Transportation

German Ideas

I’m back from my German trip, which included the DLD conference and a bit of touring in Austria and Bavaria. DLD was a good crowd of people and speakers, though the programming was a bit of a mishmash. I’ll have some nice photos up soon.

One highlight was winning Lufthansa’s contest for innovative ideas to help aviation compete with trains. I mostly offered ideas you may have seen on this blog before, and a couple of new ones, but one of them was good enough to win their very nice prize, 2 business class tickets anywhere Lufthansa flies. I suspect I’ll return to Africa with these as that’s pricey to get to, even in coach. Of course I was helped by the fact that most conference attendees did not notice the contest/forum, and I had few competitors.

This was my 3rd trip to Germany (if you don’t count changing planes) but the first serious one as an adult. So some of these observations will be old but I felt it worth writing them down.

General observations:

  • Note to self: Go back and do more travel in Europe when the Euro was 80 cents, not $1.47. It does put a lot of sticker shock on the prices of things.
  • In particular, over $7 for gasoline, and they take it in stride. They use a lot more transit all over Europe of course, and drive a lot more tiny cars that are much better on fuel. I rented a Toyota Yaris, which actually was quite suitable except climbing some hills in the Alps. They need to start selling more cars like it in the USA, if just for parking.
  • Why do Europeans make good bread so reliably? In the USA, bad bread is just too easy to find.
  • The food in Tirol is great, a nice mix of Italian and Germanic. Surprised this hasn’t spread out more into the world. Tirol used to be Italian, now it’s Austrian.
  • We found a tremendous deal for SIM cards for our phones at the Schleker drugstores for smobil.de. For 15 euros we got 2 SIM cards, each loaded with 10 euros of airtime, and best of all 1/cent minute for on-network calls for the first 30 days. For us all we wanted was 10 days and thus they were like almost free walkie-talkies. Of course, higher prices while in Austria so nothing’s perfect but this rate was hard to beat. Unfortunately all instructions, menus etc. were in German.
  • OK, Salzberg, I get it that Mozart was born in your town. Really.
  • Pizza seems to be the top fast food of Bavaria and Tirol, with Donner Kebabs a close second. Now close to Italy you would think that made sense until you realize that Pizza itself, while Italian in heritage, was developed in the USA. (Not that Italians don’t know how to make it well, of course.)

Good ideas:

  • An old idea, but that Autobahn works. People keep to the right, and don’t block traffic that wants to go faster out of some sense of knowing what the right speed for others is. Lower accident rate, people going much faster.
  • Lufthansa has a very simple SMS check-in (for German Residents only) but you still need to get a card at the airport.
  • Boarding in Frankfurt, they had a sealed waiting area, and you had your boarding pass/passport scanned when you entered the waiting area, not when trying to get on the plane. As a result, loading the 777 was super fast, they just wanted to make sure you were in the rows they called. They did not allow Premier members to board early — but I think that’s the right thing to do anyways.
  • Stay in German Gasthausen and Pensions rather than fancier hotels. Cheaper and better experience.
  • For even cheaper calling if you don’t have a local SIM card, hunt for wireless and use Skype or VoIP from your laptop.
  • The pedestrian plaza at MUC airport to walk to the trains from the terminal is quite nice. Nice pedestrian spaces are not so common in U.S. airports which are all about getting people from cars to planes.
  • Deutches Museum, which we intended to spend more time in, but instead must return to again.
  • It’s fun to see how totally vanished the borders have become. I wonder if some day the disused border stations might be rented out as gas stations or convenience stores. Even the Swiss-Austrian border is just a wave through, no questions, no showing of ID. Meanwhile, the Canada-US border grows tighter, with passport demands and probably fingerprints some day.
  • Taking the side-roads when the Autobahn in Austria wants to go through a 20km tunnel. What views! Some of the tunnels don’t seem to bypass anything, they must be there to keep snow off the roads and highway noise away from the rural settings. Pretty expensive way to do that, though.

Ideas that may not be so good:

  • Almost all the toilets we used had their tank (and yes, at least some had a tank) mounted in the wall. Germans don’t seem to want to see the tank. Not sure how you fix it when it goes bad, though. Like Australians, some had 2 buttons (one for #1 and one for #2) or a way to stop the flush for a lesser flush. Perhaps I am confused and all were just on 3/4” pipe and had no tank, but some seemed to.
  • One downside of the local hotels: German beds, which involve two twins next to each other, and two independent integrated sheet/blankets. Really annoying for a couple sleeping together, hard to tuck in, easy to create air gaps. Easy for cleaning but that’s about it.
  • Most of the old towns had complex regulations about who could drive in and when. As such, it could not be expressed in international road signs, making it very confusing for tourists — and these old towns are the main tourist targets — who come in cars. Bring a good translation guide to try to understand where you can stop or park! I’m not demanding everybody speak English, of course, but in tourist areas a special effort is worthwhile.
  • Car rental is very expensive and has not reached the computerized ease of use seen from things like Hertz #1 Club where you just walk up and your car is waiting, keys in it. Of course it is a much less car oriented place, but there are still lots of cars. Unlike almost everything else, rental car companies advertise rates without taxes.
  • Germans for some time have been huge consumers of bottled mineral water, usually fizzy. I don’t like this myself, and in fact I don’t even like the bottled still waters which are the only alternatives a lot of the time. It’s not just the fact that it’s $8 for a bottle at most restaurants: bottled water is very un-green which you would think the birthplace of the Green party would understand. But when I asked for tap water they always looked at me strangely, and in one case even refused to serve it to me! Attempts to explain the ecological point always resulted in “that’s the first time I’ve heard that.”
  • Like many other countries, a hotel room for 2 is much more than a room for 1. Which is, I guess, good for the single traveller and bad for the couple. Of course, one main reason is that almost always a room comes with a fairly nice breakfast. Some hotels list their double price, some list a per-person price for a double making it harder to compare.

More automatic valet parking and self-driving tow vehicles.

I want to enhance two other ideas I have talked about. The first was the early adoption of self-driving cars for parking. As I noted, long before we will accept these cars on the road we’ll be willing to accept automatic parking technology in specially equipped parking lots that lets us get something that’s effectively valet parking.

I also wrote about teleoperation of drive-by-wire cars for valet parking as a way to get this even earlier.

Valet parking has a lot of advantages. (I often joke, “I want to be a Valet. They get all the best parking spots” when I see a Valet Parking Only sign.) We’ve given up to 60% of our real estate to cars, a lot of that to parking. It’s not just denser, though. It can make a lot of sense at transportation hubs like airports, where people are carrying things and want to drive right up close with their car and walk right in. This is particularly valuable in my concept of the minimalist airport, where you just drive your car up to the fence at the back of the airport and walk through a security gate at the fence right onto your plane, leaving a valet to move your car somewhere, since you can’t keep it at the gate.

But valet parking breaks down if you have to move the cars very far, because the longer it takes to do this, the fewer cars you can handle per valet, and if the flow is imbalanced, you also have to get valets back quickly even if there isn’t another car that needs to come back. Valet parking works best of all when you can predict the need for your car a few minutes in advance and signal it from your cell phone. (I stayed at a hotel once with nothing but valet parking. The rooms were far enough from the door, however, that if you called from your room phone, your car was often there when you got to the lobby.)

So I’m now imagining that as cars get more and more drive-by-wire features, that a standardized data connection be created (like a trailer hitch brake connection, but even more standard) so that it’s possible to plug in a “valet unit.” This means the cars would not have any extra costs, but the parking lots would be able to plug in units to assist in the automated moving of the cars.  read more »

Videocall terminals, with scanners and printers, for customer service

I just went through a hellish weekend at the hands of United Airlines, trying to change planes at Dulles on Saturday, and not getting to California until Monday. I wasn’t alone, and while I do wish to vent at the airline, there are things that could have been better with a bit of new thinking.

As flights were canceled or delayed, and planes filled up, for most customers the only answer was the customer service centers inside the terminals. These quickly had lines of hundreds of people with waits of several hours. In some cases, just for simple transactions like getting a hotel voucher because you had been moved to the next day. (While it is possible to get such vouchers at the ticketing desks outside the secure area, Dulles is not an easy airport to move around, and people were reluctant to take the shuttles to the master terminal and leave the secure area without knowing their fate.)

Among the many things the airline is to be faulted for is having no real way to deal with the huge numbers of customers who need service when a cascading problem occurs. Multi-hour waits simply don’t cut it. The answer lies in extending the facilities of the self-service kiosks. At those kiosks you can do basic check-in, changes of seating and some other minor changes. You go up, put in your card or confirmation number, and you can do some transactions. You can also pick up the phone and talk to an agent sitting in their Nova Scotia call center. The kiosk has a printer that can print boarding passes. Unfortunately the agents are not empowered to do more than help you with what the kiosk can do. They can’t be like the other customer service agents and rebook flights or issue vouchers.

When you have a big company like an airline, that may suddenly need hundreds of agents for one trouble spot, video kiosks with printers (and scanners) seem like a great idea. Stations could be installed where customers can come and talk to an agent by videocall. They can feed documents into scanners or show them to the camera. They can feed documents into hoppers that will destroy them if that’s needed. And a more full printer could print them any documents they need — boarding passes, tickets, hotel, food and transportation vouchers. In fact, unless agents have to physically handle luggage or control who gets on a plane, they don’t need to be right there at all.

Of course this is not as personal as a live human in front of you. But it’s much better than a phone agent (and lots of listening to Rhapsody in Blue.) And, if the need arises, you can suddenly have 100 agents serving a problem area instead of 5, and focus the on-site agents on on-site problems.

Of course, the scanners and printers are only needed at rare intervals during the transactions, so another approach would be to let people have a combined web/videocall experience on any laptop computer, and to contract with the providers of airport wifi service to make access to the airline’s support website a free feature. Do that and suddenly there can be a thousand customer service videoconference tools in an airport that needs one. (They can all show video, and a growing number of laptops can also send it.) A smaller bank of scanners and printers can handle the portions of the transaction that need that. For example, you contact customer service on the laptop and the agent tells you to line up at scanner #5 and scan your documents. Then you work out your problems, and the agent tells you to go to printer #3 and get your new documents. (Destruction of old documents can be handled by the machine or possibly an on-site agent who does little but that.)

In fact, a lot of the stuff done at airport gates could be done this way. All the hassling at the desk is easy to do remotely. Only the actual ushering onto the planes needs live people. It may be less personal but I would rather have this than standing in line for long periods. They key factor is the ability to move agents around to where they are needed in an instant, so that there is no waiting (and little wasted time by agents.)

Of course, agents can also be very far away. Though I would resist the temptation to make them too far away (like India.) Not that there aren’t good workers in India but too many companies fall for the temptation to get employees in India that are even cheaper than the good ones, and simply not up to the jobs they are given. The Nova Scotia crew were helpful and their distance was not a problem.

This principle can apply to conference and tradeshow registration as well. Why fly in staff to a remote tradeshow to do such jobs which tend to be quite bursty. Have local staff to man scanners and printers, and remote staff to talk on the videophone and solve my problems. It’s so much cheaper than the cost of transporting and housing staff.

Of course, you can also just plain have a good internet/web customer service center. But I’m talking here about the problem of people who are at your facility, and deserve more than that. They need a live person to solve their problems, they need to combine what they can do on the computer with what a skilled (and authorized) agent can make happen, and because they are on location and upset, and not just at home on the computer, they deserve the expense of a bit more money to provide good service.  read more »

More on selfish merge and jams

I wrote earlier this week about selfish merging and traffic jams and this prompted some to ask if the selfish merge is really selfish. Update: There is more and new thinking in this later post on selfish merge being not so selfish.

There are two forms in which it is selfish. At its most basic, it is barging into line. A series of cars is traveling the road, and one car, who is behind all the others, waits for them to merge out of the vanishing lane, then zooms ahead of all of them, and get somebody up front to let them in where the merge has made things stop-and-go. 100 people behind the merger are delayed 5 seconds each, and he gains 500 seconds compared to joining the back of the line. That’s if you presume it’s a zero sum situation.

However, I believe it is worse than zero-sum, for a couple of reasons. A typical highway lane can handle 2,000 cars/hour, but only about 1,000 if traffic slows to a crawl. Cars that merge while traffic is still flowing are less likely to cause the collapse than those who attempt to merge from a stopped position at the end of the vanishing lane. It starts when somebody slows to let them in, or they barge in forcing somebody to brake.

Now if two lanes able to carry 2,000 cars/hour merge to one, we can only have smooth flow if there are in fact only 1,000 cars per hour (or fewer, since heavy merging reduces capacity to about 1,500 cars/hour) in each lane. If input is within the output capacity of the continuing lane, we can do fine. However, if slowing to stop and go reduces the chokepoint to 1,000 cars per hour, we can only handle 500/cars/hour/lane or the jam backs up for a long distance. Once input exceeds the output capacity we must take more dramatic steps to stop a long traffic jam.

This is the theory that supports metering lights on highways. As long as the highway flows at good speed, its capacity is high and sufficient for the traffic. If it gets a burst of high-demand, it collapses into a traffic jam. Thus, for people waiting at metering lights, while they are annoyed at waiting, in fact because everybody is being metered they will get there faster than if they don’t wait. For the car at the “tipping point” it can be the case that if they wait, they will join a smooth traffic flow, but if they rush into traffic, they will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and slows everybody, including themselves.

My proposal is similar to metering lights, except for a merge. Merging reduces lane capacity as cars must increase spacing to allow safe merging. Or they must stop entirely in a jam. If demand starts to exceed capacity, my proposal is to prohibit merging well down the highway. The cars in the continuing lane zoom through without merging using the full capacity of the lane. However, from time to time they must stop (creating a waiting line) to let the cars in the vanishing lane through, also at full speed without merging. The volume of cars through the chokepoint is what matters here, and if we can increase that to 2,000 cars/hour instead of 1,000 cars/hour, we will have a far shorter jam when there is no choice but to have a jam (ie. more than 2,000 cars/hour coming in.) And by encouraging cars to merge early, we can avoid a jam when we have less than 1,500 cars/hour coming in. When we have something in between, we introduce a hopefully short single pause but maintain a little under 2,000 in output capacity. We would need experimentation to learn what the output capacity is with metered stopping.

Radio transmitter to solve selfish merge

I have written before about the selfish merge which is a tricky problem to solve. One lane vanishes, and the merge brings everybody to a standstill. Selfish drivers zoom up the vanishing lane to the very end and are let in by other drivers there, causing the backup. The selfish strategy is the fastest way through the blockage, yet causes the blockage.

My thinking on Burning Man Exodus made me wonder if we might have a robot signal drivers not with lights but with radio. At the merge point we would place a computer with a radio transmitter, and detectors to measure the speed of traffic in each lane. If traffic flowed at a good speed, it would do nothing. If traffic slowed, signs would light up saying “Tune to and Obey AM 1610. $500 fine for lane changing without clearance.”

The robot would be at the merge point, and also have traffic lights marked with lane numbers of names.

The radio robot would then move the lanes through the merge. The key is the robot can tell an entire lane to start moving slowly simultaneously, and to stop simultaneously, even over a longer distance. So it can command the left lane to start moving and the others to remain stopped and not to change lanes. When the left lane has emptied, it can command it to stop and the red light for that lane would go on (clearly visible at the merge point.) A camera could record anybody running the red light or changing lanes into that lane as it is emptying. As it is clearing, the radio voice can tell the next lane to prepare to move, and give it the green light and the verbal command to do so. Lower priority would be given to the lane that is vanishing and those stuck in it — they were supposed to do a nice zipper merge a mile back, and are only stuck in it because they didn’t do so. This means that zooming up in the vanishing lane becomes punished rather than rewarded, and as a result, this jam-clearing approach would be needed far less.

The system would have to be experimented with and tuned for the best results.

There is a problem that there has to be some point where the system starts, after which lane changes are forbidden. There is a risk that a jam could be created there rather than at the physical merge point, by people in the vanishing lane trying to get into to continuing lane. This is the parameter we would tune — how much punishment can we give the people who wait too long in the vanishing lane before they start creating a jam a bit further up the road? Perhaps no punishment is needed, just equal treatment.

Of course there are two types of merges. Some are temporary, due to construction. Others are permanent. I am primarily aiming at the temporary ones here though it’s possible that solutions could be found for permanent merge-jams. However, in permanent merges, drivers get to know the parameters and will try to game them. If we move where the merge is it’s hard not to simply move the jam.

There is also the question of the very few cars without radios, and those who can’t understand basic instructions in the languages given on the radio. (The instructions can be said in up to 3 languages, I would think.) Such drivers would have to just follow the other cars, which is doable, even if their reaction time will not be as quick. Drivers who can’t read the signs already face the risk of violating traffic laws, of course.

I also don’t know how much gain you get from everybody being able to stop and start at once on voice command. Obviously moving cars need wider spacing than stopped cars, so you can’t actually start everybody at once like a train. Still, I think it should be possible to drain a blockage faster with the combination of coordinated starting and nobody else being allowed to merge into the lane during the period.

It’s also possible the voice could tell cars in the vanishing lane to simultaneously enter the continuing lane once it has been cleared, but that requires a way to stop oncoming traffic from entering that lane during that process, and it’s easier if all equipment can be placed at the merge point.

Is robot delivery on the roadmap for self-driving cars?

Last week I talked briefly about self-driving delivery vehicles. I’ve become interested in what I’ll call the “roadmap” (pun intended) for the adoption of self-driving cars. Just how do we get there from here, taking the technology as a given? I’ve seen and thought of many proposals, and been ignoring the one that should stare us in the face — delivery. I say that because this is the application the DARPA grand challenge is actually aimed at. They want to move cargo without risks to soldiers. We mostly think of that as a path to the tech that will move people, but it may be the pathway.

Robot delivery vehicles have one giant advantage. They don’t have to be designed for passenger safety, and you don’t have to worry about that when trying to convince people to let them on the road. They also don’t care nearly as much about how fast they get there. Instead what we care about is whether they might hit people, cars or things, or get in the way of cars. If they hit things or hurt their cargo, that’s usually just an insurance matter. In fact, in most cases even if they hit cars, or cars hit them, that will just be an insurance matter.

A non-military cargo robot can be light and simple. It doesn’t need crumple zones or airbags. It might look more like a small electric trike, on bicycle wheels. (Indeed, the Blue Team has put a focus on making it work on 2 wheels, which could be even better.) It would be electric (able to drive itself to charging stations as needed) and mechanically, very cheap.

The first step will be to convince people they can’t hit pedestrians. To do that, the creators will need to make an urban test track and fill it with swarms of the robots, and demonstrate that they can walk out into the swarm with no danger. Indeed, like a school of fish, it should be close to impossible to touch one even if you try. Likewise, skeptics should be able to get onto bicycles, motorcycles, cars and hummers and drive right through the schools of robots, unable to hit one if they try. After doing that for half an hour and getting tired, doubters will be ready to accept them on the roads.  read more »

Orwell could answer the cell phone driving question

From time to time I come up with ideas that are interesting but I can't advocate because they have overly negative consequences in other areas, like privacy. Nonetheless, they are worth talking about because we might find better ways to do them.

There is some controversy today over whether driving while talking on a cell phone is dangerous, and should be banned, or restricted to handsfree mode. It occurs to me that the data to answer that question is out there. Most cars today have a computer, and it records things like the time that airbags deploy, or even in some cases when you suddenly dropped in speed. (If not, it certainly could.) Your cell phone, and your cell company know when you're on the phone. Your phone knows if you are using the handsfree, though the company doesn't. Your phone and cell company also know (but usually don't record) when you're driving and suddenly stop moving for an extended period.

In other words, something with access to all that data (and a time delta for the car's clock) could quickly answer the question of what cell phone behaviours are more likely to cause accidents. It would get a few errors (such as if the driver borrows their passenger's phone) but would be remarkably comprehensive in providing an answer.

But to gather this data involves way too many scary things. We don't really want our cars or phone companies recording data which can be used against us. They could record things like if we speed, and where we go that we don't want others to know about, and who we're talking to at the time, and much more.

In our quest for learning from private data, we have often sought anonymization technologies that can somehow collect the data and disassociate it from the source. That turns out to be very hard to do, often near impossible, and the infrastructure built for this sort of collection can almost always be trivially repurposed for non-anonymous use; now all that is needed is to flick a switch.

Now I do expect that soon we will see, after a serious car accident, attempts to get at this data on a case by case basis. The insurance companies will ask for cell phone records at the time of the accident, or data from the phone itself. We're already going to lose that privacy once there is an accident, thought at least case by case invasions don't scale. Messy problem.

Broadcast traffic light data, and let cars use it

Self-driving cars are still some ways in the future, but there are some things they will want that human drivers can also make use of.

I think it would be nice if the urban data networks were to broadcast the upcoming schedule for traffic light changes in systems with synchronized traffic lights. Information like “The light at location X will go green westbound at 3:42:15.3, amber at 3:42.45.6 and red at 3:42.47.8” and so on. Data for all directions and for turn arrow lights etc. This could be broadcast on data networks, or actually even in modulations of the light from the LEDs in the traffic lights themselves (though you could not see that around turns and over hills.)

Now a simple device that could go in the car could be a heads-up-display (perhaps even just an audio tone) that tells you whether you are in the “zone” for a green light. As you move through the flow, if you started getting so fast that you would get to the intersection too early for it to be green, it could show you in the too-fast zone with a blinking light or a tone that rises in pitch the faster you are. A green light (no tone) would appear when you were in the zone.

It would arrange for you to arrive at the light after it had been green for a second or two, to avoid the risk of hitting cars running the red light in the other direction. Sometimes when I drive down a street with timed lights I will find myself trusting the timing a bit too much, so I am blowing through the moment the light is green, which actually is a bit risky because of red light runners. (Perhaps the city puts in a longer all-red gap on such lights to deal with this?)

More controversial is the other direction, a tone telling you that you will need to speed up to catch this green before it goes amber. This might encourage people to drive recklessly fast and might be a harder product to legally sell. Though perhaps it could tell you that if you sped up to the limit you would make the light but stop telling you after no legal speed can make it. Of course, people would learn to figure it out.

We figure that out already of course. Many walk/don’t walk signs now have red light countdown timers, and how many of us have not sped up upon seeing the counter getting low? Perhaps this isn’t that dangerous. Just squeaking through a light rarely helps, of course, because the way the timing works you usually are even more likely to miss the next one, and you have to go even faster to make it — to the point that even a daredevil won’t try.

This simple device could be just the start of it. Knowledge of this data for the city (combined with a good GPS map system of course) could advise you of good alternate routes where you will get better traffic light timing. It could advise you to turn if you’re first at a red light (which it will know thanks to GPS) if your destination is off to the right anwyay. Of course it could do better combined with real traffic data and information on construction, gridlock etc.

This is not a cruise control, you would still control the gas. However, if you pressed too hard on the gas your alert would start making the tone, and you would soon learn it is quite unproductive to keep pressing. (You could make this a cruise control but you need to be able to speed up some times to avoid things and change lanes.) People tend more often to speed up and then have to break for a short while waiting for the green, which doesn’t get you there any faster, and is a jerky ride.

The system I describe could be a nice add-on for car GPS systems.

The end of public transit

I’ve been writing a lot about self-driving cars which have automatic accident avoidance and how they will change our cities. I was recently talking again with Robin Chase, whose new company, goloco attempts to set people up for ad-hoc carpools and got into the issues again. She believes we should use more transit in cities and there’s a lot of merit to that case.

However, in the wealthy USA, we don’t, outside of New York City. We love our cars, and we can afford their much higher cost, so they still dominate, and even in New York many people of means rely strictly on taxis and car services.

Transit is, at first glance, more energy efficient. When it shares right of way with cars it reduces congestion. Private right of way transit also reduces congestion but only when you don’t consider the cost of the private right-of-way, where the balance is harder to decide. (The land only has a many-person vehicle on it a small fraction of the time compared to 1-3 passenger vehicles almost all the time on ordinary roads.)

However, my new realization is that transit may not be as energy efficient as we hope. During rush hour, packed transit vehicles are very efficient, especially if they have regenerative braking. But outside those hours it can be quite wasteful to have a large bus or train with minimal ridership. However, in order to give transit users flexibility, good service outside of rush-hour is important.  read more »

Miles for charity

Many people accumulate a lot of frequent flyer miles they will never use. Some of the airlines allow you to donate miles to a very limited set of charities. I can see why they limit it — they would much rather have you not use the miles than have the charity use them. Though it’s possible that while the donor does not get any tax credit for donated miles, the airline does.

However, it should be possible for a clever web philanthropist to set up a system to allow people to donate miles to any charity they wish. This is not a violation of the terms of service on flyer miles, which only forbid trading them for some valuable consideration, in particular money.

The site would allow charities to register and donors to promise miles to the charities. A charity could then look at its balance, and go to the airline’s web site before they book travel to see if the flight they want can be purchased with miles. If so, they would enter the exact itinerary into the web site, and a suitable donor would be mailed the itinerary and passenger’s name. They would make the booking, and send the details back to the charity. (Several donors could be mailed, the first to claim would do the booking.) In a few situations, the available seats would vanish before the donor could do the booking, in which case the charity would need to try another airline or paid seat.

Donors could specify what they would donate, whether they are willing to buy upgrades or business class tickets (probably not) and so on.

Now it turns out that while the donor can’t accept money for the miles, the charity might be able to. Oftentimes non-profit representatives travel for things like speaking engagements where the host has a travel budget. Some hosts would probably be happy to cover something other than airfare, such as other travel expenses, or a speaking honorarium with the money. In this case, the charity would actually gain real money for the donation, a win for all — except the airline. But in the case of the airline, we are talking about revenue it would have lost if the donor had used the miles for a flight for themselves or an associate. So the real question is whether the airline can be indignant about having miles that would have gone unused suddenly find a useful home.

Now it’s true the booking interfaces on the airline sites are not great, but they are improving. And some employee of the non-profit would need to have an account, possibly even one with enough miles, just to test what flights are available. But this will be true in many cases.

Would the airlines try to stop it? I doubt it, because this would never be that big, and they would be seen as pretty nasty going after something that benefits charities.

Miles could also be used for hotel stays and other travel items.

Transit clock for local shops and cafes

In many cities, the transit systems have GPS data on the vehicles to allow exact prediction of when trains and buses will arrive at stops. This is quite handy if you live near a transit line, and people are working on better mobile interfaces for them, but it's still a lot harder to use them at a remote location.

It would be nice to have a small internet appliance for shops, cafes and other hangouts that are short walks from transit stops. The appliance would be programmed with the typical walking time to the stop, and of course which stop to track. It would then display, on a small screen when a vehicle was coming, and how much time you had before you could walk easily, and then before you could run and make the train or bus.

Failing the live GPS data it could just work on schedules. It might make a low-key but audible noise as well. It need not have its own screen, if the place has a TV already it could do an overlay on that, though flat panel screens are now only about $100.

Some transit lines have placed expensive outdoor "next bus" signs on their stops and shelters for these systems, which is great, but in fact it might make more sense to put an appliance like this behind a local shop window, where it doesn't need to be outdoor rated, and pay the shopowner or local homeowner.

To turn this into a moneymaker, it could be combined with a system to sell transit tickets (presumably through the cash register.) This is a win for the transit system, since transit lines without controlled stations waste a lot of time as the driver collects change and tickets as people get on. People with a pre-paid, pre-timestamped ticket can get on quickly and don't need a transfer. This even works for systems with distance based pricing. I have often wondered why you don't see more selling of transit tickets at the shops around stops in order to save this delay. SF Muni went to "proof of purchase" instead of driver collected tickets so they could put ticket machines at busy stops to save the driver time, but they aren't everywhere.

For a cafe, it's a nice thing to do for customers, and even makes them more willing to stay, safe in the knowledge they can get their vehicle efficiently. A taxi-summoning function could also be added (press a button on the box to call a taxi) which could, in theory, also predict when the taxi will arrive since many of them have GPS networks now.

Backwards airplane middle seats

It’s annoying (and vidicating at the same time) when you see somebody else developing an idea you’re working on, and today I saw one such idea announced in Europe.

Last year while flying I mused about how sitting in a row makes us bump up against one another at the point we are all widest — the elbows and butts. We are not rectangles, so there are roomier ways to pack us. I toyed with a number of ideas.

First I considered staggering the rows slightly, either by angling them back or front a bit, or simply having the middle seats be about 6” behind the aisle and window seats. Then our elbows would not overlap, but it would make the “corridor” (if you can call it that) to the window seat have some narrow corners, and would suffer some of the problems I will outline below.

Then I realized it might make sense to just reverse the middle seat. All the middle seats in a section could face backwards, and we would then have more space because wide parts would mesh with narrow parts. Somebody else has also worked up the same idea and has even got some prototypes and drawings, which are better than the ones I had worked up to show here. However, I will outline some of the issues I came up with in my experiments — mostly done with household chairs laid out in experimental patterns.  read more »

An airliner mesh network over the oceans

A friend (Larry P.) once suggested to me that he thought you could build a rural mobile phone much cheaper than Iridium network by putting nodes in all the airliners flying over the country. The airliners have power, and have line of sight to ground stations, and to a circle of about 200 miles radius around them. That’s pretty big (125,000 square miles) and in fact most locations will be within sight of an airliner most of the time. Indeed, the airlines already would like to have high speed data links to their planes to sell to the passengers, and relaying to people on the ground makes sense. It would not be a 100% on network, but that’s OK for many users. Phones would be able to warn about outages with plenty of advance notice to handle conversations, and indeed based on live computerized data from the air traffic control system, phones could even display a list of the times they would be connected.

I was thinking more about this in the context of InMarSat, which provides satellite services to ships and planes in the deep ocean. It uses geosynchronous satellites and auto-aiming dishes, but is quite expensive. Few people launch satellites to have footprints over the ocean.

Airliners fly so often these days, spaced often just 40 miles apart along the oceanic routes. It should be possible with modern technology to produce a mesh network that transmits data from plane to plane using line of sight. Two planes should in theory be able to get line of sight at 30,000 feet if they are up to 400 nautical miles apart. The planes could provide data and voice service for passengers at a reasonable price, and also could relay for ships at sea and even remote locations.

One can also use lower bands that can go further, since there is no spectrum competition over the the open ocean, but I suspect planes don’t spend too much time more than 400 miles from any other airliner (or 200 miles from any land station.) In the high bands many megabits of data bandwidth are available, and in theory spectrum allocation is not an issue when out of sight of land, so even hundreds of megabits would be possible. (We would of course not transmit on any band actually in use out there, and could even make a cognitive radio system which detects other users and avoids those bands.) An airline could offer just this service, or at a higher price switch to satellite in the few dead zones — which again, it should be able to predict with some accuracy. Aiming should be easy, since the aircraft all transmit their GPS coordinates regularly on transponder frequencies and can also do so in the data network. In fact, you would be able to know where a new mesh partner will be approaching, and where to point, before you could ever detect it with an omnidirectional antenna. And people could be given enough bandwidth for real internet, including voice. (Though that still means they should perhaps go to a phone lounge to have long conversations.)

Of course, I often find transoceanic flights one of the rare times I get work done without the distraction of the internet, so this could also be a terrible idea.

Some technical notes: Jim Thompson points out that doppler effects make this particularly challenging, which is an issue. I believe that since we know the exact vector of ourselves and the other aircraft, and we have many more bands at our disposal, this should be a tractable problem.

Do taxi monopolies make sense in the high-tech world?

Many cities (and airports) have official taxi monopolies. They limit the number of cabs in the city, and regulate them, typically by issuing “medallions” to cabs or drivers or licences to companies. The most famous systems are in London and New York, but they are in many other places. In New York, the medallions were created earlier in the century, and have stayed fixed in number for decades after declining from their post-creation peak. The medallion is a goldmine for its “owner.” Because NY medallions can be bought and sold, recently they have changed hands at auction for around $300,000. That 300K medallion allows a cab to be painted yellow, and to pick up people hailing cabs in the street. It’s illegal for ordinary cars to do this. Medallion owners lease the combination of cab and medallion for $60 to $80 for a 7-9 hour shift, I believe.

Here in San Francisco, the medallions are not transferable, and in theory are only issued (after a wait of a decade or more) to working cab drivers, who must put in about 160 4-hour shifts per year. After that, they can and do rent out their medallion to other drivers, for a more modest rental income of about $2,000 per month.

On the surface, this seems ridiculous. Why do we even need a government monopoly on taxis, and why should this monopoly just be a state-granted goldmine for those who get their hands on it? This is a complex issue, and if you search for essays on taxi medallions and monopoly systems you will find various arguments pro and con. What I want to get into here is whether some of those arguments might be ripe for change, in our new high-tech world of computer networks, GPSs and cell phones.

In most cities, there are more competitive markets for “car services” which you call for an appointment. They are not allowed to pick up hailing passengers, though a study in Manhattan found that they do — 2 of every 5 cars responding to a hail were licenced car services doing so unlawfully.  read more »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Censored and uncensored soundtrack on the airplane

A recent story that United had removed all instances of the word “God” (not simply Goddamn) from a historical movie reminded me just how much they censor the movies on planes.

Here they have an easy and simple way out. Everybody is on headsets, and they already offer different soundtracks in different languages by dialing the dial. So offer the censored and real soundtrack on two different audio channels. Parents can easily make sure the kids are on whatever soundtrack they have chosen for them, as the number glows on the armrest.

Now most people, given the choice are going to take the real soundtrack. Which is fine, since now they certainly can’t complain if it does offend them. A few will take the censored soundtrack. But most people should be happy. This is not much work since the real work is creating the censored track. Assuming there is room for more tracks on the DVD, keeping the original one is no big deal.

Virtual right-of-way alternatives for BRT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flying Cars -- Airport Carshare system

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

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

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

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

Read on for more thinking on it…  read more »

Better forms of differential pricing that don't punish flexibility so much

Differential pricing occurs when a company attempts to charge different prices to two different customers for what is essentially the same product. One place we all encounter it a lot is air travel, where it seems no two passengers paid the same price for their tickets on any given flight. You also see it in things like one of my phones, which has 4 line buttons but only 2 work — I must pay $30 for a code to enable the other 2 buttons.

The public tends to hate differential pricing, though in truth we should only hate it when it makes us pay more. Clearly some of the time we’re paying less than we might pay if differential pricing were not possible or illegal.

So even if differential pricing is neutral, one can rail if it punishes/overcharges the wrong thing. There might be a better way to get at the vendor’s goal of charging each customer the most they will tolerate — hopefully subject to competition. Competition makes differential pricing complex, as it’s only stable if all competitors use roughly the same strategy.

In air travel, the prevailing wisdom has been that business travellers will tolerate higher ticket prices than vacation travellers, and so most of the very complex pricing rules in that field are based on that philosophy. Business travellers don’t want to stay over weekends, they like to change their flights, they want to fly a combination of one-way trips and they want to book flights at short notice. (They also like to fly business class.) All these things cost a lot more in the current regime.

Because of this, almost all the travel industry has put a giant surcharge on flexibility. It makes sense that it might cost a bit more — it’s much easier to schedule your airline or hotel if people will book well in advance and keep to their booking — but it seems as though the surcharge has gotten immense, where flexible travel can cost 2 to 4 times what rigidly scheduled travel costs. Missing the last flight of the day can be wallet-breaking. Indeed, there are many arguments that since an empty seat or hotel room is largely wasted, vendors might be encouraged to provide cheaper tickets to those coming in at the last minute, rather than the most expensive. (And sometimes they do. In the old days flying standby was the cheapest way to fly, suitable only for students or the poor. There are vendors that sell cheap last minute trips.)

Vendors have shied away from selling cheap last-minute travel because they don’t want customers to find it reliable enough to depend on. But otherwise it makes a lot of sense.

So my “Solve this” problem is to come up with schemes that still charge people as much as they will tolerate, but don’t punish travel flexiblity as much.

One idea is to come up with negative features for cheap tickets that flexible, non-business travellers will tolerate but serious business travellers and wealthy travellers will not. For example, tickets might come with a significant (perhaps 10-20%) chance of being bumped, ideally with sufficient advance notice by cell phone that you don’t waste time going to the airport. For example, the airline might sell a cheap ticket but effectively treat the seat as available for sale again to a higher-paying passenger if they should come along. You might learn the morning of your trip that somebody else bought your seat, and that you’ll be going on a different flight or even the next day. They would put a cap on how much they could delay you, and that cap might change the price of your ticket.

For a person with a flexible work schedule (like a consultant) or the retired, they might well not care much about exactly what day they get back home. They might like the option to visit a place until they feel like returning, with the ability to get a ticket then, but the risk that it might not be possible for a day or two more. Few business travellers would buy such a ticket.

Such tickets would be of most value to those with flexible accomodations, who are staying with friends and family, for example, or in flexible hotels. Rental cars tend to be fairly flexible.

Of course, if you’re willing to be bumped right at the airport, that should given you an even cheaper ticket, but that’s quite a burden. And with today’s ubiquitous cell phones and computer systems there’s little reason not to inform people well in advance.

This technique could even provide cheaper first-class. You might buy a ticket at a lower price, a bit above coach, that gets you a first class seat half the time but half the time puts you in coach because somebody willing to pay the real price of first class bought a ticket. (To some extent, the upgrade system, where upgrades are released at boarding time based on how many showed up for first class, does something like this.)

Any other ideas how airlines could provide cheaper flexible tickets without eating into their business flyer market? If only one airline tries a new idea, you get an interesting pattern where everybody who likes the new fare rules switches over to that airline in the competitive market, and the idea is forced to spread.

Added note: In order to maintain most of their differential pricing schemes today, airlines need and want the photo-ID requirement for flying. If tickets (including tickets to half a return trip) could be easily resold on the web to anybody, they could not use the systems they currently use. However, the system I suggest, which requires the passenger be willing to be bumped, inhibits resale without requiring any type of ID. A business traveller might well buy a cheap ticket at the last minute from somebody who bought earlier, but they are going to be less willing to buy a ticket with unacceptable delay risks associated with it.

Call my car

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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