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 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 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?

Use grey water to flush RV toilets

Ok, this idea will make no sense to those who have not gone RV camping. RVs have 3 water tanks — one for fresh water, one for the toilet sewage (known as “black water”) and one for the other drains (shower, sinks) known as “grey water.” When you camp in unserviced campsites for a while you become very aware of the capacities of your tanks.

However, the RV uses the fresh water tank to “flush” the toilet. It seems to me that with a small extra water pump, one could use the grey water, or a mixture — grey with a final spurt of fresh to rinse the bowl.

RVs don’t really flush the toilet, that would use way too much water. You rinse the bowl after #1 and you pre-fill the bowl before #2 and rinse later.  read more »

Road Trip Lessons

Having completed a long fly-n-drive road trip, I have some lessons and observations.

  1. If you will be driving a lot, use a rental car even if leaving your own city. We put 3000 miles on our rental car for $300 — far less than the depreciation cost would have been on my own car.

  2. It’s great to have a cooler in the car, you can buy perishables and get cold drinks when you want them, but forget about those $5 styrofoam coolers for any long trip. Within a few days ours was leaking, we fixed it by putting a plastic bag inside and out, but they are not very sturdy. There are collapsible coolers and we have one but didn’t have luggage room. You can buy a cheap solid cooler for under $20 at wal-mart or Costco, but it seems wasteful to throw it away. If you have extra luggage, you can fill a cooler with stuff, duct tape it and check it as luggage, however.  read more »

Car lights that signal they will eventually dim

Perhaps this is one of those ideas that some car has implemented and I haven't yet seen it. As many people know, in several years ago a number of cars arranged so that their interior lights would not go off immediately when you closed up the car. This gives you the ability to still see shortly after closing up the car and walking away.

Of course this also drives people nuts, because in many cases you can't tell if the lights stayed on because you didn't close a door properly, and you would end up waiting around to see if they would go off.

Some cars fixed this by having the light fade out, but that's still pretty slow and of course elminates the light you were hoping for.

I would suggest that cars develop some more overt signal, to be triggered immediately when the car has decided that all doors are closed and the car is off, and the lights will be going off in 20 seconds. Such as a quick blink pattern when you close the door, or a flash of the headlights, or a quiet sound or bright internal LED.

Seeing this blink pattern, you would be 100% confident the car is closed and you haven't left the lights on, and could walk away, lit for a few seconds like you want.

Inflatable RV

RVs come in all sizes, from 40’ bus to towable pop-up. But what about inflatable in a trunk in the back of a minivan?

Setting up and tearing down tented campsites is a pain, and there are instant-setup tents and even some inflatable tents. But what about a super-duper inflatable tent, designed for car-camping.

In the cabin-tent structure with high-pressure frame would also be (at lower pressure) one or more built in airbeds (that you leave the bedding on), an inflatable couch or chairs, wiring for LED or fluorescent lights in the roof with switches, 12v power jacks etc. On the outside might be an inflatable sink with 12v pump and drain hose and outside inflatable chairs. There would be an “air pressure bus” with quick-connects and turnable valves for each component. Inflation would be pushbutton, deflation might require turning values as you deflate components but still simple. Once deflated, the whole thing — components, bedding and all — would roll up and fit into a trunk or large suitcase that would fit in the back of a minivan or SUV. It would not be designed to be small or light like most tents.

It could also be designed to sit in a hitch holder, along with a bike rack. Add a portable toilet, camp stove, ice chest and folding tables (inflatables are not solid enough.) Ideally wire a special jack into the van battery, and replace the van battery with a marine battery (deep cycle and starting).

The goal: open the crate, open the valves and start the compressor. In a few minutes, a living space is erect. If needed, put in weights or stake it down. In the morning, start the vacuum on the internal components, then turn the valves to drain the support members, roll it up, bedding and all, and go.

I believe this could easily sell for $1,000 or more. It would be almost as easy as a pop-up camper, but best of all you would not be towing something. It would pay for itself for families on a cross country road trip pretty quickly. The key is to not think of it as a tent but as an RV.

Improving RVs

First entry in a while due to trip to Burning Man ... more on that later. This time I returned to RV rental, after 2 years in a tent, so I thought I would make some notes on that.

It amazes me how little attention mainstream RVs pay to what is called "dry camping" -- away from electrical and water connections. Yes, they have batteries, tanks and generators, but it's very rare to see an RV use fluorescent lights, for example, even though they are available in 12v form and take 15% or less of the power of the incandescent lights they currently use. If running off batteries this is a no-brainer.

Inverters are also cheap these days, and more efficient. Some draw almost nothing now when not loaded, so a built in inverter to run 110v gear efficiently off the batteries also makes sense. As noted, a 1kw inverter is today quite cheap, and could even run the microwave, though you would not want to do that much. An automatic system to run mostly from battery but start the generator on-demand during daytime hours if it gets low could make sense.

Solar kits are sold for RVs but are rare and rarely standard. It also amazes me that they don't come standard with built in liquid soap dispensers, paper towel racks and other things to keep the commonly used stuff secure.

We have found it handy to use the rubbermaid (or similar) plastic storage boxes to put multiple boxes in the overhead storage. Pull out drawers would also make sense here. Each time you move you have to "rig for silent running" and some RVs we have rented come with metal blinds that will clank and clank unless you stuff towels into them.

The latest RVs only fill their water tank from a standard pressurized hose. Turns out that's a curse at burning man because the water truck is not allowed to have such a fixture due to the risk of backflow from an unknown tank. Doubt we will see a fix for that as it is an unusual problem.

RVs come with very low precision monitor guages, from before the digital age. They show you that your tanks are at 0, 1/3, 2/3 and full, for example, and likewise for your battery. On the fresh water tank they could measure flow through the water pump to get a much more accurate figure, and if they detected if the toilet was the use, they could also know how much was likely in the gray tanks. The black tank (sewage) sensors have been broken on every RV I have ever encountered, they gum up with toilet paper. You would think after decades of having unusable sensors they would devise some other method, such as a pressure sensor under a heavy membrane, or bouncing sound waves or light off the top of the sewage. You can of course shine a flashlight down the toilet, but that's harder to judge than you might think and of course not very pleasant.

Measuring the battery accurately is of course a much easier task, and I use my voltmeter to do it. You could also do a full coulomb counter like laptops do to really accurately measure charge level and the condition of the battery to find out when it's time to replace. None of this stuff is expensive in the modern digital world, but RV designers still think in 80s technology, I surmise.

It's also common to find just one 12v jack in an RV and at most 2, usually where TVs will go. They assume RV owners will not be using much 12v equipment even though it's quite common nowadays.

In order to protect the batteries when camping off-grid, there should be timers or automatic shut-offs of lights if voltage goes below certain limits. Many an RV camper has left a light on and found their battery drained. If they are there and the timer trips, they can just manually turn it on again.

No speed limit, a fuel limit.

Ok, I'll admit this is a crazy idea, not likely to ever see the light of day, but it's worth throwing out as an exercise. It is often said we should keep the speed limit low to encourage good fuel economy.

What if there were no speed limit, but instead a "fuel limit." For example, 2 gallons of gas per hour.

If you are driving a 30mpg Honda Accord, you
could thus go 60 miles an hour, as that would burn 2 gallons in one
hour. If you had a 50mpg Toyata Prius, you could go 100 miles/hour
because that would also burn 2 gallons/hour. ZEV? As fast as you
want, just like Germany.

Bad news in that 20mpg Ford Explorer 4WD. 40 miles/hour maximum speed
for you.

A Hummer? Forget it, you'll be below the minimum speed. No highway
driving for you. Enjoy the side roads.

This is more an academic exercise, as the voters would reject it (they
love their big cars) and we actually don't want anybody going 40mph on
I-280. But in fact, if the limit is set to encourage good fuel economy,
this would be the way to do it. A simpler, but also unpopular way
would be to tax gas to $5/gallon. It's fair, because when you crud up
my air by burning your gas, you owe me something, and the least you could
do is reduce my taxes.

Now of course if you really did something like this it would be more complex. Probably not linear, nobody below 50mph. If 50mph is not enough, an 55mph exception for commercial trucks, busses and other non-passenger or many-passenger vehicles. Being a carpool would also alter your speed. Of course it would be a fair bit harder for cops to enforce, but actually not that hard. Cops are trained to identify cars very quickly, and of course would have a quick database. But frankly, you can tell a guzzler when you see one, most of the time.

Stirling Engine based hybrid car

I'm not the only one to have thought of this, but as yet no real work has been done. How about a hybrid car powered with a Stirling Engine? (Not spelled Sterling, btw.)

The Stirling is more efficient than the internal combustion or diesel engine, and it's also a lot quieter. Sounds great, but it's not good for cars because it can't rev up quickly and it takes about 5 minutes to get the engine hot enough to run well. We want our cars to start the minute we put the key in.

A hybrid design (with enough batteries for 10-20 miles) solves this. You can get all the acceleration you need from the electric motors, and you can start driving right away, while heating up the Stirling "boiler". Then it kicks in to provide the power to run the car for the long haul. If you know the trip is short, no need to fire up the Stirling until the battery gets low.

The Stirling can burn anything. Gasoline, kerosene, diesel, vegetable oil, hydrogen, even wood! Yes, you could, in theory, be stuck by the side of the road out of gas, then go out with an axe to chop trees and refuel your car.

Well, almost. You want high-temperature burning for the best efficiency, and this would pollute and probably dirty your nice clean boiler. Right now the engines are expensive to machine but I suspect that could change.

Gas futures at the gas pump?

Commodities traders buy gasoline futures all the time. Could they work at the gas pump? Imagine a big gas chain willing to sell you future gas today. You would buy a coupon, good for 15 galons of gas in August, the month you plan a big family trip in the minivan. You're afraid the high prices in the future might hurt the trip, you can be protected against them. The futures might even cost less than gas at the pump today due to widespread belief that supplies will open up. In times of heavy fear they would cost less. You could even buy some of your gas years ahead (from a big chain you know will be around) and then sell them on eBay if you don't need them. Would you need a commodities licence to do so?

Would anybody buy them?

(Thanks to Kathryn for this idea.)

Trains that decouple and recouple

I've often wondered why, when you have an electric train line that has a terminus as the main destination, you can't give everybody an express train.

To do this, imagine for the commute home, a 5 car train starts downtown. It leaves and expresses a few stops down the line. (A local car leaves after to handle the stops close to downtown.) When it gets to point one, with sufficient warnings and many safeguards, it decouples, and the rear car brakes to stop at the first of its stations.

Passengers get off (and on as well, see below) and the car, which has its own power coupler, takes off to drop folks off at the next few stations. The main train releases another car after that which handles the next few stations.

This has been thought of before, but next the hard part, something needing more modern technology. After the drop-off car has completed its local run, it would attempt to rejoin the next express train, allowing local passengers who got on it to get on an express, then move to the car that will eventually decouple to go to their stop. With the right timing this could go on all day.

Not that this is easy...  read more »

Redeem transit tickets for Carpool lane permits

Carpool lanes exist to reward those who work to reduce congestion and pollution with a faster trip. I know that's good every time I look out my window and can't see the hills for the haze. Some areas allow zero-emission-vehicles (electric cars etc.) to also use carpool lanes with a solo driver, reducing pollution if not congestion.

Proposals have been made to also allow solo drivers of hybrid cars into the lanes, as well as solo drivers who simply pay a fat fee for a permit. Let me propose an interesting variant of these payment ideas.

Let people pay for part of their capool permit with used commuter train tickets. A person who rides the commuter train takes a car off the road just as much as a person who carpools. If used train tickets (for longer trips) could be credit for a carpool permit, this would encourage people to take the train "most days" but still use their car when it's called for. You could allow only redemption of your own ticket (such as a monthly pass) or any ticket, in which case a market would develop with people paying transit riders for their ticket stubs. This would effectively mean the solo drivers would subsidize the transit riders, even making their trips free. Which is part of what we want to have happen here.  read more »

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