Next Man Up: The Passenger-Driven Bus  

Busses can be driven by bus drivers, by computers, or by passengers. Bus drivers are the most sensible option, but are expensive in places where busses are forced to crawl along in traffic jams instead of getting their own designated lanes. Computers are the cheapest option, but are creepy and may not be ready to operate safely in bustling or wintry cities for many years yet, if ever.

The idea of having passenger-driven busses, however, has never even been discussed as far as I can tell. And probably with good reason, since the idea appears to be ridiculous. Ridiculous ideas are at least interesting though, so: let’s discuss how a passenger-driven bus might actually work.

The first step would be to create a bus so easy to drive that anyone with a driver’s license could do so without having to face a steep learning curve. Busses are already not so difficult to drive, so this is not really beyond the realm of plausibility, unlikely though it may be.

If buses were also to be equipped with a comparatively low level of automation — for instance, if the bus were able to automatically keep within its lane, pull up to the curb at bus stops, change or merge lanes when directed to do so, make turns at certain specified intersections, pull in to bus stations,  etc. – then operating a bus could perhaps become as easy as driving a car. If you were to give these buses their own separated bus lanes they might even become easier to drive than a car.

Express bus routes, which stop only at bus stations rather than making many stops along the way, would be easier to drive too, and might also help to entice passenger-drivers given that such routes would not take as much time to drive.

Alternatively, or additionally, if the bus simulations that trainee bus drivers already use were to become cheaper, better, and ubiquitous, many more people could learn to drive conventional busses.

The second step would be to create a service, a sort-of car-sharing app for buses, that would ensure that only designated drivers would be able to turn on the buses’ ignition and drive them. The driver would schedule a bus route from one bus station to another, and be paid based on how far or how many other passengers he or she drives. Upon arrival at the destination bus station, the driver-passenger would park the bus – or, perhaps, the bus would park itself – leaving it there for either another passenger-driver or a professional bus driver to use.

By doing this, the supply of bus drivers could be greatly increased, thereby allowing for more frequent bus services. It might, in addition, allow for cheaper bus services, since passenger-drivers might be willing to accept lower wages, as they would be simultaneously benefiting from being passengers as well as drivers. Ideally, passenger-drivers would not end up replacing or undercutting professional drivers’ wages, although of course it is plausible that they would do so.

One question, obviously, is how such a system could be profitable if the buses end up sitting unused for long stretches of time after one driver leaves and before the next driver arrives. The answer is that the system would not work in that case; it would only work if the supply of drivers was large and consistent enough that the buses would not remain idle for too long. Nevertheless, because paying drivers is such a large share of the cost of buses, they might be able to remain idle for some time at least before becoming unprofitable.

Moreover, steps might be taken to limit buses’ idleness or increase the utility of their idleness. Dynamic market pricing might be effective: whenever a bus becomes idle, the wages offered to passenger-drivers could increase in order to induce drivers to come and drive it. If nobody steps up to take the wheel even then, a professional bus driver could be summoned instead. 

Idle buses or minibuses, meanwhile, might be able to serve as portable, air-conditioned or heated bus stops on streets which allow street parking or have bus turnouts, which could be useful in hot, cold, or stormy weather.

The concept of passenger-drivers might, however, be more likely to begin in carpools or vancabs or minibuses, rather than in full-sized buses. This is because there are so many more people who are able and willing drive a car than a bus, and because it is easier to park a car than a bus for times when the vehicle is idle. Lately BMW, for example, has begun to offer a combination car-sharing/ride-sharing service, intended for people who want to be ride-sharing drivers but do not own a car.  It is possible that in some cases this service will be used by passenger-drivers, drivers who are going to destinations they were already heading towards themselves.

Still, such a service would not have the same positive impact as buses. Carpools carry many fewer passengers and take up much more road space per passenger than buses. Buses – especially electric trolleybuses– can be much cheaper and cleaner than even the most efficient carpools.

The purpose of a passenger-driven bus would be to offer, in effect, a compromise between the affordability and scalability of computer-driven busses and the viability and desirability of human-driven ones. It would make use of the advantages of car-sharing and ride-sharing technologies – the ability to smoothly match the supply of vehicles and drivers to demand – but avoid their primary disadvantage; namely that cars, even carpools, tend to be extremely inefficient and costly compared to busses.

If the idea were to actually work, it would allow cheaper, more frequent bus service options to supplement (though hopefully not undercut) the more expensive existing bus services driven by professional bus drivers. And it might achieve this without the use of robots.

Okay, it’s true, this idea sounds crazy. (Though not as crazy as some). It is basically the transit equivalent of self-checkout machines at grocery stores.

…But then again, almost anyone can drive a bus, right?

 

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Bus/Bike Lanes: Can I Interest You in a Time-Share?

The idea of having shared bus-bike lanes has been raised in a number of cities, including Montreal. Not surprisingly, such lanes have tended to be unsatisfactory for both parties involved. People in busses do not like driving slowly behind cyclists. Cyclists do not like busses looming behind them.

What has not been tried, however (at least, as far as I can tell, according to Google) is a bus-bike time-share lane, in which busses get the lane when the weather is bad and cyclists get the lane when the weather is good. Such a lane might be a little bit tricky to sort out when the weather changes suddenly from good to bad (more on this in a moment), but in general it might work very well, since when the weather is bad most people do not want to ride their bikes much, whereas when the weather is good people are willing to wait longer at bus stops.

I imagine a bus-bike time-share lane working, perhaps, as follows:

  • During the three winter months, no cyclists are allowed to use the lane: it is a bus-only lane
  • During long heat waves, no cyclists are allowed to use the lane: it is a bus-only lane
  • In spring, summer, and fall, busses can only use the lane when the weather is bad (say, below 5 degrees or above 25 degrees, maybe adjusted for humidity, smog, shade, wind, rain, ice, etc.)
  • At times when the weather is intermediate (neither winter nor a long heat wave nor good weather), the lane works as a shared bus-bike lane. If, however, the weather gets very bad at such times (say, for e.g., above 30 and humid) busses can ring a special bell when there is a cyclist in front of them, forcing cyclists to pull over, stop, and let the bus pass.
  • Cyclists can check an app to see if, at any given moment, busses are using the time-share lane

Of course, a lane of this kind would not be ideal. No time-share in the history of humankind has ever been considered ideal. Better would be for every main street to have a lane for transit and another separated lane for cycling. But that would mean scoring big victories against cars, and this does not seem likely to happen anytime soon in North American cities, most of which have large suburbs and a lot of very hot and/or cold weather.

For such cities, having a weather-dependent time-sharing bus-bike lane may not be ideal, but it could still be an ideal compromise.

 

Goalies and Garbage Time

Top Goalies Should Play More Games, But Fewer Complete Games (And Their Backups Should Be Better at Playing the Puck Than They Are)

NHL coaches treat their goalies like baseball pitchers from the 1800s: so long as they do not mess up, they get to play a complete game. Yet these same coaches also sit their goalies about one in four games on average, in order to give them rest. No goalie started in more than 64 games last year; no one has cracked 73 in a decade. Goalies sit out games even though, for some, the number of starts they get might be the difference between making or missing the playoffs.

Couldn’t these goalies start more games and get more rest by simply coming out of games once their team has built up an unassailable lead? An NHL team that is up by three goals going into the third period has a roughly 98% chance of winning*. Wouldn’t then, for example, be a better time to rest? Or what about a two-goal lead after the first period – giving you an estimated 80% winning probability – in order to allow the top goalie to start both games of a back-to-back ? Coaches would still have the option of putting the starting goalie back in the game if the score were to narrow. Backup goalies might even benefit too, since they would play on a more frequent basis (if only in relatively short bursts) rather than sit for a week or two between games.

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*[Obviously, this is just a generalization and rough estimate. In reality it depends on many variables beyond just the score, the time remaining, and whether or not it is a home game. Good teams, especially good offensive teams, will have a better chance of coming back than bad teams, etc].

The counterargument, or prevailing wisdom, would, I guess, be that goalies would be thrown off their rhythm if they were to be used in this way – perhaps especially backup goalies, who would be getting fewer starts than they currently receive. Or, that a goalie resting on the bench for a period or two at a time is not nearly as rejuvenating as is taking an entire game off. There may be a lot of truth to these arguments, but I am still skeptical that they justify the current system wherein top goalies will play hundreds of minutes of “garbage time” every season (to steal a phrase from the NBA), while also sitting out for more than a thousand minutes of close games.

The current system is perhaps especially questionable when viewed in comparison to the number of games that forwards and defenseman are allowed to play consecutively. Though goalies obviously play many more minutes than their teammates, still it might seem wrong that 39-year-old forward Patrick Marleau has been able to play in each of his teams’ past 777 games (taking an ice bath after the second period of each game in order to physically do so), whereas one of the most esteemed goalies, Carey Price, has already sat out 17 starts this season, even though his Montreal Canadians are in a tight wild card race. And Marleau is not the only iron man now at large: Phil Kessel and Keith Yandle are both also at 750-plus consecutive games and counting.

Of course, goalies still play more minutes in total than their teammates. Last season, the league leader in minutes among non-goalies, the perfectly-named defenseman Drew Doughty of the LA Kings, played all 82 games while also leading the league in average minutes per game, at 26 minutes and 50 seconds. Doughty was on the ice for 2201 minutes in total, 1476 fewer than his goalie, the also-well-named Jonathan Quick, who ranked sixth in overall minutes despite only playing 64 games. Another one of their teammates, Anze Kopitar, led the league in minutes by a forward (trailing 31 defensemen) and also played 82 games, for a total of 1811 minutes on the ice.

The best player in the league, Connor McDavid, played more minutes (1767) than any forward other than Kopitar last year. He too played all 82 games. McDavid’s goalie, Cam Talbot, led the league in starts, with 67, but only ranked fifth in total minutes, as their team’s struggles meant he was often pulled from games. Neither of their efforts was enough for the Oilers to make the playoffs.

The goalie who led the league in minutes, Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets, with 64 starts, 3 backup appearances, and 3966 total minutes played, played almost twice as many minutes as Doughty’s 2201. He also had the most wins (44), and the best save percentage of goalies who played at least 60 games. (The Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne, of the Nashville Predators, only played 59 games). Hellebuyck is again on pace to lead the league in minutes this season.

Out of curiosity, how does Hellebuyck compare with superstars in the NBA? Last season Lebron James, who has already played more career minutes than anyone else in the league, led the league in minutes per game and was one of only eight players to play all 82 games. Lebron was on the court for a total of 3025 minutes in the regular season, compared to Hellebuyck’s 3966. Since NHL games are more than 60 minutes long on average, whereas NBA games are shorter than 50 minutes, this means Lebron played close to as high a share of his team’s total minutes as did the NHL’s busiest goalie. By doing this he was able to carry a very bad team to the fourth seed in the East, on the way to the Finals.

Goalies might be wise to follow NBA stars in sitting out more during garbage time in order to play more during crunch time*. Sitting when your team is way ahead in the game is one way of doing this. But there is also the question of when to pull your backup goalie during games your backup goalie is starting. If your backup goalie starts a game and quickly lets in a bunch of goals, should you pull him to put the starting goalie – who is supposed to be getting a night off – back in? Even more interesting, if your backup goalie starts, plays decently, and the game is tied after two periods (for example), should you put in a Vezina-quality starting goalie into the game to play the decisive third period ahead?

*[This would especially be the case if goalies were more likely to get injured late in games when they are tired, or to experience an increased rate of wear and tear late in games when they are tired, or to get injured more in garbage time situations when the opposing team is desperately gambling for offensive chances in order to mount a comeback].


The Comeback Kid

 The most interesting implication of this way of thinking, however, is also perhaps the craziest; namely, the idea of having your backup goalie be just that: a backup-only goalie. More to the point, if your backup goalie is no longer actually starting many, or any, games – if, for example, even in the event of your starting goalie getting injured you rely not on your backup goalie to start, but instead call up your top prospect goalie who is getting regular starts in the AHL rather than languishing on an NHL bench – then what skills might you want for a backup goalie playing this new, more specialized role? One possible answer: have your backup goalie be a comeback specialist.

Since a backup goalie of this sort would be playing mainly, or only, at times when his team has either a solid lead (to let the starting goalie rest) or is behind in the score (because the starting goalie has been pulled), he should ideally be a goalie who is good at helping his team to mount a comeback. In other words, he should – all else considered – be exceptionally good at playing the puck when his team is behind in the score, particularly as his team becomes more desperate towards the end of games.

Such a goalie could be useful even in situations in which backup goalies currently do not play. Consider, for example, a situation in which your team is down by one goal, with five minutes left in the third period and an offensive zone faceoff following an icing by an opposing line that is tired from having just playing a long shift. Putting in your comeback specialist backup goalie at such a moment might be beneficial for a number of reasons. First, it would be more difficult for your tired opponents to dump the puck to get a line change in against a goalie who excels at passing the puck. Second, an aggressive puck-playing goalie might help your team score a goal in general during the remaining few minutes of the game*. Third, you would eliminate the risk of your starting goalie getting injured; a risk which would maybe be increased by your team gambling offensively to catch up, which could lead to more odd-man rushes and so, perhaps, injuries.

*[Also, if your backup goalie were later able to get to the bench for the extra attacker a second or two more quickly – or maybe even a half-second more quickly – than the starting goalie is able to (either by being a faster skater than the starting goalie or by being able to play further from the crease before heading to the bench than the starting goalie), this might help your team to score a 6-on-5 goal by making it more likely that the extra attacker will make it into the action before the opposing team has a chance to dump or clear the puck out of their own defensive zone.

…Indeed, to get even crazier here for a moment, what if this goalie were to sometimes attempt a back-and-forth strategy in late-game situations: for e.g., you pull the goalie with two minutes left when you are in the offensive zone, but, if the opposing team immediately clears the puck out of their zone, then you quickly put your goalie back in so that you don’t give up an empty net goal trying to gain reentry into the zone. If you pull your goalie early enough, you might perhaps be able to try this a number of times before the final minute of the game, so that your net might only be empty when your team is already in the offensive zone. Pulling your goalie early and temporarily might, at least, be a useful strategy to employ at times when the opposing team’s players on the ice are exhausted during an especially long shift].

Another example could be a short 5-on-3 power play when your team is down a goal late in the game. Putting in a goalie who can aggressively and excellently pass the puck could help your power play unit avoid wasting critical time on the 5-on-3, while also making it more difficult for tired penalty killers to get in a line change. To a lesser extent, this may also be useful in desperate 5-on-4’s.

A backup goalie’s puck-playing skills might also be well suited for the times when his team is well ahead in the score. If, for instance, the opposition begins to gamble more to create offensive odd-man rushes, passing opportunities for a skilled-passing goalie might open up. Or if the opposition becomes disheartened and begins trying to dump and chase more often, a puck-playing goalie might be able to help thwart some of these attempts. As such, a goalie who is used primarily or exclusively in situations when his team is either behind or ahead in games could perhaps possess puck-playing skills that would be useful in both of those types of situations.

Of course, this comeback-specialist-backup-only goalie plan might be a terrible idea. But the idea from which it is indirectly derived, namely that certain goalies should start more games than they do now, nevertheless appears to have merit. The question may not be whether some goalies should sit more in order to start more, but rather only who should do this and when should it be done.

 

 

2 Radical Goalie-Pulling Strategies

In recent years there has been an evolution in the way NHL coaches pull their goalies. Goalies are now being pulled much earlier in games than they used to be. There has been no revolutionary change, however. Goalies are still being pulled at the very end of games. Once pulled, they tend to stay pulled until a goal is scored or there is a face-off outside of the offensive zone.

This begs the question of whether any radical change to the strategy of goalie-pulling could still be worth trying. Here are two such ideas:

  1. Pull earlier than usual in order to take advantage of exhausted opponents stuck on a very long shift

The risk/reward ratio of pulling a goalie might be far more favourable when an opposing team’s players are exhausted from being stuck on the ice in the middle of an especially long shift. 

There are five reasons this may be the case:

First, the ability of players to score into an empty net will decrease when they are exhausted. 

Second, you greatly reduce the risk that, immediately upon pulling your goalie, the opposing team will manage to clear the puck out of their zone before your extra attacker is even able to get himself involved in the game.

Third, the ability of tired players to reach the bench for a line change will decrease when the opposing team pulls its goalie. Typically, players that are exhausted by a long shift are able to escape to the bench either by having their goalie stop play or by getting a lucky bounce off of a missed shot, blocked shot, errant pass, or rebound, which then allows them to clear the puck out of their zone and complete a line change. When playing 5-on-6, however, the likelihood of a goalie being able to force a stoppage of play by making a save decreases, because the goalie’s vision is more likely to be obstructed and the shots that the goalie faces are likely to be harder to save. The likelihood of getting a lucky bounce also decreases, as there is less open ice and there is less likely to be a blocked or missed shot. Plus, even if there is a lucky bounce, it will still be difficult for tired players to clear the zone against six attackers. As such, the tired team may be unable to change lines, and so become even more tired, making the situation even more favourable for the trailing team. And, even if the tired team’s goalie does succeed in stopping play, the trailing team could simply choose to put its goalie back in net for the ensuing face-off.

Fourth, the willingness of players to even attempt to score an empty net goal will decrease the more tired they become.  The reason for this is that if such a scoring attempt fails, it will most likely result either in an icing (which will lead to an even greater tiredness imbalance between the two teams, especially now that there has been a rule change that prevents coaches from using their timeout after an icing) or in an odd-man rush (because tired players will be much less able to get back on defence).  As a result, rather than try to score, the tired team may instead focus on trying to get a line change in. During any such line change, the trailing team will usually be able to put its goalie back in if it wants to do so. 

And fifth, pulling you goalie can allow you to bring your own best offensive player fresh off the bench, at a time when your own players already on the ice are  likely to be somewhat tired themselves.    

As a result of these factors, I suspect that it would sometimes be in a team’s interest to pull its goalie earlier than it normally would, in order to capitalize on situations in which the opposing players are exhausted from being stuck on an especially long shift. The question is: how much earlier?

A related question is this: how many goal behind does your team need to be to make such a strategy worth trying at a given point during the second period? Most of the opportunities to score against tired opponents stuck on a long shift occur in the second period, because of the long change.

2. A “5.5-on-3”: introducing a goalie-defensemen hybrid during a desperate two-man advantage 

Most 5-on-3 power plays last much less than two minutes long, and on average the odds of a team scoring on a 5-on-3 only become better than the odds of scoring on a typical 2 minute 5-on-4 in cases where the 5-on-3 lasts at least a minute long.

So, not wasting time is crucial. If the penalty killers can kill time by dumping the puck down the ice, or if the power play wastes too much time trying to get the perfect shot (which they often do, as they know that if they do not get a perfect shot, the penalty killers might grab the rebound and dump it down the ice), then that 5-on-3 will be unlikely to score.

In this strategy, then, the goalie on the power play is pulled near the end of the 5-on-3,  and replaced with a “safety”: a player who stays near to his or her own empty net in order to protect against long empty net goals,  quickly respond to any dumped puck so as to minimize the amount of time the opposing team can waste, and allow his or her own team to avoid wasting time searching for the perfect scoring attempt. This “safety” specialist should excel at being able to serve, in effect, as a player-goalie hybrid.

As an added bonus, by quickly responding to pucks that are dumped or chipped out of the offensive zone, the safety will also make it more difficult for the penalty killers to change lines, which may lead the penalty killers to become fatigued in cases where they have been on the ice for a long time.

The goalie will be put back in the net before the 5-on-3 comes to an end.

In cases where the team is more desperate to score (if they are trailing late in the third period, for example), then this “5.5-on-3” strategy could also be used earlier in the power play.

 

A Hybrid Strategy 

There might also a be a useful hybrid of the two strategies above: A “5.5-on-4”, used in desperate situations against exhausted penalty killers.

Imagine, for example, that your team is trailing by a goal with five minutes left in the game, and is a minute into a power play in which the opposing team’s penalty killers are becoming tired. Ideally, you want to prevent these tired penalty killers from being able to make it to the bench for a line change. By putting in an extra “safety” attacker at this point, but positioning him in the neutral zone, you might be able to help prevent the tired penalty killers from being able to change lines, while still preventing the tired penalty killers from having an easy shot at an empty net.

Plus, having the extra attacker already on the ice means that you could have the option of having him quickly move up into the offensive zone for a conventional 6 on 4 or (once the penalty ends) 6 on 5, as the clock ticks away and your team’s desperation increases. So, for example,  you could try a 5.5 on 4 with a minute left in the power play against tired penalty killers, then a 6 on 4 with thirty seconds left in the power play against exhausted penalty killers, then either put your goalie back in or keep the extra attacker on for a 6 on 5 (which, if the exhausted ex-penalty killers are still stuck on the ice, could be useful even if there are still a few minutes left in the game).

…Yes, I realize how crazy that just sounded.

 

RoRoRo Your Car

By far the biggest advantage that a large truck has over a small truck is that a large truck has lower labour costs, per unit of cargo transported. Self-driving technologies that reduce or eliminate labour costs may therefore lead to an increased use of smaller trucks.

This could be particularly likely to occur in areas that have rugged terrain, where labour costs tend to be especially high as a result of slower driving speeds and higher insurance costs.

Small vehicles are also better at handling rugged terrain than large vehicles are. They can make sharper turns, have better control on narrow lanes, can pass through narrower tunnels or overhangs, and can manage steeper inclines.

Indeed, the biggest beneficiaries of automation might be the smallest roads of all: mountain paths that can today only be used by very small vehicles or pack animals. Very small autonomous vehicles could revolutionize transport on such paths not only by eliminating the need to pay drivers’ wages and insurance, but also by gaining more space to carry cargo as a result of no longer needing space for the driver, the steering wheel, and spare tires. These vehicles could be used to facilitate shortcut routes that pass through rugged terrain, or to open up rugged terrain to increased economic activity.

The use of small autonomous vehicles in rugged terrain might also allow for the introduction of another new technology : roll-on, roll-off ropeways. These would be ropeways that small autonomous vehicles would drive on and off of, or clip on and off of, in order to be carried above natural barriers such as steep inclines, rivers, flash-flooded roads, or snowed-in high-altitude mountain paths.

They could be especially efficient at handling inclines, not only by allowing direct as-the-crow-flies routes to replace winding, hairpin roads, but also because ropeways operate as a pulley system wherein the weight of descending vehicles does much of the work — and often does all of the work — of lifting the weight of the ascending vehicles.

Here you can see a very primitive RoRo-Ropeway at work. Here, you can see a somewhat less primitive, though still limited, version built in a Volkswagon factory in Slovakia. If automation leads to a proliferation of small autonomous cars, working ant-like to transport goods in rugged terrain, then perhaps we will see systems like these increase and improve. Economically, it may be as close as we get to flying cars anytime soon.

 

 

 

 

 

Superhighway in a Box

Roads and railways are great, but they are not portable, scalable, or particularly well suited to ideally handling rugged terrain. You cannot easily disassemble a road or railway in order to move it from location to another. You cannot easily drive trucks or trains up and down steep hills, or across icy or snowy or flooded-out landscapes. You cannot widen a road or railway very much without facing sharp increases in expense. The wider you build them, the more likely they are to find a natural or man-made barrier in their way. The widest stretches of highway in the world rarely exceed 150 metres.

Ropeways, in contrast to roads or railways, are portable, are scalable, and are ideally capable of handling rugged terrain. You can fairly easily disassemble and transport them. You can scale them horizontally or vertically. Ropeway corridors could be made extremely wide without being blocked by natural barriers. So long as they are portable and temporary, wide ropeway corridors might also be able to avoid unduly bothering the owners of the private farmland they would inevitably need to cross above at times.

Their potential combination of portability and scale could make ropeway corridors useful for transporting bulk, time-dependent goods: for transporting crops at harvest time, or transporting cargo during the rainy season when roads are flooded out, or  in snowy areas during the winter, or to help construct and access mines or dams.

There are a number of factors that could make ropeway corridors become common in the future:

  • cheaper intermodal transportation as a result of autonomous cargo transferring. Thus far, the costs associated with transferring cargo from one mode of transport to another have led trucks to account for an estimated 70% of all US cargo transport, despite trucks being generally much less efficient than railways or waterways. If  loading, unloading, and handling cargo becomes automated, we might expect that railways, waterways, and perhaps even ropeways will become used more widely as a result
  • automating cargo-handling also means that ropeways would be able to add many more entrance and exit points than they have had in the past. Loading cargo on and off ropeways is especially labour-intensive, because the cargo arrives and departs at a slow trickle, each vehicle on the ropeway carrying much less than a truck or train. This has meant that ropeways have tended to move goods only from point A to point B, without many or any intermediate stations. Autonomous cargo-handling could change this, dramatically increasing the usefulness of the ropeway system
  • cargo tracking systems — ropeways are slow, which in the past created uncertainties for those waiting for the goods they are bringing. With today’s cheap GPS tracking systems and software that can estimate arrival times (and adjust those estimations when there are unexpected delays of one sort or another), these uncertainties are reduced
  • partially-autonomous maintenance: some of the technologies now being deployed or developed for maintaining vast electric grid systems should be applicable for ropeways as well. These include, for example, sensors and computer systems that monitor the entire length of the system in real-time, and drones that can be used as cameras to make inspections
  • in some cases passenger cable cars might be able to share the same ropeway as cargo systems – perhaps with passengers being transported during the daytime and cargo transported overnight. Ropeways might also benefit, therefore, from technologies that facilitate intermodal passenger transportation: for example car-sharing, ride-sharing,autonomous valet parking, and other technologies might make it easy for a passenger to drive to a cable-car’s entrance and then transfer seamlessly to in a different vehicle upon reaching the cable-car’s exit.

 

 

 

 

 

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 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.

bike lane.png

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.

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 extended range away from the wires at night also helps solve another main challenge: lots of people find trolley wires aesthetically unappealing. 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.

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.

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.