Category Archives: Transportation

Robocar Oriented Development and the New City

Brad Templeton has done more work on the implications and impacts of robocars/self-driving cars than anyone I know. There are dozens of thoughtful essays on his site, and he is now a consultant to Google’s self-driving car team (can’t talk about that of course – too bad). This longish essay speculates on the impacts of robocars on patterns of city development. 

This essay examines the potential future big changes to cities as a result of robocars. Most of these changes will be inspired by one key element of robocars: because they can drop passengers off, and then go do other work or park themselves densely in more remote lots, the need for large amounts of parking surrounding commercial buildings should diminish greatly, particularly in suburbs and non-central urban areas. If the land devoted to parking can be repurposed, what does that mean for the city?

See Brad’s main robocar page: Where Robot Cars (Robocars) Can Really Take Us. I learn something every time I visit.

NASA: “Hybrid Wing” Uses Half the Fuel of a Standard Airplane

NASA has been researching Blended Wing Body (BWB) aircraft, building a series of larger and larger remote controlled experimental planes. NASA has recently announced a carbon-composite based manufacturing process that they think will enable production of sufficiently strong structures for commercial use.

 Wikipedia on BWB: aircraft have a flattened and airfoil shaped body, which produces most of the lift, the wings contributing the balance. The body form is composed of distinct and separate wing structures, though the wings are smoothly blended into the body. By way of contrast, flying wing designs are defined as a tailless fixed-wing aircraft which has no definite fuselage, with most of the crew, payload and equipment being housed inside the main wing structure.

A blended wing body has lift-to-drag ratio 50% greater than a conventional airplane. Thus BWB incorporates design features from both a futuristic fuselage and flying wing design. (…) 

I’ve not yet found any drawings of the proposed composite construction – but Kevin Bullis at MIT Technology Review has this:

The second challenge is building a full-scale version of the aircraft with pressurized cabins that is structurally sound. One reason tubular airplanes have persisted is that it’s relatively easy to build a tube that can withstand the forces acting on it from the outside during flight while maintaining cabin pressure. The hybrid wing design involves a flatter, box-like fuselage that blends with the wings. The flatter structure, which includes some near-right angles, is much more difficult to build in a way that’s strong enough and light enough to be practical.

NASA’s manufacturing process starts with preformed carbon composite rods. The rods are covered with carbon fiber fabric and stitched into place. Fabric is then stitched over foam strips to create cross members. The fabric is impregnated with an epoxy to create a rigid composite structure.

Sections of a fuselage built with the technique were tested and shown to withstand up to the forces that would be applied to a finished aircraft. Tests also showed that when enough pressure was applied to cause the parts to fail, the stitching used to make the structure stopped cracks from spreading—a key to avoiding catastrophic failure in flight.

Dave Winer: the case for a desktop SMS app – to send/receive texts to mobiles

I sure agree with Dave Winer: Thread: A smartphone narrative and an idea for a product. Following is an excerpt of his proposal:

(…)  Now finally I’m able to explain the idea.

A picture named jenInNy.jpgWhen I tried to send text messages from my desktop Mac, all of a sudden I was dropped into a horribly complex maze of things that make no sense. I can’t even figure out how to send an SMS without someone sending me one first. I tried reading all of Google’s docs, installed all the software they told me to install, and in the end I went back to the Nexus 4 to communicate with Jen. Later I realized I could do what I needed to with the Voice website. But there were problems there too. I ended up having to enter the number manually, my contacts list was useless in that context.

The idea is this — Google or Microsoft or Apple — create a new app that runs on the desktop that’s designed with the parameters of a smartphone. Leverage the skills I already have. I was able to set up the Windows Phone in a few minutes, on an OS that I had never used. I am a relatively expert Mac user, but failed after a half hour. The lesson is pretty clear. At the very least the desktop has to do what the mobile device does, with the same care of design and simplicity. What I’m left with is a hodgepodge of stuff that wasn’t designed to do this. Time for a fresh look.

We are often frustrated by the same issue. Our solution is the web-based international service at the reasonable cost of $ 0.10 per message.

Kent Larson: Responsive Cities

Architect Kent Larson is the director of Changing Places at the MIT Media Lab. Larson, postdocs and students are innovating a large number of ideas of how the urban future can be happier, less stressful, wealthier and low-carbon. Some of these concepts like the City Car, or self-driving cars, we’ve written about before.

At TEDx Boston 2012 Kent gave an 18 minute presentation. I’m confident you’ll be thinking of more ideas that will  contribute to better city life for the hundreds of millions of rural people who will be migrating to cities over the next two decades (300+ million in China alone).

DC Taxi Commission Still Gunning for Uber

I’m a fan of the Uber startup. For a running expose of the corrupt Washington DC politics, there is no better source than Megan McArdle:

As I chronicled in the Atlantic six months ago, upstart limo dispatch service Uber is embroiled in a long-running war with the DC taxi commission. Uber allows you to order a sedan service from your smartphone, and is much beloved by affluent DC DINKs. It is also a favorite of the limo drivers, who like being able to get rides at good pay rates, and without paying kickbacks to the dispatchers. A couple of nights ago, I took an Uber to a work event (you still can’t reliably get a cab in my neighborhood), and the driver told me that he’d just bought the shiny new Lincoln he was driving to strike out on his own. Uber is what made that happen, according to him; under the old system, it was hard for drivers to go solo, because there are network effects in black car services-; large services tend to get most of the clients. He was beaming as I inspected his brand new wheels, as proud of that car as if he’d baked it himself.

However, Uber is not beloved of DC taxi drivers. As Bob McNamara of the Institute for Justice told me, “Like any other business, taxi drivers think it would be great if no one could compete with them.” Taxi drivers and owners provided a lot of support for our current Mayor, Vincent Gray, in his hotly contested primary race with former Mayor Adrian Fenty. (They also seem to have offered some illegal support to the city council staff; one member’s former aide got jail time for accepting bribes.) The commission has become quite cosy with the industry incumbents in recent years, to the point of issuing a de-facto moratorium on new taxi and limo licenses. The election did nothing to reverse that relationship.

The taxi commission has been gunning for Uber since last year, when they launched a “sting” featuring Commission head Ron Linton, which ended in the unlucky driver having his car impounded. Originally they said the service was illegal because you couldn’t use a black car to charge for time and distance; when Uber’s supporters pointed out that the taxi code contained a “sedan” designation that seemed to allow black cars to do just that, they suddenly came up with a new rationale: Uber was illegal because it didn’t offer you a paper receipt. I was unable to find an Uber customer who expressed any desire to have a paper receipt, but perhaps they are out there, frantically lobbying the taxi commission.


Uber and the delicate business of creating a platform

Joshua Gans examines Uber’s challenge in mediating what customers want and what drivers want. When I first read about Uber’s dynamic pricing I thought that was brilliant – prices will raise until demand is satisfied, the New Years Eve taxi market will clear! Turns out things are more complex. Here’s a snippet:

Over the last year, a new app has been changing the way people get limos in some major cities in the US. Uber — founded by Garrett Camp, Oscar Salazar, and Travis Kalanick, and launched in 2010 in San Francisco — allows people to get and pay for taxi rides easily. Here’s how it works: after you have signed up for an Uber account, you can launch the smart phone app and instantly find limos or town cars equipped with the service. One click hails them, and the nearest driver comes and picks you up. At the end of the journey, your driver charges your account. No standing in the rain trying to hail a cab. No grabbing for cash or fiddling with credit cards.

(…) If this were a one-time mishap, we could set it aside. But sticker shock has actually turned out to be a ongoing issue for the company. This was demonstrated most clearly in New York on New Year’s Eve, a night that should have been a triumph for the start-up. Because of high demand and the accompanying ever-higher prices, Uber’s supposedly simple and straightforward transaction became complex. Consumers saw that their ride home could be seven times the price of their ride into town. Consumers who were used to easy clicking missed the notice and became (reasonably) upset when the bill arrived. Either way, they weren’t happy. Basically, to satisfy one side of its market — the taxi drivers — Uber upset the other side — its customers.


Joshua concludes with some revised pricing schemes that may resolve this challenge. I sure hope it works – Uber is a long-needed breakthrough. More…

Chevy Volt Costing Taxpayers Up to $250K Per Vehicle

This looks plausible, although I’ve not done any homework to verify or calibrate this analysis. We know that such pyramids of layered subsidies are real – here is the Mackinac Center interpretation on the Volt:

Each Chevy Volt sold thus far may have as much as $250,000 in state and federal dollars in incentives behind it – a total of $3 billion altogether, according to an analysis by James Hohman, assistant director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Hohman looked at total state and federal assistance offered for the development and production of the Chevy Volt, General Motors’ plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. His analysis included 18 government deals that included loans, rebates, grants and tax credits. The amount of government assistance does not include the fact that General Motors is currently 26 percent owned by the federal government.

The Volt subsidies flow through multiple companies involved in production. The analysis includes adding up the amount of government subsidies via tax credits and direct funding for not only General Motors, but other companies supplying parts for the vehicle. For example, the Department of Energy awarded a $105.9 million grant to the GM Brownstown plant that assembles the batteries. The company was also awarded approximately$106 million for its Hamtramck assembly plant in state credits to retain jobs. The company that supplies the Volt’s batteries, Compact Power, was awarded up to $100 million in refundable battery credits (combination tax breaks and cash subsidies). These are among many of the subsidies and tax credits for the vehicle.

It’s unlikely that all the companies involved in Volt production will ever receive all the $3 billion in incentives, Hohman said, because many of them are linked to meeting various employment and other milestones. But the analysis looks at the total value that has been offered to the Volt in different aspects of production – from the assembly line to the dealerships to the battery manufacturers. Some tax credits and subsidies are offered for periods up to 20 years, though most have a much shorter time frame.

Continue reading…

What are the total layered subsidies behind each wind turbine or solar panel?

Envia Systems battery – 400 Wh/kg?

Envia Systems’ battery is looking more and more real. 400 Wh/kg at 50% cost is a game changer:

…Envia Systems’ breakthrough battery is one step closer to commercialization after a public vote of confidence last week from the CEO of General Motors (GM), Dan Akerson. ITIF has previously blogged about the battery, which performed at an energy density of 378-418 watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg) in independent tests.

…Envia and its battery did not come out of nowhere, of course – they were in large part the product of a supportive energy innovation ecosystem. As related in a previous blog post, the battery was based on technology licensed from Argonne National Laboratory and in addition to funding from GM’s investment arm, Envia received $4 million from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) for technology research and development. Furthermore, ARPA-E sponsored testing of the battery at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana.

A Bill of Goods? Assessing the Transportation Legislation


(Photo: Tiberiu Ana)

Good news from Eric A. Morris at Freakonomics: No earmarks this time (there were 6,371 in the 2005 legislation). Amazing, that makes this a historic bill! The HSR- type boondoggles are there, but not the Senate’s HSR spendathon.

Okay, in this post let’s start off on the bright side. At a time when the two parties cannot agree on the menu at the Congressional cafeteria, the Republicans and Democrats have found something they can agree on. After three years of debate and nine temporary stopgap extensions, Congress and the President have enacted new transportation authorization legislation. This bill divvies up the gas tax money, plus some miscellaneous revenue from other sources (more on this later), and funds and regulates the federal surface transportation program for the next 27 months. 

(…) However, one high point is the liberalization of the regulations surrounding tolling on the Interstates, as long as tolls are levied only on new capacity or underused carpool lanes. I’ve made the case for such tolls here and here. If done correctly, they will be a win all-around: for government, for taxpayers, and for drivers—even, believe it or not, for drivers who never choose to use the new tolled lanes. 

(…) One other plus from my perspective: the Senate’s Title V provisions for increased funding of high-speed rail were left out of the legislation. I’ve written a bunch about my skepticism on HSR (herehere, and here). I will miss many things about California when I move to South Carolina in a couple of weeks. But at least my health insurer is cutting my premiums because of a sharp drop in my chances of dropping dead of from apoplexy after reading about California’s HSR program.

High speed rail monorail economics

Please don’t miss Alex Tabarrock’s analysis – best read this with your seat belts secured and adequate sedatives available – because your “public servants” are hard at work “doing something”. Meanwhile the low-hanging fruit of e.g., high-productivity rail infrastructure is strangled by the lack of relatively tiny amounts of investment.


High speed rail, especially California’s project, looks to me to be monorail economics, a costly boondoggle whose appeal lies not in rational calculation (also here) but in the desire of some politicians (and voters) to feel visionary and sexy. In theory, CA HSR might work but the inevitable reviews, delays, lawsuits and special interest payoffs make the prospects of a beneficial project look dim, demosclerosis kills.

Slow speed rail, however, i.e. freight transport, isn’t sexy but Warren Buffett is investing in rail and maybe we should as well. In particular, there are basic infrastructure projects with potentially high payoffs. Congestion in Chicago, for example, is so bad that freight passing through Chicago often slows down to less than the pace of an electric wheel chair. Improvements are sometimes as simple as replacing 19th century technology with 20th century (not even 21st century!) technology. Even today, for example:

…engineers at some points have to get out of their cabins, walk the length of the train back to the switch — a mile or more — operate the switch, and then trudge back to their place at the head of the train before setting out again.


In a useful article Phillip Longman points out that there are choke points on the Eastern Seaboard which severely reduce the potential for rail:


…railroads can capture only 2 percent of the container traffic traveling up and down the eastern seaboard because of obscure choke points, such as the Howard Street Tunnel in downtown Baltimore. The tunnel is too small to allow double-stack container trains through, and so antiquated it’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973. When it shut down in 2001 due to a fire, trains had to divert as far as Cincinnati to get around it. Owner CSX has big plans for capturing more truck traffic from I-95, and for creating room for more passenger trains as well, but can’t do any of this until it finds the financing to fix or bypass this tunnel and make other infrastructure improvements down the line. In 2007, it submitted a detailed plan to the U.S. Department of Transportation to build a steel wheel interstate from Washington to Miami, but no federal funding has been forthcoming.


I strongly recommend that you finish Alex’s essay, then head straight over to the referenced Phillip Longman article.