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.

Beware the Weather Warn

This weekend I experienced an air travel policy that I had not seen before and which I found quite shocking. I was flying on United Express (Skywest)’s flight from San Francisco to Calgary. As we waited for the early morning flight, they announced this “weather warn.” Visibility was poor in Calgary due to low clouds. Below 0.5 miles they plane would not be allowed to land there. They rated about a 1/3rd chance of this happening, 2/3 chance we would land normally.

The catch was this, if, when they got to Calgary, they found they could not land, they would divert to Great Falls, MT. After dropping the passengers in Great Falls, we would be entirely on our own, with no assistance at all with getting to Calgary via ground or air. (United Express and a few other airlines do sell tickets from Great Falls to Calgary, though all via fairly distant hubs like Denver, Salt Lake etc.) The important point about this is that the diversion is to an airport in a different country from the intended destination. This makes ground transportation particularly difficult, as car rental companies are disinclined to offer economical one-way rentals between countries — not to mention the 6 hour drive. (Hertz will do it for about $320/day.)

I just checked and Greyhound will get you there in 1 day, 14 hours via Seattle and Vancouver. Amtrak doesn’t even go there.

Now the other passengers who had seen this before said that it usually works out, so we got on with a sense of adventure. But it would have been a big adventure had we been diverted, and just seemed to be a rather strange state for the airline to leave passengers. Yes, they did say that if we elected not to get on the flight, we could try a later one (with no assurance there would not be the same weather warning on that flight.) Most of the passengers got on, and we did land OK, but a few backed out.

Some international bureaucracy, they said, forbids them from landing at another Canadian airport, such as obvious choices like Edmonton, or even various smaller airports since this was a Canadair regional jet able to land at small airports. But just about anything would have been superior to Great Falls in the USA — some city with a means of getting to the destination. Indeed, the plane after landing in either GF or Calgary would have headed on to Chicago, which while far away, is at least a city one could find a flight to Calgary from, and from which United could certainly have arranged travel for the passengers.

I’m taking a wild guess that this bureaucracy is 9/11 related, but I could be wrong. But if it is, it’s another secret burden of that day.

(The likely result — passengers would probably have formed up in groups of 5 to rent Hertz cars and drive to Calgary. The cost — $320 plus $50 of gas — would have been tolerable shared among 5 people who would know one another much better by the end of the day. Of course we didn’t know this when making the decision.) There are also some slight cheaper but inconvenient tricks involving an in-Montana rental which drives to an Alberta town near the border, where one of the passengers rents a car there, and both cars drive to a Montana drop-off and then the Alberta car continues to Calgary. You would need a sense of adventure to do that.

On forging boarding passes

You’ve seen the flap recently because a student, to demonstrate the fairly well discussed airport security flaw involving the ease forgeability of boarding passes, created a web site where you could easily create a fake Northwest boarding pass. Congressman Markey even called for the student’s arrest, then apologized, but in the meantime the FBI raided his house and took his stuff.

As noted, this flaw has been discussed for some time. I certainly saw it the first time I was able to print my own boarding pass. However, it’s not really limited to print-at-home boarding passes, and it’s a shame the likely reaction to this will be to disable that highly convenient service. Airline issued boarding passes are just thicker paper. I don’t see it being particularly difficult with modern colour printers — which are able to pull off passable money given the right paper — to produce good airline printed boarding passes.

It’s possible the reaction to this will be to simpy add a gate ID check for people with home printed boarding passes, which will at least retain those passes without slowing down the boarding process even more, but it doesn’t actually fix the problem.

The current system of easy to forge boarding passes, combined with ID check at TSA security and boarding pass check at the gate, has the following flaws:

  • You can, as noted, fly if you are on the no-fly list with no problems. If I were named David Nelson I would consider it.
  • You can bypass the selectee system, where they print SSSS on your boarding pass to mark you for “full service” searching. (I’ve been told an additional stamp is placed on your boarding pass after the search, you need to forge this too.)
  • You can transfer your ticket to another person without telling the airline or paying them. You also earn flyer miles even though somebody else got on the plane
  • It allows people to enter the gate area who aren’t actually flying. This is not a big security risk, but it slows down the security line. You don’t want to miss your flight because people slowed down the line to meet their friends at the gate.

Some airports have the TSA ID-checker put a a stamp on the boarding pass. However, this is also not particularly difficult to forge. Just have somebody go through once to get today’s stamp, have them come back out and now you can forge it.

The simplest answer is to have ID check at the gate. This slows boarding, however, which is bad enough as it is. The hard answer is to have unforgeable boarding passes or an unforgeable stamp or non-removable sticker at TSA.

Probably the best solution is that the TSA station be equipped with an electronic boarding pass reader which can read the barcodes on all types of boarding passes, which themselves must be cryptographically secure. Then the name printed on the pass becomes unimportant, except so you can tell yours from your companion’s. The scanner would scan the pass, and display the name of the passenger on the screen, which could then be compared to the ID.

Sadly, I fear this suggestion would go further, and the full panopticon-enabled system would display the photo of the passenger on the screen — no need to show your ID at all.

Though mind you, if we didn’t have the no-fly-list concept, one could actually develop a more privacy enhancing system with photos. When you bought your ticket, if you didn’t care about FF miles, you would provide a photo of the passenger, not their name or anything else about them. The photo would be tied to the boarding record. To go through security or board the aircraft, you would present the boarding pass number or bar-code, and TSA, gate and luggage check agents would see your photo, and pass you through. The photo confirms that the person pictured has a valid ticket. This meets most of the goals of the current system, except for these:

  • It doesn’t allow a no-fly-list. But the no-fly-list is bad security. Only random screening is good security
  • It doesn’t allow gathering marketing data on passengers. But the frequent flyer system does.
  • It doesn’t allow the airline to generate a list of dead passengers in the event of a crash.

As noted, the marketing data goal is met by the FF program. It would be possible, by the way to build a fairly private FF program where you don’t give your name or address for the program. You just create an FF account online, and get a password, and you can place a picture in it and associate it with flights. You can then redeem flights from it, all online. But I doubt the airlines will rush to do this, they love selling data about you.

The dead-passenger problem can be solved to some degree. They would have, after all, pictures of all the passengers so they could be identified by people who know them. In a pinch, identity could also be escrowed, with the escrow agency requiring proof of the death of the passenger before revealing their identity. That’s pretty complex.

There’s no good way to solve the no-fly-list problem unless you have credible face recognition software. Even that wouldn’t work because it’s not hard to modify a photo to screw up what the face recognition software is looking for but still have it look like you. But frankly the no-fly-list is bad security and it’s not a bug that it doesn’t work in this system.

Redesign airline seat backs & pockets for cleanliness, utility

I recently read how airline cabins are getting more and more grotty of late. This is due to having fewer cleaning staff on hand, shorter turnaround times for cleaning, and passengers now bringing aboard more of their own food. This got me thinking on how we might improve the airline seatback.

First of all, to help keep things cleaner, it would be nice if we could divide the stuff the airline puts into the pocket from our own stuff. I would like the airline to put in less stuff — we really don’t need a skymall and inflight magazine at every seat, those can be fetched like the other magazines. The safety card, airsick bag and headpones (if present) could be put in a small plastic pouch that goes in the seat pocket, making it clear what’s yours and what’s the airlines. This makes it easier for you to clean out your stuff, including garbage, or for the airline cleaning crews to identify what’s permanent in the pocket and quickly toss the rest.

But there are some more dramatic improvements we could make here. Many years ago, I adapted one of those book holding stands meant for tables with a book light and velcro straps to hang it on the seat in front of me. (Back then velcro on the seat top was common.) This allowed me to hang my book on the seat in front of me, which I found made for much more comfortable reading. I find reading paperbacks on the plane requires contortion to get the book in good light, or simple arm-tiring labour to hold the book up. My back of seat mount was great, and the airlines could either provide those, or provide a “mounting point” into which a passenger-brought unit could be mounted. The mounting point could be where the tray locks, or on the back of the tray.

The mounting point also could be useful for the design of special laptop holders. Using a laptop in narrow-pitch coach seats is a pain, and a serious pain if the person in front of you wants to recline. In some cases you can’t use your computer unless you recline too. Some laptops are better designed for this, moving their screen hinge inward, at the cost of reducing wrist rest space.

For many people, airline use is one of the most important functions of their laptop, so a little special equipment or redesign could make some sense. In this case, a mounting point on the seat could hold a laptop mount, which would put the screen on the seatback at a comfortable eye level. Should the person forward recline, you would want to be able to adjust the mount to keep the screen at the right angle. For laptops that can’t flip their screen, the keyboard etc. would just hang below, unused.

Instead, you would connect a remote keyboard/mouse device, which could then sit on your lap or the tray for comfortable use. And you would even have some room for papers on the tray. (This requires the mounting point to be above the tray.)

The airline could ideally provide or rent this small keyboard/mouse station, RFI insulated. In fact the arline one need not be so small, it could be full sized. Or stations in the airport (like the flight DVD rental folks) could rent the laptop mount and keyboard/pointer for drop off at the next airport. You want this because it defeats the purpose of having a small laptop to have to carry on a keyboard almost as big as the laptop.

Of course, laptops could be designed not only to hook into the mount, but have a detatchable keyboard/mouse unit so you don’t have to carry anything extra. Makes the laptop a bit bigger of course, but not much. Be nice if you could use bluetooth. Right now in theory bluetooth is not allowed but it’s in a safe band so it should not be a real problem.

This would still be useful in Economy Plus, even though there you don’t have the space crunch problem. A nice keyboard and an eye-height screen is how we like it on the desk. In Biz class, the seat in front might be too far away.

Another alternative would be provision of flat panels in the seat backs, with a VGA/DVI jack. Of course many airlines already are putting flat panels there, but only at TV resolution. Bump to XGA or better and now laptop users could keep their laptop on the table and look at the seatback. Many laptops even have a dual screen mode, so you could get double the screen real estate. Indeed, this is even valuable with a plain VGA class display in the seatback as already found. A port for that screen is also handy for the many people who use their laptops to play DVDs, though for those you want a 720x480 resolution screen which I don’t yet see in seatbacks.

If course power at the seats is a big plus, and some airlines do this, though UAL does not yet provide it in coach. The power should be in the seatback, not the armrest, since the thing we want to power is usually on the tray table.

A snap-out, aimable book reading white LED on the seatback would also be very useful. Aside from being cheap and consuming less power, this more localized light is less likely to interfere with sleepers and movie watchers. And by being aimable, it makes reading the book much more comfortable.

Let’s get to it, airlines.

Require flat-panel displays on the backs of tall vehicles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complain somebody is suspicious, you miss your flight too.

We should all be disturbed by the story of a man who was questioned and missed his flight because he spoke on his cell phone in Tamil. Some paranoid thought it was suspicious, reported it, and so the guy gets pulled and misses his flight.

This is not the first time. People have been treated as suspicious for speaking in all sorts of languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, Urdo or just being Arabs or Sikhs. Sometimes it’s been a lot worse than just missing your flight.

So here’s a simple rule. If you want to report something as suspicious, then you don’t fly until the matter is resolved. After all, if you are really afraid, you wouldn’t want to fly. Even with the nasty foreigner pulled off the plane, you should be afraid of conspiracies with teams of villains. So you go into the holding cell and get a few questions too.

Now frankly, I would want to do much worse when it turns out the suspect is very obviously innocent. But I know that won’t get traction because people will not want to overly discourage reports lest they discourage a real report. But based on my logic above, this should not discourage people who think they really have something. At least not the first time.

TSA employees are of course in a CYA mode. They can’t screen out the paranoia because they aren’t punished for harassing the innocent, but they will be terribly punished if they ignore a report of somebody suspicious and decide to do nothing. That’s waht we need to fix long term, as I’ve written before. There must be negative consequences for people who implement security theatre and strip the innocent of their rights, or that’s what we will get.

Passenger side steering wheel as common equipment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self driving cars, and sooner than we think, but what about in Boston?

If you’ve been following things, you know that after the great success of the first Darpa Grand Challenge, a new Grand Challenge has been proposed, this time for urban driving. The cars will have to navigate a city with other cars on the road. (I’m going to presume demolition derby style vehicles and speeds.) This time DARPA is providing some funding, though it was impressive how last time the modest (by military standards) $2M prize attained what would have been science fiction just years ago.

So I’m refirming my view that self-driving cars will come to us moderately soon. The technology is very near, and the case is so compelling. In spite of interesting speculations about personal rapid transit, or virtual right-of-way or other items in my transportation category, this is the likely winner because it requires no new infrastructure, and if we let it, it can grow from the ground up.

I’m talking cars that can drive today’s roads, and are better at avoiding people and other cars than we are. They do it on their own, though they cooperate where it makes sense to do so but don’t have cooperate to work.

The most compelling case is that over 1 million people are killed every year in or by cars, about 42,000 in the USA. In fact, there are over 6 million car crashes reported to police in the USA every year, costing an average of $2,900 per vehicle per year (clearly not all borne by insurance companies.) But if that’s not enough, we’ll see:

  • Self valet parking — car drives you to front door, then parks itself somewhere cheap.
  • Ability to read, work or web surf while in transit
  • Dedicated lanes and coordination with timed lights for faster trips.
  • Possible eventual ability to reliably go through stop-signs and red lights safely.
  • Higher fuel efficiency
  • Presumably save hundreds per year on insurace with lower accident rates
  • Presumably save even thousands on parking (for CBD commuters.) Parking also possible in cheaper, super-dense remote lots when you do need to park close.
  • Car will go to airport to pick up friends.
  • Car will run errands to pick up prescriptions and other urgent things. Or people will own or rent small efficient mini-cars to do delivery errands.
  • Can’t afford a car? Put in a lockbox for your stuff and rent it out as a Taxi when you aren’t using it. Or use the cars people are renting out as Taxis.

I would pay double for a car like this, but in fact it’s likely to save money, not cost money.

All the other alternatives seem worse. Mass transit is slow at grade and super expensive in tunnels or elevated ROW, and has slow and cumbersome transfers, no personalization and no privacy. PRT requires expensive new ROW. Private driving is of course congested and expensive.

Cost of crashes and traffic update

Let’s look at all the costs of crashes and other traffic problems:

  • With fatal crashes, of course, the cost of human lives, and suffering for loved ones.
  • With injury crashes, the cost of the injury, possibly a lifetime of problems, but also lost work.
  • With all crashes, the cost of repairing the cars
  • The cost of all the other safety equipment in the cars (though we would probably want to keep most of it unless crashes truly went to an insignificant number.) Still making a car safe in a crash is a large portion of its cost. And we still don’t have air bags for the people in the back seat.
  • The cost of police, fire and ambulences and other crash-management infrastructure.
  • The cost of police to enforce traffic regulations (or the cost of tickets to drivers) and parking regulations.
  • For accidents during high traffic times, the cost of traffic delays — 20 minutes for 3,000 people amounts to 1,000 person hours.
  • The need for wider roads to handle human driven traffic, and shoulders for accidents.

Boston Driver

In a recent discussion, the subject of the selfish driver came up. In Boston, driving in traffic is a constant game of chicken. Self-driving cars would of course be programmed to always lose a game of chicken. Done properly, a rogue driver could barrel at full speed into a crowd of self-driving cars and they would, if possible to do safely, part like water around the rogue car. You would actually have to work hard to try and hit one, especially if they are communicating to do this even better. Which brings up the problem, how to deal with the rogue driver, because it now seems the smart thing for that driver to do.

I wrote earlier about the problem of the selfish merge — a problem we have been unable to solve, where people zoom up to the end in a vanishing lane, causing a traffic jam, because somebody always lets them in, making the zoom-up the fastest strategy. I wondered if a reputation system could help. I don’t want to build a system where we track all cars and the rogue driver gets an automatic ticket. Though it would be nice if they did it constantly that perhaps vacant cars would glom around the rogue driver — reversing the strategy so that they always win a game of chicken instead of always lose — and pen him in and escort him to the cops.

Airline loading followup

I’ve written several times before about airplane loading so it’s worth pointing to the article from Wired News on the subject today. Academics have been running a lot of simulations, and favour the reverse pyramid, which is a system that boards the rear-windows first, then the rear-middle and wing-windows, then rear-window, wing-middle and front-window and so on. Other airlines like a “last 5 of rear, first 5 of front, next 5 of rear, next 5 of front and so on” system and there are various others.

I still suspect my system of drawing the boarding order numbers on the carpet and asking passengers to stand in the square with their boarding number (except for children) would speed up any of these systems, because right now, no matter what boarding order they try, people violate it for the simple reason that violating it works. Having passengers enforce — excuse me, you’re standing in my square — would work in a way that having gate agents enforce doesn’t. The story has some nice simulations, and even shows why Southwest’s take-any-seat approach works well. It blocks at first as the first passengers grab the front of plane (as they do on all airlines because frequent flyers get these seats and early boarding) but then distributions the stowing-and-unpacking load, which is a big part of the load. The more you can stop stowing-and-unpacking from blocking people in the aisle, the better. Unloading seems pretty good, in that passengers stream off the plane pretty constantly, and you can’t do much better than that, except of course by having multiple doors, which is used remarkably rarely.

It’s time for a new airline using all sorts of new ideas, including the ones I have written about here, to restore a little speed to the flying experience.

Syndicate content