Category Archives: Travel

Word Play

This is a really useful site, which I’ve somehow missed before now:

Are you wandering through an art gallery, and become fearful that your new date will laugh at you if you mispronounce trompe-l’oeil? Never fear! Just pop to the loo with your phone for a moment, and Forvo will let you find and listen to a number of native French speakers saying exactly that phrase. You can then return confident and ready to impress!

Passing through Scotland, and want to ask the way to Culzean or Glen Garioch without the locals sniggering at you?

It will do translations too. If you need to call for a helicopter to lift you off a German mountain, Forvo will both tell you the word, and how to say it.

The great thing about this is that it isn’t an automated voice; these are real people speaking, and you can often compare the same word being spoken by people from different regions. If you’re already familiar with it, you can vote on who pronounces it best, and if you think everybody has got it wrong, you can contribute a recording yourself.

Bellísimo! (as they say in Mexico)

Charging sideways: Towing Electric part II

I wrote a couple of months ago about my early experiences of towing with an electric car. A couple of quick updates, now that I’ve done a bit more towing of my little boat…

  • The general towing experience is excellent. The power and smooth acceleration, combined with a fairly heavy towing vehicle, make for a good ride.

  • Even the car’s reversing camera, which I had assumed would prove useless, turns out to be very handy with a small boat: you can check for any wildly flapping straps, reverse with more confidence, make sure you’ve left enough room going around a corner, and the towing ball itself is visible when trying to position yourself close to the trailer.

  • Since purchasing a good cover, and once I remembered that in the UK you’re not allowed to tow above 60mph, the aerodynamics aren’t too bad and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the efficiency. I tend to average about 320 Wh/mile while towing, which translates to just over 3.1 miles/kWh, or to put it another way, my Tesla Model 3 LR gets a range of over 230 miles. (Since this is at least 4 hours of driving, and more than 3 times the distance my first EV would go when not towing, I’m very happy!)

  • In addition to my load being fairly light and streamlined, I’m guessing that I benefit significantly from the fact that this is an unbraked trailer. In the UK, any load that weighs more than 750kg is required to have its own brakes: as you slow down and the trailer compresses a spring on the towing hitch, these brakes are applied. If, however, you can get away without needing this on an EV, then the momentum of the trailer is converted back into battery charge by the regenerative braking system of the car as you slow down, rather than being lost as heat. My first experiences of towing with an EV involved a significantly heavier, more ancient, less streamlined and generally much clunkier braked trailer, and the effects on my range were much more dramatic. Your mileage, as the saying goes may vary!

  • In the future, I imagine, heavier trailers will come with dynamos/motors attached to the wheels, so they can do their own regenerative braking. These might be more basic than would be needed to provide significant motive power while driving at speed, but they could perhaps double up as the remote-controlled motor-movers employed on caravans to allow easy final positioning at your destination once you’ve disconnected from your car. I sense a real future business opportunity here, by the way. Anyone fancy collaborating on a start-up?

More about charging

Since, given the right charger, my car (and many other modern ones) can charge really very fast, the fact that I have to stop every three or four hours to do so is hardly a major concern!

However, as I’ve pointed out in the past, the design of most charging stations in the UK is hardly optimised for those who are towing!

The Gridserve Electric Forecourt at Braintree is one pleasing exception, but in general, EV owners will often need to unhitch their load before charging. This is not a problem for a light trailer like mine with a jockey wheel, but it’s another reason those motor-movers might come in handy!

So far, I’ve only needed to charge away from home three times while towing, and on two of those occasions, I’ve managed to get away without unhitching, either by visiting remote superchargers at off-peak periods…

… or by blatantly abusing the facilities when there aren’t any other people needing to get to them, as I did on Friday!

That arrow on the road does indicate how you’re meant to park, doesn’t it?

Forecourt futures?

If only they all looked like this…

A few years ago, I was involved in a big brainstorming session with some senior staff from BP. We had gathered, from both sides of the Atlantic, to consider some of the implications of technology changes on their business, and one of the topics discussed was the future of the retail forecourt: the petrol station, as most of us know it today. There was one thing we were all pretty much agreed on about its future: that it hadn’t got one.

The problem is that electric cars give you a very different refuelling experience from cars burning dinosaur juice. The bad news is that it takes longer, as we all know. Even when I’m charging my Tesla at speeds that would have astonished me when I first started driving EVs, I’m still generally there for 20-30 minutes, rather than the five minutes I would have spent filling up with petrol.

But the good news is that you don’t have to stand there while it’s happening, shivering, breathing in those lovely fumes, and wondering if your shoes will reek of diesel for the rest of the day. Instead, you can be inside the car watching the latest episode of your favourite show, or having a drink at the nearby cafe, or taking the dog for a walk. One of our favourite superchargers is in a multi-storey car park near Bristol, where you can just plug in and stroll over to John Lewis to purchase pillowcases, or whatever takes your fancy.

(As an aside, I think this is very healthy: on long drives, it’s important to take a proper break every so often, not just for your own wellbeing, but for the safety of those you may be approaching at speed later in the journey. EVs almost enforce that.)

Now, you could beef up the shopping/dining experience at some petrol stations, but it’s not really enough. The problem for those who have invested large amounts in forecourt real estate is that these stations are generally the wrong size for charging points — you need bigger parking areas and bigger retail areas — and many of them are not where you’d actually want to spend much time: on noisy town-centre roundabouts or on the edge of a busy bypass. Add to that the fact that they aren’t necessarily in good locations for a high-power connection to the electricity grid, and you’d think it probably makes sense to start selling them off. Oh, except you’ve spent a few decades storing and spilling toxic liquids there, so that’s a bit tricky too.

After the gas has gone…

We discussed other possible uses for the sites, which, despite some problems, do have the merit of being close to good road links, and often close to towns.

One idea was that they might become last-hop delivery hubs. Instead of fuel tankers rolling in during the night to top up the tanks, it would be big Amazon trucks coming to offload their parcels. Then a fleet of smaller electric vans would zip out from there during the day, doing the deliveries.

Someone else pointed out that there’s another service to which people often need quick and easy access while travelling: the loo! Yes, petrol stations are ideally placed for public conveniences, but up to now, that part of any visit has not always been very inspiring! Apparently one gas station chain in the States made their toilets a feature, advertising that they had the nicest bathrooms in the business! I thought this was very smart: there’s not much else to distinguish one station from another, so this was a cunning way to make your visit one of choice (as well as necessity!) Could you, we wondered, actually dispense with the petrol station, and instead draw people to your roadside retail experience through the quality and cleanliness of the adjacent WC? I like that idea, though it might require some clever marketing!

I suggested that they might want to develop a brand and business that wasn’t tied to particular premises in the same way. In the past, petrol stations were expensive and difficult to install, and they added retail experiences onto them to try to increase the profitability of each visit. But in the future, what people would want was not a Costa Coffee shop next to their refuelling point, but a refuelling stop next to their Costa Coffee. And that was much more viable than it ever had been in the past. Who was going to make it really easy for a supermarket, restaurant, shopping mall or pub to turn their existing car park into a charging centre? This, I thought, was an opportunity.

(Interestingly, almost on that exact day, it also became public that BP were buying the Polar/Chargemaster charging network, which was a smart way to get a good foothold in the charging world in the UK.)

Happy memories

Anyway, just to finish this on a personal note, and to show they’re not all bad, I do have a favourite petrol station, of all the ones I’ve visited in my life.

It stood right on the side of a Norwegian fjord, not far from a cottage where I stayed with my parents and grandparents on holiday sometime in the mid-1980s. You filled up your tank in a gentle sea breeze, surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen, and then strolled into the shop to pay. This was also the local grocery shop for that side of the fjord. (For the post office, bank, and the other shop, we would just go into to the cottage’s boathouse, get into the dinghy and chug across to the other side of the water.) Anyway, I remember that the two or three fuel pumps had unusually long hoses, because they were also sometimes used to fill up the boats which could pull in just as easily as cars.

And in the spaces between the pumps? Flower boxes.

Yes, that was a really lovely spot to fill up, and it would also make an amazing charging station. Perhaps, knowing Norway, I’ll be able to go back someday in my current car and fill up again…

Seal of Approval

Don’t assume, just because you’re behind a telephoto lens, that we can’t see you!

I’ve often seen seals swimming just offshore as we walk along Norfolk beaches. But a couple of weeks ago I spotted this group relaxing on the beach; they seemed to be having a good time.

Bird’s Eye View

We’re on holiday in the Norfolk Broads, spending most of our time messing about in boats, but also enjoying the wonderful wildlife.

Who, us?

The birds are omnipresent, even in the garden of our riverside cottage, where this rather splendid goose has been sitting on her nest since we arrived. She and Tilly have decided to ignore each other.

Here’s what the village of Horning looks like, for anyone thinking of flying over:

(Link here if you can’t see the embedded video. If your computer and your network connection will allow it, I recommend viewing it full screen and setting the YouTube resolution to 4K.)

Our rental cottage comes with a convenient parking space, just outside the back door:

But there is another one too, if you prefer to arrive by car. It’s at the end of the little bridge, just past the heron.

Happy MMXXII

Today, I.I.MMXXII, we visited Mevagissey, never having been there before, and found it a really delightful spot to start the New Year (though many of its normal attractions were, of course, closed today).

Here’s a quick view of what we saw.

(Also available here, and there’s a 360 panorama here.)

A Traditional Tesla Blessing

My friend Gareth, hearing that I was about set off for a long journey across the country in my electric car, wished me well. “Bon Voyage”, he said, “and may all your supercharges be 100kW+”.

This kind thought prompted me to do some serious research into other traditional travellers’ blessings. After weeks of diligent studies in the library of Trinity College Dublin, I came across a previously-unknown fragment, hidden between the pages of an old vellum manuscript. On being translated from the Gaelic and converted into unicode, it reads roughly as follows, and I’d like to offer it to all my readers as my best wishes for you all in 2022:

“May the road rise up to meet you
And may you regenerate efficiently on the way back down.
May the sun not blind your autopilot cameras,
And the rain fall soft on your wiper sensors.
Until we meet again…
Wherever this sat-nav chooses to take us.”

My favourite cashpoint (ATM) machine

We’ve spent the last few days in our favourite part of North Norfolk, and one of the places we visited was the old priory at Binham.

Just next door to it is a dairy farm.

We’ve been here before, but, since we last visited, the enterprising farmer has opened a wonderful shop.

And I call it wonderful, despite the fact that it has no staff and contains only a few vending machines. But these are refrigerated machines, that contain fresh produce from this and other nearby farms. One is full of cheeses, and I can confirm that all the ones we bought are very good.

Also there is a dispenser of fresh, unpasteurised milk: bring your reusable bottle and top up from the machine. (Pictures on the dairy’s site here.)

But amidst all of this wonderful stuff, there was also a glimpse of the past, or perhaps the future. Remember those things called coins, which we used to need for buying things, but which are now only used as tokens for remote car parks?

Well, here, you can pay £5 with your contactless card, phone or watch, and get £5-worth of them: a £2 and three £1 coins in a little bag. I thought that was great!

Oh, and the yoghurt is truly excellent too.

Transport tribulations

Two quick random thoughts this morning related to cars…

The UK’s petrol stations are having supply problems, because there aren’t enough lorry drivers. (There’s a training and testing backlog as a result of Covid, and many drivers departed for better conditions elsewhere post-Brexit.) So, because some places are running out, people are panic-buying, and the pumps are emptying faster than they can be refilled.

Having driven electric vehicles for the last six years now, I’m able to take a more detached view of this, but I’m interested that, amidst the discussions of drafting in the army etc, I haven’t heard much talk of simply putting the prices up dramatically and temporarily. That, after all, is the usual way of regulating demand to match supply. I guess the problem is that fossil fuel is seen as an essential supply, so you are deemed to be disproportionately penalising the poor if you put the price up for everybody.

But, if many customers are just buying more than they need in the short term, I wonder if petrol pump manufacturers might now look at software updates to allow more flexible pricing should this happen again. For example, imagine that your first 20 litres were at the normal price, and anything over that cost twice as much. Would that work? Comments welcome below.

OK, second transport-related note for the day. I’m generally a fan (though an infrequent user) of services like Uber and Lyft, and we also have a decent local taxi service around here (who have had to get their act together in recent years as a result of the modern competition and so have things like a pretty-decent app too).

But I’ve never bought into the idea that car ownership will soon be a thing of the past and that we’ll all soon just summon vehicles at need, whether driven by humans or robots. Yes, we’ll see more of that happening eventually, but I suspect they’ll take the form of a large number of small cheap autonomous electric pods hanging around near the village green and in the supermarket car park, to be summoned quickly and at low cost. And that’s a few years away yet.

In the meantime, therefore, I was interested in this study from Carnegie Mellon which suggests that ridesourcing options like Lyft, Uber and your local taxi company may not be the best solution for society. The abstract:

On-demand ridesourcing services from transportation network companies (TNCs), such as Uber and Lyft, have reshaped urban travel and changed externality costs from vehicle emissions, congestion, crashes, and noise. To quantify these changes, we simulate replacing private vehicle travel with TNCs in six U.S. cities. On average, we find a 50–60% decline in air pollutant emission externalities from NOx, PM2.5, and VOCs due to avoided “cold starts” and relatively newer, lower-emitting TNC vehicles. However, increased vehicle travel from deadheading creates a ∼20% increase in fuel consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions and a ∼60% increase in external costs from congestion, crashes, and noise. Overall, shifting private travel to TNCs increases external costs by 30–35% (adding 32–37 ¢ of external costs per trip, on average). This change in externalities increases threefold when TNCs displace transit or active transport, drops by 16–17% when TNC vehicles are zero-emission electric, and potentially results in reduced externalities when TNC rides are pooled.

The abstract even has an elevator-pitch graphic:

So the quick summary, which I guess is reasonably obvious: to benefit society, use a train, bus, or bike rather than a taxi-type service… or even your own car, especially if it doesn’t use that dinosaur juice that everyone else is queuing up to buy.

Climate change

We’re on holiday this week, renting a cottage in a ridiculously pretty village in the Cotswolds (Bisley, near Stroud). After spending almost all of the last year and a half in East Anglia, it’s lovely to get back to a place with some proper hills!

For the first half of the week, we had temperatures more reminiscent of southern Italy, and sought out shady spots in which to enjoy a cool glass of rosé.

This mediterranean feeling was enhanced by the fact that many of the local shops close at 2pm. (They just don’t reopen after the siesta!).

We relished the woodland stretches of our walks…

Hawkley wood

…as well as the breezes that can best be found on top of high Roman forts.

On an excursion to the Severn Estuary, we lunched at a seafood cafe while watching boats bobbing on the sparkling water of the marina, and then enjoyed a very refreshing G&T sorbet at the end of the beautifully-restored Clevedon Pier.

And then yesterday the weather changed, and we had some downpours of which East Anglia is not normally capable, and gently-falling mists at other times. We still managed to greatly enjoy a visit to Sudeley Castle. Recommended in any weather, and if you go, don’t miss the Pheasantry.

We’re definitely back in England now, though… and that’s also rather nice.

This is also the first longish trip in years where I haven’t had my laptop with me. My new iPad with its attached keyboard is exceedingly capable and I can basically do everything I want with it… but some things involve a bit more friction. (Though I imagine most of that is just a matter of habit.) So I haven’t been processing many of the images from my decent camera, for example; most of the pictures here are just snaps taken with my phone.

Well, except this one. My selfie stick isn’t quite this long. This requires a camera with propellors.

Clevedon Pier

The sound of bubbles

Late last summer we were in Cornwall and spent a delightful day on the Helford river in a boat we rented for the purpose. It had a motor, which was very convenient, but having driven an electric car for the last 6 years, I was very conscious again of just how much noise a combustion engine makes, especially when it’s in the form of an outboard sitting right behind you. Since that day, I’ve been desirous of an electric-powered boat.

Well, today we were able to try out a couple of recent purchases. Our new vessel, Tiddler, is an inflatable that comes somewhere between a RIB tender and an inflatable kayak — and we paired it with an ePropulsion electric outboard, which is a marvellous thing that can be put in the back of the car without any risk of petrol spills. In fact we can just about get the boat, the pump, the engine, the battery and the oars in the boot of our saloon car without needing to fold the seats down.

It took some research to find a combination that would do that, but I was keen to try because it turns out that Teslas are ridiculously dependent on their very low drag coefficient for their range, and doing reckless things like putting something on a roof-rack or towing it behind has quite an impact, so keeping things inside is a good idea if you can.

Anyway, we had a rather idyllic but high-tech day, zooming from our house to the little harbour just over an hour away, along a highway that took us almost all the way, so the car did the vast majority of the driving. Then pottering around the estuary mostly in sunshine and mostly in silence, mooring near a famous waterside pub that we knew to serve excellent fish and chips, and then heading back home the same way. This simultaneously proved two things to my satisfaction: firstly, that most forms of transport can be improved with the addition of a good battery, and secondly, that despite all this technology there’s still nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

Marsh-wiggles

On the North Norfolk coast, you get these fabulous beaches.

Wonderful places to walk, though you may have to cover some distance at low tide if you actually want to see the sea! You can see how we had to fight our way through the crowds yesterday to find a space to launch the drone!

Between this beach and the car park, however, are salt marshes, which are also fascinating, and I’ve photographed them before, and more than once, from ground level. But the patterns and the scale start to become apparent when you can get a bit higher up.

That’s the path we took to walk out to the beach — the car park is where the brown meets the green — and it’s the path we should have taken to walk back.

(I’ve uploaded full-resolution photos too, so if you click on the pictures, you should be able to see rather more details, if your browser lets you zoom in. Can you see the bridge?)

We tried to find an alternative route back, an approach which had worked in the past here. But the marshes are always changing; you can think you’re almost at your destination, only to come suddenly upon a deep muddy trench that will give you no choice but to backtrack and lose the gains you’d made in the last 20 minutes.

It’s like a maze, but with more leaping. Don’t try it if the sun is going down!

There are some lovely spots where the marsh meets the beach.

But it’s the wiggly lines that I like the most.

You can perhaps see the same bridge in this picture: about three-quarters of the way up, in the middle. There used to be a couple more bridges over some of the tributaries, but I haven’t seen them on recent visits.

So I do wonder how the owners of those little boats get to them! At the moment, at least, what they’re sitting on is not nice dry sand, even if you can find your way there.

It’s a lovely and unusual spot.

Now, the real question is… who saw the title above and thought of Puddleglum?

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser