Transportation

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 »

San Jose Bike Route Airport to Downtown

Pardon the local entry boring to those outside this valley.

San Jose is seeking something "distinctive" for the airport remodel. Let me suggest something I have not seen anywhere else, something that would say something about the area.

San Jose has a bike trail that, except for a short gap, runs along the Guadalupe River from the airport terminals to almost highway 280. The part along Airport Blvd is unpaved, the rest is paved and landscaped. Step one would be to complete this trail and pave the unpaved part. Until the gap can be filled in, create some clearly marked bike lanes. Also do a lane on San Carlos, Park or San Fernando to lead to the convention center and downtown hotels.

Next: Franchise or subsidize specialty one-way bike and electric scooter rentals at both ends. Have regular bikes with towable trailers or trikes, and have electric powered bikes and scooters (again with luggage capacity) for those unwilling to get in some exercise. Make the rental cheap, like a few dollars each way.

This is worth doing just for the polution it would avoid with all those folks taking cabs. (Let's face it, people are not using the shuttle to the light rail much.) It would actually be faster in may cases than either of those methods, especially during rush hour. It would expose the visitor to something other than the highway trip. With San Jose's weather, it could operate well most of the year.  read more »

Eyes in the back of your head

Reading this NYT article about radar to cover car blind spots, which describes a system that will trigger lights in the rearview-mirror when cars are in the blind-spot, reminded me of an old idea I had some time ago I called “Eyes in the back of your head.”

The idea would be to wear a special collar while driving. This collar would contain small electrodes that could lightly stimulate the skin on the back of the neck. Perhaps just one row, but ideally a small 2-D image should be possible.

This would be connected to a camera, radar or sonar system pointing back from the vehicle. It would map where other vehicles are, and turn that into an image on the back of the neck.

Thus, as a car came up behind you and passed you, it would feel like something brushing the back of your neck on one side.

I was inspired to this by reading about a system for the blind that mapped a video camera image onto a 2000 pixel electrode map on the stomach. It was found that over time, the nerves would retrain and a sort of limited vision could develop. Might this have application in driving, or perhaps combat?  read more »

Advance scout robot for trains

Another transportion item, because last night the train I was on hit a car stalled on the tracks (the occupant is OK, though was hit by the car when the train bashed it.)

Since trains do hit things, why aren't solutions to this more common in our data network world? A laser detector over the grade crossings would be simple enough.

At dinner, my friend Kurth Reynolds made a suggestion that I have improved. How about a small robot, equipped with camera and other sensors, which travels far enough in front of the train that if it sees a problem on the track, can send a signal back to the train in time to stop it. Trains take a while to stop, which is one of the reasons they can't do anything when they see a car or person ahead on the tracks.

You can't be too far ahead or you enter the "space" of the earlier train on the track, though during any tight conflicts you can of course give up this "foresight" and bear through (or slow down.)

If you have a human driving the train, you can show them video of what's ahead of the robot and give them time for a decision. Some decisions (Robot hits something or derails) would be automatic. Of course the robot might hit the car stalled on the tracks (though it can stop much, much faster than a train) but do far less damage.

The robot would be tall enough to go over the suicides who are "sleeping" on the track, but light enough so a car hit by it would survive.

Simpler for shorter runs like commuter trains would just be cameras along the track beaming to the oncoming trains. The engineer could be seeing a mile ahead at all times. Hey, if x10 can sell 2 broadcasting video cameras for $80 (WARNING: Don't buy from their web site, you will be spammed to death) I bet this can be made affordable.

This is important because some people don't think we should have rail with grade crossings. Without grade crossings, rail becomes vastly more expensive.

Some updates five years later: Some have worried the robot could hit workers or cars. Today, we are more comfortable we can build robots which would use LIDAR and never hit anything that wasn't running onto the track. The robots would also be light and perhaps have airbags to soften the blow against something rushing onto the track. When coming to a grade crossing, the robot would actually stop at the crossing and wait for the guard to come down (for the train, if the path is clear) and continue to monitor the crossing and report if something stops in it. Then it would speed up again and start going down the track to assure it is far enough ahead of the train.

Virtual Right-of-way

I'm going to write more in the future about how transportation is not making using technology. Let me start with streetcars and the bus.

People use transit a lot more if it is able to beat the car, or at least keep pace with it. Thus we spend a lot of money on dedicated right-of-way for subways, trains and streetcars.

But this is really inefficient. The dedicated right-of-way sits empty 95% of the time. It does nothing so that a train can pass over it every 10 minutes (or more.)

Imagine a system where street cars and electric bus lines run on regular city streets. But it's illegal to drive in front of the car or bus in its special lane. It's OK to drive behind it, but if the car or bus ever has to hit the brakes because you're in front of it, it snaps a picture of the plate, and your car is sent a ticket for $200 for blocking the lane.

The main downside I see to this is the risk of people pulling dangerous stunts to get out of the lane, trying to merge into heavy traffic in the next lane to avoid the fact ticket when they see a bus coming up behind them. The system would have to be tweaked and tested to avoid that, with bigger tickets for making an unsafe lane change etc.

Large carpools (4 or more) might also be allowed in the lane, private busses, shared taxis and so on. Of course, once the streetcar went past, people would zoom behind it to follow its speedy course. But that's good. It's far more efficient than dedicated right-of-way, but gets near the speed.

Traffic signals would of course have to be coordinated with this, stops somewhat limited and there would probably remain some dedicated right-of-way in certain areas. We won't tear out our subways to make this happen.

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