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Inside California’s stunning new testing facility for auto pollution

Diane Davis

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The California Air Resources Board (CARB) burns a lot of fuel. As the air pollution rule maker and regulator for the state, with the most stringent emissions standards in the U.S., the agency is charged with making sure vehicles comply. It also researches how those standards can be brought even lower. To do so, the agency runs the engines of lots of vehicles.

[Photo: Connie Zhou/courtesy ZGF]

So it’s both on-brand and a bit surprising that CARB’s new gas-guzzling test facility and headquarters in Riverside is also aiming to be one of the greenest buildings in the country. Designed by ZGF Architects, the building is expected to be certified a net-zero energy user and a net-zero carbon emitter—meaning it produces more energy than it uses and offsets all the CO2 it emits. Now open, the facility also exceeds the state’s green building standards and has achieved the highest LEED green building certification.

[Photo: Connie Zhou/courtesy ZGF]

“A lot of people are going to want to come just to see how we did that,” says Annette Hebert, CARB’s deputy executive officer.

The Riverside headquarters, a 400,000-square-foot cluster of labs and offices on 18 acres, uses a variety of systems to offset the energy required to handle its testing and compliance enforcement on vehicles ranging from jet skis and lawn mowers to cars and big rigs. Shara Castillo, one of the lead designers at ZGF, says the facility’s green goals were challenging to achieve, but that the project proves they’re possible, even in such an energy-intensive building.

[Photo: Connie Zhou/courtesy ZGF]

“Getting to net zero energy isn’t like all the architects and engineers get together, and there’s this brilliant idea, and ta-da we’re net zero energy! It’s a lot of little things, just ticking away at the energy performance of the building to make sure use is going down, down, and down,” she says. The building uses super-efficient LED lighting and systems to only turn them on when natural daylight dips below a certain threshold. The structures themselves help reduce energy use, with taller buildings placed to shade smaller ones, and spaces not needing windows, like storage areas, placed on the sunniest side of the campus.

[Photo: Connie Zhou/courtesy ZGF]

By centralizing 450 employees who had been dispersed in buildings around southern California, the new headquarters is also an attempt to redefine how the agency functions. “Being in different buildings, there wasn’t a lot of convening space where engineers and scientists and technicians could come together and have a chat. We had conference rooms, but they were always booked,” Hebert says. Now, testing technicians and chemists and enforcement officers can all overlap in their day-to-day operations.

[Photo: Connie Zhou/courtesy ZGF]

Part of the building has been specifically designed to enable this interaction, with a large atrium where offices look out on test bays, and desk workers can peer through large windows alongside engineers to see big rigs and passenger vehicles being put to the test. “People who are typically in the heavy-duty vehicle testing facility have the ability to causally collide with somebody that focuses on light-duty [vehicles] or analytical chemistry or alternate fuel. That campus idea was a significant part of the culture that CARB wanted to build,” Castillo says. “There’s a piece of this facility that’s incredibly industrial, and then there’s a piece that’s normal office work environments. And that blurred line is one of the most challenging and interesting parts of this project.”

[Photo: Connie Zhou/courtesy ZGF]

The facility is also a huge upgrade from CARB’s previous test facility in El Monte, which Hebert says was jam-packed with equipment and unable to keep up with demand from manufacturers hoping to get their vehicles tested and approved for sale in the immense California market. “There was one little garage where we would outfit trucks with monitoring devices,” she says. “We had to turn away clients because of the limitations at our old facility.” Workers often had to stand outside in the sun when installing testing devices because there wasn’t space inside the building.

That’s not to say CARB was unable to do its work. Famously, in 2015 the agency found that the automaker Volkswagen had deliberately installed devices in diesel vehicles to cheat during emissions testing—a scandal that led to multi-billion dollar fines, settlements, and class action lawsuits.

[Photo: Connie Zhou/courtesy ZGF]

Hebert says the agency can’t let up. With the industry changing, the new facility had to be designed not only for traditional internal combustion engines but also a growing variety of new and emerging technologies, from zero-emissions vehicles to battery-fuel cells. New tests will have to be able to track the durability of electric motors and ensure battery life ratings are accurate.

“The facility had to be designed in such a way to accommodate the data they’re gathering today but flexible enough to be able to accommodate unexpected turns in this industry,” Castillo says.

[Photo: Connie Zhou/courtesy ZGF]

The facility will also continue its traditional testing and research, with new capacity to analyze heavy duty vehicles like big rigs and off-road vehicles. “In the heavy-duty realm, obviously pure zero-emission vehicles are quite a ways off,” Hebert says. “We’re going to have internal combustion engines for many years to come. And then once they get on the roads, they stay on the roads for 20 or 30 years.”

CARB is also looking ahead to when those vehicles will age out. Along the walkway leading up to the main entrance of the headquarters is a large sculpture, which makes that clear to vehicle makers and the public alike. It’s a series of gas station pumps that appear to be petrified—fossils of an infrastructure CARB hopes will soon become a thing of the past.

For now, though, CARB will continue to keep an eye on the gas-guzzlers and climate change culprits. Hebert says the new facility will enable its scientists and engineers to keep an even closer watch on an industry that’s proven to have some bad actors.

[Photo: Connie Zhou/courtesy ZGF]

“I’m sad to say even after VW, we’ve had two other big light-duty cases. We’re working on some other ones now that I can’t mention. I’m a little surprised. I think maybe companies think we’re not going to look deep enough,” Hebert says.

The new facility, she says, will enable CARB’s researchers and scientists to continue to push emissions standards to stricter levels, and help ensure that any manufacturer breaking the rules—either unintentionally or on purpose—will be found out. “They should all be aware that after VW, we’re not messing around,” she says. “We have the capability to do it, we have the smart engineers to do it, and we’re going to uncover it.”


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The Download: introducing the Hidden Worlds issue

Diane Davis

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snaky dragon comes up behind a wizard with a malformed face. A glowing dragon-shaped fireball is in background, and something that looks like a cross between a sword and a pterodactyl is in the foreground.

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Introducing: the Hidden Worlds issue 

A hidden world is fundamentally different from the undiscovered. We know the hidden world is there. We just can’t see it or reach it. 

Hidden worlds exist in the great depths of the ocean and high above us in the planets of the night sky. But they are also all around us in the form of waves and matter and microbes. 

technology has long played the spoiler to these worlds in hiding. We have used ships, airplanes, and rockets to shrink distances. Telescopes, cameras, satellites, drones, and radar help us peer into and map the places we cannot go ourselves. AI increasingly plays a role, too. 

If this all fascinates you as much as us, you’ll love the latest issue of MIT technology Review. It’s all about using technology to explore and expose those hidden worlds, whether they are in the ocean depths, in the far reaches of our galaxy, or swirling all around us, unseen. 

Check out these stories from the magazine:

+ Why Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, is being investigated as a potential host for life. 

+ Meet the intrepid divers experimenting with breathing hydrogen as part of an effort to reach depths no diver has ever been before. 

+ Inside the hunt for new physics at the Large Hadron Collider, which hasn’t seen any new particles since the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012.

+ As AI develops at breakneck speed, this comic explains what we can all learn from the Luddites. 

+ Here’s a job title you perhaps haven’t heard before, but will hear more in future: climate equity specialist. 

This is just a small selection of what’s on offer. I urge you to dive in and enjoy the whole thing, when you find the time. Enjoy!

The first-ever mission to pull a dead rocket out of space has just begun

More than 9,000 metric tons of human-made metal and machinery are orbiting Earth, including satellites, shrapnel, and the International Space Station. But a significant bulk of that mass comes from one source: the nearly a thousand dead rockets that have been discarded in space since the space age began.

Now, for the first time, a mission has begun to remove one of those dead rockets. Funded by the Japanese space agency JAXA, it was launched on Sunday, February 18, and is currently on its way to rendezvous with such a rocket in the coming weeks.

It’ll inspect it and then work out how a follow-up mission might be able to pull the dead rocket back into the atmosphere. If it succeeds, it could demonstrate how we could remove large, dangerous, and uncontrolled pieces of space junk from orbit—objects that could cause a monumental disaster if they collided with satellites or spacecraft. Read the full story. 

—Jonathan O’Callaghan

Why hydrogen is losing the race to power cleaner cars

Imagine a car that doesn’t emit any planet-warming gases—or any pollution at all, for that matter. Unlike the EVs on the roads today, it doesn’t take an hour or more to charge—just fuel up and go.

It sounds too good to be true, but it’s the reality of vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells. And almost nobody wants one. 

Don’t get me wrong: hydrogen vehicles are sold around the world. But they appear to be lurching toward something of a dead end, with fuel prices going up, vehicle sales stagnating, and fueling stations shutting down. Read our story to find out why that is, and what we’d need to get these cars on the road.

—Casey Crownhart

The story above is for subscribers-only. But subscriptions start from just $8 a month to get access to all of MIT technology Review’s award-winning journalismwhy not try it out

Why Chinese apps chose to film super-short soap operas in Southeast Asia

A handful of Chinese companies are betting that short videos can disrupt the movie and TV industry. These “soap operas for the TikTok age” have found a huge audience in China, creating a market worth $5 billion. Now, they’re betting that these shows, once adapted, can appeal to an American audience. 

But rather than just jumping straight into the US, many of these firms are using Southeast Asia as both a testing ground, and a production hub. And they’re treading a well-worn path for using that region as the first frontier for expansion outside China. Read the full story. 

—Zeyi Yang

This story is from China Report, our weekly newsletter about China’s tech scene and how it interacts with the world. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Apple is killing its electric car project
Execs say they’ll get the 2,000-odd employees working on it to focus on generative AI instead. (Bloomberg $)
+ This is why they axed it. (Wired $)
Despite never selling a single vehicle, Apple still managed to exert an impact on the car industry. (The Atlantic $)

2 Google’s big AI push is coming back to bite it
The problems with generative AI keep being laid bare for all to see, in real time. (WSJ $)
+ Apple’s shareholders are trying to force it to be more transparent about the risks associated with AI. (FT $)

3 How the Pentagon uses targeted ads to find its targets
Including Vladimir Putin. No, really. (Wired $)
Nowhere online is safe from ads these days. (The Atlantic $)

4 AI is coming for the porn industry 
But porn companies believe some people will pay a premium to interact with a real human being. (WP $)

5 An out-of-control fire is forcing mass evacuations in Texas 
It’s more than doubled in size since igniting on Monday afternoon. (CNN)
The quest to build wildfire-resistant homes. (MIT technology Review)

6 A pharma company posted positive results for another weight loss drug 
Viking Therapeutics, a smaller player from San Diego, has joined the goldrush. (Quartz $)
These drugs are wildly popular and effective. But their long-term health impacts are still unknown. (MIT technology Review)

7 Delivery drivers have to contend with off-the-charts air pollution 
It’s such a big problem in South Asia that some of them are forced to take sick days as a result. (Rest of World)

8 Crypto miners blocked legal efforts to reveal how much energy they use
A federal judge granted a temporary restraining order which will prevent the Department of Energy from collecting the data. (The Verge)
Bitcoin’s value hit a two-year high. (Quartz)

9 Some advice: don’t use ChatGPT for your taxes
Or, frankly, anything important. (CNET)

10 Want to feel sad? Ask TikTok how old you look 
I have… zero temptation to do this. (NYT $)

Quote of the day

“I feel so powerless in this state.”

—Lochrane Chase, a 36-year-old lifelong resident of Birmingham, Alabama, tells Wired how she’s having to put her plans to pursue IVF on hold due to the Alabama Supreme Court’s February 16 ruling, which stated that embryos are “unborn children.”

The big story

This artist is dominating AI-generated art. And he’s not happy about it.

MS TECH VIA STABLE DIFFUSION

September 2022

Greg Rutkowski is a Polish digital artist who uses classical painting styles to create dreamy fantasy landscapes. His distinctive illustration style has been used in some of the world’s most popular fantasy games, including Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. 

Now he’s become a hit in the new world of text-to-image AI generation, becoming one of the most commonly used prompts in the open-source AI art generator Stable Diffusion.

But this and other open-source programs are built by scraping images from the internet, often without permission and proper attribution to artists. As a result, they are raising tricky questions about ethics and copyright. And artists like Rutkowski have had enough. Read the full story.

—Melissa Heikkilä

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction to brighten up your day. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+  There are so many ways to say “drunk” in English. Drunkonyms, if you will. 
+ Some amazing close-up photographs on display here.
+ Look after your joints, and they’ll look after you. 
+ A philanthropist has donated $1 billion to ensure students at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx will get free tuition “in perpetuity.”


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MIT Hobby Shop rebuilt | MIT Technology Review

Diane Davis

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wood desk shaped like a wavy lasagna noodle

Smidt says she loves the lathe but is also very fond of a small tool called a French curve scraper, which she used to sand the curves of the desk that was her ambitious first project in the shop. The piece, which Smidt calls her “noodle desk,” consists of a butcher block top that S-curves to the floor for support. It’s made of reclaimed maple from MIT’s basketball court renovation, which the shop had salvaged. “It’s always such a pleasure to use the perfect hand tool,” she says. (Find a link to photos and step-by-step instructions for building the desk here.)

BLONDEGEEK VIA INSTRUCTABLES

Although Smidt was an undergraduate at MIT, she didn’t discover the Hobby Shop until she joined the faculty in September 2021 (after earning her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley). “For that first year, the Hobby Shop was pretty instrumental in my maintaining sanity,” she says, noting that MIT had just begun to relax its early covid restrictions. “I think I’ve now used just about every machine.”

Novices and experts

More than a workspace, the Hobby Shop is also a community—one where people from all corners of MIT can come together to share camaraderie as well as tips and techniques. “I’ve met some of my favorite people from MIT at the Hobby Shop,” Smidt says.

Fischman even owes his marriage to the shop. Thanks to a referral from a contact there, he wound up with a 25-year part-time gig teaching two night classes in woodworking at the Boston Center for Adult Education—where he met his wife. “That was a connection the shop made possible,” he says. 

Novices are always welcome, and the shop’s staff—director Hayami Arakawa and technical instructor Coby Unger—are always willing to provide expert guidance. “It’s encouraged to ask questions,” Smidt says. Classes and workshops provide more formal training on complex machines or in unusual crafts, such as steam-bending wood.

Projects undertaken in the shop run the gamut from simple cutting boards to fine furniture. Fischman says the piece he’s most proud of is a curved-edge walnut console table with hand-planed, tapered octagonal legs. But not everyone makes furniture. “We had a guy who came in to build a machine to put the caps on his yogurt containers,” Fischman says. “We’ve had harpsichords built in the shop, canoes built in the shop. It goes on and on.”

Smidt adds, “It’s really inspiring to see what other people are making.”

Now, nearly 50 years after his bowl was spotlighted in Fine Woodworking, Fischman says he still finds joy at the Hobby Shop. “The shop is fun,” he says. “I think that’s an important aspect of it.”

Another, he says, is knowing that he has created pieces that will live on. “I’m 76. I think about legacy a bit,” he says. “The woodworking gifts that I gave to people that they cherish now are part of my legacy.” 

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The citizen scientists chronicling life at a neglected but vital Mexican river

Diane Davis

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Since the fall of 2021, Viaje al Microcosmos has organized walks on the river to encourage the general public to explore the space and make new connections with this misunderstood body of water. In the last few years, participants have created their own microscopes to study water samples they’ve collected; created an immersive art installation to showcase the species that live on the river; produced a podcast; developed a template to help people document water quality; contributed to the Río Santa Catarina’s Wikipedia page; and more. Each activity helps build a community of city dwellers who believe the river is a natural resource worth protecting. The effort seems only more urgent against the backdrop of a regional drought, rising temperatures, and a government that continues to place environmental issues on the back burner. 

A woman peeks into a microscope at Viaje al Microcosmos’s stand at the citizen science event.

LORENA RíOS

Viaje al Microcosmos’s goal is multifaceted and ambitious. The activists want to build a community of citizen scientists that pushes back against the belief that the river is for sale. They want to produce information about the river that can shape public policy and aid in its preservation. But perhaps most important, they want to instill the revolutionary thought that the Santa Catarina River can, in fact, be just that: a river. 

Lorena Ríos is a freelance journalist based in Monterrey, Mexico.

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