Transportation

Hybrid stickers in carpool lane should be sold at dutch auction.

In the SF Bay Area, there are carpool lanes. Drivers of fuel efficient vehicles, which mostly means the Prius and the Honda Civic/Insight Hybrids can apply for a special permit allowing them to drive solo in the carpool lanes. This requires both a slightly ugly yellow sticker on the bumper, and a special transponder for bridges, because the cars are allowed to use the carpool lane on the bridge but don’t get the toll exemption that real carpools get.

I think this is good, as long as there is capacity in the carpool lane, because the two goals of the carpool lane are to reduce congestion and also to reduce pollution. The hybrids do the latter. (Though it is argued that hybrids do their real gas saving on city streets, and only save marginally on the highway, comparable to some highly efficient gasoline vehicles.)

However, oddly, the government decided to allocate a fixed number of stickers (which makes sense) and to release them on a first-come, first-served basis, which makes no sense. After the allocation is issued, new buyers of these cars, or future efficient cars can’t get the stickers. (Or so they say — in fact the allocation has been increased once.)

The knowledge that time was running out to get a Prius with carpool privileges was much talked about. And it’s clear that a lot of people who buy a hybrid rush to get one of the scarce carpool permits simply because they can, even if they will almost never drive on the highways at rush hour with them.

Society seem to love first-come-first-served as a good definition of “fair” but it seems wrong here. At the very least there should be a yearly fee, so that people who truly don’t need the stickers will not get them “just in case.” I would go further and suggest the annual fee be decided by dutch auction. For those not familiar, in a dutch auction, all those who wish to bid submit a single, sealed bid. If there are “N” items then the Nth highest bid becomes the price that the top N bidders all pay. There may be a minimum below which the items are not sold.

This can be slightly complex in that you can do this one of two ways. The first is everybody pays their real bid, and losers and overbidders get a refund. This assures all bidders are serious. The other is to set the price, and then bill the winners. The problem here is people might bid high but then balk when they see the final price. You need a way of enforcing the payment. Credit cards can help here. As can, of course, being the government, which can refuse to licence your car until you pay the agreed fees.

Carpool lanes are a hot topic here, of course. The mere mention of the subject of kidpooling (Counting children to determine if a car is a carpool) makes the blood boil in the local newspapers. People feel remarkable senses of entitlements, and lose focus of the real goals — to reduce congestion and pollution. Emotions would run high here, too.

Virtual right-of-way alternatives for BRT

In one of my first blog posts, I wrote about virtual right-of-way, a plan to create dedicated right of way for surface rail and bus transit, but to allow cars to use the RoW as long as they stay behind, and never in front of the transit vehicle.

I proposed one simple solution, that if the driver has to step on the brakes because of a car in the way, a camera photographs the car and plate, and the driver gets a fat ticket in the mail. People would learn you dare not get into the right-of-way if you can see a bus/train in your rearview mirror.

However, one downside stuck with me, which is that people might be so afraid of the ticket that they make unsafe lane changes in a hurry to get out of the way of the bus, and cause accidents. Even a few accidents might dampen enthusiasm for the plan, which is a shame because why leave the RoW vacant so much of the time?

San Francisco is planning BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) which gives buses dedicated lanes and nice “stations” for Geary St., its busiest bus corridor. However, that’s going to cut tremendously into Geary’s car capacity, which will drive traffic onto other streets. Could my plan for V-Row (Virtual Right of Way) help?

My new thought is to make travel in the V-Row a privilege, rather than something any car can do as long as it stays out of the way of the bus. To do that, car owners would need to sign up for V-Row access, and purchase a small receiver to mount in their car. The receiver would signal when a bus is approaching with a nice wide margin, to tell the driver to leave the lane. It would get louder and more annoying the closer the bus got. The ticket would still be processed by a camera on the front of the bus triggered by the brakes.

Non-registered drivers could still enter the V-Row, whether it was technically legal or not. If they got a photo-ticket, it might be greater than the one for registered drivers who have the alerting device.

I’ve thought of a few ways to do the alert. If there are small, short range radio transmitters dotted along the route, the bus could tell them to issue the warning as they approach. They could also flash LEDs (avoiding the need for the special receiver.) Indeed, they could even broadcast on a very low power open FM channel, again obviating the need for a special device if you don’t mind not running your stereo for something else. (The broadcast would be specific, “Bus approaching on Westbound Geary at 4th ave” so you are not confused if you hear a signal from another line or another direction.) Infrared or microwave short-range transmission would also be good. The transmitters would include actual lat/long coordinates of the zones to clear, so cars with their own GPS could get an even more accurate warning.

It might even be possible to have an infrared or ultra-high-frequency radio transmitter on the front of the bus, which would naturally only transmit to people in front of the bus. IR could be blocked by fog, radio could leak to other zones, so there might be bugs to work out there. The receiver could at least know what direction it is going (compass, if not GPS) and know to ignore signals from perpendicular vehicles.

Each bus of course, via GPS will know where it is and where it’s going, giving it the ability to transmit via radio or even IR the warning to clear the V-Row ahead of it.

V-Row is vastly, vastly cheaper than other forms of rapid transit. In fact, my proposal here might even make it funded by the drivers who are eager to make use of the lane. Many would, because going behind the bus will be a wonderful experience compared to rush hour traffic, since the traffic lights are going to be synchronized to the bus in most BRT plans.

One could even imagine, at higher pavement cost, a lane to pass the bus when it stops. Then the cars go even faster, but the driver signals a few seconds before she’s going to pull out and all cars in the lane would stop to wait for it, then follow it. Careful algorithms could plan things properly based on bus spacing and wait times and signals from drivers or sensors to identify where the gaps in the V-Row are that will allow cars are, and to signal cars that they can enter. (The sensor would also, when you’re not in the V-Row, tell you when it’s acceptable to enter it.)

During periods of heavy congestion, however, there may not be anywhere for cars leaving the V-Row to go in the regular lanes without congesting them more. However, it’s not going to be worse there than it is with no cars allowed in the bus right-of-way, at most it gets that bad. It may be the case the bus drivers could command all cars out of the V-Row (even behind the bus) because congestion is too high, or transit vehicles are getting too closely spaced due to the usual variations of transit. (In most cases detecting transit vehicles that are very close would be automatic and cars would be commanded not to enter those zones.)

There are many other applications for a receiver in a car to receive information on where to drive, including automatic direction around congestion, accidents and construction. I can think of many reasons to get one.

Some BRT plans call for the dedicated right-of-way to have very few physical connections with the ordinary streets. This might appear to make V-Row harder, but in fact it might make planning easier. Cars could be allowed in at controlled points, like metering lights, and commanded to leave at controlled points. In that case there would be no tickets, except for cars that pass an exit point they were commanded to leave at. If the system told you to stay in a lane and was wrong, and a bus came up behind you, it would not be your fault, but nor would it be so frequent as to slow the bus system much.

Flying Cars -- Airport Carshare system

Parking at airports seems a terrible waste — expensive parking and your car sits doing nothing. I first started thinking about the various Car Share companies (City CarShare, ZipCar, FlexCar — effectively membership based hourly car rentals which include gas/insurance and need no human staff) and why one can’t use them from the airport. Of course, airports are full of rental car companies, which is a competitive problem, and parking space there is at a premium.

Right now the CarShare services tend to require round-trip rentals, but for airports the right idea would be one-way rentals — one member drives the car to the airport, and ideally very shortly another member drives the car out of the airport. In an ideal situation, coordinated by cell phone, the 2nd member is waiting at the curb, and you would just hand off the car once it confirms their membership for you. (Members use a code or carry a key fob.) Since you would know in advance before you entered the airport whether somebody is ready, you would know whether to go to short term parking or the curb — or a planned long-term parking lot with a bit more advance notice so you allocate the extra time for that.

Of course the 2nd member might not want to go to the location you got the car from, which creates the one-way rental problem that carshares seem to need to avoid. Perhaps better balancing algorithms could work, or at worst case, the car might have to wait until somebody from your local depot wants to go there. That’s wasteful, though. However, I think this could be made to work as long as the member base is big enough that some member is going in and out of the airport.

I started thinking about something grander though, namely being willing to rent your own private car out to bonded members of a true car sharing service. This is tougher to do but easier to make efficient. The hard part is bonding reliability on the part of all concerned.

Read on for more thinking on it…  read more »

Call my car

It does get hard to be a privacy advocate when it’s easy to think of interesting apps that make use of tracking infrastructure. Here’s one.

How often have you wanted to talk to somebody in a car next to you on the road? Consider a system where people could register their licence plate(s) with their cell phone account. Then, if they had done this, you could call a special number on your own cell phone, and enter the numeric part of their licence plate.

If both you, and the other car were close by (for example in the same cell, but often the cell companies have much closer tracking information) and both of you were moving, it could then complete the call to the other car. The other car might get to screen the call (ie. you would have to enter the reason for the call and they would hear, “Will you accept a call from about .”)

Sounds like a good product for the cell companies, able to generate minutes. Easy enough to do if both people use the same cell company, lots more work between two different companies where a protocol would be needed. Would be easier to do with texting but you don’t want people texting in cars.

Could have used it last night, was tailing a friend on the road to her house, did not have her cell number but could see her plate.

As I’ve described the system it’s opt-in, nobody calls you unless you sign up for it and register a plate. However it could be made fairly safe to opt-in with a number of protections. As noted, the system could demand the cars are moving (cell network can see that) so that it can’t be used to reach your cell phone while you are not driving. You could have screening.

It should also have a reputation system. For example, if you call me, then after we disconnect I can leave a negative reputation comment on you. Get a few of these and you’re out of the system. This assures people don’t use it simply to express road rage at the next driver or other things that are largely annoying. On the other hand you can use it to tell people their blinker is blinking or their trunk is open. (Mind you, once you are aware of a problem you would want a function to tell callers you are aware of a driving problem and to press 2 if they are calling about something else.)

And sure, for those open to it, it would be used for flirting with the cutie who gave you the eye when you were both stopped at the light.

You can of course just stick your cell number on your bumper to do this, but it would not have the opt-out and reptuation systems. With today’s cheap phone numbers, however, you could get a special number that forwards to your cell and performs the screening/reputation/etc. but is not able to use the location awareness.

If the digits are not unambiguous (or, like me, you have a custom plate that’s all letters) the system would need to offer you the cars close to you that match.

Require flat-panel displays on the backs of tall vehicles

Every driver of a regular car knows this frustration well. You’re behind a big SUV or Minivan and you can no longer see what’s happening ahead of you, the way you can with ordinary cars. This is not simply because the ordinary cars are shorter, it’s because you can see through the windows of the ordinary car — they are at your level.

Of course trucks have always blocked the way but in the past they were few in number. Now that half the cars on the road are tall, being blocked is becoming the norm. This is dangerous, since good driving requires tracking the cars in front of the one you are following, and reacting to their brake lights as well.

Now that flat planel displays are plumetting in price, I propose that any vehicle that can’t be easily seen through by a driver in a standard height car must put a flat screen display on the back, said display showing the view of a camera on the front of the vehicle ideally configured to act like a window would for a car at some modest distance behind the screen.

(A really clever display would track the distance of the car behind and zoom the view so it acts exactly like a window if it were big enough, or at least show what a big window would.)

I’m not talking HDTV here, though of course that would be nice and would become the norm a few years later. It might just be a 20” widescreen style display. For computers, these are dropping under $500 with HD resolution, and less with TV resolution. Admittedly car-mounted units would start off being more expensive in order to be rugged enough, though lots of people are putting small panels in their cars today.

It would of course need a very bright backlight for daytime, and an automatic adjustment of brightness for the night.

Quite a bit cheaper would be to just have the SUV/Minivans have the camera, and transmit the video over RF. The drivers of cars could be the ones to have to buy screens, in this case small dashboard screens which are cheaper than big ones and already exist in many cars for GPS. The big problem here is only receiving the signal of the car in front of you. You would need a protocol where cars that transmit also receive with highly directional antennas. Thus they would examine the direction of all signals they receive from other cameras, automatically pick a free band, and then transmit, “I’m car X. Car Y is in front of me, car Z in front of it. Cars A and B are right front and direct right, car C is left, car D is behind me (probably you!)” In fact it would be giving signal strength info from all directionals. It should be pretty easy then to tell, with all that info from all the cars around you, which is the car directly in front of you.

Then display it on the dash or even in a heads up display where the tail of the car is.

For privacy reason, cars could change their serial number from time to time so this can’t track them, though there is a virtue in broadcasting the licence plate so you can confirm you are really seeing the view of the car ahead of you by reading the plate.

This solution would cost under $50 for the camera and transmitter, much easier to mandate. The receiver would be an option car owners could buy. Not as fair of course, since the vision blockers should be the ones paying for this.

Passenger side steering wheel as common equipment

More cars are being made “drive-by-wire” where the controls are electronic, and even in cars with mechanical steering, throttle and brake linkages, there also exist motorized controls for power steering and cruise control. (It’s less common on the brakes.)

As this becomes more common, it would be nice if one could pop in a simple, short duration control console on the passenger’s side. It need not be large, full set of controls, it might be more of the video game console size.

The goal is to make it possible for the driver to ask the passenger to “take the wheel” for a short period of time in a situation where the driving is not particularly complex. For example, if the driver wants to take a phone call, or eat a snack or even just stretch for a minute. For long term driving, the two people should switch. It could also be used in an emergency, if the driver should conk out, but that’s rare enough I don’t think it’s all that likely people would have the presence of mind to pop out the auxilary controls and use them well.

The main question is, how dangerous is this? Disabled people drive with hand controls for throttle and brakes, though of course they train with this and practice all the time. You would want people to practice driving with the mini-console before using it on a live road. A small speed display would be needed.

While it’s possible to just pass over steering, and have the person in the driver’s seat be reading with brakes that seems risky to me, even if it’s cheaper. Driving from the other side of a car has poorer visibility, of course, but it’s legal and doable. However, I wouldn’t recommend this approach for complex city driving.

We’re used to a big wheel, but almost everybody is also comfortable with something like fold out handlebars that could pop out from the glovebox. (There is an airbag problem with this, perhaps having the bars be low would be better. As they are electronic, they can even pop up from under the front of the seat, or the console between the two seats.) Motorcycle style throttle — clutch would be too much work.

Driving schools would like to buy this of course. They already get cars with a passenger side brake pedal.

Transit agencies -- allow a discount for people who travel together for ordinary trips.

Transit is of course more efficient than private cars, many people on one vechicle. But because a round-trip for a couple or family involves buying 4 to 8 single tickets, couples and families who have cars will often take their cars unless parking is going to be a problem. For example, for us to go downtown it’s $6 within SF. For people taking BART from Berkeley or Oakland it’s $13.40 for 2 people. Makes it very tempting to take a car, even if it costs a similar amount (at 35 cents/mile, 15 of those for gasoline in a city) for the convenience and, outside of rush-hour, speed.

So even if transit is the winning choice for one, it often isn’t for 2. And while 2 in a car is better than 1, an extra 2 on transit during non-peak hours is even better for traffic and the environment.

Many transit agencies offer a one-day family pass, mostly aimed at tourists. There may be some that also offer what I am going to propose, which is a more ordinary one-way or return ticket for groups of people living at the same address, that is sufficiently discounted to make them do the transition from car to transit.

This isn’t trivial, we don’t want drivers to have to check addresses on IDs as people get on the bus. They can check a simple card, though. For example, people could get a simple, non-logged card with their photo and some simple word, symbol or colour combination, so that the driver can tell right away that all the cards were picked up together. (For example they could all have the same randomly chosen word on them in large print, or 3 colour stripes.)

The household/family fare would be only available outside of hours where the transit cars get loaded to standing room. Past that point each rider should pay, and driving is usually rough anyway. Passengers could board, show their matching cards, and get reduced, or even free fares for the additional people. The driver could look at the photos but probably only needs to do that from time to time. (Mainly, we would be trying to stop somebody from getting a set of household cards, and selling cheap rides to random people at the stop with them. Not that likely an event anyways, but random photo checks could stop it.)

It’s harder to manage at automatic fare stations as found on subways. There you could get more abuse, but it might not be so much as to present a problem. The main issue would be homeless people “renting” card sets to groups of people who arrive at a turnstile. (At fancy pay-to-pee public toilets in SF, the homeless were given unlimited use tokens. Better that than have them urinate on the streets for lack of a quarter. They promptly got to renting these tokens to tourists wanting to use the toilets.)

If you’re not too worried about abuse, family tickets could simply be purchased in advance from a desk where they can check that everybody is in the same household. The adults would have to show (easiest for couples) but they need not bring the kids, who already get reduced fares as it is, though in the household ticket they would probably be free.

I presume some transit agencies already do this since the one-day passes are common enough. How do they work it out? Is it aimed at locals rather than tourists? Do they assume locals close to the transit line get monthly passes?

Review: Trafficguage live traffic map

Through the SV100 I was given an interesting product called the Trafficgauge to review. It’s a small thick-PDA sized live map of the highways of your area, with indicators as to where there are traffic slowdowns. They cover about a half dozen cities.

What interested me about the product was its user interface. It doesn’t have one. There’s a button on it which does initial start (which you press only once when you get the item) and which can turn on a backlight and one very minor feature if you hold it down that I doubt any of the owners of the box even know about.

It’s always on, receiving traffic data presumably from some broadcast sideband, since it works indoors and in cars all around the bay area. By having no user interface, you can almost think of it as something like a smart map rather than a computer. I’m trying to figure out if it’s too simple or just right. When I first proposed in the early 90s that my cell company, since it knows where I am, should phone me if it sees me driving in to heavy traffic, I’ve wanted this sort of service to be aware of my location, and not bother me with data about traffic problems I am unlikely to care about. Radio traffic reports spend most of their time on stuff you don’t need to know either. As GPS chips drop in price (which they are) this box could know where you are but I am not sure it could do much with it other than show you. The indicators are not a bitmap, it’s a custom made LCD with bars for each section of highway which can be on or blinking.

(It also has icons to tell you what sporting events are taking place that day. This part is not well designed, first because I am not going to know what time the events are — could be day or night game — and the icons are in the corner, rather than in the approximate locations of the stadia (which admittedly is a challege as the stadia are all close together.)

It didn’t come with a dashboard mount, so it is a bit distracting to pick it up and look at, but not tremendously so.

On the other hand, the pricing to me, with a monthly fee, is not attractive. The data bandwidth is not so expensive as to demand this, it is largely a marketing decision. $80 plus $7/month seems a tad high. Mind you the eqivalent cell phone services also will get you coming and going. (Somehow I don’t know if the marketing departments would use “We get you coming and going” as a slogan, though it’s a good one!)

Which brings me to an idea of my own in this space, much simpler and cheaper. Namely a tiny radio (or feature in in-car radios) that constantly listens to the station that does traffic every 10 minutes — there’s one or more in every town. The box would know the little tune they always play with traffic reports, so when you pushed the button on it, it would play the latest traffic report. If it could not find the tune, it would just play from the approximate time the report comes with a button to hold down for fast forward or rewind. The standalone box would just retransmit the signal (usually from AM) onto an FM channel. Such a box could be cheap, and need no service fee. Of course the traffic station may not like it since when it works well, you would not hear their ads. And of course, most of the report is about highways you don’t care about.

For people with a computer or full blown PDA, of course, there are some alternatives. And indeed, the other downside of a dedicated box like this is that over time it really makes more sense to have it all in your PDA, not in independent boxes.

At a full browser, [SigAlert]http://www.sigalert.com/map.asp?Region=Bay+Area gives a much more detailed map, with popups on all the incidents and links to full CHP traffic reports. The CHP website itself gives a text summary of all police reports, it’s the same thing the radio stations use, and it can be fetched quickly on a simple browser.

Thinking about what cars really cost

I’ve been writing a bunch about transportation of late, and I got the chance to have lunch with Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, and talk about the economics.

She proposes that we really need to make the true cost of our transportation visible to solve many of our problems (congestion, pollution, etc.) It’s often been described just how much of a subsidy the U.S. and in particular California gives to the car driver, but to most people it’s not too visible.

She’s particularly interested in changing the rules on parking. We subsidize parking a lot. Most people are aware of the use of roadsides for free or cheap parking on public land. Robin proposes getting rid of the requirements that force building developers to provide adequate parking for their building. Most people think these are a good idea, because otherwise developers would not provide parking, and the cars coming to the building would suck up all available parking in the area and there would quickly not be any.  read more »

Reputation system for cars and the selfish merge.

George Carlin once proposed a system where people would shoot suction cup darts at cars when they did something annoying, like cutting you off, and if you got too many darts the cops would pull you over. Another friend recently proposed a lot of interest in building some sort of reputation system for cars using computers.

Though Carlin’s was a satire, it actually has merits that it would be hard to match in a computerized system. Sure, we could build a system where if somebody was rude on the road, you could snap a quick photo of their licence plate, or say it into a microphone or cell phone for insertion into a reputation database. But people could also just do this to annoy you. There’s no efficient way to prove you actually were there for the rude event. The photos could do that but it’s too much work to verify them. The darts actually do it, since you could not just stick them on my car when I’m stopped, or I would pull them off before driving.

One problem I want to solve with such a system is the selfish merge. We’ve all seen it — lanes are merging, and the cooperating drivers try to merge early. Then the selfish drivers zoom ahead in the vanishing lane until they get to its end. And always, somebody lets them in. Selfishly zooming up does get you through the jam faster, but at the same time these late mergers are a major contributor to the very jam they are bypassing.

We’ll never stop people from letting in the drivers, and indeed, from time to time innocent drivers get into the free lane because they are not clear on the situation or missed the merge.

…More…  read more »

Combining traffic light control and wireless mesh networking

Here's an idea I had years ago and tried to promote to some of the earliest wireless companies, such as Metricom, without success. I just posted it on Dave Farber's IP list, so I should write it up again for my own blog...

The idea is a win-win situation for wireless service and municipalities. Combine wireless data service with traffic light control. Offer a wireless mesh company the use of a city's traffic light poles -- which provide a nice high spot at every major intersection in town, with power available -- in exchange for using that network for traffic control. Indeed, I think this space is so valuable to the wireless companies that they should probably buy traffic control software and offer it free to the cities.

The bandwidth for light control is of course trivial. One could also support traffic cams (though hopefully not universal surveillance cams) to help provide dynamic adjustments to the traffic system.

Today, full-bore automatic traffic lights are expensive -- $150,000 in many cases. That's because of the need to bring in safety-equipment grade power, and to dig up the road to lay down vehicle sensors,
as well as data of course. That's changing. New lights use LEDs and thus a fair bit less power. (Some cities have realized that the LED switch pays for itself very quickly.) I think car sensor tech is changing too, and especially with a large market, either LIDAR or CCD cameras with automatic recognition should be capable of good traffic detection without digging up the road.

So it's a win all around. Cities get better traffic flow (and less gas is burned) and wireless networks sprout everywhere to compete with the monopoly cable/ILEC crew.

For places where a full street light is too expensive, I have also suggested the [wireless brokered 4-way stop](/archives/000118.html) as an alternative.

Why can't a gas tank feed from both sides?

We risked running low on fuel today, and saw the car sputter briefly while going up a hill. Made it to the gas station fine, in fact with a gallon to spare, it seems.

I presume the gas lines in this car drain from one low spot in the gas tank, but when it's on a slope and very low, there's no fuel there. Why can't we have a series of drains at both back and front (and even all 4 corner points.) It would have to go down from there to stop air getting into the fuel line from the exposed fuel outlet, which may be the reason this isn't done, since the tank is usually down low for various good reasons. Could a smart valve allow for any hose exposed to air to close so that air doesn't get in the line?

I guess stalling going up a hill might not be the end of the world in most places, since you can go down to a flat part and start again, but in a "U" you would be trapped.

How Prius drivers are gross polluters and other lessons of carbon credits

I’ve been thinking more about environmental economics since I blogged about retail carbon credits. I was surprised about how cheap (some would say unrealisticly cheap) wholesale credits are — about $2.20 per tonne of CO2. (Update: This price keeps changing. The U.S. price is clearly out of whack down to just 25 cents per tonne in 2009. The European price has declined too, from $20/tonne when I wrote this to $14/tonne in fall 2009.)

Today, many of my friends have bought a car like the Toyota Prius, feeling they are doing their bit to help the environment by burning less gas. The Prius costs around $3,000-$6,000 more than a comparable old-style engine car (in part because high demand keeps the price high), and the savings on gasoline don’t justify it on a financial basis unless you do nothing but drive all day. So the main reason to buy it is to help the environment and to make a statement before your peer group. The Camry Hybrid, which gets 32mpg instead of 23mpg costs about $5,000 more than the regular Camry.)

Problem is, there’s an argument that you’re hurting the environment, counterintuitive as that sounds. And no, it’s not just the unanswered questions about recycling the fancy batteries in the Prius when they fade, where fairly positive results have been returned so far. Read on…  read more »

Car rental companies: Rent me a cooler and road trip kit

After we picked up our rental car in Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia, the blasting heat told us we would like a cooler full of drinks on our 3 day road trip through the outback. So we stopped at a Woolworths and picked up one of those terrible foam coolers, ice and some drinks. There was no bar code on the cooler so we wasted what seemed like 10 minutes in the checkout because the clerk wasn't authorized to ring up an item as general merchandise. (Hint to stores: I know you're scared of your cashiers stealing from you but this is ridiculous.)

It seemed to me that with a sizeable number of the renters in Darwin going off on outback road trips, who among them wouldn't want a cooler. So the rental company should offer a cooler pre-loaded with ice, and even perhaps some drinks. They would of course overprice this, but as long as it's not more than buying a decent cooler, people would go for it over those cheap ones, that can't keep ice long and run a risk of leaking into the nice rental cars in any event. There's other stuff that could go into the road-trip kit, ranging from walkie-talkies to umbrellas to snacks, too.

Retail carbon credits for the car driver

You may have heard of the idea of pollution credit trading. I’ve been pointed to two firms that are selling CO2 credits on the retail level for individuals, to offset the output from driving a car, heating a house etc.

I’ll get into the details on how it works a bit below, but if you have a car like mine that is putting out 5 metric tons of CO2 each year, you can for a low price (about $50, which includes a whopping markup) pay a factory somewhere to cut their own output by 5 tons, meaning that net, you are causing zero emissions. Which means you are reducing total emissions by a lot more than you would by switching to a Prius, and you are doing it at a vastly lower cost. (This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t drive a Prius, it just means this is a lot more effective.)

Normally pollution credits are traded only by the big boys, trading contracts with hundreds or thousands of tonnes of emissions. The retail firms are letting small players get in the game.

This is a fabulous idea, in theory at least, and also a great, if sneaky gift idea. After all, if you buy the gift of not polluting for your loved one all they get is a bumper sticker and a good feeling. At least it’s better than giving to The Human Fund in their name.

Here’s the catch. I went and priced the credits, and while www.certifiedcleancar.com wanted $50 to credit my car, the actual price of credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange is about $2.16 per tonne of CO2, or about $8 for my actual output as they calculated it. One expects some markup, of course, and even some profit for the company selling the retail credits, but this is nuts. I called the other company, Terrapass and got reasonably frank answers. First of all, they claim they invest more in wind power and other truly non-polluting forms of energy more than they just buy carbon credits. Secondly, this is still a small volume thing, and most of the costs are not the credits, but the $20,000 or so to become a member of the exchange, or so I was told. And of course, in small volumes, administrative costs can swamp the real costs.

Another outfit I found is carbonfund.org which is non-profit and cheaper. In some sense since people buy these out of guilt rather than compulsion (they were meant to be forced on polluters to give money to non polluters and make a market) non-profit might make sense, but they are also supposed to be a real market.

Still, if I pay $50, I would love for my $50 to mostly go to reducing pollution, not mostly to administration. Usually when exchanges are expensive there are members who will trade for you at much more modest markups. The folks at Terrapass said they were not yet profitable at the current prices.

And it is such a good idea. Read below for more on pollution credits.  read more »

How car/oil industry cheats us of 6 billion dollars a year

Recently, I discovered something that others have known for a while but many don’t know. Namely that effectively all modern cars that say they should use Premium (high-octane) gasoline run perfectly fine on regular. Since the early 90s, cars have had more advanced carb/fuel-injector systems which adjust to the octane of the gas and don’t knock. Like an idiot, I’ve been filling my car with premium. The engineers at all the major car vendors have confirmed this.

I worked out that since the USA uses 370 million gallons of gas a day, or 135 billion per year, at 12% premium sales, that’s 16 billion gallons of premium sold, almost none of it needed. Call it 15B gallons. At a surcharge of 20 to 30 cents/gallon that’s over 3 billion extra dollars charged to no purpose in the USA, and presumably another 3 billion outside (though perhaps they buy less hi-test outside.) The USA uses about 44% of world gasoline.

So why do many cars come with a line in the owner’s manual saying to use premium gasoline? Turns out the marketing departments believe customers of higher-end cars are ethralled by horsepower. They want to advertise the highest peak horsepower number they can. And you can deliver a slightly higher peak horsepower on higher octane. Nothing so big that you would notice it outside of extreme driving conditions or pro racing, but you can publish a higher number. So long as you spec the car as using premium.

So to satisfy these marketing numbers, the world is spending about 6 billion extra bucks each year on high octane fuel. And I’m not even considering all the extra infrastructure required (fancier pumps and blending systems, more tanks with risk to leak into the ground etc.)

Many people think high-octane gasoline is “more powerful.” In fact, oddly, the octane rating measures how non-explosive the fuel is. The higher the octane, the less likely it will explode under pressure. People think of high-octane fuel as more powerful because with high octane fuel, you can design a higher performance car that works at higher compression, safe in the knowledge you won’t get explosions from anything but the spark plug, ie. knocking. The fuel is not higher power, it’s the engine, which is why putting premium into a regular car is a waste unless it’s knocking. Lead cheaply reduces knocking at low pressure which is why they used to add it until they realized, “holy crap, we’re filling our fuel with toxic lead!”

There is still controversy over whether high-compression engines get better mileage than when they run at lower compression with regular.

What a scam. Spread the word.

Government could buy emergency petroleum reserve as futures

Many are commenting on the gasoline shortages and price increases involved with hurricane evacuation and other emergencies. Some people can’t get gas to get out of the city. Others full up giant tanks even when they don’t need it. Stations raise prices as supply drops and demand increases, as per the normal rules of the market. Some suggest the stations be price-controlled to stop this, but that would only result in even more gas hoarding by the public.

The government could instead have a strategic emergency gasoline reserve. However, it need not keep this reserve in tanks, it could “keep” it in the storage tanks of all the private gas stations, by arranging a special emergency-based futures contract with the station owners, in advance. Not all stations need participate, as long as enough gas for evacuation can be reserved.

During the emergency, it would be calculated how much fuel will be needed per vehicle. Each station would provide that much fuel to each vehicle. The simplest way to do this is to devise some long-lasting mark that will last at least a few days to a week, and for each station to put it on a car after delivering the fuel. Perhaps something as simple as a sharpie mark or other semi-permanent mark on the gas cap. This is unfair in that people with multiple cars could get extra fuel, but other systems, like vouchers and databases have their own problems. Vouchers would be lost or sold on the black market, unfortunately.

Any fuel over and above the contracted amount could be sold at market prices to those who want more fuel and/or wish to hoard. Probably quite high market prices. Fuel tankers could also be arranged to resupply stations with emergency reserve needs. Note that the customers could still pay a normal price for the reserve gas, reducing the cost of the contract. They would also sign a voucher at the station, on which random audits could later be done to confirm compliance. Stations would contract to deliver based on the minimum reserve they keep in their own tanks. There could also be a true reserve in government owned tankers to cover the slop factor.

Hybrid RVs, more RV notes

Every time I take an RV trip (ie. each Burning Man) I come up with more observations. The biggest one is that it cost $360 in gasoline to go from the bay area to the black rock desert, about 800 miles. And that’s at a price still well below world price. The RV owner said he was planning to get out of the business, people no longer want to pay the gas price.

So why is it taking so long to produce a hybrid RV? Hybrid cars are great of course, but trucks and RVs are what really suck gas and need the improved efficiency. And they have the room for larger and more unusual engine configurations. Most of all, RVs also mostly come with expensive generators and batteries, and a hybrid RV would of course have a super duper power plant and batteries and inverters, presuming the engine was efficient at lower revs. The Hybrid RV’s power plant could also be a backup generator when parked at the non-moving home. Probably make the most sense with diesel fuel, or as I have suggested before, even the highly efficient stirling engine. (Stirlings are big, and take time to warm up, but an RV with batteries is fine with this.)

Every RV’s shower has this hose based showerhead with an on-off dial with a slight leak. Our camp built a much nicer shower using a standard kitchen sprayer. A kitchen sprayer with a lock-on would be much better and would make it easier to conserve water by letting you pulse water where you need it when rinsing.

Cleaning the RV, especially when back from the desert, is hard. RV renters charge fat cleaning deposits and fees. Why doesn’t some company that hires out housekeepers do an RV service. You could come to them. Drive in, and a team of 5 attacks your RV, cleaning it in minutes. Do it at a car wash to also handle the outside if needed. Espcially after Burning Man there’s a business here.

I’ve said these before: Paper towel racks, built-in soap dispensers, inverters, flourescent lights. Why aren’t these everywhere in the RV world, instead of being rare?

Stabilizers jacks are great, but how about something simpler, some way to lock the springs or shocks (of course with an interlock to prevent starting the vehicle!) And while slide-outs are great, why do we never see flip out beds the way pop-top campers have, or a pop-up on the cab-over bed? (Most RVs don’t have any spare wall space except in the master bedroom, which does limit the flip-out bed concept. You also almost never see murphy beds.) Flip-out beds don’t take away your dinette or couch as do the extra beds commonly found. And how about a seat belt design for use on the beds for safe sleeping while driving? You can do this now but it doesn’t seem super safe.

Electric cars, perhaps not, but let's see more electric trikes

I recently picked up a surplus battery-powered motor assist for a bicycle, and it's a lot of fun. Due to lower power you have to start peddling to 3mph and then it can run the bike for 10 miles at 10mph (for normal weight people, not me.)

All-electric cars didn't do well in the market in part because people were scared of their limited range, slow charging and and high cost, and the annoyance of plugging them in. They love hybrids because they don't have the range problem. Some folks are promoting plug-in hybrids, which are hybrids with lots of batteries. You can and should charge them from the grid, but you don't have to, so your range is the same as a gas car (or better) and on most trips you are much more efficient.

But perhaps cars are the wrong target. Electric bikes are heavy and a little more unstable when slow or being walked, and get really bad if you put enough batteries on them to go 20 or 30 miles. But trikes on the other hand are stable and you can load a lot more batteries onto them for serious range. And electric trikes are wicked efficient, in terms of cost (and fuel burned) per mile of travel. Orders of magnitude ahead of hybrid cars.

And all this is quite cheap to make if done in quantity. If our cities made more bike paths and bike lanes these trikes could become a major commute form, especially in California with its assured good weather. Yes, it's not perfect -- you have to recycle the batteries, and you do have rain to worry about, and the speed is definitely lower. But for shopping trips, neighbourhood trips and short commutes it seems a giant win.

Use GPS Maps to improve map databases, but protect privacy

Mapping programs, and fancy GPSs come with map databases that will, among other things, plot routes for you and estimate the time to travel them. That’s great, but they are often wrong in a number of ways. Sometimes the streets are wrong (missing, really just a trail, etc.) and they just do a rough estimation of travel time.

Yet all the information is there, being collected constantly by every car that drives the roads with a GPS. Aggregating this data will tell you what roads are real, what roads might be missing, which are one-way, where freeway entrances and exists really are.

And it will also tell you real-world speed examples at various times and dates, at rush hour or otherwise. Even a range of speeds so you can know the speeds for faster and slower drivers and get a really good estimate of your own likely speed on a given road at a given time. After removing the anomalies (like people stopping for coffee) of course.

Rental cars with GPSs are collecting this all the time (sometimes to nefarious uses, like charging whopping fees for brief trips out of state). Technically this data can be had.

But here’s the bad part — there is a potential for giant privacy troubles unless this is done very well, and some may be impossible to do without a privacy risk. After all, until you upload the data, there is clearly a log of your travels sitting there to be used against you. Only a system with rapid upload (and which discards data that gets old, even if it’s not uploaded) would not create a large risk of something coming back to haunt you.

The data would have to be anonymized, of course, and that’s harder than it sounds. After all, your GPS logs say a lot about you even without your name. Most would identify where you live, though that can be mitigated by breaking them up into anonymized fragments to a degree. Likewise they’ll identify where you work or shop or who you visit, all of which could be traced back to you.

So here’s the Solve This aspect of this problem. Getting good data would be really handy. So how do we do it without creating a surveillance nightmare?

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