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fuelling the fire


A chance call on a phone-in radio show this week highlighted a problem I didn’t even know existed and I suspect many of you are also unaware.  The discussion topic was on the inherent dangers of the recently-introduced ‘smart motorways’ in the UK with no hard-shoulder for breakdowns and other emergency situations.

One tow-truck driver called in to point out the high rate of fatalities from members of his profession attending to incidents on such roads after dark.  He then went on to point out a very modern danger to which he and his colleagues are exposed – the potential of electrocution or conflagration from the lithium ion batteries in electric cars involved in accidents. The incidence of post-crash fires has already been highlighted as an increasing problem in such cars.  In May 2018 a German driver died after a Tesla car he was driving crashed into a guardrail in Switzerland and burst into flames.  Following the accident the local fire brigade posted a Facebook comment suggesting the vehicle's lithium ion batteries could have triggered a phenomenon involving a "rapid and unstoppable increase in temperature" the accident, though the comment was later retracted.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is also investigating a further two fires involving Tesla vehicles, a Model S that caught fire after crashing into a wall in Florida, trapping two 18-year-olds who died in the flames and the company's semi-autonomous Model X SUV which crashed into a barrier on a California highway. The driver in that incident also died, but Tesla said he was pulled from the vehicle before it caught fire.  

According to industry safety group the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), fuel-saving petrol-electric hybrid and all-electric cars and trucks powered by sizable battery packs and high voltage motors could present a new kind of danger at serious accident scenes.  The report highlighted risks to first responders and tow operators from potential electric shock from damaged systems not disengaged during or immediately after a crash.

"As electric vehicles enter the marketplace in greater numbers, it's an appropriate time to recognize best practices that facilitate a safe response when these vehicles are in an accident," said Todd Mackintosh, chairman of the SAE technical committee.  The group recommended automakers install switches that would kill battery power in the event of an accident. The location of those switches should be standardized for safety.  Another recommendation would create a guide for emergency workers, to quickly identify the location of high-voltage components allowing them to be disabled. Tow truck drivers also need better information and training on how to handle hybrids and electric vehicles without receiving an unexpected jolt, the report said.  

More than one million battery powered electric and hybrid electric vehicles were sold in the United States last year, raising the chances of such vehicles being involved in road traffic accidents.  In May, auto industry officials and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Energy Department discussed potential dangers faced by first responders from electrical charges produced by hybrid and electric cars. NHTSA later issued interim guidance for consumers, emergency responders and tow truck operators to increase awareness about specific dangers.  Dangers can be reduced if responders have easy access to battery packs and if auto manufacturers create common disconnect locations in all hybrid and electric vehicles, NHTSA said.

The potential problems of such vehicles are not, of course, confined to Tesla and car manufacturers  are getting the message out to drivers and responders. Nissan places the battery pack of its LEAF all-electric car in a steel case. The Japanese automaker also designed the battery pack to sense a crash and disable its electrical charge when involved in an accident.  Ford has published a guide for first responders encountering its Focus EV involved in accidents. The Focus EV includes what Ford calls "Electric Badges," which are clearly marked logos on the doors and trunk lid to warn responders of possible electric shock.

Cables wrapped in orange high-voltage warning sleeves are located under the hood of the Focus EV.  General Motors, maker of the Chevy Volt, is also helping to prepare fire service and other first responders. Moreover, GM took steps to better protect the Volt battery pack following a fire that flared after a crash test in 2011. NHTSA found no defect with the lithium-ion battery system nor were any real world crash-fires ever reported. But the case highlighted potential safety concerns for first responders.

For those of a technical bent this is the science behind the danger.  What happens with a lithium ion battery fire is typically a short circuit within one or more of the battery's cells, which generates heat. The heat can then ignite the chemicals within the battery. That can cause problems in the adjoining cells and lead to the condition known as "thermal runaway" in which the fire spreads and builds. That's apparently what happened in a fatal Tesla crash in Switzerland.  The big difference between a lithium ion battery and petroleum fire  is the time it takes to ignite.

Petrol fires start almost immediately when the fuel comes in contact with a spark or flame, and spreads rapidly. Battery fires typically take some time to achieve the heat necessary to start the fire.  In some instances, that delay is good because it means the occupants of a car involved in a crash can exit the vehicle before the fire starts. But it can pose its own problems. Sometimes a battery can be damaged, perhaps by the car running over some debris, and the driver might not be aware of the damage. And then a fire can start well after the initial incident. That could theoretically cause a fire after the car is parked in a garage. And even when the battery fire is obvious, Tesla warns first responders that it can take 24 hours for a it to be fully extinguished.

The fire risk for electric cars will undoubtedly be reduced in the years to come.  Research is taking place for new materials that might not only make batteries lighter and more efficient, but could possibly make them safer. Steven Risser, senior research leader at Battelle, a non-profit research and development firm, and one of the leading experts on the risk of fires in electric vehicles  makes a valid point.  "Gasoline is a very risky material. We have had 130 years of designs and experience to make a gasoline powered vehicle as safe as possible. We're still at early stages of understanding how to make lithium ion batteries safe.” To paraphrase Aldous Huxley, it’s a brave new world we’re entering into and clearly with new technologies come new dangers.  Let the buyer (of an electric car) beware.

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Export Processing Zones: How to Get SEZA to Sizzle

23rd September 2020
Export Processing Zone (EPZ) factory in Kenya

In 2005, the Business & Economic Advisory Council (BEAC) pitched the idea of the establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to the Mogae Administration.

It took five years before the SEZ policy was formulated, another five years before the relevant law was enacted, and a full three years before the Special Economic Zones Authority (SEZA) became operational.

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Egypt Bagged Again

23rd September 2020

… courtesy of infiltration stratagem by Jehovah-Enlil’s clan

With the passing of Joshua’s generation, General Atiku, the promised peace and prosperity of a land flowing with milk and honey disappeared, giving way to chaos and confusion.

Maybe Joshua himself was to blame for this shambolic state of affairs. He had failed to mentor a successor in the manner Moses had mentored him. He had left the nation without a central government or a human head of state but as a confederacy of twelve independent tribes without any unifying force except their Anunnaki gods.

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23rd September 2020

If I say the word ‘robot’ to you,  I can guess what would immediately spring to mind –  a cute little Android or animal-like creature with human or pet animal characteristics and a ‘heart’, that is to say to say a battery, of gold, the sort we’ve all seen in various movies and  tv shows.  Think R2D2 or 3CPO in Star Wars, Wall-E in the movie of the same name,  Sonny in I Robot, loveable rogue Bender in Futurama,  Johnny 5 in Short Circuit…

Of course there are the evil ones too, the sort that want to rise up and eliminate us  inferior humans – Roy Batty in Blade Runner, Schwarzenegger’s T-800 in The Terminator,  Box in Logan’s Run,  Police robots in Elysium and  Otomo in Robocop.

And that’s to name but a few.  As a general rule of thumb, the closer the robot is to human form, the more dangerous it is and of course the ultimate threat in any Sci-Fi movie is that the robots will turn the tables and become the masters, not the mechanical slaves.  And whilst we are in reality a long way from robotic domination, there are an increasing number of examples of  robotics in the workplace.

ROBOT BLOODHOUNDS Sometimes by the time that one of us smells something the damage has already begun – the smell of burning rubber or even worse, the smell of deadly gas. Thank goodness for a robot capable of quickly detecting and analyzing a smell from our very own footprint.

A*Library Bot The A*Star (Singapore) developed library bot which when books are equipped with RFID location chips, can scan shelves quickly seeking out-of-place titles.  It manoeuvres with ease around corners, enhances the sorting and searching of books, and can self-navigate the library facility during non-open hours.

DRUG-COMPOUNDING ROBOT Automated medicine distribution system, connected to the hospital prescription system. It’s goal? To manipulate a large variety of objects (i.e.: drug vials, syringes, and IV bags) normally used in the manual process of drugs compounding to facilitate stronger standardisation, create higher levels of patient safety, and lower the risk of hospital staff exposed to toxic substances.

AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY ROBOTS Applications include screw-driving, assembling, painting, trimming/cutting, pouring hazardous substances, labelling, welding, handling, quality control applications as well as tasks that require extreme precision,

AGRICULTURAL ROBOTS Ecrobotix, a Swiss technology firm has a solar-controlled ‘bot that not only can identify weeds but thereafter can treat them. Naio Technologies based in southwestern France has developed a robot with the ability to weed, hoe, and assist during harvesting. Energid Technologies has developed a citrus picking system that retrieves one piece of fruit every 2-3 seconds and Spain-based Agrobot has taken the treachery out of strawberry picking. Meanwhile, Blue River Technology has developed the LettuceBot2 that attaches itself to a tractor to thin out lettuce fields as well as prevent herbicide-resistant weeds. And that’s only scratching the finely-tilled soil.

INDUSTRIAL FLOOR SCRUBBERS The Global Automatic Floor Scrubber Machine boasts a 1.6HP motor that offers 113″ water lift, 180 RPM and a coverage rate of 17,000 sq. ft. per hour

These examples all come from the aptly-named site    because while these functions are labour-saving and ripe for automation, the increasing use of artificial intelligence in the workplace will undoubtedly lead to increasing reliance on machines and a resulting swathe of human redundancies in a broad spectrum of industries and services.

This process has been greatly boosted by the global pandemic due to a combination of a workforce on furlough, whether by decree or by choice, and the obvious advantages of using virus-free machines – I don’t think computer viruses count!  For example, it was suggested recently that their use might have a beneficial effect in care homes for the elderly, solving short staffing issues and cheering up the old folks with the novelty of having their tea, coffee and medicines delivered by glorified model cars.  It’s a theory, at any rate.

Already, customers at the South-Korean  fast-food chain No Brand Burger can avoid any interaction with a human server during the pandemic.  The chain is using robots to take orders, prepare food and bring meals out to diners.  Customers order and pay via touchscreen, then their request is sent to the kitchen where a cooking machine heats up the buns and patties. When it’s ready, a robot ‘waiter’ brings out their takeout bag.   

‘This is the first time I’ve actually seen such robots, so they are really amazing and fun,’ Shin Hyun Soo, an office worker at No Brand in Seoul for the first time, told the AP. 

Human workers add toppings to the burgers and wrap them up in takeout bags before passing them over to yellow-and-black serving robots, which have been compared to Minions. 

Also in Korea, the Italian restaurant chain Mad for Garlic is using serving robots even for sit-down customers. Using 3D space mapping and other technology, the electronic ‘waiter,’ known as Aglio Kim, navigates between tables with up to five orders.  Mad for Garlic manager Lee Young-ho said kids especially like the robots, which can carry up to 66lbs in their trays.

These catering robots look nothing like their human counterparts – in fact they are nothing more than glorified food trolleys so using our thumb rule from the movies, mankind is safe from imminent takeover but clearly  Korean hospitality sector workers’ jobs are not.

And right there is the dichotomy – replacement by stealth.  Remote-controlled robotic waiters and waitresses don’t need to be paid, they don’t go on strike and they don’t spread disease so it’s a sure bet their army is already on the march.

But there may be more redundancies on the way as well.  Have you noticed how AI designers have an inability to use words of more than one syllable?  So ‘robot’ has become ‘bot’ and ‘android’ simply ‘droid?  Well, guys, if you continue to build machines ultimately smarter than yourselves you ‘rons  may find yourself surplus to requirements too – that’s ‘moron’ to us polysyllabic humans”!

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