used for centuries, but at a quarter of the present rate.

The disadvantage of the lower compression ratio used with gasoline, compared with diesel, can be offset by better combustion efficiency, reduced piston ring friction (only two cylinders), better transmission systems, etc. The vehicle would be a ‘utility’ vehicle in the same sense that we bought ‘utility’ clothes in Hitler’s War. The weight would be cut to a minimum with no gadgets, with a body designed for safety and comfort but nothing else.

My experiences in the War have given me a horror of gaseous hydrogen, as I had explosions – while working alone at night – with both producer gas and towns gas, neither of which have more than 50% hydrogen. If hydrogen is made from natural gas, then the emission of CO2 is only reduced to the extent that the overall system is more efficient than the direct use of natural gas. Also the cost of fuel cells is too high to allow their use in vehicles.

If we developed this car in this country, it would not only make an enormous contribution to reducing CO2 emissions – because it would sell all over the world – but it would give employment to redundant skilled car makers. We have two of the best vehicle research and development organisations in the world.

Yours faithfully

Professor Meredith Thring FREng

The nature of engineering

Dear Sir

In the February Ingenia, Robert Benaim writes that ‘engineering and art have very much in common’ while Robert Hawley assures us that the words ‘scientist and engineer’ say it all.

By good fortune, I have had the privilege of working with some of the best scientists and best engineers of my generation. I believe that Mr Benaim is right and that Dr Hawley is wrong.

My scientist friends are usually concerned with the present and the past – what exists or has existed. Their most important tool is analysis, often of a deep and narrow kind, and their objective is the truth.

The engineers are usually concerned with the future – what might exist. They are primarily engaged in synthesis, drawing together knowledge and experience from a wide range of disciplines, of which science is only one, and often not the most important one. Their objective is an artifact.

To link scientists and engineers as bedfellows does a disservice to both. The modes of thought of the engineers that I know seem to me to be much nearer to those in other disciplines which draw upon wide and diverse sources – such as literature and the fine arts – than they are to the profound and concentrated ratiocinations of my scientific friends. The common inference (by government and others) that we engineers are scientists’ close siblings offers a very restricted view of our profession and may well be harmful to recruitment.

Your faithfully

Sir Edward Parkes FREng

Sustainable growth

Dear Sir

For my generation, the prophecies of gloom and disaster that lay behind the thinking of the Club of Rome had a particular resonance. The idea that resources were limited and being consumed in a profligate manner in the West seemed clear. The unequal distribution of wealth was a moral scandal.

And yet, since then, China has discovered how to feed its billion plus citizens. India exports food. And the lights have not gone out. But still the crusade lives on. It is now called ‘sustainable development’. There is something atavistic about the appeal of the term. It is like the appeal of the ‘global warming’ scenarios. On a recent visit to the Maldives I reflected on the Genesis story of Noah and the Flood. The author captures so graphically the deep down need we have to feel that our sins can cause the weather to change and the waters to rise. I had the feeling that the Maldivians take a more optimistic view of their moral behaviour.

But back to ‘sustainable development’. It is such an appealing concept, yet I still cannot figure out what it means. So it was with some anticipation that I turned to the article in the last Ingenia by Adams and Duckworth entitled ‘Towards sustainable growth’. This at least sounded optimistic. As I understand their argument, the future lies in our placing value less on materials and more on services, ideas and ‘experiences’. So we do not have to condemn industrialisation and economic growth in the manner of the more extreme environmental people. Rather we can go on enjoying growing prosperity, but of a different type from that in the past.

I wholeheartedly agree with much of the thesis. A pair of jeans may only cost $10 to produce and $20 to retail. But with a Gucci label on the back pocket, the same garment can retail for over $100. The contribution to the GDP of designer jeans must be greater than that of ordinary jeans and hence lead to an increase in health and educational provision.

But this mechanism of growth also has ‘sustainability’ problems. If we all wear Gucci jeans, don’t they lose some of their value? If, as Adams and Duckworth suggest, we can enjoy the experience of walking in the Himalayan foothills from our armchairs, courtesy of smart software, does that not somehow devalue the experience? The limits to growth change from availability of raw materials to the extent of our creativity. Nonetheless, it is right to argue that as we progress beyond a sustenance economy and have food, shelter and convenient sources of energy, nonmaterial factors play a greater role in the economy. But that does not deflect from the requirement for the basic material necessities. And too many of our fellow beings are still short of those.

Good technology and engineering can provide the demands of the new economy as well as the essentials. Engineers have always been in the business of converting available low-cost raw materials into more valuable products. We are in the value-adding game. We are seldom motivated by the idea that resources are running out. Horseless carriages did not develop out of a shortage of horses. Windmills did not get replaced by steam because of a lack of wind. We have not stopped burning coal because there is none left. We use what is available and when something new appears we try to turn it to something of greater value. I believe that by our nature we have always been in the sustainable development business. But we do not operate from a feeling of imminent doom. We just enjoy the challenge and satisfaction of adding value to available resources and improving the lives of our fellow citizens. But we are humble and wise enough to know that it is they who decide what is of value.

Yours faithfully

John N. Turnbull FREng

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