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GPS bike-share program in China credited with reducing gridlock and smog




The smog hangs thick over Beijing. It’s a brownish haze with a vaguely smoky smell, shrouding lanes of traffic and pedestrians wearing face masks.

The main culprits are nearby steel factories and coal-burning heating plants. But the city’s five million cars add much to the toxic mix, creating air that’s frequently rated “hazardous” by the World Air Quality Index Project.

“Traffic jams don’t just block the streets,” said one woman named Li. “They block the air.”

Now a partial solution may be riding to the rescue on two wheels.

Since the beginning of last year, Chinese cities have been awash with 23 million GPS-equipped bicycles, part of a bike share program that has been credited with changing traffic patterns across the country and reviving a mode of transportation that was fading fast.

Research by the China Institute of Information and Communications Technology (CIICT) revealed that on one day last year, the system logged 70 million riders — three to four rides per bike.

According to mapping industry studies here, the program has reduced inner-city car trips by 7.4 per cent in some areas and 3.8 per cent of total car trips in these cities.

“For years, we thought the way to cut traffic congestion in Beijing was to build more roads and parking lots,” said Zhao Yixin, a planner with the Urban Transportation Institute who advises the city government. “We learned that doesn’t work. There’s always more cars and more traffic.”

“But these bicycles are actually having an impact,” he said.

‘Convenient’ and ‘good for the environment’

This isn’t the first bike sharing project in China. Several years ago, it introduced a variety of dock-based systems, which were rarely used. There weren’t enough bikes or docks, and in cities with upwards of 10 million people, the docks were rarely in places people needed them most.

Chinese cities have witnessed an influx of 23 million GPS-equipped bicycles, part of a bike share program credited with changing traffic patterns across the country. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

By the time this latest system was introduced, bike ridership in Beijing (which has 22 million people) was at an all-time low and dropping.

This, in a city where bikes ruled just a few decades ago.

The new, technologically driven system was pioneered by students at Peking University looking for a cheap and convenient way of getting around. They wanted one that allows users to mix public transit and bikes, even opening up the city’s maze of hutongs, the narrow back alleys of Beijing’s traditional neighbourhoods.

Unlike common bike share programs in Western cities, this new Chinese system doesn’t use docking stations. Instead, the bikes can be picked up and dropped off pretty much anywhere — from subway stops to office buildings to the rider’s front door.

A phone app scans the bike’s bar code and a signal releases the lock remotely. Each bike has a GPS tracker, so companies know where every rider goes. The standard cost is about 20 cents an hour.

Riders lining up to pick up the colourful bikes outside Beijing’s Dongdaqiao station say the main draw is exactly what those original students intended.

“The bikes are cheap and they are everywhere,” said one young man. “So I didn’t have to buy one myself.”

“It’s convenient for me and good for the environment,” said a woman through her face mask.

According to Chinese research, the new bike share program reduced carbon dioxide emissions by about four million tonnes last year, roughly the equivalent of taking 900,000 cars off the road. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

One of the major shared bike companies, Didi Chuxing, said its marketing surveys show that helping the environment is a big motivation for users. That’s especially true among those under 30, who make up half the ridership for shared bikes, said Fu Qiang, the company’s senior vice-president.

“People in China are worried about the air and their living conditions, and they are more and more willing to make an effort to improve the environment,” he said.

According to CIICT research, this bike share program reduced carbon dioxide emissions by about four million tonnes last year. That would be the equivalent of taking more than 900,000 cars off the road.

Smaller-scale studies done on local bike share programs in North American and European cities have suggested similar benefits, but none on this scale.

Some growing pains

The GPS-based technology is now spreading to other parts of the world, like the U.S. and Britain. It’s expected to be widely available in Canada within the next several years.

But there have been growing pains. Some in China have called the bike phenomenon nothing less than an “invasion” and a “plague.”

The convenience of leaving the bikes anywhere means they are left everywhere — on people’s doorsteps, in front of entranceways and in the middle of the road.

Two hundred Chinese cities have struggled to make room for the machines and bring order to the chaos on their sidewalks. As competing companies flood the market with their bikes, pedestrians frequently need to pick their way around rows or mounds of thousands of tightly packed bicycles.

Some cities have responded by literally bulldozing them out of the way and into landfill sites. Pictures and videos of huge mounds of colourful bikes have sparked heated discussion online in China.

Some Chinese cities have responded to piles of discarded rented bikes by literally bulldozing them out of the way and into landfill sites. (Reuters)

The cities of Shanghai and Beijing have tightened rules about where the bikes can be left, making the companies responsible for redistributing them every day, or giving riders incentives to leave the bikes in a more orderly way in designated spots.

There have been problems on the roads as well. As recently as the 1980s, Beijing was a city with broad side streets famously dedicated to bicycle traffic. But over time, these have been taken over by cars, forcing bikes to weave dangerously through the gridlock.

“We need to reclaim these spaces,” said city planner Zhao, who suggested removing cars that park everywhere and routinely use lanes designed for two wheels, not four.

He says Beijing intends to block off entire roads just for bicycles all over again. Didi Chuxing, the bike sharing company, has recommended special bike signs for traffic lights at major intersections.

There are limitations to how far this can go. In China, as in most places, bikes are most useful for short distances and in relatively good weather. Flat cities like Beijing have an advantage.

Still, experts like Zhao consider China’s experience “inspiring” and a welcome surprise in the way technology has changed how people use old, familiar green vehicles to displace the environmentally unfriendly car.


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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla




Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm




Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover




KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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