Matt Prior: The experts can’t agree about cars or coronavirus


Hydrogen is the way to go, or not; depends who the expert is

Has our columnist had his fill of experts? Not quite – but some clarity would be a fine thing

Is it getting harder to identify experts? As I write, a few moments ago the prime minister was flanked by two of them and they were flawless in their reasoning for the UK’s stance on combating the coronavirus epidemic. Clear, concise, precise, honest, trustworthy.

But just now, I opened the website of a newspaper that has contacted several other experts, all similarly brilliantly qualified and working in the same sort of field, and they don’t agree with the government’s experts, or each other, on the approach we should take. I mean, they all think you shouldn’t go on a cruise, but I don’t think that’s news to anyone.

Then I opened social media and people definitely didn’t all agree there, so I watched a few car build and cat videos and closed it again.

Once, you’d open a newspaper or turn on the TV or radio and you could be relatively sure that in times of crisis – this probably counts – you’d hear from an expert or two. And that would be that.

But everybody is a publisher these days, and the internet has placed data at everyone’s fingertips so now everyone can be an expert, too. Or, rather, they can adopt a particular position, and then build a case around it, to look like one.

Not that the virus experts we’ve heard from are diametrically opposed – they all know a storm is coming and what the science suggests (it’s not great) – it’s just that their interpretation of the facts makes them vary on what they think will give us the best chance.

But then I wondered. And I am going to stretch a point here, perhaps insensitively, but there we are, it’s 2020 and it probably won’t be the most glib thing you read today. (Less glibly, I wish you all the best during the coming months.) We’re experts here, of a fashion. I’ve done nothing but work in the field of cars since I was about 16 because I think they’re an invention that changed the world for the better. (And I like the vroom noises.)

And there are hundreds of thousands of other automotive experts throughout the globe, all aware of the science behind all of the technologies that will drive our cars in future. Toyota currently likes hybrids and fuel cells. Yet I spoke to a senior executive from a different manufacturer the other day who thinks hydrogen has no future; that if you start with sustainability as your base point, you end up having battery-electric cars, and that’s that. But China is investing quite heavily in hydrogen – and if you put in an infrastructure for that, why not use it for cars? A good argument. Because production is still not as efficient as charging a battery, and the storage and transportation is a nightmare, and because you can mitigate the carbon output of trucks by running them on biofuels. Another convincing argument.

Still, then, I’ve asked the experts and come away not quite any wiser. It’s no wonder Michael Gove once said that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Although Sheffield University then did a study into Gove’s claim and found there was no evidence he was right, either.

Forget experts not agreeing with each other. We can’t even agree about experts.

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