Thursday, November 13, 2008

DARPA wants flying cars

DARPA just put out a notice soliciting inventive types to build a flying cars. This is a very promising development for airborne personal transportation. DARPA has been successful in moving automated vehicles forward. Hopefully they can do the same for flying cars. I think DARPA is a good leading indicator of new technologies, and a few months ago I suggested that the best thing for flying cars is for DARPA to take on the challenge. Maybe this is an opportunity for the American automakers to regain their prominence throughout the world.

Here are the DARPA guidelines:

OBJECTIVE: Define new and innovative technology components that enable building a vehicle which can either be used as a 2-4 person ground transport that can both drive on roads or be changed into a flying craft with vertical take off capability. Identify selected technologies providing propulsion, morphing wings, and/or flight controls that provide core elements for this multi-person vehicle. Identify issues to be resolved via trade studies and define demonstrations establishing the feasibility of the identified core component technologies.

DESCRIPTION: A personal air vehicle that could transport 2 to 4 personnel either by driving on the ground or by flying would be suitable for many military scouting and personnel transport missions. This personal air vehicle should also have a vertical take-off capability that is not restricted to prepared surfaces for the most military utility. Desired personal air vehicle characteristics would be the ability to fly for 2 hours carrying a 2 to 4-person payload on one tank of fuel and can also safely travel of roads. The vehicle must be no wider than 8.5 feet and no longer than 24 feet, and no higher than 7 feet when in the road configuration. Vehicle control must support manually driving the vehicle on the ground and fully automated flight with manual flight control inputs that can override the fully automatic system. The challenge is to define the major components of such a vehicle that would be suitable for military scouting and personnel transport missions, yet are small enough, inexpensive enough, and easy enough to operate that it can be widely used. To achieve this it will be necessary to explore new and innovative technologies in one or more of the following areas:

- Propulsion concepts that include vertical take off and vertical landing, optimized disk loading for the combined fly/drive mission, size, weight, and power suitable for a road drivable vehicle, efficient power plant and energy management combined with low specific fuel consumption, and installation considerations related to safety, vehicle controllability, and passenger/payload carrying on a vehicle. The optimized disk loading should allow safe take off/landing at unprepared sites.

- Morphing wing/surfaces considerations including safe and rapid deployment and retraction, rugged construction, and ease of operation for a vehicle that can drive at up to 60 mph and fly at up to 150 mph.

- Flight control considerations include human interfaces to autopilot, flight director, and/or auto-navigation systems, automated navigation/ positioning, automated sensors, automated fight planning and de-confliction with other users of the airspace. Size, weight, and power must be paramount as well as redundancy and reliability suitable for human passengers.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Charging road user fees using GPS

The University of Iowa's Public Policy Center is starting new research that is really exciting for those of us who think road tolls are exciting. The premise is that the Highway Trust Fund, which is financed by the gas tax, is in trouble. People are driving less this year (due to economic factors and the spike in gas prices last spring) so the Trust Fund is strained. Long term, any shift towards more efficient vehicles or alternative power sources will diminish the gas tax revenues further. It is a real conundrum as to how we should pay for our transportation infrastructure in the future.

Charging drivers for the amount of driving they consume is the best way forward, but how to implement and collect user fees is tricky. GPS is promising because it only requires that drivers install a GPS transmitter on their vehicles rather than having their odometers read or toll booths placed. There are many potential benefits from this technology. First, by switching more of the cost of driving to marginal costs per mile forces drivers to paymore out of pocket and will reduce the overall amount of solo driving and potentially total miles driven. Second, the GPS data can be used to guide future investment. For instance, if there are roadways that generate a lot of revenue from miles travelled, then that is a good place to invest in maintenence and perhaps expansion. The current gas tax system often invests gas tax money in places where the taxes were not generated by building new roads and such. The transport system will work much better is the taxes generated are largely spent on transport projects in the same area. Third, by switching to a user fee there is less incentive to settle on one new energy source. For example, if hydrogen is taxed for transportation there is a strong incentive to promote hydrogen as the new transport fuel. By charging drivers for driving rather than their energy source it is possible to encourage many different types of energy. From a technological innovation standpoint this is a preferable route to take. We will likely end up "nudging" the world towards less driving and cleaner vehicles plus more flecible transportation planning.

So if you live in one of the cities where the U of Iowa is testing, sign up! You get paid, too.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Why aren't the East River bridges tolled in NYC?

The City Room has an interesting quick history of the efforts to toll the bridges across the East River linking Manhattan with Brooklyn and Queens. As is usually the case, politics is at the root of the problem. The story points out that technologically the infrastructure for tolls is already in use through the popular EZ Pass system. This is interesting because technological hurdles was a major concern for tolling for many decades. Now that barrier has been overcome, but the political problems remain. We've written about how to make tolls a politically viable policy. Hopefully New York City will validate our hypothesis.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Yankee Stadium parking spots cost $80,000 each

Today's NY Times has an article about the city's subsidies to the new Yankee Stadium. Not only are the Yankees a hard team to love as a non-native New York baseball fan, they are a hard team to love based on their shenanigans trying to cheat the city on rent the past 30 years.

But at the end of the article, the writer points out that the city is building the new parking structures for the stadium at a cost of $80,000 per space. This is not an unreasonable amount per space in construction costs. Parking is expensive to build. At that cost, however, it definitely should not be free, and in this particular case, the city should charge drivers in order to get their investment back. More importantly, however, alternative payments to alternatives should be considered.

Consider that the city is building 3,600 new spaces (at $80,000 each) and renovating 5,500 existing spaces paid for by a $225 million tax exempt bonding issue. And keep in mind these 9,100 spaces are for a 50,000 seat stadium in a city with the most extensive transit system in the world. On that point, the city and MTA are building a new commuter rail station adjacent to the stadium at a cost of $91 million. But, for the $225 million spent on parking the city could pay for round trip transit access for every fan for seven consecutive years of sold out games.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Air powered cars debut in Europe

"Airpods", which are cars that are powered by compressed air, are now in service shuttling passengers at two airports in Paris and Amsterdam. These cars are similar to what Tata Motors is proposing, as well. If they actually work they could be a potential alternative for short trips. There are many skeptics, however. Most engineers argue that air power is simply too inefficient at this point to reasonably power a car. The same is true for steam power, which is also under development as an alternative power source.

There are two big questions for me about these types of vehicles. First, what are the potential counter-factual scenarios where we (collectively) invested in developing electric, air powered or steam engines rather than internal combustion? In the late1880s none of these power plants had an obvious advantage over the others. The advantages of one were cancelled out by problems or advantages of others. The point is that air, steam or electric powered cars shouldn't be dismissed as unworkable. They all deserve a chance.

However, the second question is will people start consuming based on their daily experiences or will they only buy cars based on an occassional need for huge capacity? The evidence suggests that people will not buy cars with a 100 mile range even though that is more that enough for nearly all daily driving. They also will tend to buy cars that are bigger than they need based on a perceived need for space at some point in the future. These buyer preferences are true for home buying and other purchases as well. The consumer preferences may prove a bigger deal for changing our power sources than anything else. Efficiency is not a major concern for car buyers (regardless of what was reported when gas prices rose-that was a short term reaction).

So how can we encourage efficient vehicles? I recommend a few thing, and I think we will move towards these policies eventually, but the process should be hastened. First, user charges on the roads so people pay for the roadspace they consume. This improves congestion, traffic flow and potentially raises money to pay for transportation investments. Second, pay per mile insurance can switch a fixed cost into a marginal cost for travel, which will reduce overall travel and make people aware of how much they actually drive. Lastly, a weight tax on vehicles should be imposed. Heavy vehicles cause more damage to roadways, pedestrians and bicyclists and should be discouraged. Something along the lines of $1 per pound payable at sale will guide poeple and car builders towards lighter cars that cause less damage.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The decline of the American auto industry just accelerated

One of the outcomes of Tuesday's election is a reorganizing of leadership posts within Congress. Roll Call is reporting that Rep. Henry Waxman of California will challenge Rep. John Dingell for control of the Energy and Commerce Committee. This is potentially big news and portends a rapid decline in the political power of the major automakers. Dingell has led the opposition to stricter fuel economy and emission rules and generally been a full throated supporter of whatever positions the automakers advanced. By removing the Michigan Representative who chairs the committee and always sides with the industry, this change in leadership could dramatically alter the federal regulations on personal transportation, resulting is cleaner and more fuel efficient vehicles that feature more innovative technologies. Much like Detroit's opposition to catalytic converters forty years ago, the auto industry often gets in their own way to the detriment of public health and energy consumption. Maybe transportation policy will get swept up in the tides of change too!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Know your customer: Los Angeles Metrolink edition

Apparently the LA Metrolink transit system doesn't have a board member who regularly uses the system. While I don't think it's critical for all public agencies to be run by those who use the services, I do think in the case of transit at least one person who uses the system on a daily basis should be represented. The reason for this is that transit is in the business of competing with other modes of transportation for riders. It's important to know what that ridership experience is. The ridership data and cursory tours of transit systems will only go so far for informing service innovation. Transit agencies should think more entrepreneurially about their core business, and to do that they need to understand how their customers value the system and services offered.

Is there any good news for US automakers?

Car sales are continuing to decline rapidly. This is obviously bad news for all automakers, but the major US companies are in particular trouble. GM is unlikely to get federal assistance for a Chrysler purchase, the billions allocated as part of the financial bailout is not going to come quickly and none of the American companies have vehicles to offer those who want high quality, inexpensive and efficient cars (such as a Civic, Prius or Corolla). (Of course, they do have these cars but they are strangely unwilling to sell them in the US.) Ford is expecting an increase in demand for its full sized pickups, in part because of declining gas prices. But no automaker will see their fortunes improve until consumer credit starts to flow.

So where is the good news? I don't know. But I do think this presents an opportunity to rapidly improve the overall quality of vehicles driven on American roads. As the average age of the fleet increases, there will be a bit of pent up demand for new cars to replace those that will go out of service in the next few years. Consider that the average age of an automobile is nine years. Since there are now fewer cars being sold to replace cars coming off the road, the average age should increase over the next year or two. This means that there will be many more cars at the end of their useful (or efficient) life that should be replaced because they are not being replaced now. Incentives to replace those older cars with efficient cars (potentially using alternative powertrains) could produce rapid shifts in the overall mix of passanger cars between the years of 2010-2015, and result in pronounced improvements in energy consumption, pollution and safety. Of course, this means moving forward wiith existing technologies rather than relying on new ones (such as the Volt).

Monday, November 3, 2008

What should you drive to get out the vote for your candidate?

Who knows what these cars may say about the candidates, but here is a collection of embarrassing, bizarre or just dumb cars used to get out the vote. But whatever you drive remember to be careful because traffic crashes increase on election day!