North America

An Electric Car-Bike Lane Plan, for Cities like Toronto

Many Conservatives disparage electric cars and bike lanes, while many Liberals fetishize electric cars and bike lanes. The correct approach lies between: some bike lanes and some electric cars are good. Others are not.

For bike lanes, geography can be decisive. Cities like Amsterdam—which is almost entirely flat, and which has no months in which average daily highs exceed 22 degrees celsius or fall below 6 degrees celsius—are ideal for cycling. But most cities are much hillier, hotter, and colder than that. These cities need bike lanes too, but not the same type of bike lane system that Amsterdam has.

For electric cars, size and speed can be decisive. The electric cars currently being marketed to us—the Tesla S, the Nissan Leaf, etc. — are actually far too big and fast to be environmentally or economically efficient. Their batteries expend a lot of pollution during their production, do not provide enough range before needing to be either charged or swapped-out (plus, slow-charging stations, fast-charging stations, and/or battery-swapping stations are all problematic, for various environmental or economic reasons) and are too heavy and bulky to come even close to being  ideal.

This is a shame, since electric vehicles in general can be more efficient and eco-friendly than gasoline-fueled vehicles. This is (among other reasons) because they do not contribute to local air pollution, and because they receive their power from power plants, which can be several times more energy-efficient than internal combustion engines and can use energy sources other than fossil fuels.

Electric cars that are much lighter and/or slower than, for example, the Nissan Leaf do not face the same significant battery limitations that electric cars like the Leaf face. If, hypothetically, we all were to decide to buy cars that are closer in their size and speed to golf carts rather than to today’s style of North American automobile, urban areas would very likely experience a substantial economic and environmental gain as a result. The reduced speed limit of the cars would not even cause average driving speeds to drop by much during rush hour, because traffic congestion in urban areas is usually severe enough that vehicles’ average driving speeds already tend to be far below speed limits.

Of course, the goal is not to make people drive tiny cars. Apart from being illiberal, such cars would not be practical or safe on expressways and in suburban areas in which low speed limits would be limiting. The goal, rather, should be to make it safe and comfortable for drivers in urban areas to use small lightweight cars (whether privately owned or, more likely at first, car2go-style rentals), even while they sharing the road with much larger, heavier conventional cars.

Designating certain road lanes (or, better yet, entire streets or downtown cores) as slow-speed limit lanes might accomplish this. Lighter and slow electric cars could safely drive in these lanes alongside conventional vehicles.

Moreover, this could also allow for bike lane systems ideal for cities like Toronto; cities that have a lot of days that are too hot and a lot of days that are too cold/snowy/icy/ to bike comfortably or safely, especially up hills (in summer) or down hills (in winter):

Like electric vehicles, cyclists too would be able to use the slow-speed car lanes relatively safely and comfortably. This could mean three things, all of them good:

  1. the city would generally be much more bike-friendly than would otherwise be the case
  2. if you put a two-lane bike lane on one side of the street (see image below), then cyclists would have the option of either using the bike lane or using the slow-speed car lanes — in other words, cyclists would have the option of biking on the sunny side or the shaded side of the street, no matter what time of day it was. This should be very useful on hot days, when cyclists are trying to get to work without breaking a sweat
  3.  instead of having three or four winter months a year in which bike lanes are extremely underutilized, you could instead use the bike lanes during the winter as a parking lane and extra slow speed lane for some of the smaller very small cars (one-seaters or especially narrow 2-4 seaters) that would become common as a result of the slow-speed car lanes. Having a parking lane in the winter would be useful for older people who are at risk of slipping on ice and falling if they have to walk longer distances from their car to their destination.

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So, there it is: a plan to promote efficient electric cars, rather than inefficient ones or none at all; and a plan for having bike lanes that could be useful during hot summers as well as during cold winters.

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North America

Trolleytrucks + Autonomous Cargo Handling = Clean, Cheap Transportation

It takes a lot of time to unload a large truck and sort and store its contents. This means that trucks tend to make deliveries during the daytime, when the cost of paying people to unload trucks is relatively low.

If, however, the process of unloading trucks and handling their contents becomes automated, overnight deliveries may become much more common. At night trucks are able to avoid being caught in, and contributing to, traffic jams.

Making more deliveries in the evening or overnight may, in turn, lead to an increased demand for electric trucks. Electric trucks are far quieter than diesel trucks, which is obviously an important trait for nighttime delivery vehicles. They can also be operated relatively cheaply overnight, given the generally much lower price of nighttime power.

If – an enormous if – electric trucks do not need batteries that are heavy, bulky, pollute, and frequently need to be recharged, they can also operate many times more efficiently in general than can diesel trucks.

This is mainly because electric vehicles do not pollute city air, and because electric motors and the power plants that generate their electricty can be several times more energy-efficient (and potentially far more eco-friendly) than internal combustion engines. But it is also because electric vehicles can have regenerative breaking systems that recapture some of the power they expend, and because they have dynamic break systems and motors with very few moving parts, and because they have far stronger torque that helps them climb hills.

Unfortunately, the batteries needed to power trucks are too heavy, bulky, polluting, and range-limited*. This is especially true of batteries for large trucks**, which are the most cost-efficient and eco-friendly types of truck — and which would remain generally the most efficient types of truck even if all trucks were to become self-driving.

[*There may be three main options for dealing with batteries’ limited ranges: slow-charging, fast-charging, or battery-swapping. All three options are problematic. Slow charging is problematic because the nighttime is short, so to spend several hours charging a large truck battery is a waste of precious time. Fast charging is also problematic, because it requires a very large amount of energy at one time, which would then increase peak nighttime energy demand for the grid when lots of trucks are fast-charging their batteries at the same time. If, for example, the wind stops blowing at the same time that many trucks are using wind power to fast-charge their large batteries, power might need to come from fossil fuels, making them much less environmentally friendly. Moreover, if fast-charging stations were used during the daytime too – which presumably they would be, because why spend the money to build fast-charging stations if you are only going to use them at night – it could then lead to increased peak demand in general, which would be both inefficient and environmentally problematic. Battery-swapping stations, then, might be the best option — but building them is easier said than done, given the huge size of truck batteries. Even then, however, they would still not overcome any other issues associated with battery use in trucks.]  

[**To quote The Globe and Mail: “Battery powering of heavy duty vehicles may not be expedient. To match the range provided by the diesel fuel tank of a typical long-distance heavy-duty truck, which when full weighs about a tonne, a heavy-duty battery-powered electric-drive truck would have to carry almost 30 tonnes of battery, which is much more than the average payload of heavy-duty trucks.” ]

Barring a breakthrough in battery technology, this only leaves one other option: electric trolleytrucks. These get their power from overhead power wires, somewhat like streetcars do. They then use small batteries in order to travel short distances away from these overhead wires.

Some cities already have large wire-powered networks. Vancouver, for example, which is a city especially suited for electric vehicles given its hilly terrain and cheap, clean, hydropower-generated power, has close to 300 kilometers of wired roads, which it uses for trolleybus transit.

Luckily, trucks making overnight deliveries can avoid the challenges that have thus far prevented trolleytrucks from being commonly used. The main challenge for trolleytrucks has been city traffic. Because they can only travel a few kilometres away from their power wires, they cannot handle the risk of getting caught in stop-and-go traffic.

Overnight, however, the lack of traffic and much longer green light-red light cycles removes this risk. It also means that should a mistake occur that does leave a trolleytruck stranded away from its power wires and out of battery power, it could simply wait for a support vehicle to come and charge its battery, without causing any road traffic blockage as would occur if it ran out of power during the day.

This effectively much extended range away from the wires at night also helps solve another main challenge: lots of people find trolley wires unaesthetic. The ability of trucks to travel further away from the wires at night means you don’t need as many streets wired. You might even be able to get away with only having some highway corridors — where aesthetics is not a problem – wired. The trucks could run on the wired highways during the daytime, then run mostly off-wire overnight to get a few km in the city to make deliveries further from the wired corridor.

A final, hugely significant challenge, which trolleytrucks must face regardless of whether they run during the day or night, is the cost of intermodal cargo transfers. Even if a trolley wire-building spree were to occur, most roads will remain unwired for the foreseeable future. As such, for trolleytrucks to be competitive with diesel trucks, the cost of transferring cargo between trolleytrucks and other vehicles – notably, diesel trucks and trains – must fall. Trolleytrucks being more efficient than diesel trucks will not be sufficient to make them ubiquitous. This can be seen already by looking at the fact that trucks transport much more freight than do railways, despite railways being more efficient than trucks.

If autonomous loading and unloading of trucks, and autonomous sorting and storing of trucks’ cargo, dramatically reduces the cost of intermodal cargo transfers, as seems likely to occur (or at least, plausible), then we might expect the use of cargo railways and of trolleytrucks to increase relative to the use of less efficient diesel trucks.

Indeed, if the automation of intermodal transfers serves to increase
railways’ share of freight transported relative to trucks, one result may be that a larger share of trucking will take place in hilly or urban areas where railways are less competitive. And, since hilly and urban areas are precisely the areas where electric vehicles are most useful — in hilly areas because of their torque, dynamic breaking, and ability to go through tunnels without spewing exhaust that requires ventilation; in urban areas because of their low air and noise pollution – this might further increase the use of trolleytrucks (and trolleybusses!) relative to diesel.

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North America, South America

Countries to Watch: El Salvador

El Salvador .png

I made this article for Rosa & Roubini Associates. You can read it here: Emerging Markets – El Salvador.

…And here’s an extract from the article:

While this story is indeed a negative one, this negativity also serves to obscure the potential of Salvadoran-Americans, a diaspora group that, when measured in size relative to the size of its home country’s population, exceeds all other countries’ diasporas living within the United States. (See chart above). The Salvadoran American population is currently estimated to be 2 million, 31% as large as the entire population of El Salvador.

The Salvadoran-American diaspora is a direct product of the terrible 1980-1992 civil war in El Salvador. Most Salvadoran emigrants arrived in the United States during or immediately after the war. This means that the second generation of Salvadoran Americans, the more than 1 million born in the US, most of whom are bilingual, some of whom will achieve­ the American Dream of getting rich quick, and none of whom were directly impacted by the civil war, is now coming of age. The big jump in US-born Salvadorans came in 2000: they are turning 18 years old this year.

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North America

Devil’s Advocate: An unconventional, long-shot case for Elon Musk

I would not invest in Tesla. I think Elon Musk’s style is a little bit annoying, and I think many of his supporters are very annoying. More importantly I am not sold on the claim that Tesla will be able to compete against other auto or tech firms, even assuming that electric vehicles really do become widespread soon.

Looking at Musk’s business moves individually they appear, at best, to be high risk, high reward.

For example:

— Tesla’s approach to autonomous driving is not to use LIDAR, because LIDAR is expensive. This is unique: the other auto and tech firms are all betting on LIDAR. And because the economic viability of electric vehicles probably depends on autonomous driving (the vehicles need to be able to drive themselves to and from charging stations, as otherwise charging batteries may be too inconvenient when compared to conventional or hybrid vehicles), if this LIDAR-free strategy fails, it might put Tesla in a very tough position.

— Large electric trucks do not seem to make obvious economic sense: the batteries are too big, bulky, and expensive. It is difficult to see why these would be able to compete, in the short run, against conventional trucks, and in the long run against robots making it much easier to transfer cargo between electric railways and “first-mile/last-mile” conventional trucks or smaller electric trucks.

— Solar City. Even assuming that solar can compete with other power industries, and even assuming that using batteries to store power can compete with other forms of energy storage, it is difficult to see why a diffuse system of rooftop solar panels would be able to compete with solar farms, where installation and maintenance costs per panel are lower and where there is less shade.

–Boring company. Even assuming that Musk does succeed in reducing urban tunnelling costs, such tunnels would still be hugely expensive, so it is not clear why you would use them to move cars or people on `sleds`, when it would be much more efficient from a capacity point of view to simply use an existing technology within the tunnels: namely, trains.


The Unconventional, Long-Shot Case: Tesla Parking Lots 

Readers of this blog will know I have a weird obsession with parking lots, because parking lots are the most ubiquitous type of American real estate and because they may be impacted more than other types by technologies like e-commerce and autonomous parking. Let’s imagine what Elon Musk might be able to do with a typical supersized suburban parking lot:

— No LIDAR, no liability, no problem: while autonomous vehicles in general might need LIDAR and might face liability issues, in a controlled, pedestrian-free environment — for example, in a designated autonomous zone of a parking lot — an autonomous car could function without LIDAR. This would have two benefits: one, it would act in effect as a valet service, making it easy to park; two, the parking lot could have an autonomous charging station for electric cars, so that your car could be charged while you are in the mall

—  Sledding. The car-carrying ‘sleds’ imagined for use inside the Boring Company’s tunnels may not make economic sense within those tunnels, but they could make sense as  sleds that could carry conventional, non-autonomous cars (there are hundreds of millions of these cars in America today, and they aren’t going to disappear overnight) to and from parking spots.

— The Boring Company. If the Boring Company ends up reducing the cost of conventional subway trains, the value of autonomous valet parking lots could increase, as people will drive their car to a parking lot at the nearest subway station, then get on the subway train while the car goes to park itself. (They may also be able to get in another car at their destination station’s parking lot, thus overcoming the ‘first-mile, last-mile challenge’ that plagues suburban transit in America today). Short-distance tunnels created by the Boring Company could also be used to link together parking lots that are close together: lots of suburban parking lots are giant ‘archipelagos’ separated by highways, for example.

— Electric Trucks. Electric trucks may not be economical in general, but could be economical in a specific situation: driving short ‘first-mile/last-mile’ distances, in daytime or overnight (electric vehicles are quiet, so better for nighttime use) between, for example, a commercial/industrial parking lot and a rail or conventional truck logistics station. So, for example, a company like Walmart could use electric trucks to bring in cargo quietly at night when its parking lot is empty, and also charge their batteries in the lot.

— Solar City. Rooftop solar panels may not be economically competitive in general, but on large flat roofs with little shade — notably, on large commercial/industrial roofs, next to large parking lots — they may be more economical. It may even become economical to put a solar roof above the large parking lots, to generate power while also helping to keep the parked cars shaded.

Okay, I admit, this is all unfounded, unclear, and far-fetched. Ultimately, it is based on the assumption that if wholly autonomous cars do not become widespread in the near future, then the most efficient, clean, and convenient methods of transportation and commerce may instead involve a combination of electric cars, conventional transit, and autonomous parking. Elon Musk’s unique mix of assets may be uniquely suited for this outcome.

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North America

Wall-Ball: Sport of Heroes

With technologies like online shopping, ride-hailing, and perhaps eventually autonomous vehicles, it may be that parking lots will more and more often be unfilled, outside of peak shopping hours.

Wall-Ball, therefore, (or Wal-Ball, if Walmart ponies up the $$ for it), is a sport that could be played in a jumbo-sized parking lot. Here’s how it’s played:

1. It’s played in an area the same size as a football/soccer field
2. The ball is a tennis ball
3. Each player wears rollerblades
4. Each player carries a hockey stick or a tennis racket. They can switch between the two as much or as little as they like, whenever they like. (This is where some of the strategy comes in: in deciding which to use, and when). If they want, they can also use both at the same time: they can wear their tennis racket sheathed in a pouch on their back, and pull it out to use as needed while holding their hockey stick in their opposite hand.
5. A goal can be scored in one of two ways: by scoring the ball in the net (the net is a soccer net), or by scoring in the ball through a hoop (think quidditch) high above the net
6. The goalie, who also wears rollerblades and uses a tennis racket or hockey stick, is the only player who can touch the ball with his or her hands. No other players can enter the goalie crease.
7. There is an offside line, as in hockey, rather than a moving offside as in soccer
8. When a player hits the ball out of bounds, the goalie on the opposing team immediately puts a new ball into play
9. There is no checking or slashing, with one exception: if a player sandwiches the ball between his or her racket and hockey stick, then a player on the opposing team can hit that player or slash at his or her racket
10.  Sort of like major league baseball, where every venue can be shaped differently, so in Wall-Ball every rink could have a wall around some or all of the edge of the rink, with the height or placement of the wall differing from venue to venue. (It could also played without any walls or boards). Players can bounce the ball off it strategically like hockey players do off the boards in ice hockey.

So, that’s how you play Wall-Ball!

 

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North America

Unconventional NHL Strategies, continued

  1. Playing 5.5-on-4 

    Pulling your goalie tends to be less beneficial on a power play, since icing calls can’t be called against penalty killers (so they can attempt a long shot at an empty net goal without a consequence if they miss) and since the marginal benefit of the extra attacker is smaller when you compare the difference between 6-on-5 and 6-on-4 to the difference between 5-on-5 and 6-on-5. As such, while trailing teams will still usually pull their goalie during the last minute or two of the game if they are on a power play, they tend not do so on a power play with, say, three minutes left in the game.

    But what if, instead of pulling the goalie to get an extra attacker, a team instead uses its sixth man as a safety: positioning the sixth man around centre ice, so that he can help prevent a long empty net goal, while also being able to jump forward into the play as needed, in order (for example) to help prevent the puck from clearing the offensive zone, or to take a point shot. The sixth man would be playing, in effect, as both a goalie and a defenseman. And when he does jump into the zone at one point, a teammate from the opposite point could fall back to fill his safety position.

    This strategy could perhaps even be usable at some times when not on a power play, in order to take advantage of having the puck in the offensive zone (or in order to take advantage of tired defenders) at a time earlier than the coach would otherwise be willing to pull the goalie. If, for example, a coach is not comfortable with pulling his goalie with 2.2 and 20 seconds left in the game, but would rather wait until the 2 minute mark to pull his goalie, he could have the option of using a 5.5-on-5 strategy for 20 seconds first.

    2. Power play specialization and trade

    Power plays arguably consist of two different skill-sets. One is getting the puck set up inside the offensive zone, the other is scoring a goal. Many of the league’s star players or power play specialists are excellent at both of these skill sets. But there is unlikely to be a clean overlap between the two. Getting the puck inside the zone on a power play, for example, depends more on skating, while scoring on a power play depends more on skills like passing, shooting, obstructing the goalie’s vision, and winning face-offs.

    As a result, teams that do not have many great stars or power play specialists might want to think about a different strategy than the conventional “top power play unit, second power play unit” division of duties that NHL teams generally use. Instead, they may want to use a “specialization and trade” strategy: have one lineup optimized to getting the puck set up inside the zone, and then another lineup (some star players can play on both lineups) optimized for scoring a goal once already in the zone. The latter line would be subbed on the ice whenever there is a face-off inside the offensive zone on a power play. The former line could be subbed on (sometimes) on the fly when the opposing team shoots the puck down the length of the ice. This type of one-two punch strategy might also be useful at times playing 5-on-5.

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North America

Ontario: Low-Cost, High-Comfort Rail is much better than High-Speed, High-Cost Rail

Average is over. Long live average.

“High-speed rail” is a bit of misleading name: airplanes travel at a much faster speed. It might be better to call it “high-speed for rail” instead. Or call it “average-speed by rail”.

Of course, if you did refer to high-speed rail by any of those names, you probably wouldn’t have governments like Ontario’s pledging to spend 11 billion dollars to build a high-speed rail line from Toronto to Kitchener-Waterloo and London, Ontario. Even to those who support rail transport over less efficient, more polluting air and road transport, this move is difficult to justify from an economic perspective, given the population density of Southwest Ontario.

While high-speed rail is a good idea in populous areas where conventional rail options are already numerous (although even the Boston-New York-Washington corridor does not have one yet, which should set off alarm bells for those who think the Toronto-Guelph-Kitchener-London corridor, or even the larger Toronto-Windsor corridor, should build one) there are five main problems with high-speed rail in a place like Ontario.

One, it is much more expensive to build than conventional rail. Two, it has fewer stops and so can serve fewer cities than conventional rail. Three, it is less fuel-efficient than conventional rail. Four, it has much less capacity than conventional rail (if you double the speed of a rail line, you generally also must double the safe and comfortable distance required between each train, and so end up halving the capacity of the rail line) and so is much more expensive than conventional rail (unless wastefully subsidised by governments).

And fifth, yes it goes faster, but what’s the rush? What’s so bad about the existing 2.5 hour train from Toronto to London, Ontario…especially now that most people will soon have noise-cancelling wireless headphones and ultra-lightweight computers? And especially if e-commuting means that people will not have to make the trip as often as they otherwise might, or might be able to get work done while on the train. And anyway, don’t we continue to be told that automation and digital outsourcing going to do more and more of our work? Why exactly is someone rushing to or from Toronto so frequently that so much of our tax dollars should go to this “high-speed” train?

Ontario-HIgh-Speed-Rail

Instead of high-speed, high-cost rail, what Ontario could spend that 11 billion on instead is low-cost, high-comfort rail: rail on which it would be easy to work, relax, or sleep, and on which the needs of aging Baby Boomers who make up the biggest chunk of Ontario’s population, who are now already in their 60s and 70s, could be catered to more (making it easier to stow heavy suitcases, more bathroom capacity, etc.).

Indeed, what is really needed is not a way for to reach cities like London, Ontario or Kitchener-Waterloo, or even Windsor(-Detroit) without having to take a slow conventional train, but rather a way to reach more distant cities like Ottawa, Montreal, Chicago, and New York (all roughly 400-800 km from Toronto) without having to take a slow conventional train or an airplane. Ideally, we would have a train that is affordably priced, and so comfortable and smooth (i.e. with so few accelerations, decelerations, or bumps) that, at a low speed of 50-100 km an hour, a passenger could sleep easily though the night and wake up 400-800 km away. Even that would probably cost less than high-speed rail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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