Transportation

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.

Review: Trafficguage live traffic map

Through the SV100 I was given an interesting product called the Trafficgauge to review. It’s a small thick-PDA sized live map of the highways of your area, with indicators as to where there are traffic slowdowns. They cover about a half dozen cities.

What interested me about the product was its user interface. It doesn’t have one. There’s a button on it which does initial start (which you press only once when you get the item) and which can turn on a backlight and one very minor feature if you hold it down that I doubt any of the owners of the box even know about.

It’s always on, receiving traffic data presumably from some broadcast sideband, since it works indoors and in cars all around the bay area. By having no user interface, you can almost think of it as something like a smart map rather than a computer. I’m trying to figure out if it’s too simple or just right. When I first proposed in the early 90s that my cell company, since it knows where I am, should phone me if it sees me driving in to heavy traffic, I’ve wanted this sort of service to be aware of my location, and not bother me with data about traffic problems I am unlikely to care about. Radio traffic reports spend most of their time on stuff you don’t need to know either. As GPS chips drop in price (which they are) this box could know where you are but I am not sure it could do much with it other than show you. The indicators are not a bitmap, it’s a custom made LCD with bars for each section of highway which can be on or blinking.

(It also has icons to tell you what sporting events are taking place that day. This part is not well designed, first because I am not going to know what time the events are — could be day or night game — and the icons are in the corner, rather than in the approximate locations of the stadia (which admittedly is a challege as the stadia are all close together.)

It didn’t come with a dashboard mount, so it is a bit distracting to pick it up and look at, but not tremendously so.

On the other hand, the pricing to me, with a monthly fee, is not attractive. The data bandwidth is not so expensive as to demand this, it is largely a marketing decision. $80 plus $7/month seems a tad high. Mind you the eqivalent cell phone services also will get you coming and going. (Somehow I don’t know if the marketing departments would use “We get you coming and going” as a slogan, though it’s a good one!)

Which brings me to an idea of my own in this space, much simpler and cheaper. Namely a tiny radio (or feature in in-car radios) that constantly listens to the station that does traffic every 10 minutes — there’s one or more in every town. The box would know the little tune they always play with traffic reports, so when you pushed the button on it, it would play the latest traffic report. If it could not find the tune, it would just play from the approximate time the report comes with a button to hold down for fast forward or rewind. The standalone box would just retransmit the signal (usually from AM) onto an FM channel. Such a box could be cheap, and need no service fee. Of course the traffic station may not like it since when it works well, you would not hear their ads. And of course, most of the report is about highways you don’t care about.

For people with a computer or full blown PDA, of course, there are some alternatives. And indeed, the other downside of a dedicated box like this is that over time it really makes more sense to have it all in your PDA, not in independent boxes.

At a full browser, [SigAlert]http://www.sigalert.com/map.asp?Region=Bay+Area gives a much more detailed map, with popups on all the incidents and links to full CHP traffic reports. The CHP website itself gives a text summary of all police reports, it’s the same thing the radio stations use, and it can be fetched quickly on a simple browser.

Thinking about what cars really cost

I’ve been writing a bunch about transportation of late, and I got the chance to have lunch with Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, and talk about the economics.

She proposes that we really need to make the true cost of our transportation visible to solve many of our problems (congestion, pollution, etc.) It’s often been described just how much of a subsidy the U.S. and in particular California gives to the car driver, but to most people it’s not too visible.

She’s particularly interested in changing the rules on parking. We subsidize parking a lot. Most people are aware of the use of roadsides for free or cheap parking on public land. Robin proposes getting rid of the requirements that force building developers to provide adequate parking for their building. Most people think these are a good idea, because otherwise developers would not provide parking, and the cars coming to the building would suck up all available parking in the area and there would quickly not be any.  read more »

Outsourced valet parking with drive-by-wire cars

There already are some drive-by-wire cars being sold, including a few (in Japan) that can parallel park themselves. And while I fear that anti-terrorist worries may stand in the way of self-driving and automatic cars, one early application, before we can get full self-driving, would be tele-operated cars, the the remote driver in an inexpensive place, like Mexico.

Now I don’t know if the world is ready, safety-wise for a remote chauffeur in a car driving down a public street, where it could hit another car or pedestrian, even if the video was very high-res and the latency quite low. But parking is another story. I think a remote driver could readily park a car in a valet lot kept clear of pedestrians. In fact, because you can drive very slowly to do this, one can even tolerate longer latencies, perhaps all the way to India. The remote operator might actually have a better view for parking, with small low-res cameras mounted right at the bumpers for a view the seated driver can’t have. They can also have automatic assists (already found in some cars) to warn about near approach to other cars.

The win of valet parking is large — I think at least half the space in a typical parking lot is taken up with lanes and inter-car spacing. In addition, a human-free garage can have some floors only 5’ high for the regular cars, or use those jacks around found in some valet garages that stack 2 cars on top of one another. So I’m talking possibly almost 4 times the density. You still need some lanes of course, except for cars you are certain won’t be needed on short notice (such as at airports, train stations etc.)

The wins of remote valet parking include the ability to space cars closely (no need to open the doors to get out) and eventually to have the 5’ high floors. In addition, remote operators can switch from vehicle to vehicle instantly — they don’t have to run to the car to get it. They can switch from garage to garage instantly, meaning their services would be 100% utilized.

Read on…  read more »

Reputation system for cars and the selfish merge.

George Carlin once proposed a system where people would shoot suction cup darts at cars when they did something annoying, like cutting you off, and if you got too many darts the cops would pull you over. Another friend recently proposed a lot of interest in building some sort of reputation system for cars using computers.

Though Carlin’s was a satire, it actually has merits that it would be hard to match in a computerized system. Sure, we could build a system where if somebody was rude on the road, you could snap a quick photo of their licence plate, or say it into a microphone or cell phone for insertion into a reputation database. But people could also just do this to annoy you. There’s no efficient way to prove you actually were there for the rude event. The photos could do that but it’s too much work to verify them. The darts actually do it, since you could not just stick them on my car when I’m stopped, or I would pull them off before driving.

One problem I want to solve with such a system is the selfish merge. We’ve all seen it — lanes are merging, and the cooperating drivers try to merge early. Then the selfish drivers zoom ahead in the vanishing lane until they get to its end. And always, somebody lets them in. Selfishly zooming up does get you through the jam faster, but at the same time these late mergers are a major contributor to the very jam they are bypassing.

We’ll never stop people from letting in the drivers, and indeed, from time to time innocent drivers get into the free lane because they are not clear on the situation or missed the merge.

…More…  read more »

Hybrid Personal Rapid Transit

When I was in high school, I did a project on PRT — Personal Rapid Transit. It was the “next big thing” in transit and of course, 30 years later it’s still not here, in spite of efforts by various companies like Taxi 2000 to bring it about.

With PRT, you have small, lightweight cars that run on a network of tracks or monorail, typically elevated. “Stations” are all spurs off the line, so all trips are non-stop. You go to a station, often right in your building, and a private mini-car is waiting. You give it your destination and it zooms into the computer regulated network to take you there non-stop.

The wins from this are tremendous. Because the cars are small and light, the track is vastly cheaper to build, and can often be placed with just thin poles holding it above the street. It can go through buildings, or of course go underground or at-grade. (In theory it seems to me smart at-grade (ground-level) crossings would be possible though most people don’t plan for this at present.)

The other big win is the speed. Almost no waiting for a car except at peak times, and the nonstop trips would be much faster than other transit or private cars on the congested, traffic-signal regulated roads.

Update: I have since concluded that self-driving vehicles are getting closer, and because they require no new track infrastructure and instead use regular roads, they will happen instead of PRT.

Yet there’s no serious push for such systems…

Read on.  read more »

Combining traffic light control and wireless mesh networking

Here's an idea I had years ago and tried to promote to some of the earliest wireless companies, such as Metricom, without success. I just posted it on Dave Farber's IP list, so I should write it up again for my own blog...

The idea is a win-win situation for wireless service and municipalities. Combine wireless data service with traffic light control. Offer a wireless mesh company the use of a city's traffic light poles -- which provide a nice high spot at every major intersection in town, with power available -- in exchange for using that network for traffic control. Indeed, I think this space is so valuable to the wireless companies that they should probably buy traffic control software and offer it free to the cities.

The bandwidth for light control is of course trivial. One could also support traffic cams (though hopefully not universal surveillance cams) to help provide dynamic adjustments to the traffic system.

Today, full-bore automatic traffic lights are expensive -- $150,000 in many cases. That's because of the need to bring in safety-equipment grade power, and to dig up the road to lay down vehicle sensors,
as well as data of course. That's changing. New lights use LEDs and thus a fair bit less power. (Some cities have realized that the LED switch pays for itself very quickly.) I think car sensor tech is changing too, and especially with a large market, either LIDAR or CCD cameras with automatic recognition should be capable of good traffic detection without digging up the road.

So it's a win all around. Cities get better traffic flow (and less gas is burned) and wireless networks sprout everywhere to compete with the monopoly cable/ILEC crew.

For places where a full street light is too expensive, I have also suggested the [wireless brokered 4-way stop](/archives/000118.html) as an alternative.

Why can't a gas tank feed from both sides?

We risked running low on fuel today, and saw the car sputter briefly while going up a hill. Made it to the gas station fine, in fact with a gallon to spare, it seems.

I presume the gas lines in this car drain from one low spot in the gas tank, but when it's on a slope and very low, there's no fuel there. Why can't we have a series of drains at both back and front (and even all 4 corner points.) It would have to go down from there to stop air getting into the fuel line from the exposed fuel outlet, which may be the reason this isn't done, since the tank is usually down low for various good reasons. Could a smart valve allow for any hose exposed to air to close so that air doesn't get in the line?

I guess stalling going up a hill might not be the end of the world in most places, since you can go down to a flat part and start again, but in a "U" you would be trapped.

Crash-avoiding cars

I’ve written before about automatic self-driving cars, both their risks (overregulation due to fear of their use by terrorists) and possible driving forces (oil companies excited by people taking longer trips) and more.

Generally, except for a few specialized applications (such as the automatic parking lot) such cars, if they are to be used where people or cars that may not under network control are present, must start with a basic ability to avoid accidents. In a vigourous debate with friend Charles Merriam last night, the question came up about where the value will lie. Charles is a big proponent of worrying first about crash-avoiding cars.

Right now we all pay from $250 to $500 per year, and often much more, for insurance to cover the risk of accidents. Of course, that’s just the financial cost, and financial proxies for suffering, so the real value we would put on an accident resistent car might be much higher. Perhaps $5,000 to $10,000 over the life of the car.

That seems like a highly lucrative market on its own. While the self-driving car has many other long term merits (because you can do other work while moving, and you don’t have to park it, and it can appear on demand as a taxi for you) we should be very close to financially justifying the accident-avoiding car today…  read more »

How Prius drivers are gross polluters and other lessons of carbon credits

I’ve been thinking more about environmental economics since I blogged about retail carbon credits. I was surprised about how cheap (some would say unrealisticly cheap) wholesale credits are — about $2.20 per tonne of CO2. (Update: This price keeps changing. The U.S. price is clearly out of whack down to just 25 cents per tonne in 2009. The European price has declined too, from $20/tonne when I wrote this to $14/tonne in fall 2009.)

Today, many of my friends have bought a car like the Toyota Prius, feeling they are doing their bit to help the environment by burning less gas. The Prius costs around $3,000-$6,000 more than a comparable old-style engine car (in part because high demand keeps the price high), and the savings on gasoline don’t justify it on a financial basis unless you do nothing but drive all day. So the main reason to buy it is to help the environment and to make a statement before your peer group. The Camry Hybrid, which gets 32mpg instead of 23mpg costs about $5,000 more than the regular Camry.)

Problem is, there’s an argument that you’re hurting the environment, counterintuitive as that sounds. And no, it’s not just the unanswered questions about recycling the fancy batteries in the Prius when they fade, where fairly positive results have been returned so far. Read on…  read more »

Car rental companies: Rent me a cooler and road trip kit

After we picked up our rental car in Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia, the blasting heat told us we would like a cooler full of drinks on our 3 day road trip through the outback. So we stopped at a Woolworths and picked up one of those terrible foam coolers, ice and some drinks. There was no bar code on the cooler so we wasted what seemed like 10 minutes in the checkout because the clerk wasn't authorized to ring up an item as general merchandise. (Hint to stores: I know you're scared of your cashiers stealing from you but this is ridiculous.)

It seemed to me that with a sizeable number of the renters in Darwin going off on outback road trips, who among them wouldn't want a cooler. So the rental company should offer a cooler pre-loaded with ice, and even perhaps some drinks. They would of course overprice this, but as long as it's not more than buying a decent cooler, people would go for it over those cheap ones, that can't keep ice long and run a risk of leaking into the nice rental cars in any event. There's other stuff that could go into the road-trip kit, ranging from walkie-talkies to umbrellas to snacks, too.

Retail carbon credits for the car driver

You may have heard of the idea of pollution credit trading. I’ve been pointed to two firms that are selling CO2 credits on the retail level for individuals, to offset the output from driving a car, heating a house etc.

I’ll get into the details on how it works a bit below, but if you have a car like mine that is putting out 5 metric tons of CO2 each year, you can for a low price (about $50, which includes a whopping markup) pay a factory somewhere to cut their own output by 5 tons, meaning that net, you are causing zero emissions. Which means you are reducing total emissions by a lot more than you would by switching to a Prius, and you are doing it at a vastly lower cost. (This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t drive a Prius, it just means this is a lot more effective.)

Normally pollution credits are traded only by the big boys, trading contracts with hundreds or thousands of tonnes of emissions. The retail firms are letting small players get in the game.

This is a fabulous idea, in theory at least, and also a great, if sneaky gift idea. After all, if you buy the gift of not polluting for your loved one all they get is a bumper sticker and a good feeling. At least it’s better than giving to The Human Fund in their name.

Here’s the catch. I went and priced the credits, and while www.certifiedcleancar.com wanted $50 to credit my car, the actual price of credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange is about $2.16 per tonne of CO2, or about $8 for my actual output as they calculated it. One expects some markup, of course, and even some profit for the company selling the retail credits, but this is nuts. I called the other company, Terrapass and got reasonably frank answers. First of all, they claim they invest more in wind power and other truly non-polluting forms of energy more than they just buy carbon credits. Secondly, this is still a small volume thing, and most of the costs are not the credits, but the $20,000 or so to become a member of the exchange, or so I was told. And of course, in small volumes, administrative costs can swamp the real costs.

Another outfit I found is carbonfund.org which is non-profit and cheaper. In some sense since people buy these out of guilt rather than compulsion (they were meant to be forced on polluters to give money to non polluters and make a market) non-profit might make sense, but they are also supposed to be a real market.

Still, if I pay $50, I would love for my $50 to mostly go to reducing pollution, not mostly to administration. Usually when exchanges are expensive there are members who will trade for you at much more modest markups. The folks at Terrapass said they were not yet profitable at the current prices.

And it is such a good idea. Read below for more on pollution credits.  read more »

External laptop batteries, especially on planes

Recently I purchased an external battery for my Thinkpad. The internal batteries were getting weaker, and I also needed something for the 14 hour overseas flights. I picked up a generic one on eBay, a 17 volt battery with about 110 watt-hours, for about $120. It's very small, and only about 1.5 lbs. Very impressive for the money. (When these things first came out they had half the capacity and cost more like $300.)

There are downsides to an external: The laptop doesn't know how much charge is in the battery and doesn't charge it. You need an external charger. My battery came with its own very tiny charger which is quite slow (it takes almost a day to recharge from a full discharge.) The battery has its own basic guage built in, however. An external is not as efficient as an internal (you convert the 17v to the laptop's internal voltage and you also do wasteful charging of the laptop's internal if it is not full, though you can remove the internal at the risk of a sudden cutoff should you get to the end of the external's life.)

However, the plus is around 9 to 10 hours of life in a small, cheap package, plus the life of your laptop's internal battery. About all you need for any flight or long day's work.

It's so nice that in fact I think it's a meaningful alternative to the power jacks found on some airlines, usually only in business class. I bought an airline adapter a few years ago for a similar price to this battery, and even when I have flown in business class, half the time the power jack has not been working properly. Some airlines have power in coach but it's rare. And it costs a lot of money for the airlines to fit these 80 watt jacks in lots of seat, especially with all the safety regs on airlines.

I think it might make more sense for airlines to just offer these sorts of batteries, either free or for a cheap rental fee. Cheaper for them and for passengers than the power jacks. (Admittedly the airline adapter I bought has seen much more use as a car and RV adapter.) Of course they do need to offer a few different voltages (most laptops can take a range) but passengers could reserve a battery with their flight reservation to be sure they get the right one.

It would be even cheaper for airlines to offer sealed lead-acid batteries. You can buy (not rent) an SLA with over 200 watt-hours (more than you need for any flight) for under $20! The downside is they are very heavy (17lbs) but if you only have to carry it onto the plane from the gate this may not be a giant barrier.

Of course, what would be great would be a standard power plug on laptops for external batteries, where the laptop could use the power directly, and measure and charge the external. Right now the battery is the first part to fail in a laptop, and as such you want to replace batteries at different times from laptops. This new external should last me into my next laptop if it is a similar voltage.

How car/oil industry cheats us of 6 billion dollars a year

Recently, I discovered something that others have known for a while but many don’t know. Namely that effectively all modern cars that say they should use Premium (high-octane) gasoline run perfectly fine on regular. Since the early 90s, cars have had more advanced carb/fuel-injector systems which adjust to the octane of the gas and don’t knock. Like an idiot, I’ve been filling my car with premium. The engineers at all the major car vendors have confirmed this.

I worked out that since the USA uses 370 million gallons of gas a day, or 135 billion per year, at 12% premium sales, that’s 16 billion gallons of premium sold, almost none of it needed. Call it 15B gallons. At a surcharge of 20 to 30 cents/gallon that’s over 3 billion extra dollars charged to no purpose in the USA, and presumably another 3 billion outside (though perhaps they buy less hi-test outside.) The USA uses about 44% of world gasoline.

So why do many cars come with a line in the owner’s manual saying to use premium gasoline? Turns out the marketing departments believe customers of higher-end cars are ethralled by horsepower. They want to advertise the highest peak horsepower number they can. And you can deliver a slightly higher peak horsepower on higher octane. Nothing so big that you would notice it outside of extreme driving conditions or pro racing, but you can publish a higher number. So long as you spec the car as using premium.

So to satisfy these marketing numbers, the world is spending about 6 billion extra bucks each year on high octane fuel. And I’m not even considering all the extra infrastructure required (fancier pumps and blending systems, more tanks with risk to leak into the ground etc.)

Many people think high-octane gasoline is “more powerful.” In fact, oddly, the octane rating measures how non-explosive the fuel is. The higher the octane, the less likely it will explode under pressure. People think of high-octane fuel as more powerful because with high octane fuel, you can design a higher performance car that works at higher compression, safe in the knowledge you won’t get explosions from anything but the spark plug, ie. knocking. The fuel is not higher power, it’s the engine, which is why putting premium into a regular car is a waste unless it’s knocking. Lead cheaply reduces knocking at low pressure which is why they used to add it until they realized, “holy crap, we’re filling our fuel with toxic lead!”

There is still controversy over whether high-compression engines get better mileage than when they run at lower compression with regular.

What a scam. Spread the word.

Government could buy emergency petroleum reserve as futures

Many are commenting on the gasoline shortages and price increases involved with hurricane evacuation and other emergencies. Some people can’t get gas to get out of the city. Others full up giant tanks even when they don’t need it. Stations raise prices as supply drops and demand increases, as per the normal rules of the market. Some suggest the stations be price-controlled to stop this, but that would only result in even more gas hoarding by the public.

The government could instead have a strategic emergency gasoline reserve. However, it need not keep this reserve in tanks, it could “keep” it in the storage tanks of all the private gas stations, by arranging a special emergency-based futures contract with the station owners, in advance. Not all stations need participate, as long as enough gas for evacuation can be reserved.

During the emergency, it would be calculated how much fuel will be needed per vehicle. Each station would provide that much fuel to each vehicle. The simplest way to do this is to devise some long-lasting mark that will last at least a few days to a week, and for each station to put it on a car after delivering the fuel. Perhaps something as simple as a sharpie mark or other semi-permanent mark on the gas cap. This is unfair in that people with multiple cars could get extra fuel, but other systems, like vouchers and databases have their own problems. Vouchers would be lost or sold on the black market, unfortunately.

Any fuel over and above the contracted amount could be sold at market prices to those who want more fuel and/or wish to hoard. Probably quite high market prices. Fuel tankers could also be arranged to resupply stations with emergency reserve needs. Note that the customers could still pay a normal price for the reserve gas, reducing the cost of the contract. They would also sign a voucher at the station, on which random audits could later be done to confirm compliance. Stations would contract to deliver based on the minimum reserve they keep in their own tanks. There could also be a true reserve in government owned tankers to cover the slop factor.

Hybrid RVs, more RV notes

Every time I take an RV trip (ie. each Burning Man) I come up with more observations. The biggest one is that it cost $360 in gasoline to go from the bay area to the black rock desert, about 800 miles. And that’s at a price still well below world price. The RV owner said he was planning to get out of the business, people no longer want to pay the gas price.

So why is it taking so long to produce a hybrid RV? Hybrid cars are great of course, but trucks and RVs are what really suck gas and need the improved efficiency. And they have the room for larger and more unusual engine configurations. Most of all, RVs also mostly come with expensive generators and batteries, and a hybrid RV would of course have a super duper power plant and batteries and inverters, presuming the engine was efficient at lower revs. The Hybrid RV’s power plant could also be a backup generator when parked at the non-moving home. Probably make the most sense with diesel fuel, or as I have suggested before, even the highly efficient stirling engine. (Stirlings are big, and take time to warm up, but an RV with batteries is fine with this.)

Every RV’s shower has this hose based showerhead with an on-off dial with a slight leak. Our camp built a much nicer shower using a standard kitchen sprayer. A kitchen sprayer with a lock-on would be much better and would make it easier to conserve water by letting you pulse water where you need it when rinsing.

Cleaning the RV, especially when back from the desert, is hard. RV renters charge fat cleaning deposits and fees. Why doesn’t some company that hires out housekeepers do an RV service. You could come to them. Drive in, and a team of 5 attacks your RV, cleaning it in minutes. Do it at a car wash to also handle the outside if needed. Espcially after Burning Man there’s a business here.

I’ve said these before: Paper towel racks, built-in soap dispensers, inverters, flourescent lights. Why aren’t these everywhere in the RV world, instead of being rare?

Stabilizers jacks are great, but how about something simpler, some way to lock the springs or shocks (of course with an interlock to prevent starting the vehicle!) And while slide-outs are great, why do we never see flip out beds the way pop-top campers have, or a pop-up on the cab-over bed? (Most RVs don’t have any spare wall space except in the master bedroom, which does limit the flip-out bed concept. You also almost never see murphy beds.) Flip-out beds don’t take away your dinette or couch as do the extra beds commonly found. And how about a seat belt design for use on the beds for safe sleeping while driving? You can do this now but it doesn’t seem super safe.

Electric cars, perhaps not, but let's see more electric trikes

I recently picked up a surplus battery-powered motor assist for a bicycle, and it's a lot of fun. Due to lower power you have to start peddling to 3mph and then it can run the bike for 10 miles at 10mph (for normal weight people, not me.)

All-electric cars didn't do well in the market in part because people were scared of their limited range, slow charging and and high cost, and the annoyance of plugging them in. They love hybrids because they don't have the range problem. Some folks are promoting plug-in hybrids, which are hybrids with lots of batteries. You can and should charge them from the grid, but you don't have to, so your range is the same as a gas car (or better) and on most trips you are much more efficient.

But perhaps cars are the wrong target. Electric bikes are heavy and a little more unstable when slow or being walked, and get really bad if you put enough batteries on them to go 20 or 30 miles. But trikes on the other hand are stable and you can load a lot more batteries onto them for serious range. And electric trikes are wicked efficient, in terms of cost (and fuel burned) per mile of travel. Orders of magnitude ahead of hybrid cars.

And all this is quite cheap to make if done in quantity. If our cities made more bike paths and bike lanes these trikes could become a major commute form, especially in California with its assured good weather. Yes, it's not perfect -- you have to recycle the batteries, and you do have rain to worry about, and the speed is definitely lower. But for shopping trips, neighbourhood trips and short commutes it seems a giant win.

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