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Guest: Nelly Thomas
What does the future hold? From electric vehicles, to robots, self-driving cars and getting your Wi-Fi from space, what are some of today’s most promising technologies and what role will they have in tomorrow’s world? In this episode, Nelly Thomas – comedian, broadcaster, podcaster and author – and host Val Quinn contemplate the changes ahead and discuss how these advances in technology can benefit us and how close the future actually is!
Be Connected is an Australian Government Initiative developed by the Department of Social Services, the eSafety Commissioner and Good Things Foundation Australia. Be Connected builds the digital skills, confidence, and online safety of all Australians with engaging online learning resources, and a network of over 3,500 community organisations to support them to thrive in a digital world.
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[Val] So many of our family friends with kids with disabilities, adults with disabilities who cannot drive. This would offer so much autonomy to them and control over their lives that they don't have now. And that's extremely exciting.
[Val] Hello, and welcome to the Be Connected podcast. I'm Val Quinn, and I'm a technology commentator, broadcaster and publisher, and your host of the Be Connected podcast. So what does the future hold? From battery technology that powers our homes and electric vehicles, to robots, self-driving cars, and home internet connections from space. How are some of today's most promising technologies progressing, and what role will they have in tomorrow's world? Well, returning to the Be Connected podcast to explore this with us is Nelly Thomas. So Nelly's a comedian, an author, a podcaster, and radio presenter. And, well, I guess we didn't talk about enough tech last time, so you're back for more.
[Nelly] Well, it's obviously my area of expertise, Val. Being an almost 50-year-old woman who really is still stuck on email, this is my jam.
[Val] You know, I've been mad for cars since I was a kid, and the advances in electric vehicle and battery technology is really exciting. So in a seemingly short amount of time, we now have batteries in cars that allow them to travel up to 350 kilometres on a single charge, which is really good. So let's kick off our look into the future by revisiting the past. Nelly, what do you know about the history of electric vehicles?
[Nelly] I mean, one of the things that blew my mind when looking into this is that electric cars first appeared in the 1880s. 1880s.
[Val] Yeah, is that right.
[Nelly] Not 1980s. In the UK and the US, they could go up to 25Ks an hour. They could carry up to six people, but the combustion engine and petrol, you know, were more convenient and easier to produce and all the rest of it. So that's how we ended up with petrol cars. But the technology has been around for a long time, but it's really accelerated, hasn't it? Probably in the last decade.
[Val] It absolutely has, but isn't that interesting? Like there was a fork in the road, so to speak, way back then where we could have gone petrol, we could have gone electric. And we obviously went the way that we did and the petrol engine was so refined over time and became so much more efficient, but it was amazing to see what the battery, sort of battery our electric motors would be like today if that were the case.
[Nelly] Surely, there will be a point in which the battery life extends well beyond 350Ks. You know, in the same way as the first computer I had would've been able to hold less than my iPhone.
[Val] Oh yeah, they absolutely are.
[Nelly] I would also say as someone who, I took up one of those schemes through the local council to get solar panels.
[Nelly] Which has been fantastic. So my power bills are, I don't know, $30 a month or something even with kids. So the idea of being able to utilise my solar panels and charge a car instead of buying petrol, even just financially, let alone environmentally, is a huge tick in the other column.
[Val] Oh, look, I mean, this is the dream. And given the price of electricity, as well as the price of petrol, I just love the idea where you have solar panels on your roof that charges your electric car. So you really don't even need to be connected to the grid. You can drive around on this charge. And even because the batteries in a car are so large, they can actually power your house or serve as a backup battery for when you need extra electricity too. So during a power outage, for example, your car can actually keep the power on in your house, which is a really nice little feature too.
[Val] So to be clear, your car battery, let's say your power goes out, your car battery can run your dishwasher, can run your heater...
[Val] That's right. ...can run your electric oven, whatever it is, or even in other times when you've got excess power storage, you'll be reducing your power bills off your car battery.
[Val] That's right. It is an amazing world.
[Nelly] Oh, Val, can I show off? Because it's very rare I'm able to do this in this context. You're talking about multidirectional power, aren't you?
[Val] I am, I'm talking about multidirectional power. That is impressive. You know what I mean. So yeah, that's where the power can flow two ways. It can be sent to a battery and stored there, or it can take it from the battery back in. And with houses these days too, you can also get, for example, Tesla, which makes batteries, they have a power wall, which is a big battery that you put in your house or solar energy gets stored there for when you need it later. Or it can go to your car or all over the place. So it's pretty handy.
[Nelly] Yeah, indeed. Now, I've got a question for you because when I think about all of this sort of technology in cars, I think "Jetsons", I think flying cars, I think autonomous cars, I think, will I have to drive, will my stuff be delivered, can my kid drive themselves to school? Like how far away are we from this?
[Val] Well, we are sort of most of the way there. So with autonomous or self-driving cars, there's sort of a rating right now where there's different levels of autonomy. Level one means that it might stay in a lane instead of driving out of it. Whereas a level five means a car can completely drive itself, doesn't even have a steering wheel. It can go about a whole day's worth of driving around. And that's where we're trying to get to is this level five autonomy. So I think the most advanced EVs have maybe level three or level four, but there's a lot of interest in moving that up to level five, but there's also a lot of regulation because, you know, governments aren't just gonna let these cars drive themselves around.
[Val] And the whole benefit here is about safety. You know, the World Health Organisation estimates there are about 1.35 million people who die annually from traffic accidents. And because autonomous cars use computers that can react in fractions of a second compared to what we do, they should save lives, thousands and thousands of lives every year.
[Nelly] But Val, you and I both know, myself included, and I'm sure you included, humans are not rational. And the idea of sitting in a vehicle that doesn't have a steering wheel or a brake that I'm not in control of in traffic in a city or even probably more so out on the open road, makes me feel unsafe even if that feeling's irrational. So how do you think we're gonna get around that?
[Val] Well, I don't think I'd feel safe in an autonomous vehicle with no steering wheel yet either, but believe it or not, this is where the whole sort of industry is heading. The idea is that once a car can drive around all day, why even own a car at all? Why not just use a fleet of what they call robotaxis, which drive around, they pick people up, they drop them off. So it's changing the whole idea of even owning a car, because if you can just get one of these, pretty much at any time using an app on your phone and it takes you where you need to go, there's just no point in having your own vehicle. And there's even opportunities for people to make money because if you buy a car when you're not using it, it can go out, drive itself around, pick people up, drop them off. So there's this whole idea too that if you wanted to own a car, you could get it to pay for itself by driving people around when you're not using it. So this just changes the whole game when it comes to owning vehicles.
[Nelly] Hmm. I mean, two thoughts pop into my head. One is, there's, being Australian, maybe it's not Australian specific, but I have friends who cry when they talk about their car. Like that is how much they love their car. The idea, I am not one of those people. I don't even know the brand of my car and I'm not exaggerating. I don't care about cars, but I know some people, the idea of car ownership is deeply, deeply emotional and part of their identity. The other part of me goes, I have a child with a disability. So I see this through a disability lens and goes so many of our family friends with kids with disabilities, adults with disabilities who cannot drive. This would offer so much autonomy to them and control over their lives that they don't have now, and that's extremely exciting.
[Val] Yeah, I think, yeah, for people who might struggle to drive and get around. You know, as we get older, we may not be able to have a driver's licence, but we don't have to lose our independence and our freedom. And actually, it's become far more convenient and less expensive because we don't have to own cars. And then safer because the more autonomous vehicles on the road, the more sort of predictable they're driving is and less erratic a human driver might be, and it actually might make things safer again. And another area too to think about is high risk environments like mining, for example, I mean, right now, Rio Tinto in Western Australia has the largest autonomous fleet in the world where 130 trucks are controlled by a centralised system miles and miles away from their headquarters in Perth. So there's some real advantages there.
[Nelly] That's right, they're already being used and we forget that. I mean, when I talk about the emotional reaction to it, we all know that when, you know, if you're a history buff, when the petrol car was introduced and replaced the horse and cart, there were the same fears that no one will ever want these, no one will ever buy them, they're dangerous, they're death traps, all the rest of it. Obviously, change is hard for humans, but that change, as you said, when there's big companies like Rio Tinto already using them, it's a coming. It's a coming.
[Val] Oh, yeah. It's fascinating to kind of learn how autonomous vehicles are getting better. So right now, Tesla is a very popular EV company and they have probably the best autonomous vehicle technology. So what they're doing is with all the cars that they sold, and there's millions of them around the world, each one of those is actually collecting data about the road conditions, and it's learning how to drive better. So all this data is centralised, and then artificially intelligent computers are analysing that and then teaching the, I guess, the driverless systems how to drive better. So the more cars that are out there, the more information is collected and the better the actual autonomous driving becomes. So over time, it's going to get so good that it really is gonna be as good as most of us, if not much better, because we get fatigued and we do stupid things. We are, younger drivers are inexperienced. So we're gonna see a real improvement there. And another thing I love about autonomous vehicles too is imagine trucking and how it's gonna change that because trucks usually have to drive a long way. Drivers are fatigued, they're on the motorway, most of it. So if you can imagine, I know it sounds a bit scary with big trucks on the road that don't have drivers, but I think that's gonna make a big difference to transporting goods across the country.
[Nelly] I think it could make a huge difference. And same as you say with moving goods right across the country within cities and so on. The only, there is part of my brain though going, "Oh, those poor people are not gonna have a job anymore." You know, and this is always the problem when we start talking about things like robotics, for example. And now, we've got things that can fold your laundry. We've got, like I have a robotic pool cleaner. You know, there will be a time where you have a robot that can come in and cook you an egg. And all of these things offer great benefits, again, if I put a disability lens on, they could be incredibly liberating for a range of people, but there's always in the back of my mind going, "What about people's jobs?"
[Nelly] You know, what about, where's that truck driver gonna work?
[Val] Yeah, but that's a good point. And yeah, when it comes to robotics in the home, you know, I just installed a new robotic vacuum cleaner. I just plugged it in, used the app, and I let it map my floor and vacuum my floor, and it didn't get stuck anywhere, and it covered everything. And I have to say, I was so impressed where the technology is. But yeah, that's just the beginning. Lots more there.
[Nelly] Ah, it's mind blowing. I actually saw one of those probably almost 10 years ago. So one of my best friends was the late great disability advocate, Stella Young, who many of you will know from her work on the ABC and TED Talks and things. And she had one of those. And again, in that sort of disability space or if you have mobility issues or you're elderly or whatever, you can't get around with a conventional vacuum cleaner or clean the bath or do various things. And it was a game changer, absolute game changer for her. I could, I'm a dog lover. We have two dogs. So I'm strongly considering getting one of those robot vacuum cleaners 'cause I vacuum every day.
[Nelly] And that vacuum cleaner can get under the bed and it can get under your couch and do a better job than I can.
[Val] And it can also mop the floors as well. So it knows when it's on a hard surface. It uses this little mop attachment and off it goes. And I tried out a robotic lawnmower and it cut my lawn when I was testing and reviewing that. And there's even, there's one called FoldiMate, which is a home robot that it actually can fold all of your laundry in four minutes. If you could imagine that, like I absolutely hate folding laundry.
[Nelly] Do you?
[Val] So you know, yeah.
[Nelly] Oh, see, Val, I love folding laundry and I could fold a load of laundry in four minutes. I like that one a lot less.
[Val] But how about this one? There's a robot called Flippy that made burgers at a Californian restaurant chain. And it used thermal sensors to tell when a burger was cooked. So Flippy did this job so well that the human coworkers couldn't assemble the burgers as quickly to keep up with it.
[Nelly] Well, and again, this is why I'm in two minds. I mean, I grew up, I worked in a fast food restaurant for five years as a teenager. You know, that's how I earned my pocket money and saved up to go to uni and all of those sorts of things. So-
[Val] But I think working at The Burger Joint as a teenager is almost a rite of passage. And I don't know if we should miss that experience.
[Nelly] I don't either.
[Val] But look, you're right. You know, the number of robots worldwide could be 20 million by 2030 and they could take up to 51 million jobs in the next 10 years. That's the stats I have in front of me.
[Nelly] So Val, what sort of jobs do you think won't be able to replace by robots? 'Cause I sort of immediately think, you know, in the caring profession, surely, a robot can't replace, for example, I don't know, you come out of surgery and a nurse holds your hand and makes you feel better. Like what are the jobs that we're gonna need humans to do? Podcasting, clearly.
[Val] Yes. Well, let's hope that the AIs out there don't figure out how to podcast, but things like scientists, lawyers, unfortunately, writers, graphic designers, psychiatrists, CEOs, those ones are in a safe place. But the ones that could be replaced are customer service people, bookkeepers, couriers and drivers like we're mentioning, lots of manufacturing, receptionists, even like people in retail that might help you find something or get information about something. And believe it or not, soldiers and doctors, which is...
[Val] a little bit staggering.
[Nelly] Hmm. So Val, we're talking about like all this sort of robotic technology and driverless vehicles and I've got a "Jetsons" future flashing before my eyes. And yet at the same time, I think, I can't even get my broadband to be consistent in a day. You know what I mean? Like I keep changing broadband providers trying to find this Australian Nirvana of a consistent, fast broadband 'cause we rank what? 68th in the world for broadband speeds. I don't know what we rank in terms of dropouts, but at my place, it's pretty high. So how are we gonna correct that?
[Val] Well, yeah, that's a good point. We really need the technology to connect everything together too and for it to be fast. You know, our speeds, the data speeds that we receive information are about a third of what Americans enjoy. So yeah, and people in the outback can't really get the internet at all. The NBN is being upgraded to fibre for more of it than what it was before. There's a lot of copper in the network, and that will improve the speeds. But you know, this is about putting cables in the ground and it really does take time. And also, you've probably heard of 5G and that's the, it's the fastest version of mobile phone technology. And it really is fast. It's actually a lot faster than what the NBN currently is. And surprisingly, our 5G is the fastest in the world. You know, it's got a range of about 500 metres. So that means that it needs a lot of towers to be built to provide good coverage for this sort of the highest, fastest 5G. So it makes sense in cities and stuff, but not so much in remote regions.
[Val] So what I've actually been really excited about is satellite internet because satellites can reach pretty much the hardest to reach areas of all where there's no cables in the ground and there's no cell towers. And a guy named Elon Musk, who you might have heard of, he's really into something called Starlink. And that's a satellite constellation of thousands and thousands of satellites. So he actually wants to roll out 42,000 of them into space. And that basically will mean that the entire globe will have access to the internet. It's pretty staggering what we're talking about here.
[Nelly] Yeah, well, I mean, that's interesting because, I think, when you say like it can be difficult to get remote access. I mean, that's clearly true, but I think, as I said, I live in Melbourne, we have a caravan about one and a half hours from Melbourne, which you would hardly call remote, and we cannot get internet there in that, and that is in a town. I think the issue of the broadband is really gonna hold back public confidence in moving forward with things like robotics and even electric vehicles. Because for most people who are not tech savvy, this is all lumped into one. And when you sit there and think, I can't even download my email on my phone and I'm in a town, how am I going to run my car? Or how is that robot gonna flip those burgers? So it feels like something urgent. Do you think the Elon Musk idea has got legs?
[Val] Oh, I absolutely do. And it's actually, it's here right now and it covers more than half of Australia. And what makes it so revolutionary is that the satellites are, they're in something called low earth orbit, and that means it takes less time for the signals to get up there and back down again. So the kind of internet that Starlink provides is not only really fast, there's barely any delay. And that means that things like autonomous cars and other robots can get a really quick signal so they can actually use it to drive around and navigate and things like that. Whereas, traditional satellite internet isn't fast enough to allow that type of stuff. But more importantly, basically, the reason why Starlink can exist is because Elon owns a rocket company. The cost of launching a rocket a week is, like with NASA doing it, it's over a billion dollars per launch. Well, with Elon Musk and his reusable rockets that come back and land after they go up to space, it's a few million dollars. And that's why he's creating this incredible constellation.
[Nelly] And so in sort of lay terms, does that mean is Starlink the equivalent of like a Telstra or an Optus or a TPG or like it's an internet company?
[Val] Yeah, Starlink is an internet company, but it's meant for, not so much for people in cities, it's meant for people who want to take their RV out into the bush and have a connection while they're driving and when they get there. Or remote communities, schools that are out in the bush. It's also, airlines are now signing up to use it. Meaning that you'll get like fast, high-quality internet when the plane is flying for the entire, all the passengers on it. Whereas right now, when you're in a plane, sometimes you get Wi-Fi, but it's not very good and it's not very good when you're flying internationally. Well, for example, Alaska Airlines is the first to sign up and there's gonna be a lot more. It can be on boats as well, big ships. You know, if you're on a cruise, you can now have really, really good internet. So Starlink's changing the way internet is accessible to the entire world. And you have to get a dish, like a little satellite dish, and it has to be able to see the sky to receive it. But then yeah, you have your dish and you can take it with you or you can put it on the top of your house and off you go.
[Nelly] It just blows my mind that this isn't more widely known. Like if I wasn't doing this podcast, I never would've heard of this. And I have constant discussions with friends with internet frustrations and trying different providers and there being no solution, and never have I heard of this, ever.
[Val] Yeah, well, it's not finished yet, but it works in the state that it's currently in as long as you have the satellites sort of near you. And like I said, about half of Australia does mostly. I think the Northern half is the one that doesn't have as good coverage, but this is what I love. It kind of helps complete the dream. So imagine this. You've got your house in a nice country space, somewhere out in the bush. You've got your solar panels on the roof. You've got your electric car in the garage, and then you've got your Starlink dish on the top. And that's it, you've got your high speed internet. You've got your own energy. You can drive your car without using petrol. That's the dream for me. I'd love to do that.
[Nelly] That dream sounds pretty good. I would also add that your driverless car can drive to your favourite restaurant in a nearby town or city-
[Val] Oh yeah.
[Nelly] and bring back the food that you like so that you can actually have take away and so on. But look, there's so many pluses and minuses to all of it. For me, in general, it's moving forward. I try and embrace technology. It stresses me out. It really does. Like I'm not comfortable with the pace of change, but I'm really trying to embrace it and look for the positives. See, I love that vision.
[Val] Yes, I agree.
[Val] I'll tell you, we've really covered a lot of ground here from robots to autonomous vehicles to Starlink satellites. You know, there's just so much to talk about, Nelly, but I really appreciate your company today while we explore where technology's going and what the future might look like.
[Nelly] Oh, my absolute pleasure. I mean, there's so many things that I will be thinking about in my insomniac stupor in the middle of the night, but the first and foremost one will be proper Wi-Fi. For an Australian, that is like hitting the jackpot. So I'm gonna look into it.
[Val] Just give Elon Musk a call and he'll sort you out.
[Nelly] And, you know, I will.
[Val] So thanks for joining us for the Be Connected podcast, and really appreciate Nelly for jumping on board and sharing her knowledge with us.
[Nelly] Thanks for having me.
[Val] It's my pleasure. And if you like what you've heard, please subscribe to receive all of the latest episodes and leave a review to help others find us. And remember to visit the show notes for more information on anything we've covered here today, including links and other useful materials. For more about today's subject and to discover other great topics, go to www.beconnected.esafety.gov.au. That's www.beconnected.esafety.gov.au. I'm Val Quinn, and I look forward to your company next time.
Be Connected is an Australian government initiative developed by the Department of Social Services, the eSafety Commissioner, and Good Things Foundation Australia. Be Connected builds the digital skills, confidence, and online safety of all Australians with engaging online learning resources and a network of over 3,500 community organisations to support them to thrive in a digital world.