Big Trucks

I’m goin’ out on the highway

listen to them big trucks whi-ine

White Freightliner

Won’t you steal away my mind

–Townes Van Zandt (“White Freightliner Blues”)

Freightliner is an Oregon company now owned by Daimler Trucks. You’ve seen the tractors out there alongside the Kenworths, Macks, Peterbilts, and such, hauling trailers up and down the interstates. This is big business: $700 billion in 2017, almost 80% of the nation’s freight value. In physical terms that’s almost 11 billion tons of cargo or 70% of the domestic market.

We are all dependent on these machines. The industry likes to say if you got it, a trucker brought it. And they are right.

But that “big truck whine” might sound quite a bit different these days. Freightliner has a line of natural gas-powered haulers, for example, and they are also introducing two all-electric models, the eCascadia and the eM2 106. That guy with the space company gets all the hype, but he’s not, by any means, the only player in the market.

Obviously there are significant limitations. Electric heavy-duty rigs can only do short hauls of a few hundred miles. But according to the Bureau of Transportation Studies:

Approximately 50 percent of the weight and 37 percent of the value of goods were moved less than 100 miles between origin and destination in 2015. 

So there is a need for this kind of vehicle. In an increasingly urbanized society, reducing noise and pollution in densely-populated areas will improve the quality of life for the citizenry. The exciting thing is it that this isn’t some wannabe technology, there are actual deliveries happening. Costs will have to come down, of course, but I expect we’ll see electric semis operating in an around cities within the next few years.

The diesel engine is a marvelous invention and one that dominates our transportation sector, and for good reason. Diesels can be twice as efficient as ordinary gasoline automotive motors and are unsurpassed in torque, pulling power, and longevity. And they are becoming increasingly cleaner while maintaining a fuel flexibility that gas engines can’t match.

But EVs are here to stay and demand for them will continue to increase. Done right, the shifting of some of our transport needs to electricity can result in a net overall reduction of chemical pollutants. A natural gas-fired power plant can produce electrical energy for consumption with great efficiency and with significantly reduced emissions. Add in solar, hydro, and even nuclear and the percentage of “clean” power in the grid can continue to increase. We all benefit from that.

I wonder if Townes Van Zandt would still stand out on the highway, though. That Freightliner e-whine is probably more like music to my ears than to his!

Electrosmog

The latest thing in telecomm these days is 5G. This is the new standard in digital cellular networks and the 2019 roll-out is here. AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile are all either deploying 5G technology already or planning to by the end of the year.

“Faster” and “better” are the two words broadband users care most about, although I suspect “cheaper” still plays well. The techies tell us 5G will be faster and better, so who can argue with that?

These folks, it seems. There is resistance to this particularly technology and it is part of a larger concern over electrosmog, that is, excessive and harmful electromagnetic radiation.

Each day we are bathed in sunlight. Sunlight includes invisible waves like infrared (which we feel as heat) and ultraviolet (which cause sunburns and suntans) as well as the familiar rainbow spectrum of colors. All this stuff is electromagnetic (EM) radiation.

High-frequency electromagnetic waves include things like X-rays and gamma-rays which cause cell damage. These are known as “ionizing radiation” because the photons are energetic enough to remove electrons from atoms and molecules, creating ions. Extreme ultraviolet rays are also ionizing, but these have frequencies an order of magnitude higher than the UV in sunlight.

At frequencies lower than that of visible light (and infrared) we have the familiar radio waves and microwaves. Radio waves are very handy because they penetrate walls, thus we can receive radio and TV broadcasts indoors. That also means these waves pass through our bodies! So we are not only bathed in sunlight each day, we are bathed in radio waves as well, and while we can shade ourselves from sunlight we can’t from radio waves.

Radio waves can be enormous: signals from KNBR (680 kHz AM) are over 400 meters high! Microwaves are much smaller, between 1 millimeter and 1 meter. And microwaves can transmit information, just like radio waves, but they are limited by line-of-sight. Radio waves can diffract around barriers, hug the earth as ground waves, or even be bounced off the ionosphere for long-distance communication. Microwaves can’t, and are thus best used in things like wireless networks, garage door openers, radar, and other situations where distances are short.

Some people believe that we are saturating our world with electromagnetic radiation and that this causes health problems. We’ve all seen in our lifetime the spectacular increase in devices that send and receive EM, most particularly in the explosive growth of the mobile phone industry. Add in wi-fi and bluetooth and the huge variety of satellite broadcasts (everything from porn to GPS) and you’ve got a lot more EM radiation than in the good old days of just radio. Thus, electrosmog.

So, is this stuff bad for us? Probably not. After all, we have a living laboratory in front of us every day. By that I mean the human race. We are swimming in a sea of electromagnetism. The earth itself is an electromagnet with north and south poles! We’ve spent our entire lives with all sorts of EM radiation bouncing off us and passing through us. Even people who live near power lines, which create detectable (even with crude devices) EM fields, are no different than people who live further away. They don’t get sicker or have more cancers or anything like that.

So, why all the fuss? Other than the usual skepticism about new-fangled things, I think it is just the nature of the age. We are experiencing a lot of change and that change is happening fast. The rate of change is increasing—we are pressing on the accelerator rather than just maintaining our speed. So we get dizzy and we have to blame it on something, and it can be anything from GMOs to gangsta rap. People, I think, like to be beleaguered victims of a world gone mad, and the 5G phenomenon is tailor-made for that. Our big, evil corporate masters are dictating what goes in our neighborhoods and by golly we are going to fight back!

5G will require a greater number of antennae because of the low power and shorter range but they will be much smaller and more dispersed. Like smart meters, these things will be everywhere, and that ubiquity will only remind us of our helplessness. I suspect, however, that once users get the benefits of an improved service they’ll forget all about them. There was a time when power lines and telephone poles caused fear and alarm. People new to home wiring and electricity often would not stand near outlets for fear that the current would leak out and hurt them.

There are lots of things we encounter every day that present risk. I like to walk, and I have to tell you that many drivers are not very responsive to pedestrians. They often don’t notice them, and when they do they seem inconvenienced by their presence. And don’t get me started on parking lots! Walking is risky business. Driving is, too. Lots of people die or get hurt in vehicle accidents. I like to ski and to ride a mountain bike, and both have caused me significant injuries, yet I continue to take those risks.

There’s been a lot of hollering about vaccines and risk, yet vaccines are tens, hundreds, even thousands of times safer than routine surgeries and other everyday medical procedures. Vaccines are among the most tested substances in human history and the complication rates are vanishingly small, yet we have a vocal minority who insist they are too risky.

All of us on the earth right now have been exposed to ionizing radiation from nuclear tests and other sources of fallout (like Chernobyl). This is all new, our cavemen forbears did not face this risk. Yet, here we are, living and thriving. There’s an old adage worth repeating: it’s the dose that makes the poison. EM radiation, even the low-power non-ionizing stuff from our cellphones, just might be bad for us. In fact, too much of it probably is bad for us, just like too much of most things.

But on the list of risks electrosmog is way down there. I mean waaaaaayyyyyy down there! If the modern world fills you with worry, just remember all those things your mom told you. You know, like eat your vegetables and don’t drink too much and look both ways before crossing. Those will help get you through.