The world needs a game changer

In April this year, John Llewellyn wrote an excellent column for eceee on Formula 1 and the need for incentives to encourage innovation. For the Financial Times, John continues talking about vehicles and the need for encouraging inventiveness, possible through some “incentive.” As John says, “It should not take fear to make us motivate talents to improve our lives.” This is well worth the read. John was a former plenary speaker at the eceee summer study several years ago. One hopes he will be invited again. He has a lot to say.

Give the geniuses a reason to make earth a better place

A fatalistic dictum has it that necessity is the mother of invention. It is fatalistic because it implies that we can change the world in service of humanity only when confronted with the most exigent demands. Luckily, it is also wrong. We need not find ourselves in dire straits before we begin motivating inventors, engineers and scientists to unleash their talents in ways that improve our lives.

Take the thoroughly inefficient internal combustion engine in an ordinary car. About one-third of the energy produced from burning fuel goes out through the exhaust and another third is lost as heat through the radiator. Of the remaining third that actually propels the car, much is turned into heat when the car brakes. If that lost energy can be captured and used to propel the vehicle, there is huge potential for increasing efficiency – curbing fossil fuel use and damaging emissions.

This is now starting to happen, the result of innovative technology developed by talented technologists and engineers. They have done so not in the face of necessity, but in response to sharp incentives created by a professional sport.

The efficiency gains are enormous. This year’s Formula 1 engines consume about 40 per cent less fuel than in earlier years; yet they deliver, with the aid of energy-recovery systems, much the same power. Similarly, this year’s Le Mans 24-hour race cars used about 30 per cent less energy yet achieved essentially unchanged performance.

This came about mainly because authorities changed the rules. In rules that take effect this season the sport’s ruling body specified a one-third reduction in Formula 1 engine capacity. The FIA also decreed that petrol consumption, hitherto unlimited but averaging about 160kg per race, was to be limited to 100kg.

The Automobile Club de l’Ouest, by contrast, specified the Le Mans rules more loosely, merely decreeing an “energy allotment” per lap, without even specifying the type of fuel. Engineers responded to the two sets of rules in various ways but all met the more stringent requirements.

It is only a matter of time before the resulting developments find application in everyday motor vehicles. The ultimate effects of these new technologies, when spread over millions of new cars, lorries and buses, could bring about a reduction in world oil consumption of 2 per cent or more over coming decades.

So what incentives drive such innovation? Sometimes, scientific curiosity is sufficient motivation: witness world wide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee who, on principle, never commercialised his creation, preferring instead to work on expanding a channel for free expression and collaboration.

Sometimes money is the incentive. The F1 and Le Mans development costs were high: it took big car companies to finance the development costs and reward the technologists and engineers. But there have been solo efforts: in 1714 one John Harrison, incentivised by prize money of £20,000 (about £3m today) revolutionised navigation by building a series of clocks enabling a ship’s position to be calculated accurately. Fear and patriotism, too, can be potent motivators.

But generally such innovation needs to be orchestrated. Often, governments are best placed to identify a problem, corral the right people and provide funding. The second world war produced radar, radio navigation, the jet engine, synthetic rubber and oil, rocketry, nuclear energy and the computer. Space exploration is another example of state-backed invention.

Such examples contrast with what governments are doing, or rather not doing, to stabilise atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases. Disparate regulations and economic incentives aim at incremental reductions in demand and supply. But emissions are still rising, and earlier modest growth in global energy efficiency has stalled. Unless something is done, and soon, greater focus will have to be directed at adaptation. This will be expensive: costs in the US alone seem likely to run to billions of dollars in the next two decades, according to Risky Business, a bipartisan report published last week.

What the world needs is a game changer: a technological development that will make not an incremental, but a step, change in global emissions. Why not offer a prize?

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