Tag Archives: transportation

November 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • I thought about war and peace in November. Well, mostly war. War is frightening. The United States of America appears to be flailing about militarily all over the world guided by no foreign policy. Big wars of the past have sometimes been started by overconfident leaders thinking they could get a quick military victory, only to find themselves bogged down in something much larger and more intractable than they imagined. But enemies are good to have – the Nazis understood that a scared population will believe what you tell them.
  • We should probably be sounding the alarm just as urgently, if not more urgently, on biodiversity as we are on global warming. But while the case against global warming is so simple most children can grasp it, the case against biodiversity loss is more difficult to articulate.
  • A theory of mass extinctions of the past is that they have been caused by massive volcanic eruptions burning off underground fossil fuels on a massive scale. Only, not quite at the rate we are doing it now. Rapid collapse of ice cliffs is another thing that might get us.

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • You can get an actuarial estimate of your life span online. You can also search your local library catalog automatically whenever you consider buying a book online. Libraries in small, medium, and large towns all over the U.S. appear to be included. Only, not my library. Boo, Philadelphia Free Library.
  • “Transportation as a service” may cause the collapse of the oil industry. Along similar but more mainstream lines, NACTO has released a “Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism“, which is my most popular post at the moment I am writing this.
  • It’s possible that the kind of ideal planned economy envisioned by early Soviet economists (which never came to pass) could be realized with the computing power and algorithms just beginning to be available now.


October 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • Donald Trump’s proposed tax policies are based on numbers he just makes up. This is not a matter of differences of political opinion, it is a matter of made-up numbers that can be compared to actual measured numbers taken from reality. Large swaths of the public seem unaware or unconcerned about this difference. large enough swaths of the public are concerned enough, however, that we are accepting of a situation where the (very recently retired members of the) military appears to be taking a very active role in executive branch decision making.
  • U.S. diplomats in Cuba are being subjected to some kind of directional noise weapon, and nobody knows who is doing it or why.
  • It is possible that a catastrophic loss of insects is occurring and that it may lead to ecological collapse. Also, there is new evidence that pollution is harming human health and even the global economy more than previously thought.

Most hopeful stories:

  • The U.S. Democratic party could consider embracing an anti-monopoly platform. Spun the right way, this would be a pro-business policy in the sense of creating a level playing field for businesses of all sizes to compete and innovate, rather than a system that is unfairly skewed in favor of big business at the expense of small business, workers, and consumers.
  • Evaporation theoretically could be harnessed to produce enormous amounts of energy for human use.
  • Supersonic (civilian) travel is almost back.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • A lot of the recyclables picked up at curbside in the U.S. are shipped to China for use as raw materials for manufactured goods that will be exported back to the U.S.
  • Even if autonomous trucks are not ready for tricky urban situations, they could be autonomous on the highway with a small number of remote-control drivers guiding a large number of tricks through tricky urban maneuvers, not unlike the way ports or trainyards are run now. There is also new thinking on how to transition highways gradually through a mix of human and computer-controlled vehicles, and eventually to full computer control. New research shows that even a small number of autonomous vehicles mixed in with human drivers will be safer for everyone. While some reports predict autonomous taxis will be available in the 2020s, Google says that number is more like 2017.
  • I mused about what it would take for a metropolitan area in the U.S. to achieve statehood. It seems like a tough uphill climb but I can imagine it having benefits not just for the metro area but for the economy and country as a whole.

I’ve been reading a little about Socrates lately. There was a debate in ancient Athens, during its radical experiments with direct democracy and free speech, that a smooth-talking rhetorical style could tend to carry the day over solidly argued logic and facts. So these concerns are not new, and there probably was no golden age when groups of Americans or other human beings were a lot better at logic-based decision making than we are now. Still, what is frustrating is that any individual human being clearly is capable of logic-based decision making, and yet we are repeatedly swayed and misled by faulty logic in groups.

The insect thing is really wild. I just spent three weeks in tropical Asia and was struck by how un-buggy it was compared to past trips. Which probably has absolutely nothing to do with the peer-reviewed journal article mentioned above. My garden in Philadelphia actually was quite buggy this summer, somewhat ironically with the striped mosquito varieties that have drained significant quantities of my blood on past trips to tropical Asia.


this private think tank report on the future of transportation claims to have used a system dynamics approach and to have reached some radical conclusions, like the collapse of private car ownership, the oil industry, and major decreases in the cost of getting around within a decade or so. The buzz phrase is “transportation as a service”.


population growth and cities

According to this article in Governing, some economists question whether population growth is always a good thing for cities.

Although the preponderance of media opinion has always been that more people make a better city, there has long existed a cluster of academics who challenge that wisdom. Perhaps the leading voice in this contrarian club is Paul Gottlieb, an economist at Rutgers University. He has argued for decades not only that local elected officials should take a measured approach to growth, but that metropolitan areas with stable or slow-growing populations are likely to have greater economic prosperity. Fifteen years ago, in a paper titled “Growth Without Growth,” Gottlieb called attention to 23 of the largest 100 metro areas, which he nicknamed “wealth builders.” Those were places with below-average increases in population and above-average increases in per capita income.

Another group of metro areas, which Gottlieb labeled “population magnets,” had excelled at gaining residents but performed below average at increasing per capita income. The data seemed to suggest that mayors shouldn’t frame future population increase as a guaranteed path to a better economy, especially when it comes at the cost of greater congestion, pollution and the loss of open space. “My paper was controversial in the sense that it questioned the desirability of population growth in any way,” Gottlieb says now. “It’s not obvious why you would want population growth except as a means to the end of increased income or increased wealth.”

It seems to me that bringing in more affluent taxpayers has to be good for a city as a whole, particularly legacy cities that have lost population density and have vacant, undermaintained housing and infrastructure. Of course it is not good for some residents in some neighborhoods if they feel as though the newcomers are concentrating and displacing them. I don’t have the answer to this any more than anyway else, except that providing excellent transportation and other infrastructure might tend to encourage people and well-paying jobs to spread out a bit more geographically. In Philadelphia, what is happening is that the newer, more affluent taxpayers are concentrating in neighborhoods closest to the central business district where they work, so they can walk, bike, or have a reasonable commute on public transportation to work. There will not be any lack of housing in Philadelphia as a whole any time soon, but the less affluent are getting pushed farther out from the city center and neighborhoods with good transportation links to the city center. Philadelphia actually made a plan for a comprehensive subway system a hundred years ago, built a small fraction of it, then stopped. Nobody has the imagination to even suggest finishing that system. We don’t even have the imagination to consider taking diesel buses offline in favor of the electric buses and trolleys we used to have, even as we have a serious air pollution problem. Schools and parks that have been in a state of disrepair for decades are very gradually improving in the more affluent neighborhoods, and continuing to languish in the less affluent ones. All this leads to tension between black and white, rich and poor, recent arrivals and long-time residents. Increased tax revenues could be invested to help solve these problems, but our politicians and bureaucrats just continue to fail us.

autonomous vehicles and safety

This article from the University of Illinois says that not only are autonomous vehicles safer than human drivers, but having just a few of them mixed in with the humans is actually safer for everyone.

The presence of just a few autonomous vehicles can eliminate the stop-and-go driving of the human drivers in traffic, along with the accident risk and fuel inefficiency it causes, according to new research. The finding indicates that self-driving cars and related technology may be even closer to revolutionizing traffic control than previously thought.

“Our experiments show that with as few as 5 percent of vehicles being automated and carefully controlled, we can eliminate stop-and-go waves caused by human driving behavior,” said Daniel B. Work, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a lead researcher in the study…

The team conducted field experiments in Tucson, Arizona, in which a single autonomous vehicle circled a track continuously with at least 20 other human-driven cars. Under normal circumstances, human drivers naturally create stop-and-go traffic, even in the absence of bottlenecks, lane changes, merges or other disruptions, Work said. This phenomenon is called the “phantom traffic jam.” Researchers found that by controlling the pace of the autonomous car in the study, they were able to smooth out the traffic flow for all the cars. For the first time, researchers demonstrated experimentally that even a small percentage of such vehicles can have a significant impact on the road, eliminating waves and reducing the total fuel consumption by up to 40 percent.

transitioning a highway to driverless cars

This white paper proposes some ideas for transitioning a highway to driverless cars in several steps.

The first step would be allowing autonomous vehicles into HOV lanes, the next step would be dedicating a lane to autonomous vehicles, and the final step would be expanding until all lanes are autonomous only. Regulators may want to phase these steps in with vehicles reaching various levels of the NHTSA/SAE autonomous driving framework (e.g., Level 3 automatic braking and lane control or 4 automatic control of all aspects of driving without the need for human intervention). We believe the first step of allowing autonomous vehicles in the HOV lanes could begin immediately with Level 3 and higher vehicles. A dedicated lane (each way) for autonomous vehicles could occur as soon as we have a significant number of such vehicles on our roads which could be 2025 or earlier if a tipping point has occurred. We can imagine that limiting non-autonomous vehicles to one lane on I-5 could occur beginning in 2030, which would mean at least three exclusive lanes for autonomous vehicles from Seattle to Everett, two exclusive lanes from Everett to Marysville and one north of Marysville to Vancouver’s downtown area.

autonomous trucks

This article from Wired brings up a couple points about autonomous trucks I hadn’t thought of before.

The startup Peloton is working on “platooning” trucks, or groups of vehicles that communicate via a wireless connection that helps them time their movements. At some point soon, the system might let a lead driver take over the steering for a bit, while those at the wheels in the vehicles behind could snooze, catch up on paperwork, meditate, whatever. California-based Embark would like to see driver-monitored trucks pilot themselves on interstates but be manually driven into warehouses by nimbler humans. Starsky Robotics has a similar vision, but says that the trickier driving maneuvers could be done by a human in a remote location, Predator drone-style. It’s unclear if any of these companies want—or will be able—to ever take the human out of the picture entirely…

So you could have one driver or no drives for a whole line of trucks on the highway. Then, when they get to town, a driver or even a remote driver could bring them in one at a time, if the computers are not yet up to the job.

One thing I think about is that this sounds a lot like trains. It’s hard for me to believe that platoons of trucks will be cost-effective with trains even after you take most drivers out of the equation. But remember that the highway system is automatically funded by all highway users through the gas tax, while rail companies are required to build and maintain their own infrastructure. Politicians in rural areas, which are greatly overrepresented in our electoral system at the state and federal levels, like this system because it makes taxpayers in the economically productive areas (aka cities) fund inefficient road networks in the mostly empty rural areas they represent. So this is not a level playing field where victory goes to the most efficient technology.

Logan and autonomous trucks

Not being a big superhero fan, I haven’t yet seen the movie Logan. Apparently, one thing in the movie is autonomous trucks.

About midway through the second act of the new X-Men movie Logan, there’s a scene that brings the superhero film’s vision of the future to life. Our heroes, on the run from the villainous Reavers, happen upon a car accident in the midwest. An autonomous truck vehicle has hit a horse trailer—and with nobody at the wheel, it’s hard to know why it happened.

I won’t go more into detail about the scene, spoilers, etc. But Logan’s writer and director James Mangold’s inclusion of the self-driving trucking machines makes it clear that the filmmaker understands the writing on the wall about the future of shipping. It’s a future without truck drivers.

Maybe as humans we find this idea creepy, but today’s human-driven trucks are incredibly dangerous and the autonomous trucks of the near future will almost certainly save human lives.