Misleading Headlines

An article has appeared on the Auto Express website with the title

“Traffic is not a key contributor to air pollution, study finds”

And the summary…

Researchers reveal a 65 per cent reduction in traffic on Scottish roads during lockdown had no significant impact on air pollution.

Like many articles in the press on any number of topics, this should lead calm, rational people ask some obvious questions.

Media outlets don’t tend to lie. They merely tend to quote selective data to support a narrative.

The article doesn’t provide a link to the research. It’s common practice in journalism not to cite primary sources, which instantly arouses suspicion.

However, a Google search for some key words brought me to the page https://www.stir.ac.uk/news/2020/09/lockdown-did-not-reduce-most-harmful-type-of-air-pollution-in-scotland/

This in turn links to the research itself on the British Medical Journal website at https://oem.bmj.com/content/early/2020/09/06/oemed-2020-106659

We now how the same source material to reference, assuming the writer of the Auto Express article made it back that far. Why not just reference the source?

So, these are my thoughts, reading through the text.

Firstly, framing the extent of research is important. Is it localised? Can the conclusions be extrapolated to the wider world?

The abstract in any academic paper is helpful, as it gives us the key takeaway information from the research without delving further in.

So, from the stated objective, this study is confined to Scotland and is framed to nitrogen dioxide and fine particulate matter (FPM) in the months of March and April 2020.

That’s our starting point. Off the top of my head, I know that population density in Scotland is considerably lower than in England, so it’s likely that vehicle usage is considerably lower.

That’s not necessarily important, so long as we’re comparing like for like and not drawing conclusions based on one to the other. Let’s just check population densities.

statista.com reports a population density in 2019 in Scotland of 70 people per square kilometre (the lowest of the UK). England, in comparison, is 432 per square kilometre.

Population density is light in Scotland, ergo traffic density is logically lighter, although I can’t find definitive figures on that, and we can’t consider car ownership alone.

Methodology was to use reference points during the same 31 day period in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020, with mean values used and weather normalisation applied. Here’s the graph. Not convinced by the choice of colours.


My thoughts instantly turn to wondering where these reference points are. I wouldn’t expect a reference point in Skaw, Shetland to show a great variation between 2017 and 2020, whereas a point in central Glasgow might.

The study doesn’t reference the source data for these reference points directly, but does indicate that the data are publicly available on the internet.

So, a bit of Googling brings us to http://www.scottishairquality.scot, which in turn gives us a handy map of reference locations. Interestingly, most are in the more densely populated Scottish Lowlands.

Now, the results do point to “significantly lower” NO2 levels and the Auto Express article does report this too. The results also show that FPM was much lower in 2020 than 2019, but comments on the period in 2019 being an outlier, due to Saharan sand.

And indeed, the data do show little difference in FPM between 2017, 2018, and 2020, when we look at the graph referenced above.

Now, some of my fellow EV advocates may not like that, but they do indeed seem to suggest that outdoor FPM at the sample points in Scotland has declined minimally due to lockdown.

However, we’re not done. The study is careful and responsible in making certain disclaimers and framing the study with regard to Scotland. Except in one important respect:

It references a decline in motor vehicle use across the UK, not Scotland. What was the decline in motor vehicle use in Scotland? Do we know? Remember my earlier comment about comparing like for like?

The study also makes a rather odd jump to include a speculative notion that lockdown may have caused increased exposure to FPM in the domestic environment, on the basis that people spent more time indoors.

I’m not disputing for one moment the risks of exposure to FPM in an indoor environment from, for example, cooking and smoking (where those pollutants exist) and the study references other research in this regard.

But do we know that people confined themselves to the indoor environment any more than they normally would? Lockdown didn’t necessarily confine people to their four walls.

Anecdotally, I know of many who spent time outdoors for their own mental well-being, either alone or with close family. I myself observed a higher number of cyclists on the roads.

But, to cut to the chase, the study concludes that “the impact of reductions in motor vehicle journeys during COVID-19 lockdown restrictions may not have reduced ambient PM2.5 concentrations in some countries.”

PM2.5 = FPM

That word “may” is important. The study is referencing a sparsely populated country in a northern European country. It can not be extrapolated or generalised to the world at large.

So any generalisation by Auto Express or anyone else that “traffic is not a key contributor to air pollution” in the context of the wider world is invalid.

Tesla Grills

I’ve just read an interesting response by Elon Musk of Tesla to the most recent attempt at negative publicity over the Tesla Model S electric car.

I’ve noted with interest the media’s tendency to try to undermine the emergence of electric cars. Nothing surprising there – the media generally concentrate on negative stories. In recent days, I’ve seen them turn their attention to three reported Tesla fires (all of which involved collisions and none of which resulted in serious injury).

What’s going on here? Whilst I don’t ‘do’ conspiracy theories, it’s interesting that the matter of three fires, none of which caused serious injury or death, should attract such widespread media attention against a backdrop of 250,000 petrol car fires in the same period in the USA alone, which led to 1200 serious injuries and over 400 deaths (see linked article above for sources).

Sure, there’s the natural ‘rite of passage’ love of a powerful engine sound and the machismo which fuels the success of the petrol-head attitude on display on Top Gear. I’m sure the fact that Top Gear’s live events are sponsored by Shell would have little bearing on their attitude towards electric cars. OK, I’m being facetious.

Actually, putting aside any such idea of conspiracy and oil company influence, in the case of Top Gear, we may just be dealing with three middle-aged blokes who like the sound, smell, and look of vehicles which are still fundamentally based on early 20th century technology. Their gleeful bashing of electric cars (hideously expensive hydrogen fuel cell Honda Clarity aside) is just a bit of an act. I enjoy Top Gear just as much as most people as a form of entertainment, and I can even put up with their mocking of electric cars, as strange as it is.

But it goes beyond that. There is almost widespread public ridicule about electric cars and any supposed flaws around electric cars appear to be met with glee. Why is this? If the oil companies are controlling the narrative, how are they doing it? I can see how they might feasibly be stuffing large wads of cash into the pockets of politicians and decision-makers, but in terms of controlling the public narrative, which seems very cynical about electric cars… I don’t get it.

I’ve read enough discussions around the Web to know that I’m not imagining this prevalent public cynicism towards electric cars. The majority of comments I read spread myths about electric cars, which have been repeated uncritically and on the basis of misinformation.

Even when they do concede that the days of the internal combustion engine may be numbered, they still seem to suggest that the next logical step would be hydrogen fuel cells – a ludicrous suggestion, although one which oil companies have a vested interest in promoting, because any realistic commercial production of hydrogen requires their involvement in producing the hydrogen (through fossil fuels) and allows them to maintain their grip on the motorist through their network of filling stations. Then there’s the matter of transporting the hydrogen to the pump, the costs and environmental impact of having to do this, the engineering tolerances and physical space required to safely transport hydrogen in the average car versus the not so complicated task of creating a network of fuelling points for battery cars through, erm… the national grid – and being able to refuel one’s car overnight at home – or even during the day, free of charge, through solar PV for example.

No, it strikes me that whatever happens in the short to medium term, the long-term future of vehicles is that they will certainly be powered by batteries, not hydrogen.

By all means, we can ignore that future for now and continue to mock, but we need only consider the current cost of oil, its increasing scarcity, and its usefulness and importance in other industrial processes, to see where things are headed. After all, regardless of where you stand on environmental issues, it takes a strange mind-set to believe that burning an increasingly scarce but useful resource is a sensible thing to do; that’s before we get to into the geopolitical aspects of our requirement for the black stuff.

At the same time, batteries, which are used in all manner of goods, are certain to become more efficient, smaller in form, and longer-lasting, due to both their ubiquitous nature and competition between manufacturers.

Existing electric cars suit 90% of people’s requirements today in terms of daily mileage. The only issue for most people is the current cost of them. I suspect we’ll start to see large uptake of them very soon as the first wave of family cars start to hit the second-hand market.

Elon Musk (and other pioneers like him) are on a mission which goes beyond their own vehicles. Musk doesn’t just want his brand to be a success – he wants electric cars to be a success, and has stated so on several occasions. He won’t be dissuaded from this goal by negative media campaigns, but it would certainly be refreshing if electric cars weren’t held up to a level of scrutiny which goes well beyond that applied to conventional ICE cars.