Transportation

Some random travel notes

Here are some notes based on my recent trip to Finland, Sweden and Russia. Not about the places — that will come with photos later — but about the travel itself.

Baltic Ferry

The ferries between Helsinki and Stockholm are really cruise ships. It takes about 16 hours and is a very popular method of travel between the cities, especially for families. There is no really practical land route, and the competition keeps the prices of these things down. In addition, they play tricks to allow duty free shopping, and unlike many duty free shops which are just ripoffs, these ones are competitive and do a brisk business. I’m told they are also party boats, but due to jet lag I was asleep not long after the Smörgåsbord. Unlike most cruise ships, these have almost nothing included, not the sauna, not the food and probably not even the mandatory showing of Abba’s “Mamma Mia.”

Because it the boat left at sunset and I planned to be awake and above at sunrise for photography of the Swedish Archipelago, and the moon was new, I decided there would be nothing to see, and I took an inside cabin. I was surprised to learn that, even though I knew it was dark and largely featureless outside, it bothered me to be in the sealed room. I reiterate my call that ship inside cabins come with a TV showing a closed circuit view of the outside in the correct direction. If they are not ready to do that (this ship didn’t even have TVs) I think a light behind the curtains of the fake window which simulates, based on just the clock, what the light should be like outside, would actually still be a positive step.

Or, failing that, if they put internet in the rooms, people could display the closed circuit video on the screen they brought with them…

On a ship like this, the shower takes up a lot of a very small room while being very cramped anyway. While most people want a toilet in their room, some communal locker room showers might make sense for preserving space. Of course, you still need a lot of them as demand comes at the same time, but not quite as many.

I think I’ll go back to a window for my next cruise cabin. But not a balcony. I have found that when I’ve had a balcony I sat on it for an hour of the entire week, and it took a lot of space out of the cabin.

The nice thing about the overnight cruise, of course, is that it made the trip between cities happen at night, offering a near full day in each city on either end. The arrival is a bit late at 10am, but that time is spent on a cruise of the islands, which all Stockholm tourists want anyway. It made me wonder if it was possible to arrange that sort of travel among close coastal cities in the USA or Canada (Boston to DC?) but perhaps the seas are not as reliable. And of course there is the Jones Act.

For the tourist, it also means the cruise is one of your hotel nights, and it costs only a little more for two people than a typical Stockholm hotel.

Taxi in Stockholm

Arriving in Stockholm, I was advised I should take a cab to our hotel and it would cost under $20. I had to eat my own words about cab competition because I got into a predator cab in the line at the ferry terminal which charged 5 times the typical rates. A few blocks away we noticed the meter going up one SEK (13 cents) per second and asked the driver to stop. He got abusive and threatening, and with my luggage implicitly hostage, I paid $25 to be dumped on the street in the rain with 3 suitcases and no SEK. Turned out there was a subway stop not far away, though that’s no fun with lots of bags.

Turns out the cabs do have their prices on them in the window, and no Swede would hire such a cab, but tourists unaware of the system can be easy marks, so no surprise this cab was at the ferry terminal. I had written earlier that I don’t believe in the heavy Taxi regulation most cities have, though I had come so much to expect it I got burned. The main argument for the regulation is that you can’t shop while standing waiting to hail a cab, but I can now see another argument about it on taxis serving people who will not know the local markets.

Stockholm transit was quite good, and we got an unlimited pass so used it a lot, though in many cases a cab would have probably saved valuable time. But we were so burned by our first Stockholm taxi experience that we just never felt the desire to use one again until the trip to the airport, which we had the hotel arrange.

Transit in St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg transit is a very different experience. It’s cheap: Typical fare of 16-18 rubles (around 60 cents) for official transit, 23 rubles for private buses that are more common. It’s very heavily used. Oddly, there did not appear to be transfers. If you wanted to change from trolley to bus, you seemed to pay again, or so our host told us. While at the low price this should not be a problem, it does mean you’re more likely to walk if you only have to go one or two stops on the 2nd leg.

The subway (which is quite grand, a Soviet showpiece) was packed to the gills on Sunday afternoon. We didn’t ride it during rush hour, and I’m glad. The subway isn’t actually terribly useful for the city core where the tourist sites are, though there happened to be a stop near our nice B&B.

Transport to/from the airport is another story, with most services seeming to run 40 to 60 Euros, though our host arranged a private car (by which I mean, just some guy’s Volga) for 30 Euros. We didn’t try it, but there is also an ad-hoc private taxi system. Stick out your arm and a private citizen will come pull over and negotiate a price, if they are going your way.

As noted, our driver had a Volga, but generally the streets are full of foreign cars. The car everybody wants is a Corolla. Ford is making big inroads too, along with Hyundai.

Air Travel

Finnair is charging for soft drinks on board, that trend is growing. ?????? (Rossiya) airlines still uses paper tickets, that was strange and frustrating. United Airlines won’t let a Premier member upgrade on a United Flight if their ticket came from Lufthansa (which I needed to do to make the Finnair connection as UA doesn’t partner with them.)

GPS Headaches

When I got my HTC Mogul phone, it had a GPS inside it, but the firmware didn’t enable it. So while in Germany in January, I used an external bluetooth GPS which worked OK, if being a bit silly. After I got back I got a phone firmware upgrade, which enabled the internal GPS, which has been very handy since then. When I got back to Europe I discovered two annoying things:

  • While the GPS does use assisted GPS from the cell towers to work faster in the USA, it is a full GPS able to work away from them. But not in Europe, where it refused to work, even when it could see 5 or 6 satellites. Some report getting the phone GPS to wake up after 10-20 minutes but it never did for me.
  • Alas, when they enabled the internal GPS, they disabled the ability to use an external bluetooth GPS through the official WINCE GPS API. So I was worse off than before.
  • While a few programs could use the external GPS because you could manually configure them to use a different port, the offline map program I had downloaded could not. This had a real cost, as I ended up taking a few wrong turns and taking a few wrong street cars without knowing which direction I was going.

So brickbats for Sprint/HTC for this bizarre configuration, and I hope they fix it.

Providing what travelling guests need

I’m back from my 3-country tour that started with being guest of honour at Helsinki’s “Alternative Party” which introduced me to the Demoscene, something I will write about in some future blog posts. While I have much to say about this trip, and many gigs of photos, I thought I would start with some travel notes.

How to be nice to your guest

I don’t write this to fault the crew at Alternative Party. They were fine hosts, and great and friendly people. As a small, non-professional conference, they had to act on a budget, so they could not do everything a rich conference might do. And they did several of the things I list here as good ideas.

  • Hire a local travel agent to assist the guest, and to manage payments for travel. You can give the guest the option of using their own favourite agent, but somebody who knows local stuff is always a plus. And you can control spending via your own agent, and don’t have to worry about reimbursement.
  • If the guest pays some of their own expenses, reimburse as quickly as you can to make them feel good. While it’s rare, there are enough stories of guests who found out after the fact that something would not be reimbursed (including in fraudulent cases an entire trip) to provide enough jitters. Speaking fee doesn’t need to be paid as quickly because that’s a two-way street.
  • Write up a local guide web page for all guests with local info and information on at-event process. Include the mobile phone numbers of local organizers so somebody can always be reached.
  • If the guest is coming from another country, particularly another continent, offer them a local cell phone or local (possibly prepaid) SIM card. These are often dirt cheap and you may even have some spare. If the guest is coming with somebody else, offer two or more of such. USA guests may not own a phone that can work overseas, and many European phones won’t work in the USA/Canada. If they do work, calls are usually very expensive, both for you to reach them and them to call you. In many countries, there are providers who offer free or cheap “on-network” calling, so a pair of such cards or phones can be handy as walkie-talkies.
  • If the guest likes, circulate word among conference organizers or even known attendees to see if somebody who is a fan of the guest would be willing to be a local guide or driver before/after the event. Having a local pick you up at the airport and answer questions is very friendly compared to sending a limo or taxi. If the guest wishes, also arrange a dinner at a nice restaurant with interesting people from the conference.
  • Above and beyond any dinner, ask the guest what kinds of restaurants they like and prepare a list for them of some that are known to be good.

Hotels should do some of this

In St. Petersburg, we stayed at a very nice B&B. But I still had a few suggestions of inexpensive things that could improve life.

  • As with the conference, hotels should make local phones and SIMs available to guests with only a modest profit margin. Program the hotel concierge into the SIM’s phonebook, too. My German prepaid SIM could not make calls in Russia (it worked in Finland and Sweden though at roaming prices) and while I could have bought a Russian SIM, shopping for this would have been time-consuming without knowing the language.
  • Of course, providing wireless internet should be de rigeur. It has become essential to our travels as we read news, get weather and look up tourist information on the internet regularly. In addition, have some loaner computers available, both for those who don’t bring a laptop, and for couples who bring only one but who can then both do their E-mail at once.
  • European hotels almost universally serve a couple by putting two single beds together. They then put two sets of single sheets on the bed, or a single duvet. These can’t be tucked in, and at least for me, it means they always come off. And it’s no good for cuddling as a couple. It would not be that expensive to also keep a modest number of full-bed sheets around for those who prefer that. The single duvets could still sit on top. I realize the European system may make housekeeping easier, but I find it highly annoying and I am sure many others do as well.
  • Many hotels offer a laundry service at a very high price. (Often the cost of cleaning socks and underwear will exceed the cost of buying new ones at discount stores like Costco.) But for those that don’t, the hotel should offer the location of a nearby laundry that does “wash and fold” (ordinary laundry charged by the kilogram) and perhaps even have a relationship with them. Once a trip gets over 8 or 9 days, laundry is important but you don’t want to waste time on it.

Solving Selfish Merge, again

I’ve written a few times about the “Selfish Merge” problem. Recently, reading the new book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do by Tom Vanderbilt, I came upon some new research that has changed and refined my thinking.

The selfish merge problem occurs when two lanes reduce to one. Typically, most people try to be “good” and merge early, and that leaves the right lane, which is ending, mostly vacant. So some people zoom ahead of everybody in the right lane, and then merge at the very end. This is selfish in the sense that butting into any line is selfish. Even if overall traffic flow is not reduced (and even if it is increased) the person butting in moves everybody back one slot so they can get ahead by many slots. This angers people and generates more counter-productive behaviour, including road rage, and attempts to straddle the lanes so that the selfish mergers can’t move up to the merge point.

In Traffic, Vanderbilt writes of surprising research that changed his mind, which showed that, in simulations, some merging forms provided up to 15% more traffic throughput than proper attempts at a zipper merge. In particular, a non-selfish merge fully using the vanishing lane worked better than the typical butt-in situation described at the top.

In this merge, which I’ll call the “slow and fair merge,” drivers are told to use both lanes up to the merge-point, and then to fairly “take their turn” at the merge point entering the continuing lane. Nobody is selfish here, in that nobody butts ahead of anybody else, but both lanes are fully utilized up to the merge point.

This problem is complex, I believe, because there is a switch-over point, which I call the “collapse” point. This is the point at which the merge flow becomes high enough that traffic collapses to “stop and go” mode, before and at the merge-point. Before that point, in lighter traffic, there is little doubt (for reasons you will see below) that the “cooperating fast zipper” merge results in the best traffic flow. In particular, there are traffic volumes where you could either have cooperating zipper or “slow and fair” but cooperating zipper would do a fair bit better. There are also traffic volumes where cooperating zipper just isn’t possible any more, and we will either have “slow and fair” (which has the best volume) or “selfish merge” which has a worse volume.

Real world experiments show different results from the theoretical. In particular, many drivers, used to the anarchic selfish-merge approach, don’t understand fair and slow, even when signs are explicit about it, and so they resist using both lanes and try to merge early. They also try to straddle, devolving to selfish merge. An experiment with digital signs which changed from advising drivers to zipper-merge in light traffic to advising “use both lanes” and “merge here, take your turn” in heavier traffic was disobeyed in fair and slow mode by too many drivers. The experiment ended before people could learn the system.  read more »

ARS Technica covers my Robocars articles

This week, as part of a 3-part series on the future of driving, ARS Technica has written a feature article derived from, and covering my series on Robocars. While it covers less than I do here, it does present it from a different perspective that you may find of interest.

Due to their large audience, there is also a stream of comments. Frankly, most indicate that the commenter has not read my underlying articles and my FAQ section, but one commenter did bring up something interesting that I have incorporated into my section on Freedom.

Their point was this: Today, the police use traffic laws as a way to diminish the rule of law. Everybody violates traffic laws regularly, so the police can always find an excuse to pull over a vehicle that they wish to pull over for other reasons. In essence, this ability has seriously eroded our privacy and freedom while we travel on the roads. Generally, robocars would never offer the police an excuse to detain any random driver. They would have to observe something inside the vehicle, perhaps, in order to have the probable cause needed to stop it. It would be more akin to being in your house. Of course, the police can often still find a way if they try hard enough, but this should make that task a great deal harder.

This does not mean that robocars still don’t present lots of privacy and freedom risks. We must work to avoid those. But this is an upside I hadn’t thought of.

There are also a lot of diggs on the Technica article, with their own comments, even more removed from my base articles, which never got too many diggs on their own.

If you didn’t see it, back a few months ago, the series was also featured on slashdot with a lively thread.

Where does the Ford MyKey lead?

Ford is making a new car-limiting system called MyKey standard in future models. This allows the car owner to enable various limits and permissions on the keys they give to their teen-agers. Limits included in the current system include an 80 mph speed limit, a 40% volume limit on the stereo, never-ending seatbelt reminders, earlier low-fuel warnings, audio speed alerts and inability to disable various safety systems.

My reaction is of course mixed. If you own something, it is reasonable for you to be able to constrain its use by people you lend it to. At the same time it is easy to see this literal paternalism turn into social paternalism. While it’s always been possible to build cars that, for example, can’t go over the speed limit, it’s always been seen as a “non-starter” with the public. The more cars that are out there which have governors on them, the more used to the idea people will get. (“Valet” keys that can’t go over 25mph or open the trunk have been common for some time.)

This is going to be one of the big questions on the path to Robocars — will they be able to violate traffic laws at the command of their owners? I have an essay on that coming up for the future, where I will also ask how much sense traffic laws make in a robocar world.

The Ford key limits speed to 80mph to allow the teen to pass on the highway. Of course on some highways here you could not go in the fast lane with that governor on, which probably suits the parents just fine. What they probably want would be more a limit on average speed, allowing the teen to, for short periods, burst to the full power of the car if it’s needed, but not from a standing start, and of course with advanced warning when the car has gone too fast too long to give a chance to safely slow down.

The earlier low-gas warning is just silly. The earlier you make a warning, the more you teach people to ignore it. If you have an early warning (subtle) and then a “this time we really mean it” warning most people will probably just use the second one. Many cars with digital fuel meters refuse to estimate fuel left below a certain amount, because they don’t want to be blamed for making you think you have more gas than you do. So they tell you nothing instead, which is silly.

What might make more sense would be the ability to make full use of speed, but the threat of reporting it to mom & dad if it’s over-used. (Such a product would be easy to add to existing cars, I wonder if anybody has made a product like that?) Ideally the product would warn the teen if they were getting close to the limit, to let them govern themselves, knowing that they would face a lecture and complete loss of car privileges if they go over the limitations.

On one hand, this is less paternalistic, because it does not constrain the vehicle and teaches the child to discipline themselves rather than making technology enforce the discipline. On the other hand, it is somewhat Orwellian, though the system need not report the particulars of the infringement, just the fact of it. Though we can certainly see parents wanting to know all the details.

Of course, we’ll see a lot more of that sort of surveillance asked for. Track-logs from the GPS in fact. Logging GPSs that can be hidden in cars cost only $80, and I am sure parents are buying them. (I have one, they are handy for geotagging photos.) We might also start seeing “smart” logging systems that measure speed infractions based on what road you are on. Ie. 80mph not near any highway is an infraction but on the highway it isn’t.

I doubt we’ll be able to stop this sort of governing or monitoring technology — so how can we bend it to protect freedom and privacy?

Parking in the robocar world

I’ve added a new Robocars article, this time expanding on ideas about how parking works in the world of robocars. The main conclusion is that parking ceases to be an issue, even in fairly parking sparse cities, because robocars can do so many things to increase, and balance capaacity.

One new idea detailed (inspired by some comments in another post) is an approach for both valet parking and multi-row triple-parked street parking. This algorithm takes advantage of the fact that all the robocars in a row can be asked to move in concert, thus moving a “gap” left in any line to the right space in just a few seconds. Thus if there is just one gap per row, any car can leave the dense parking area in seconds, even from deep inside, as the other cars move to create a gap for that car to leave.

But there are many more ideas of how parking just should not be an issue in a robocar world. That is, until people realize that, and we start converting parking lots to other uses because we don’t need them. Eventually the market will find a balance.

Read Parking and Robocars.

Robocars vs. PRT

Readers of this blog will know I used to talk a bit about Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) but have switched to a belief that it is now likely that robocars might fulfill the PRT vision before actual PRT can. To understand that, it is necessary to explore just why PRT has never really come about, in spite of being promoted, and possible for almost 40 years. The Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit has run since 1975, though it uses large vehicles and only has 5 stations, so it doesn’t realize the PRT vision of personal cars that go point to point in a network of stations. The ULTra system, with personal cars (which run on tires in a simple track) is being built at Heathrow airport.

I wrote an article on the reasons I have rejected classical, track-based PRT and then opened discussion on it in the Google transport-innovators group. The thread was quite vigourous. I had expected PRT fans to not welcome the concept, and to believe that robocars are still very distant science fiction, for indeed that is a valid objection.

I had not expected such a love of the general concept of shared transit that I would see people arguing that even if robocars were arriving soon, it would still be better to fill our streets with custom elevated guideways for a PRT system. Indeed, some advanced that we should not be building roads at all, that people would give up entirely on vehicle ownership in a PRT or robocar world and that providing garage to garage (or door to door) service was not necessary in the U.S. market, or could easily be done by just running PRT tracks to every house.

I understand the frustration in the PRT world. The ideas make a lot of sense, but no city will buy them. I contend that’s because municipal transit planners are highly averse to innovation. They are happy to buy 100 year old technology for their cities. They think farecards and web sites that can tell you when a bus will get to your stop are space-age innovations. Nobody wants to be the planner who bet on an untested technology that failed. That’s a career-ending risk. They would rather bet on old technology, and in spite of how well it is understood, see it go 100%, 200% or more over budget.

I predict that, once the technology becomes more real, robocars will win because they will be built bottom-up on a simple, already existing platform (roads) without any requirements to build infrastructure or run it. They will be bought by individuals, in particular by early adopters. Early adopters have money to burn on the latest hot new toys. They will happily waste it and buy the cooler model 8 months later. Cities don’t buy this way, they can’t. Cities buy technology that’s already obsolete before they even put it out for bid, and it’s very obsolete a decade later when it goes into operation.

Worse, transit requires monopolies. Either the city runs the transit as a monopoly, or it grants a franchise to a private company to build and run it. (That’s far more rare, since most transit runs with heavy subsidies in the USA.) Monopolies mean corruption (as they get large, they end up having more influence on the city officials than the customers do) and they mean monopoly-style customer service.

While robocars are still over a decade away, I fear that even though PRT could be built today, it will take it a decade to get over the marketing humps it has not managed to overcome in 40 years. By that time, robocars should be much closer to reality, and we’ll reach a point where even a transportation planner will realize the robocars will arrive soon enough to affect transit planning in the present.

Rather than being viewed as the enemy, robocars should be viewed as a way to realize the PRT vision without those deal-blocking new infrastructure requirements. But the PRT community is not yet ready to agree.

Read Robocars and PRT

A Week of Robocars

This special chapter in my series of essays on Robocars describes a fictional week in the Robocar world, with many created examples of how people might use Robocars and how their lives might change.

If you haven’t been following my essay on Robocars, this may be a good alternate entry to it. In a succinct way, it plays out many of the technologies I think are possible, more about the what than the how and why.

A Week of Robocar Stories

This ends this week-long series of postings on the Robocar essays. Though I have some new sidebars already written which I will introduce later. I realize this set of essays has been more longer than one typically sees in the short-attention-span blogosphere, but I think these ideas are among the more important and world-changing I’ve covered. I hope I’ll see more comments from the readers as you get more deeply into it.

Robocars: The end of Urban Transit

You may have seen in earlier blog posts my discussion of the energy efficiency of U.S. transit. I started that investigation because as I learned how inefficient most transit systems are (due to light loads outside of rush hour,) I realized that ultralight electric cars, enabled by Robocars, are more efficient than any transit system. Who would take transit if a fast, comfortable, efficient vehicle will take you directly from A to B? This drives chapter eight, about:

The end of urban mass transit

(This one gets the people who think they love transit, rather than loving efficient transportation, in a tizzy.)


Robocars: Deliverbots -- computer driven trucks

For part seven of my series on Robocars, I now consider the adjunct technology I am calling Deliverbots — namely robot driven trucks and delivery vehicles, with no people inside. These turn out to have special consequences of their own. Read:

Deliverbots


Robocars: When?

For part six of my series on Robocars, consider:

When can robocars happen?

I discuss what predictions we can make about how long the Robocar future will take. While there are many technological challenges, the biggest barriers may be political, and even harder to predict.

We don’t seem to have the Jetson’s flying cars yet. What goes wrong with these predictions, and can we figure it out?


Downsides to Robocars

For part five of my series on Robocars, it’s time to understand how this is not simply a utopian future. Consider now:

The Downsides of Robocars

Every good technology has unintended consequences and downsides. Here I outline a few, but there will be more than nobody sees today. I still judge the immense upsides to be worth it, but you can judge yourself.


Car design changes due to Robocars

Robocars will suggest a great number of possible changes in the way we design and market cars. I now encourage you to read:

Automobile design changes due to Robocars

The big green benefit of robocars comes in large part from the freedom they offer in redesigning the automobile, in particular the ability to specialize automobiles to specific tasks, because they can be so readily hired on demand. Or to specific fuels in certain areas, or for sleeping, and much more.


Robocars: Roadblocks on the way

For part three of my series of Robocars, now consider:

Roadblocks on the way to Robocars

A lot of obstacles must be overcome before Robocars can become reality. Some we can see solutions for, others are as yet unsolved. It’s not going to be easy, which is why I believe an Apollo style dedication is necessary.


Robocars: The Roadmap to getting there

In part two of my series on Robocars, let me introduce:

The Roadmap to Robocars

Here I outline a series of steps along the way to the full robocar world. We won’t switch all at once, and many more limited technologies can be marketed before the day when most cars on the road are computer driven. Here are some ideas of what those steps could be — or already are.


Robocars are the future

My most important essay to date

Today let me introduce a major new series of essays I have produced on “Robocars” — computer-driven automobiles that can drive people, cargo, and themselves, without aid (or central control) on today’s roads.

It began with the DARPA Grand Challenges convincing us that, if we truly want it, we can have robocars soon. And then they’ll change the world. I’ve been blogging on this topic for some time, and as a result have built up what I hope is a worthwhile work of futurism laying out the consequences of, and path to, a robocar world.

Those consequences, as I have considered them, are astounding.

  • It starts with saving a million young lives every year (45,000 in the USA) as well as untold injury in suffering.
  • It saves trillions of dollars wasted over congestion, accidents and time spent driving.
  • Robocars can solve the battery problem of the electric car, making the electric car attractive and inexpensive. They can do the same for many other alternate fuels, too.
  • Electric cars are cheap, simple and efficient once you solve the battery/range problems.
  • Switching most urban driving to electric cars, especially ultralight short-trip vehicles means a dramatic reduction in energy demand and pollution.
  • It could be enough to wean the USA off of foreign oil, with all the change that entails.
  • It means rethinking cities and manufacturing.
  • It means the death of old-style mass transit.

All thanks to a Moore’s law driven revolution in machine vision, simple A.I. and navigation sponsored by the desire for cargo transport in war zones. In the way stand engineering problems, liability issues, fear of computers and many other barriers.

At 33,000 words, these essays are approaching book length. You can read them all now, but I will also be introducing them one by one in blog posts for those who want to space them out and make comments. I’ve written so much because I believe that of all short term computer projects available to us, no modest-term project could bring more good to the world than robocars. While certain longer term projects like A.I. and Nanotech will have grander consequences, Robocars are the sweet spot today.

I have also created a new Robocars topic on the blog which collects my old posts, and will mark new ones. You can subscribe to that as a feed if you wish. (I will cease to use the self-driving cars blog tag I was previously using.)

If you like what I’ve said before, this is the big one. You can go to the:

Master Robocar Index (Which is also available via robocars.net.)

or jump to the first article:

The Case for Robot Cars

You may also find you prefer to be introduced to the concept through a series of stories I have developed depicting a week in the Robocar world. If so, start with the stories, and then proceed to the main essays.

A Week of Robocars

These are essays I want to spread. If you find their message compelling, please tell the world.

Is Green U.S. Transit a whopping myth?

As part of my research into robotic cars, I’ve been studying the energy efficiency of transit. What I found shocked me, because it turns out that in the USA, our transit systems aren’t green at all. Several of the modes, such as buses, as well as the light rail and subway systems of most towns, consume more energy per passenger-mile than cars do, when averaged out. The better cities and the better modes do beat the cars, but only by a little bit. And new generation efficient cars beat the transit almost every time, and electric scooters beat everything hands down.

I encourage you to read the more detailed essay I have prepared on whether green U.S. transit is a myth. I’ve been very surprised by what I’ve found. It includes links to the sources. To tease you, here’s the chart I have calculated on the energy efficiency of the various modes. Read on, and show me how these numbers are wrong if you can!

I have added a follow-up post on the comparison between lots of small personal ultralight vehicles and larger shared transit vehicles.

Note: If you want to comment on the cyclist figure, there is different thread on the fossil fuel consumption in human food which details these numbers and invites comments.

Holy cow: Walking consumes more gasoline than driving!

Note to new readers: This article explores the consequences of using so much fuel to produce our food. If you come out of it thinking it’s telling you to drive rather than get some exercise, you didn’t read it! But if you like surprising numbers like this, check out the rest of my Going Green section and other sections.

In my growing research on transportation energy economics, I’ve come upon some rather astonishing research. I always enjoy debates on total cost analysis — trying to figure out the true energy cost of things, by adding in the energy spent elsewhere to make things happen. (For example, the energy to smelt the metals in your car adds quite a bit to its energy cost.)

Humans are modestly efficient. Walking, an average person burns about 100 Calories per mile at 3mph, or 300 per hour, while sitting for the same hour burns around 80 Calories just keeping you warm. In other words, the walking 3 miles uses about 220 extra Calories. Calories are kilocalories, and one Calorie/kcal is about 4 BTUs, 4200 joules or 1.63 watt-hours.

While walking 1 mile burns an extra 74 Calories, on a bicycle we’re much better. Biking one mile at 10mph takes about 38 extra calories over sitting. Again, this is the extra calories.

A gallon of gas has about 31,500 Calories in it, so you might imagine that you get 815 “mpg” biking and 400 “mpg” walking. Pretty good. (Unless you compare it to an electric scooter, which turns out to get the equivalent of 1200 mpg from pure electricity if you allow the same perfect conversion.)

But there’s a problem. We eat, on average about 2700 Calories/day in the USA, almost all of it produced by agribusiness. Which runs on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels provide the fertilizer. They run the machines. The process and transport and refrigerate the food. In many cases our food — cows — eats even more food produced with very high energy costs.

I’ve been digging around estimates, and have found that U.S. agriculture uses about 400 gasoline-gallon equivalents per American. Or 1.1 gallons per day, or about 10 Calories (40 BTU) from oil/gas for every Calorie of food. For beef, it’s far worse, as close to 40 Calories of oil/gas (160 BTU) are used to produce one Calorie of beefy goodness.

You can see where this is going. I’m not the first to figure it out, but it’s worth repeating. Your 3 mile walk burned 220 extra Calories over sitting, but drove the use of 2,200 Calories of fossil fuel. That’s 1/14th of a gallon of gasoline (9oz.) So you’re getting about 42 miles per gas-gallon of fossil fuel.

If you eat a lot of beef or other livestock, and want to consider your incremental food as having come from beef, it’s around 10 miles per gallon. A Hummer does better!

So yes, if you drive your Prius instead of walking it’s going to burn less fossil fuel. If 2 people drive in a more ordinary car it’s going to burn less fossil fuel than both of them walking.

Biking’s better. The average-diet cyclist is getting 85 miles per gallon of fossil fuel. Still better for 2 to share a Prius. The beefeater is, as before only 1/4 as good. At 21mpg he’s better than a Hummer, but not that much better.

This is a fuel to fuel comparison. The fuel burned in the cars is the same sort of fuel burned in the tractors. It has extra energy costs in its extraction and transport, but this applies equally to both cases. And yes, of course, the exercise has other benefits than getting from A to B. And we have not considered a number of the other external costs of the vehicle travel — but they still don’t make this revelation less remarkable. (And neither does this result suggest one should not still walk or bike, rather it suggests we should make our food more efficiently.)

And no, picking transit isn’t going to help. Transit systems, on average, are only mildly greener than cars. City buses, in fact, use the same energy per passenger mile as typical cars. Light rail is sometimes 2 and rarely even 3 times better than cars, but in some cities like San Jose, it uses almost twice as much energy per actual passenger than passenger cars do. Taking existing transit vehicles that are already running is green, of course, but building inefficient lines isn’t.

Many people take this idea as a condemnation of cycling or exercise. It isn’t. Cycling is my favourite exercise. It is a condemnation of how much fossil fuel is used in agriculture. And, to a much lesser extent, a wakeup call to people who eat the average diet that they can’t claim their human-powered travel as good for the planet — just good for them. What would be good for the planet would be to eat a non-agribusiness diet and also walk or bike. How your food is farmed is more important though, than where it comes from. It’s the farming, not the shipping, that’s the big energy eater.

Obviously if you were going to need the exercise anyway, doing it while getting from A to B is not going to burn extra oil. Human powered travel well above the need to exercise is the only thing that would hurt, if fueled by U.S. agriculture. And eating a high calorie diet and not exercising would be just as bad.

Happy eating!

What’s not wrong with these numbers

As I note, since most of us need to exercise anyway, this is not at all a condemnation of walking and cycling, but rather of the amount of fossil fuel that agriculture uses. However, a lot of people still find faults with this analysis that I don’t think are there.

  • No, it doesn’t matter that making the fuel costs energy. It’s (roughly) the same fuel going into the tractors as going into the gas tanks. We’re comparing fuel in tank to fuel in tank. But if you really want to factor that in, about 82% of well energy makes it to the gas tank of the car or tractor.
  • Yes, I do account for the fact that just eating or sitting consumes calories. This calculation is based on the extra calories that biking or walking take, compared to sitting in a car. The base “keep you alive” calories are not counted, but they do require more fossil fuel to create.
  • I don’t include the energy required to make a car, which ranges from 25% (Prius) to 7% (Hummer) of its lifetime energy usage. However, most cyclists and pedestrians still own cars, so this is still spent if it sits in the garage while you walk. And while a 2000lb car may take 60-100 times as much energy to make as a 30lb bike, this is not so large a difference if expressed per lifetime vehicle-mile.
  • This is based on the USA averages. Of course different food means different results, but doesn’t change this story, which is about the average eater.
  • I don’t include the energy needed to build roads for bikes, cars and food delivery trucks. The reality is, we’re not going to build fewer roads because people take some trips walking for exercise. Nor are people going to not buy a car because they do that.

Robodelivery and high-end, low-usage equipment rental (and NPR interview)

Earlier on, I identified robot delivery vehicles as one of the steps on the roadmap to robot cars. In fact, these are officially what the DARPA grand challenges really seek, since the military wants robots that can move things through danger zones without putting soldiers at risk.

Deliverbots may well be allowed on the road before fully automated robotaxis for humans because there are fewer safety issues. Deliverbots can go more slowly, as most cargo is not super-urgent. If they go slower, and have a low weight limit, it may be the case that they can’t cause much harm if they go astray. Obviously if a deliverbot crashes into an inanimate object, it just cost money and doesn’t injure people. The deliverbot might be programmed to be extra-cautious and slow around anything like a person. As such, it might be allowed on the road sooner.

I gave a talk on Robot cars at the BIL conference, and an attendee came up to suggest the deliverbots enable a new type of equipment rental. Because they can bring you rental equipment quickly, cheaply and with no hassle, they make renting vastly more efficient and convenient. People will end up renting things they would never consider renting today. Nowadays you only rent things you really need which are too expensive or bulky to own.

By the way, the new NPR morning show the “Bryant Park Project” decided to interview a pair of speakers, one from TED and one from BIL, so I talked about my robot cars talk. You can listen to the segment or follow links to hear the whole show.

It was suggested even something as simple as a vacuum cleaner could become a rental item. Instead of buying a $200 vacuum to clean your floors once a week, you might well rent a super-high quality $2,000 unit which comes to you with short notice via deliverbot. This would also be how you might treat all sorts of specialized, bulky or expensive tools. Few will keep their own lathe, band saw or laser engraver, but if you can get one in 10 minutes, you would never need to.

(Here in silicon valley, an outfit called Tech Shop offers a shop filled with all the tools and toys builders like, for a membership fee and materials cost. It’s great for those who are close to it or want to trek there, but this could be better. This in turn would also let us make better use of the space in our homes, not storing things we don’t really need to have.

Predictive traction control

Yesterday I wrote about predictive suspension, to look ahead for bumps on the road and ready the suspension to compensate. There should be more we can learn by looking at the surface of the road ahead, or perhaps touching it, or perhaps getting telemetry from other cars.

It would be worthwhile to be able to estimate just how much traction there is on the road surfaces the tires will shortly be moving over. Traction can be estimated from the roughness of dry surfaces, but is most interesting for wet and frozen surfaces. It seems likely that remote sensing can tell the temperature of a surface, and whether it is wet or not. Wet ice is more slippery than colder ice. It would be interesting to research techniques for estimating traction well in front of the car. This could of course be used to slow the car down to the point that it can stop more easily, and to increase gaps between cars. However, it might do much more.

A truly accurate traction measurement could come by actually moving wheels at slightly different speeds. Perhaps just speeding up wheels at two opposite corners (very slightly) or slowing them down could measure traction. Or perhaps it would make more sense to have a small probe wheel at the front of the car that is always measuring traction in icy conditions. Of course, anything learned by the front wheels about traction could be used by the rear wheels.

For example, even today an anti-lock brake system could, knowing the speed of the vehicle, notice when the front wheels lock up and predict when the rear wheels will be over that same stretch of road. Likewise if they grip, it could be known as a good place to apply more braking force when the rear wheels go over.

In addition, this is something cars could share information about. Each vehicle that goes over a stretch of road could learn about the surface, and transmit that for cars yet to come, with timestamps of course. One car might make a very accurate record of the road surface that other cars passing by soon could use. If for nothing else, this would allow cars to know what a workable speed and inter-car gap is. This needs positioning more accurate that GPS, but that could easily be attained with mile marker signs on the side of the road that an optical scanner can read, combined with accurate detection of the dotted lines marking the lanes. GPS can tell you what lane you're in if you can't figure it out. Lane markers could themselves contain barcodes if desired -- highly redundant barcodes that would tolerate lots of missing pieces of course.

This technology could be applied long before the cars drive themselves. It's a useful technology for a human driven car where the human driver gets advice and corrections from an in-car system. "Slow down, there's a patch of ice ahead" could save lives. I've predicted that the roadmap to the self-driving car involves many incremental improvements which can be sold in luxury human-driven cars to make them safer and eventually accident proof. This could be a step.

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