President’s address 2017-2018: Fusing transport, energy and technology – engineering an Irish revolu

President’s address 2017-2018: Fusing transport, energy and technology – engineering an Irish revolution

09 May 2018 at 08:55

Presidential Address
Given by Dr Kieran Feighan, BE PhD CEng FIEI, Chartered Engineer, President of Engineers Ireland, 2017 - 2018 Session
First delivered at the offices of Engineers Ireland on 21 September 2017

Fusing transport, energy and technology – engineering an Irish revolution

Good evening everybody.

In my address I will examine how harnessing energy to improve mobility has been the foundation for the development of many of the great empires in the world over the course of history. Mobility has a number of different facets. Historically, the basis of engineering was military engineering and focused on the movement of armies and the movement of armaments. More recently, certainly from Roman times, the civil aspects of engineering, working on behalf of the citizen, and the related movement of people and movement of goods have become much more important than the movement of armies and armaments in how our world functions.

I aim to show that when a new energy source has been identified and harnessed, particularly harnessed to aid and improve mobility, then a transformative step change is created in the ability of a particular country or locality to rise above and in many cases dominate their neighbours, both locally and, more recently, globally. We will briefly look at a number of different empires, the Roman Empire 2000 years ago, the Spanish empire about 500 years ago, the British Empire 200 years ago, the American empire which started c. 120 years ago, and then the Chinese empire, a nascent empire which started within the past 15 years.

The world has again reached a point where the global economy will be changed utterly as a new source of energy (renewables) is coupled with transforming technology (the Internet of Things, Big Data, Sensor Technology) and transport solutions (Autonomous and Connected vehicles, Electricity storage, Hydrogen fuel cells, Road networks as Energy distributors) to produce winners and losers at enterprise and national scales.

Roman Empire

An enormous key to the success and longevity of the Roman Empire was transport. The primary energy source was biomass or food for both animals and humans. There was widespread use of manpower, including slavery to move boats in particular, with a secondary source of wind energy for maritime transport. In road transport, the carts and chariots were typically towed by harnessed animals, but ultimately the animals in turn derive their energy from biomass.

Figure 1: Roman Empire Road Network c. 200 AD
Figure 1 shows the network generated stretching from Britain through the Low Countries and Western France, throughout the Iberian Peninsula and Southern France and back to Rome from the West. To the East, the network stretched through the Balkans to Greece and Turkey, and back through the Holy Land to Egypt and North Africa, surrounding the Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean Sea. The development of the Roman road network was the key support over time to the ability of the Roman Empire to control such a vast geographic area from Rome. This network of paved roads was primarily developed over a period of c. 200 years, and once it fell into disrepair with the fall of the Roman Empire, no similar network of roads existed for well over one thousand years.

The well managed road network allowed the governance of landlocked areas and also allowed cities with ports to connect to one-another and to move resources from one part of the empire to the other. They formed the basis of the first reliable communication or postal system, and then very importantly formed the basis of towns evolving from way stations where animals were fed and rested. The road trade and culture that evolved allowed the spread of ideas from one part of the empire to the other including the spread of Christianity from a relatively isolated and backward location in Palestine across the Roman Empire. Effectively the Roman road network, supplemented by the maritime connections, facilitated “Pax Romana”, the Roman peace, that lasted for 4/500 years. In short, an Empire founded on a new transport technology, a road network and supporting maritime transport infrastructure.

Spanish Empire

The first truly “Global” Empire was the Spanish Empire with a Golden age between 1520 and 1640, the original Empire on which “the Sun never sets”.

Figure 2: Spanish Empire Extent
Figure 2 shows the Spanish Empire extended through North and South America, through significant parts of Africa, Asia, in the Philippines, particularly Malaysia with numerous trading posts through Africa and India, and all controlled by a relatively small country at the junction of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. The Spanish Empire was based on trading and exploitation of gold and silver from North and South America, and in trading with Asia in porcelain, silk, spices and jewels. The ability to move goods and people from continent to continent on the oceans was the key to the success of the Spanish Empire. Spain’s neighbour, Portugal had first mover advantage in terms of the development of sea-faring ships that could cross oceans and return, but very quickly the Spanish took the Portuguese design and improved them in their galleons. Portuguese caravels were typically c. 250 tonnes and designed primarily for exploration. The Spanish carracks and galleons could carry in excess of 1000 tonnes, and formed the basis for the military and trade domination exerted by Spain. Wind power was the innovative energy source, harnessed via new hull designs and engineering designs to allow much bigger boats to be built with lower friction with new and adapted sail technology to make them easier to navigate. And thus the Spanish, by tapping into a new energy source and harnessing it for mobility, formed the basis for their Empire.

British Empire

Moving forward 200 years, a study is merited of the evolution of the British Empire with an Imperial century from the early 1800s to the early 1900s. Over that period of time, 25 million square kilometres and 450 million people, a very large proportion of the world’s population at that stage, were added to the empire. Where historically there had been a “Pax Romana”, there was now a “Pax Britannica”, where Britain was the undisputed world power, with direct economic control of many colonies and indirect economic control of many other territories including China and Argentina.

Figure 3: British Commonwealth Influence
In Figure 3, the global reach is clearly evident, with aligned countries in North and South America and the Caribbean, very substantial colonies in Africa, across through the Indian Empire, down through Indonesia and on through Australia and New Zealand. This was a massive reach for an even smaller land area, in an even more remote part of Europe, when compared to Spain.

What was the basis for this growth, this ability of a small country to be the undisputed world power for over a century? Again, the contention is that it was the evolution of new transport modes in conjunction with a new energy source and technology. In transport modes, the turnpike roads that developed in Britain in the late 1700s and early 1800s were really the first major network of roads that were built since the Romans. Some of the great engineering names, including Telford and McAdam, devised new and easier ways of constructing long-lasting and well-draining road surfaces that could take the repeated high loading of high pressure carriage wheels and allow much greater and less risky movement of people and goods and mail across the Britain and Ireland with animals as the primary source of energy.

At the same time that the turnpike roads were evolving, Britain was developing a new series of canals with features explicitly designed for transportation of goods on water, again using animals on the towpaths as the primary source of energy. In turn this development of canals opened up the interior of Britain, and the natural and mineral resources of Britain for mining and exploitation. Thus, by 1825 there was a network of turnpike roads of almost 18,000 miles in England and Wales, and a supportive canal system with towpaths that linked most of the central parts of England to the coast.

A new energy source was also revealed on a large scale, the use of coal as an energy source to power a new engineering technology, the steam engine, using high pressure steam to move pistons. The steam engine in transport terms was applied originally in the mines in Cornwall. Spurred on by the development of the railway for transporting coal from mines to sea ports, George and Robert Stephenson produced the Rocket steam locomotive in 1829 and very quickly thereafter, a massive revolution of the transport space.

Brunel’s developments for the Great Western Railway linking Bristol to London in the 1850s, a mere 20-25 years after the first coupling of the steam engine with rail, involved the building of massive engineering structures, the railway termini which could handle large volumes of passengers moving in and out of the cities, as well as goods. Much bigger steam locomotives were required that could deal with much greater loads of people and goods. Bridge crossings of much wider waterways than had ever been envisioned before were undertaken because of the need to keep railways on quite shallow gradients. Engineers no longer followed the landscape, but imposed a gradient on the landscape, and as a result needed both very large scale bridges and very significant tunnels.

While initially, the potential of the railways was primarily tapped to the benefit of the British Empire within the British Isles, it very rapidly became clear that they could be used to open up the most inaccessible areas of the Americas, of the Russian plains and steppes, of large parts of Australia, Africa and Asia, and in turn the resources in those areas became accessible and exploitable.

Railways were by far the cheapest way to move goods, especially high volume goods, such as mineral ore and coal. As cities and countries grew wealthy from this access to resources, it became clear that the cheapest way of moving commuters was also along the high density corridors that railways could offer.

The British had also evolved their naval capabilities hugely before the 1800s, but Brunel, among others, exploited new technologies and new materials including steel and riveted cast iron that were available to create much bigger ships, using a new power source, high pressure steam, to replace wind power. The first modern steamer, the Great Britain, developed in 1843 to cross the Atlantic, and still available to visit in Bristol, was almost 100 metres long, made of iron, a new material made for ships, and driven by propeller using coal/steam as a new primary source of power. A mere 15 years later, the Great Eastern steam ship, 210 metres long, was able to go to India and Australia from England and carry 4,000 passengers. The massive shift in capability and capacity is clear, again through the harnessing of a new source of energy, coal powered steam, to move people and goods, in this case to move people across oceans.

We have examined the direct development of these transport technologies, but in turn they drove associated developments. The need for steel to manufacture the railway termini as well as the rails, the buildings and structures that were needed in turn allowed the development of multi-storey steel structures, facilitating the development of cities of much higher densities such as London and New York than had ever been seen in world history. And so the British Empire founded on coal/steam as a new energy source and linked through mobility to the development of railways and shipping, became the dominant economic power of the 19th century.

American Empire

Yet very quickly, the British Empire was surpassed by the American Empire, which realistically dates from around 1900. An empire unlike the British Empire in that it continues to be primarily a trading economic and cultural empire, rather than a military empire, but it is also the predominant global military force in the world. Figure 4 shows a reasonable surrogate for US influence, with the Facebook/Twitter countries having a large American cultural and economic influence.

Figure 4: Primary Social Network in 2017
The US economy grew and surpassed the British economy because it developed new energy sources and new forms of transportation/mobility, The United States in 1900 had abundant resources of coal and steel and was pioneering the initial development of electricity as a source of lighting, heating and power. Thomas Edison, developer of the lightbulb and many other inventions developed direct current (DC) power supply in the US in the 1880s/1890s. Tesla, an immigrant to the United States who originally worked with Edison but subsequently developed Alternating Current (AC) as the standard form of electricity from generation stations, both worked within a narrow space of time and geography to produce massive improvements and innovations in the area of energy. By 1900, electricity was being generated in large volumes through hydroelectricity and coal burning generation and there was significant availability of electricity throughout the large cities and smaller provincial cities in the US.

John D Rockefeller was the key instigator in the discovery of a new energy source that would transform the globe in the 20th century. In his processing of natural oils to generate kerosene for heating and light, he realised there were many bye products from the distillation process that were not being used, and sought to find other uses for those by-products, in turn leading to the development of today’s oil and petrochemical industries.

The realisation that petrol and diesel “by-products” could be used in conjunction with the German diesel and internal combustion engines as a new source of energy to link to road based and rail based vehicles was a transformative revelation. Henry Ford, he of Irish extraction, was the innovator who broke the mould by integrating and developing the use of an assembly line to speed up the manufacturing process, generating enormous efficiencies. In 1926, Ford by himself was manufacturing 1.5 million vehicles a year, and this in conjunction with the other major US manufacturers became the basis for a new phenomenon, a new driver in global technology, the motor vehicle. Suddenly there was competition in the transport sector, and the road network was a huge challenge to the rail networks because it has a number of advantages. Spatial reach, flexibility of use, a range of different vehicle types and costs, affordable vehicles, an energy source that was readily available through the oil companies, an ability to go door to door with the same vehicle, not possible with railways and most importantly personal freedom of choice. And so, an aspiration to own a motor vehicle became a reality as people across the world recognised the benefits that the road industry and the car industry could bring.

So the car industry as we know it really developed in the United States, and at the same time, a completely new US based transportation technology was developed. The ability to move relatively light but high value goods over large distances quickly created an underlying basis for the development of the air industry. The scale, carrying capacity and range of the aircraft developed hugely over the course of the Second World War. Today, we are familiar with massive aircraft able to move many hundreds of people over thousands of kilometres at speeds of 1000 km/h. This incredible new transport technology further supported the preminence of the US as a global leader in economic terms as well as military terms.

Another 20th century transforming technology developed in the US was Nuclear energy as a power source both for electricity generation and to power new submarines for the US Navy. Widespread adoption in other countries has resulted in nuclear energy being 11% of the global electricity supply but with large variations from region to region. In the EU for example, 30% of all electricity is generated from Nuclear energy while in France, 80% of the supply of electricity is generated by Nuclear energy. This late 20th century innovative energy source drives, and will continue to drive the growth and expansion of the global economy through the 21st century.

Chinese Empire

And finally, we turn to what may well be the 21st century Empire, carrying on from the American 20th century and British 19th century industrial revolutions. China has very rapidly become a trade and economic empire, with a population massively greater than the US and hugely greater than Britain at 1.5 Billion people, China has limited military capacity, limited indigenous energy resources and limited indigenous mineral resources.

However China has identified the same factors that we have seen in the historic development of the great empires, with a huge investment in infrastructure and a clear focus on the purchasing of energy, mineral and transport resources worldwide. If we look at what China has created in terms of transport infrastructure, it has built a motorway network at the end of 2016 of 130,000 kilometres compared to the US’ 77,000 kilometres. China has a railway network of 120,000 kilometres, half of the US’ railway network length. However, in High Speed Rail (HSR), there are 60,000 kilometres of high speed rail currently in China; two thirds of the total length of HSR in the world is in China with plans to add another 16,000 kilometres by 2025.

Another key form of transport examined with the Spanish and the British Empire is shipping. In 2017, 67% of global container volume passes through Chinese owned or Chinese invested ports. On the air side, the 20th century US innovation, Daxing airport in Beijing will open in 2019 with 100 million passenger capacity, 7 runways and the largest passenger terminal in the world. China is investing massively in transport and also is investing massively in energy sources.

Figure 5: Silk Road Initiative
Examination of Figure 5, mapping the Silk Road initiative shows a graphic similar in scale to those of the Spanish, British and American empires. The reach can be seen to extend across central Asia and into Europe, across central and Southern Africa, down through South East Asia and into Indonesia with additional very significant influence in Australia. These economic connections founded on transport infrastructure and energy as economic drivers are being developed on a scale and at a pace greater than anything envisioned by any empire to date.

Examination of Table 1, showing the number of companies by country in the Global Fortune 500, illustrates how rapidly China’s economy and companies are growing with a 119% increase in the number of companies in the Global 500 list over a seven year period, compared with typical declines of c. 20% in most of the established large Western economies.

Table 1: Global Fortune 500 companies 2010-2016

Table 2: Top 32 Companies 2017, Fortune Global 500

Table 2 shows the listing of the top 32 companies by revenue in 2017. Sixteen of the top 32 companies are either engaged primarily in energy or transport. Four others are technology based, and two others are telecoms focussed.

Future Developments

Energy, transport and technology are the dominating companies in the dominating economies in the world. We need to be so engaged in this energy/mobility space precisely because this is the area that has driven economic growth for at least the past 200 years, and shows no signs of stopping. Very many of the concepts and technology that are discussed hereafter in this paper are at prototype or early-stage development. It is very unclear if some or any of these technologies will ultimately prevail, but ongoing, large-scale involvement is essential. Energy efficiency and new energy forms applied to transport and mobility will fuel economic growth over the next 50 years, and there will be winners and losers on local, regional and national scale.

China will invest $360 billion in renewable energy by the end of 2020. In the United States, clean energy industries are generating 2.5 million jobs, with 1 in 80 of all new jobs currently being created in the solar energy sector, a very recent newcomer to the energy market. There is major research underway in connected and autonomous vehicles (CV/AV), in central control of vehicle networks and use of big data to assist and improve.

AASHTO, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, have identified a number of areas for immediate research that are key in mobilising and facilitating these new technologies in energy and transport. From an Institutional Policy viewpoint, work is underway exploring the business models to allow the deployment of infrastructure. Work in establishing new vehicle codes, implications for safety, harmonisation of rules and regulations at federal, state and local levels are essential.

Infrastructure design and implementation standards and guidelines must be modified and updated continuously to keep pace with the developments in technology. Roadway geometric design standards, dedicated lanes for CV/AV, asset management systems, vehicle guidance systems are all required to be updated.

Regulation and control of mixed traffic systems where vehicles operated by humans interact with CV/AV vehicles of different levels of complexity and capability across a range of vehicle-enabled sensors and central system monitoring will be a massive engineering and communications challenge.

Integration and impact of these new and modified transport systems, both public and private, will have a huge impact on how society functions in both urban and rural areas. This is particularly timely in 2017 in Ireland, with the imminent roll-out of the National Planning Framework aiming to lay out an integrated land-use approach to development of Ireland’s cities, towns and rural areas up to 2040. The impact of new forms of transport, both public and private on mobility of socially underprivileged areas, on the elderly and disabled have enormous implications, potentially positive and negative, on how our society will function in the coming years.

Energy Storage

One of the key areas that we need to explore in the future and the present is energy storage. There are many innovative solutions being put forward, both on a large scale and on a small scale. There is currently a well advanced project in Larne, Co. Antrim, to use compressed air storage within 2 large caverns to be mined from within the existing salt geology at a depth of 1.5 kilometres below the surface. The salt deposits in Larne are particularly dense and suitable for this compressed air storage. After a major mining and construction project to create the caverns, the ongoing operation will entail using off-peak or surplus power (from renewable energy sources, e.g. wind power) to compress the air within the caverns. When peak electricity is required, the pressurised air from the caverns is used to power the generator for electricity generation. This technology has been used in other countries but will be a first for Ireland. It mirrors an approach to using off-peak energy to create a very large battery, or storage followed using hydroelectricity at Turlough Hill, built in the 1970s, and fully refurbished in 2016. In this case, off-peak or low demand energy is used to pump water to the upper reservoir and then at times of peak demand, the water from the upper reservoir runs back to the lower reservoir, through a generation station, to produce peak demand electricity.

The Spirit of Ireland proposal, which was launched a number of years ago was a very innovative, interesting proposal with some clear drawbacks. The proposal was to use the natural geology and geographic shape of Ireland to identify some existing natural valleys close to the sea that could be converted into much, much larger “upper” storage reservoirs than that created in Turlough Hill. The sea itself would function as the “lower” reservoir. Wind energy would be used pump sea water to the “upper” reservoir in times of low energy demand. At peak demand, the sea water would be released from the reservoir and generate hydroelectricity through a power station as the water was released back to the sea inlet.

There is also very interesting current research and commercial development underway in small-scale energy generation and storage. Tesla has developed a new type of solar panel which looks almost identical to existing roof tiles, with four variants available by 2018. In addition, Tesla has developed a very neat and clever design for the battery to store the electricity generated by the solar panel. The battery is then used to either power the home through an alternating current inverter or charge an electric vehicle at night using the direct current that’s stored in the battery. The domestic user operates as a mini power plant, supplying at least the user’s own requirements, and in the event that there is a surplus, feeding it back to the grid.

Effectively, in this case, rather than an electricity company having to bear the costs of power generation and distribution, the consumer pays for the storage and pays for the solar panels, using the electricity generated for charging or for immediate consumption. Given Tesla’s strong positioning in the electric vehicle market, this combination of electric power generation and storage to support one or more electric vehicles is innovative and attractive. Will Elon Musk be seen in time as the 21st century equivalent of Henry Ford or Thomas Edison, or both?

Alternative Fuels

There is an alternative to electric battery storage to power electric vehicles, with Hydrogen fuel cells used to drive the electric motor in the vehicle. This area is very much of the moment, with ongoing research and pilots in Korea, Japan and the USA. H2-USA is a public-private partnership between the US government and some of the car manufacturers aiming to promote introduction and widespread application of fuel cell electric vehicles across the US. General Motors/Chevrolet are heavily involved in both conventional electric and hydrogen fuel cell development, but Audi, Honda, Toyota and Mercedes Benz all have vehicles with working hydrogen fuel cells operating on a pilot basis in the US. The big attraction of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is a range of up to 500 kilometres before refilling, much more similar to the existing range that we get from petrol-driven and diesel-driven vehicles.

It is also timely to highlight current research output from the CRANN Institute in TCD. An ideal scenario would see the development of a cost effective method to allow the production of hydrogen from hydrolysis, taking water and splitting it up into hydrogen and oxygen using excess energy that may be available through wind, renewables or off-peak generation. The biggest problem with hydrogen production through hydrolysis is the cost, and in particular, the catalyst, Ruthenium oxide, which is extremely expensive and extremely rare. The CRANN institute’s research found a way to substitute manganese oxide, an extremely cheap and more abundantly available material, for ruthenium oxide without any adverse effects on production. This Irish innovation has huge potential to drive the ability to generate hydrogen from hydrolysis, rather than current hydrogen generation from carbon based sources, primarily gas and oil.

In considering alternative fuel sources for vehicles, the future configuration of fuel retail outlets must also be discussed. Since the dawn of the 20th century, fuel distribution through petrol and diesel pumps for the automobile and trucking industry has been a familiar part of the landscape. There has been a drop in the number of carbon fuel outlets in Ireland, in 2016 there were roughly 1800 retail outlets. The ESB have rolled out charging points and fast charging points, currently 1200 charging points nationally, but with likely increased adoption of electric vehicles, those charging points will need to be increased hugely.

An interesting question arises. Should additional charging points be provided independently of existing retail outlets or provided in conjunction with those? And if the retail outlets become multipurpose outlets, providing oil and diesel and petrol for the foreseeable future but also locations for a number of fast charge electric points and potentially also outlets for hydrogen fuel, then there may become space for innovative involvement, by semi-state and state-owned bodies in Ireland in direct energy production/generation and distribution to transport vehicles on a much greater scale than now. Some of the output numbers are worth looking at. Typically for carbon fuel it currently takes about 2 minutes to fill a 60 litre tank with a range of over 800 kilometres. A 10,000 PSI hydrogen pump will fill a hydrogen tank in 6 to 7 minutes and that gives a range of c. 500 kilometres on average. Electricity charging, even with fast charging points will take 20/30 minutes to charge up the battery to 80% capacity giving a much smaller range (150 to 350 kilometres depending on the model). A home charge is much slower, taking about 6 hours to fully charge the battery. Clearly there are huge improvements to be made in these areas, particularly on the electricity side, in order that the electric capacity and recharging time can compete with the carbon based and hydrogen based technologies that the consumer is used to.

Autonomous and Connected Vehicles

Figure 6: Levels of Autonomy
Turning to the very topical area of autonomous vehicles, there is a widely recognised six level definition of autonomous vehicles developed by SAE International and summarised in Figure 6. Many of us currently have level 1 autonomous vehicle with cruise control, parking assistance, automatic emergency braking etc... There are a very limited number of Level 2 vehicles available, primarily from Mercedes Benz, Volvo and Tesla, where the vehicle can control steering and speed autonomously for at least a number of seconds.

The areas that require a lot of research and engineering research across a very wide number of different areas are at levels 3, 4 and 5. Level 5 is the ultimate autonomous vehicle with no human intervention required or facilitated. Most research interest is currently focussed on Level 4, with some manufacturers indicating possible commercial availability in the early 2020s. When we look at the improvements in the 19th century with Brunel going from the Great Britain to the Great Eastern steam ship in a matter of 13 years, we may be able to move up through these levels more quickly than is currently envisioned depending upon the resources and the research and the level of smarts and engineering that are applied. What will these autonomous vehicles look like? Potentially they may be much smaller and lighter than our current vehicles as we move up towards Levels 4 and 5 capabilities, with significantly lower crash protection facilities as the computers and sensors and smarts of the vehicles lower the risk to the passenger and drivers of collisions with other vehicles and with roadside objects.

A related but separate area of innovation is the field of Connected Vehicles. Over and above the multiple sensors on each individual vehicle, there may well be a requirement for a centrally controlled system that is aware of where all of the vehicles are, all of the time. This requires enormous capacity and capabilities in the broadband area to allow real time reciprocal recognition of vehicles and recognition of vehicles by an overall controlling system. Typically, at the moment, the autonomous vehicles are collecting and carrying their own data using a variety of different sensors and significant computing ability to allow the vehicle to be autonomous in its driving capability. Additional computing power and communications systems will be needed to allow the vehicle to communicate with other controlling systems, whether centrally located or at spaced intervals throughout the network.

As authorities become responsible for the movement of significant numbers of autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles, how these interactions work and who bears the responsibility for vehicle interactions is going to become a very interesting and difficult area, and one that will involve the need, the coordination, of a large number of state and semi-state bodies. There is a massive amount of research to be carried out with huge potential for private companies, for semi-state companies and state-owned companies in this space, particularly in the development of the “brains” of the operation and interaction.

Clearly, there is a whole raft of legislative and ethical requirements beyond the engineering considerations to be developed. Road authorities, legal authorities and policing authorities have to figure out how these autonomous vehicles are allowed to interact firstly with other autonomous vehicles, and secondly, with human controlled vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians, public transport and other road users. These non-engineering factors may ultimately determine the scale and speed with which autonomous vehicles will expand in time.

If a much higher percentage of the vehicle fleet are at Levels 4 and 5, there are potential major benefits in drastically reduced amounts of accidents, and increased mobility for the elderly, the disabled and the socially disadvantaged. Depending on the evolution, there may be reduced traffic and congestion through better control and better usage as a smaller number of vehicles are used much more intensively over the course of the day than our current vehicles are through implementation of MAAS (Mobility as a Service) solutions.

Against that, it is likely that these vehicles may be extremely expensive given the multiple levels of sensor technology, computing technology and communications technology required in addition to the controlling software systems. There will need to be widespread adoption to roll out the potential benefits, as a limited number of autonomous vehicles in a stream of primarily human activated and human driven vehicles will not have a lot of the benefits that have been put forward. The risk of hacking the systems causing localised or widespread disruption is clearly evident as the vehicles are so dependent on communications and computing abilities. The potential to eliminate enormous numbers of jobs for drivers and others involved in the transportation industry is immense. It is possible that there will be more rather than less congestion as demand for the mobility offered by autonomous vehicles is increased.

Roads as Energy Generators/Distributors

While transportation, and roads in particular, has been a user of energy, as we move forward there are distinct possibilities that road, airport and port pavement networks may be used to both generate energy directly, and as a means of delivering energy to the vehicles using the networks. Colas in France have unveiled a solar road in 2016, generating electricity from solar panels over a 1.5 kilometre road length. The panels have been designed to withstand the loading of road vehicles while generating sufficient functional skid resistance to be effective as a pavement surface. The Colas project at this very early stage of development, costs €5 million per lane-km.

Similarly in the United States, a company named Solar Roadways have developed hexagonal shaped solar panels that can be snapped together, almost like Lego, to form pavement solar panel arrays in different shape configurations for roadways and parking areas. They are currently constructing a rest stop parking area on the iconic Route 66 using the panels which also have fully integrated LED lighting allowing directional lining to be displayed.

There are obvious problems to be overcome if the use of solar panels as pavement surfacing is to become widespread. The surface is clearly flat, not oriented to the sun, lowering the potential energy yield generated, particularly in higher latitude areas of the world including Ireland. A very significant portion of the pavement will be covered in high traffic situations, and there are also masking/coverage difficulties with dirt, snow and water. Maintaining skid resistance over time may be an issue, and the quantum of maintenance costs associated with the electronics in such a harsh and unforgiving environment is unknown.

When we look at other forms of vehicle battery charging, the vast majority currently take place with direct plug-in methods at home or in public areas. There is a lot of early-stage research underway into wireless, non-contact charging, both static and dynamic. Tesla has put forward a contactless charging system for home use. In Sweden, there is a static contactless system for buses currently being trialled, with charging plates in the pavement surface at bus stops and bus termini.

Early-stage research is also underway in a potentially transforming technology, allowing charging of vehicle batteries as they move at traffic speed along specially fitted pavement lanes with charging coils fitted just beneath the pavement surface. This technology, if successful, would lead to much smaller battery requirements for trucks and buses as well as dealing with the “range anxiety” issue that is hampering widespread acceptance of electric vehicles.

The cost of installing the charging coils in new road construction is relatively small on a per kilometre basis, but the cost of retro-fitting the technology into existing roads is much more challenging. More importantly, the concept raises significant issues on the role and interaction of transport infrastructure companies, such as TII, with electricity/energy companies such as ESB. Who provides the initial capital, and who collects the revenue and sets the charging fees? What role will Revenue play, or wish to play, as excise revenues on carbon-based fuels decline over time? Will adoption of this technology create a “captive audience” over time, wholly reliant on the charging lanes for power, and what public policy implications derive from this “capture”? How do you police, and derive fees from unregistered vehicles using the charging lanes? Will we end up with Transport Authorities that are more energy provider than infrastructure provider?


Accepting the need to be centrally involved in the new revolution of energy and transport, we in Ireland are in a very strong position to take an active and leading role in this 21st century revolution. In the eras of the Spanish and British Empire developments, we lacked access to indigenous resources such as coal and iron ore, as well as lacking the democratic control to determine our own path and destiny. Having secured our independence in the 20th century, we did invest very early on in hydroelectricity and the provision of electricity to all of our citizens, but did not participate to any significant extent in the manufacturing revolution of growth and development in new transport and energy modes.

Today, we are ideally placed to play a central role in the fusing of new energy sources, transport modes and controlling software and hardware. We have developed top class transport infrastructure in the past 20 years, in roads, airports, ports and heavy and light rail. We have very high skills in the ITS and Big Data areas, with many thousands of highly skilled engineering graduates employed by indigenous and FDI companies.

Most importantly, in my view, we have many state-owned companies that are engineering-led and engineering-focussed in the key areas of transport infrastructure provision, energy provision and fusion of energy and transport requirements. These companies have a strong mandate to grow and be at the technological leading edge worldwide. We have access to a wide and increasing range of renewable energy sources and a very active Sustainable Energy Authority. We have top quality universities and Institutes of Technology with a proven record of leading world-class research, working in conjunction with a much focussed research-sponsoring body in SFI. We must harness these capabilities to create institutional and product development synergies, to innovate and create a better, sustainable transport/energy future for our country and our people.

To quote Sir John Armitt in his ICE Presidential address to our Institution in February 2016, “We are the holders of the knowledge necessary to create the systems. We are the best able to work with other engineering professions to assess solutions, the alternative technologies, to develop new technologies, to design, fabricate, cost, build, operate and eventually decommission the systems. We have a responsibility to put all this information before politicians and investors, and make it available to the public.”

History has shown us that the underlying driver of preferential economic growth is the discovery, adoption and adaptation of new sources of energy linked with new forms of transport. We are ideally placed to be a full-scale R&D laboratory, investigating solutions for congested cities, growing towns, rural areas and ultra-low rural density areas, using new energy sources and connected communications and IT systems, using the flexibility and ability to work together and develop pragmatic and practical solutions that Irish people, and Irish Engineers in particular, are renowned for.

If Not Us, Who?
If Not Now, When?