The VW Scandal is growing in intensity and its repercussions are rippling across the globe. It’s widely predicted that the electric vehicle market will get a boost from this diesel disaster. Prius drivers may be feeling smug, but what of electric car makers like Tesla?
Yesterday, the BBC invited me to join the World Service’s Business Matters to discuss the scandal and its implications on the auto industry. Having attended last week’s launch of Tesla’s Model X all-electric SUV – where CEO, Elon Musk emphasized the company’s focus on air quality – I shared my perspective and that of George Blankenship, former Tesla VP, whom I interviewed at the launch.
Host of the BBC’s Business Matters, Fergus Nicoll, asked me:
“Is there schaudenfraude in the U.S. auto industry as VW scrambles?” BBC’s Fergus Nicoll
Here’s a transcript of our interview, edited for length and clarity.
Fergus Nicoll: Thursday is likely to be another painful day for the carmaker, VW. On Capital Hill, its US president and CEO, Michael Horn is scheduled to testify…he’s not the only one in the hot seat. His counterpart in South Korea, local VW boss, Johannes Thammer is due to attend a parliamentary audit in Seoul in about an hour from now. It’s all about the emissions scandal of course…
Let’s get Alison van Diggelen with us from Silicon Valley. Is there schadenfreude in the US auto industry as VW scrambles or is it: there but for the grace of the EPA go we?
Alison van Diggelen: Good to join you Fergus. I think the former. I was at the Model X launch last week in Silicon Valley and Elon Musk referred to it obliquely – about their work on a new air filter and how “air quality is very important” to them. So there is definitely a bit of schadenfreude.
I spoke with George Blankenship, former Tesla VP…he actually addressed the issue of (VW) cheating straight on. We have a clip here:
George Blankenship: I think his (Elon Musk’s) message has always been: the reason he’s doing this is to save the planet. Everything he does rolls up to that. Everything for him, whether you look at SolarCity, Tesla, SpaceX…it’s all about the survival of this planet and the atmosphere is what’s going to make it possible to live here for a long time, or not.
Alison van Diggelen: Any comment…on the VW scandal and their attitude to emissions?
George Blankenship: It’s unfortunate that others feel that they have to do things like that to try to compete. It’s the absolute opposite of what Tesla does…. Tesla comes up with a problem: we can’t get the falcon wing doors to work…we need sonar that goes through metal. They find a solution. It’s unfortunate when another company feels like they have to do something like that, as opposed to taking that same energy that they used to come up with that kind of a solution and put it into a solution that could have done something ground breaking in the car.
Several Steve Jobs allies say the movie portrays him as cruel and inhumane and tried to stop its production. Chrisann Brennan, the mother of Lisa, his first child, witnessed that cruelty. She was marginalized and neglected by Jobs for many years. Last month, she joined me for an intimate Fresh Dialogues interview to share her perspective.
Despite the hardships she endured, Brennan has enormous respect and even forgiveness for Jobs. She says her memoir’s universal message is about the plight of single women and she’d like to see the business world be more family-friendly.
Fergus Nicoll: Whenever a biopic comes out, especially when its subject is not long gone, you better believe there is going to be a noise from those screaming about “Mount Rushmore scale hype” and a counter noise from those complaining that a genius has been traduced. So get ready everybody for Jobs, the Dannie Boyle movie with Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, scheduled for November (US release is Oct 9th).
I’ll toss the ball to Alison, because I know you’ve been talking to somebody with a personal interest in this story – that’s an understatement. Tell us first about expectations for the movie.
van Diggelen: It was shown at the Telluride Film Festival to rave reviews. But I did read a Guardian review that said that you have to be an Apple fan to really enjoy it. So take the reviews with a pinch of salt.
I had the opportunity to interview Chrisann Brennan, Steve Jobs’ first love and the mother of his child Lisa Brennan Jobs…they met in high school in 1972 and they had a very passionate affair. She got pregnant and he denied the paternity and she had a very rough life. He was very miserly about looking after her. She talked to me at length about this very painful time in her life and how he treated her, and yet she does respect him in her way.
Chrisann Brennan: I was interviewed for five hours, they told me I was the emotional heart of that movie. I don’t want to judge Steve because he did what he did, it was fabulous… I like the fact that the (movie) spectrum shows we are different people now. We value different things. We will expose these things because we want to have a dialogue in the world about the whole picture…not just the ‘Mount Rushmore picture’ of people who do well.
Alison van Diggelen: So you can contribute that fully faceted perspective?
Chrisann Brennan: Yes, I do feel that.
Alison van Diggelen: You said “I don’t want to paint me as the victim, and Steve as the villain.” Is there an alternate way you’d like to frame it?
Chrisann Brennan: That will continue to evolve. I survived it…I have more than survived it…I survived him…
Alison van Diggelen: And do you feel that is a victory right there?
Chrisann Brennan: I feel it says if you hold onto the truth, it actually starts to amount to something.
Alison van Diggelen: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
Chrisann Brennan: Oh, yeah…but I couldn’t have. When I was living with Steve and he was showing me his poetry, I really wish I’d taken it to heart more deeply.
Chrisann Brennan: Mm hmm. When I grew up enough to be an adult and understand that 17-year-old, I felt oh. There’s just so much. If we had a chance to talk now, it’d be great…
Alison van Diggelen: What would you ask him?
Chrisann Brennan: I think I would just express some kind of love…
Alison van Diggelen: You would tell him you loved him?
Chrisann Brennan: In some form…
Alison van Diggelen: That’s beautiful…
One last question: what do you feel was Steve’s greatest legacy?
Chrisann Brennan: Yes, he made a technological device that freed people up…but mainly the message is to be who you are. Now a lot of people are running around trying to be like Steve Jobs. They miss the point…it is to individuate enough, to understand what you need to go out and do. He was just a fabulous example of it in so many ways.
Fergus Nicoll: Well that seems, Alison, like an amazingly forgiving person… From what I’ve seen of the movie, this is very much part of the story of the movie. There are some explosive scenes related to this. But it’s always difficult…there have been massive tomes about Steve Jobs, some have been less revelatory than some hoped for, but (Jobs is) a man who appears to tower over Silicon Valley, even in his absence?
Alison van Diggelen: He’s absolutely idolized here and around the world, and in fact a documentary just came out here in the United States: Alex Gibney’s documentary Steve Jobs, the Man in the Machine. Chrisann was interviewed for five hours for that and she talks at length about just how cruel he was to her and yet, she is incredibly forgiving. She has respect for what he’s done, his visionary powers, but she does describe herself as “a modern day Mary Magdalene…Steve saw himself as a Christ figure,” that’s what she wrote to me this week.
Fergus Nicoll: That’s a pretty powerful image…I’m always amazed that we expect the visionary leaders in tech, in industry, in politics to be good guys. Why should that be necessary?
Alison van Diggelen: Well, I think that’s the ideal. What concerns me about the idolization, almost canonization of Steve Jobs, is the fact that young people might think of him as the perfect role model…i.e. the more “jerk-like” they are, the better. And I think that’s a very dangerous role model. I think it’s important that people like Chrisann Brennan speak up to show the contradictions in his life. She wants to get out this universal message about the plight of single mothers and how Steve Jobs made her peripheral, almost invisible and it plays into this bigger question of business attitudes to families and what are our values?
Fergus Nicoll: Alison, who’s the equivalent now…And are there woman poised to achieve such dominance in Silicon Valley?
Alison van Diggelen: The first person who comes to mind is Elon Musk…Females that I would cite are Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg.
And of course there’s Bill Gates. He’s probably going to be canonized for the second half of his career as a philanthropist, not a tech guy.
Fergus Nicoll: There’s a parallel there with Jimmy Carter, the most famous ex-president probably because of what he’s done…and Bill Gates has done the same: an extraordinary first career and then this amazing philanthropic career with his wife Malinda and their many campaigns….
Do you buy that Silicon Valley is a counterpoint to Wall Street (making giving money away popular)?
Alison van Diggelen: I’m delighted to hear that the message is getting out about the generosity of people in Silicon Valley. It’s so easy to point fingers and say that the wealth isn’t being shared. It is, but I’d say, probably not enough.
On the question of behavior of CEOs, there is growing transparency, thanks to social media, 24/7 news coverage. CEOs can’t get away with what they used to. Steve Jobs, if he was doing what he did to Chrisann Brennan today – denying paternity and saying 10% of the (male) US population could be the father of this child – he just wouldn’t get away with that today. The evidence would be there.
Fergus Nicoll: Alison, thanks so much for bringing in the interview for us on the Steve Jobs story.
Alison van Diggelen: My pleasure indeed. Thank you.
Hear the word drone and you’ll likely think of military predator drones: forces of death and destruction. But what about drones as a force for restoration: emergency relief, education or even saving the planet?
van Diggelen: I’m here at the SF Bay Area Maker Faire, a “show and tell” gathering of tech enthusiasts, hobbyists, artists and engineers. You could say I’m here to meet my maker… to explore drones designed not for destruction but to make the world a safer, more egalitarian, greener place. Here’s Adem Rudin, who works at GoogleX.
Rudin: This is Project Wing. We’re doing drones for delivery and our end goal is to deliver anything to anyone, anywhere and do it quickly.
We’re trying to build a platform that people can use in whatever way they can dream up…In 2014, we went to the Outback, near Brisbane and met up with a couple of farmers out there, operated for about a week, delivering bottled water, food, two-way radios…
van Diggelen: Does it have some kind of attachment you can put things in?
Rudin: The package is on the underside and when we want to deliver, we bring the aircraft into a hover and actually winch the package down to the customer waiting on the ground.
van Diggelen: It looks a bit like a stingray…
Rudin: We tried to make it look friendly…unobtrusive and it also is fairly quiet up in the air…
van Diggelen: When you see what’s going on in Nepal…do you see that being a future potential application for this drone?
Rudin: Yes … It would be a very quick, very low cost way to get out, take aerial photographs of disaster areas and deliver emergency supplies directly to people.
van Diggelen: Since this is one of the secretive GoogleX projects, Rudin was unable to give me a timeline for when we might see these Google drones filling our skies.
Audio: sound of bubbles, submarine drone reaching surface, diving down again
van Diggelen: The beauty of Maker Faire is discovering what’s just round the corner. I found Zack Johnson standing by a huge paddling pool operating a submarine drone – about the size of a shoebox.
Johnson: It goes down to about 75 meters and films live video that goes back to the shore and you control it either with an Xbox controller or a USB joystick or with a laptop.
There’s basically two things stopping people becoming Jacques Cousteau. One is price… The other one is know-how.
van Diggelen: Johnson’s DIY kit sells for $900 to a global market. The company supports an international community of users who share their expeditions online.
Johnson: We call it Open Explorer: it’s a web platform for sharing expeditions. There are people who’re using ROVs to look for sunken tombs, buried treasure, marine archaeology, water sampling, coral reef monitoring…
There are some academic applications. Especially regarding coral reefs. That is a big focal point for the environmental movement right now because it’s a great litmus for the health of the ocean.
Six years ago, she founded the first community supported agriculture (CSA) farm in China. Today, organic farming pioneer, Shi Yan and her team serve hundreds of city dwellers in Beijing; and her thriving Shared Harvest Farm has inspired dozens of CSAs across China.
Shi Yan is one of a growing group of farmers in China who are bucking the trend of young workers abandoning agriculture and being drawn to cities like Beijing, one of the world’s largest conurbations. By helping bring young people back to the land and serving the growing demand for sustainable practices and organic food in China, Shi Yan has attracted the attention of major media outlets, NPR and the BBC.
On July 10th, I was invited to join BBC host, Fergus Nicoll on BBC World Service program, Business Matters to interview Shi Yan about her mission; and explore the economic and social drivers for organic produce in China.
Fergus Nicoll: We are going to devote much of the second half of the programme to environmental issues. We’ll hear about Community Supported Agriculture in China and our guest Shi Yan is with us from Beijing…Let’s welcome Alison van Diggelen of Fresh Dialogues. Alison, we’re going to leave your microphone open.
Alison, as anybody who knows her website Fresh Dialogues, is a professional asker of questions. Alison: jump in when you fancy and we’ll make this a three-way discussion.
Shi Yan, tell us a bit about Shared Harvest…and the concept of community supported agriculture.
Shi Yan: Our farm Shared Harvest is located in Tongzhou district of Beijing. Right now we have about 15 hectares of land we rented for 15 years. Most of our produce is vegetables and we also have almost 2000 chickens and 50 pigs. Every week we deliver our produce directly to our members. CSA is a way that links the farmers and the consumers directly and we build the trust between the consumers and the farmers. Right now we have about 600 families in Beijing; most of their food comes from our farm.
Fergus Nicoll: Is that entirely organic or are you allowed to sneak in some pesticides or herbicides?
Shi Yan: Actually we call our produce “organically produced” because we don’t have the organic certification but we don’t use any chemical fertilizer and pesticides.
Fergus Nicoll: What about the market for that, because in different countries the market for organic food has waned and grown depending on economic circumstances…a growing middle class wants a purer production mechanism…even if it’s not organic with a capital “O.”
Shi Yan: In China in the last seven years, organic agriculture is growing pretty fast because of issues related to food safety, environmental issues. When I started in 2009…very few consumers knew about the concept of CSA, but right now a lot of people in Beijing know this model.
Fergus Nicoll: A lot of people who buy organic face criticism from people who don’t. They’ll say: I go to the supermarket and I see a box of six perfectly produced apples, they all look 100% identical like clones, selling for “X” and next to that are organic apples that are kind of lumpy, they’re all different shapes and they cost “X plus” Do you ever get that complaint?
Shi Yan: If you order the vegetables from a CSA farm (in China) the price is about 2/3rds of the price in the supermarket. Right now, consumers care more about the food quality rather than the price. A lot of them are rethinking our food system because if you only look at the appearance of the fruit or vegetables…a lot of food (in non-organic farms) is wasted because of their appearance.
Alison van Diggelen: I’m curious about the drivers in China. Do you have a feel for your consumers…Is the impact of pesticides etc. on the environment is that a major driver? Or would you say the main drivers are food scares and the quality of produce?
Shi Yan: At the beginning the food safety issues…a lot of food scandals happened and people started looking for healthy food. But later they found the deep reason is not the market or the food itself, but a lot of problems happened in the rural (areas)…food comes from the village and in last 10 years, fewer and fewer young people stay in the village. Right now most of the farmers growing the food are above sixty years old, struggling for their livelihood. Can they really take the responsibility of producing healthy food? It’s a big problem.
Fergus Nicoll: Can I ask you about “labor shifting” consumers actually doing the farming themselves? Because they’re extremely motivated but may not know the best way to do it.
Shi Yan: We have two models: one part you can order our produce, we will deliver to your door. (Or) you can rent a piece of land: 30 square meters of land, as a farm. Every week you can come to your farm, grow your own food.
Alison van Diggelen: I’m curious about how you’re delivering your food. Are you using electric cars, non polluting cars, delivery trucks?
Shi Yan: We use conventional small vans.
Fergus Nicoll: In the US, if I go and see friends in Davis, I know when we go down to the farmers market, there’ll be really good stuff. This is relatively well established, certainly in California?
Alison van Diggelen: Absolutely, yes, CSAs are very established here, since the 1980’s. Here’s an interesting anecdote for you, Fergus: I’ve been a subscriber to a local CSA called Planet Organics and just this month they’ve had to close up shop after 19 years. They’ve been squeezed out by major players. Walmart is getting into the organic food business. Wholefoods has been there a while. It’s becoming so mainstream that it’s hard for these CSAs to compete.
Fergus Nicoll: So they’re getting priced out of the market…
There’s nothing that Silicon Valley likes better than a big problem to solve. But with California’s historic drought and mandatory water restrictions in place, can Silicon Valley tech alone rescue the Golden State from going dusty brown?
The BBC invited me to share another Letter from Silicon Valley about Tech in the Time of Drought. Smart water meters, drone surveillance and soil monitoring etc. can help save water, but Californians are also leveraging tech to shame their neighbors – and celebrities – into saving water. Not surprisingly, #droughtshaming is trending on Twitter. This week, actor Tom Selleck has been sued for stealing water from a public fire hydrant in LA.
The BBC’s Manuela Saragosa hosted the show. Here’s her introduction:
Saragosa: One of California’s biggest problems at the moment is drought. So can Silicon Valley’s technology sector rescue the state from going dusty brown? Alison van Diggelen is there, and sent this report:
BBC Letter From Silicon Valley by Alison van Diggelen: Tech in the Time of Drought
In January, Bill Gates famously took a sip of water that minutes before was raw human sewage. As the cameras clicked in Washington State, he drank and smiled like the Cheshire cat. Eeewwww, you’re probably saying, but let’s dive a little deeper into what this innovation means.
Gates’s smile speaks volumes about “tech in the time of extreme drought.” Not only did Gates give the ultimate endorsement for a waste treatment startup he’s backing, it demonstrates an important Silicon Valley mantra: for every problem we face, there’s a tech solution. The bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity.
And right now, California is in its 4th year of serious drought. Experts are calling our water crisis “the new norm.” And it’s part of a global problem. This year, for the first time, the World Economic Forum ranked water crises the number one danger in its Global Risk Report, above nuclear threats and global pandemics.
Silicon Valley startups are scrambling to find solutions: from Watersmart, a software management system that encourages water conservation; to mOasis, a soil additive that maximizes crop harvests with minimal water. Plans for massive desalination plants are also moving ahead.
Since farmers use 80% of California’s water, tech solutions that impact agriculture are especially valuable.
But tech solutions can’t do it alone.
I recently visited the high desert state of New Mexico. As we flew over endless miles of parched land, I wondered, is this the future of California? I toured the Earthship headquarters where they are building radical eco homes, completely off the grid. With 8 inches of rain a year, residents are fanatical about water conservation, and they reuse every drop of water four or five times. Earthship roofs are designed for optimum rain and snow catchment and feed directly into massive holding tanks. They wouldn’t dream of having a bath, never mind using potablewater to flush the loo.
It was a vivid reminder that this crisis requires both low and high tech solutions; and we also need to adjust our mindsets.
A study by UCLA found that wealthier neighborhoods in LA use three times more water than others. A utilities manager in Newport Beach reported that some people – believe it or not – still don’t know that we’re in a drought.
Those with a cavalier attitude to water use in California will be forced to change. Soon, water districts can be fined up to $10,000 a day if they don’t reduce water use by 25%, on average. Residents here are bracing for a surge in water prices and potential fines. Installing greywater systems and replacing lawns with drought tolerant plants are becoming de rigueur.
As is drought shaming. Californians are using social media to shame their neighbors and target celebrities about wasting water. There’s even a drought shaming app that geo-tags photos so authorities can take action.
Ultimately, Silicon Valley’s tech solutions will help address this water crisis, but California will have to take action on all fronts. By adopting, and experimenting with a firehose of ideas from innovative minds* Silicon Valley could offer lessons for the whole world, as the impacts of climate change and water shortages grow.
*Tesla’s Elon Musk says he’s investigating a water saving solution using California aqueducts. Watch this space for updates.