Are driverless cars coming?

This alarm clock would be a real incentive to get out of bed (albeit shredding notes is illegal). From Mashable - h/t Alex Tabarrok

There are nine completely driverless train systems/lines operating in Europe, eight in Asia and six elsewhere. There are a further nineteen in Europe with a “standby driver” or, like London’s Docklands Light Railway, with a “Passenger Service Agent” present on the train, just in case something goes wrong.

So Google’s claim that its seven driverless test cars have driven 1,000 miles on roads without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control sounds plausible. The company is reported by the New York Times as saying one car drove itself down Lombard Street, one of the steepest and curviest streets in San Francisco. 

According to the paper, Google’s engineers say “robot drivers” are better because they:

React faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated……They speak in terms of lives saved and injuries avoided — more than 37,000 people died in car accidents in the United States in 2008. The engineers say the technology could double the capacity of roads by allowing cars to drive more safely while closer together.

Although they are some years away yet, the claimed potential benefits of this new technology are enormous. If proven, it should allow travellers to do other things while driving, making time spent travelling much more productive. On roads where conventional vehicles have been superseded, road capacity should at least double, although according to some observers an eight-fold increase can easily be achieved. Speeds should increase while simultaneously reducing road accidents — one of the largest negative externalities associated with roads — through keeping drunk drivers away from the wheel and minimising simple driver error. If accidents are less likely, vehicles can be made lighter and therefore use less fuel.

If it can be implemented without the need for a “standby driver”, there is scope to lower taxi and freight costs substantially. In the latter case this should help make smaller trucks viable, reducing the need for very large trucks within urban areas. However the natural extension of eliminating the need for drivers is to remove the requirement to own cars altogether. If all the functionality of a private car is still possible – like on-demand availability, privacy, point-to-point travel – then the warrant for owning a dedicated vehicle is greatly reduced.

Huge benefits would follow if sharing could be made to work because rather than being parked for 98% of the day, vehicles could be out earning their keep 24/7. The size of the city’s car fleet would be greatly reduced and the cars themselves could be much smaller and lighter – for example, a majority could be single seaters to reflect demand patterns. In time, it’s likely the cost of travel attributable to vehicle ownership and fuel costs would fall significantly as economies of scale were achieved. People on lower incomes or unable to drive would get a big improvement in mobility. Travellers would ‘pay per kilometre’, making them more sensitive to travel costs.  Read the rest of this entry »


Is commuting killing us?

Assembly kit for Manhattan street grid

Long commutes cause obesity, neck pain, loneliness, divorce, stress, and insomnia. Your commute is in fact killing you, according to this story published in Slate last week. And it’s bad for others too – in his Melbourne address last month, Robert Putnam argued that a ten minute increase in commute time reduces social capital by 10%. Richard Florida says it’s time to put commuting right beside smoking and obesity on the list of priorities for improving the health and well-being of Americans.

I’m always bemused by these sorts of claims. Apart from the fact that the majority of commutes are relatively short, they neglect the salient fact that people spend time commuting because it’s worth it – that’s how they earn their living. And in general, the further they go, the better the job and/or the better the house. Commuting is a bit like having children – it costs a squillion, but for most people it’s worth it!

The reality is that most people prefer to commute some distance. This study of US commuters by Redmond and Mokhtarian found that 42% of their sample are happy with their current commute i.e. their actual travel time and their ‘ideal’ commute time coincide. People seem to like some space between work and home. They found that 7% actually say their commute isn’t long enough!

Nevertheless, the study also found that just over half feel their commute time is too long compared to their ‘ideal’ commute time. That finding, however, doesn’t really say much. The trouble is people don’t make unconstrained judgements like this in real life. If asked, rational people will of course say they would like less of the boring things in life and more of the interesting and exciting things. If they’re not forced explicitly to consider the cost, people will naturally acquiesce when they’re posed questions of this sort. It’s a difficult concept to measure, so a much better guide to commuting time preferences is what people actually choose to do in the face of real-world constraints.

It turns out workers don’t tend to spend inordinate amounts of time commuting. This analysis of US Census data shows that 45% of one-way commutes in US metropolitan areas take less than 20 minutes and only 8% take more than 60 minutes. This US survey found that 81% of commuters spend less than half an hour getting to work. In Melbourne, more than half of all trips to work (54%) take less than 30 minutes. Only 12% of commutes take longer than an hour and only 3% more than 90 minutes.

Having said that, whether or not an hour a day spent commuting to and from work is ‘inordinate’, depends on what it yields. The question can’t be addressed sensibly without considering the benefits as well as the costs. We spend time on a host of activities like sleeping, cooking and taking the kids to sport because we feel they are necessary to derive the associated benefits. Likewise, commuting provides something that’s extremely valuable – income. That’s a basic, a necessity. But work also provides a host of associated benefits like status and social interaction. The bottom line is we commute because it’s worth it – we’ll minimise commute time subject to other constraints but we don’t expect it to cost nothing. Read the rest of this entry »


– Has “peak gasoline” been and gone?

NYC fantasy subway map....oh, dear

One of the themes I’ve consistently emphasised when discussing looming threats like peak oil is that policy responses must take account of the adaptability of markets and consumers. Drivers will respond to higher petrol prices by, for example, travelling less, changing to smaller fuel-efficient cars and moving to more accessible locations. Manufacturers will respond by producing vehicles that use less fuel and/or alternative fuels.

One of Australia’s leading public intellectuals, left-leaning economist Professor John Quiggin, reckons that “peak gasoline” has in fact already happened. He points to the 8% decline in petrol consumption in the US since 2006 (per capita consumption declined by more than 10%) and, prospectively, to even tighter standards requiring a 40 per cent improvement in the average efficiency of new cars, relative to the existing fleet, by 2016. I’ve previously discussed how the rate of growth in per capita car travel has been slowing for some time in Australia (and other western countries) and has actually declined in recent years.

We know that motorists respond to price increases by reducing petrol consumption. One estimate of the elasticity of demand for petrol in Australia with respect to price is around -0.1 in the short term and -0.3 in the longer term i.e. a 10% increase in the pump price of petrol would initially reduce demand for petrol by 10% 1% and, in the longer run, by 30% 3%. Some of this reduction comes via higher public transport patronage but the vast bulk comes from car-related adaptations like more efficient trip-making and smaller, lighter and more fuel-efficient vehicle.

In the US, this review of hundreds of elasticity coefficients found that the in the short-run, “estimates for the demand for gasoline range from 0 to -1.36, averaging -0.26 with a median of -0.23 for the studies included here. Long-run price elasticity estimates range from 0 to -2.72, averaging -0.58 with a median of -0.43”. So in the longer term (more than a year), US drivers respond to a 10% increase in price by reducing their consumption of petrol, on average, by 58% 5.8%.

Professor Quiggin allows that the GFC has had an effect on travel behaviour in recent years (petrol consumption tends to rise and fall with income) but still thinks that estimates of elasticities for the US are conservative:

I suspect that the full long-run elasticity, including induced innovation, is near 1, meaning that if current real prices are sustained, consumption could fall as much as 70 per cent below the level that would be expected if prices had remained at the 2000 level.

For my money, where the “peak gasoline” hypothesis gets really interesting is his argument that per capita global oil production peaked in 1979, but per capita output of goods and services nevertheless increased substantially over the subsequent 30 years, with the fastest increases in the developed world. In other words, personal living standards increased while personal oil consumption declined. “That seems pretty conclusive as far as apocalyptic versions of the Peak Oil hypothesis are concerned”, he says. Read the rest of this entry »


– Is this the NBN’s grandmother?

Click to go to video

Here’s a possible pointer to the glorious future the NBN will bring to country Australia.

Made in 1992, this Telecom Australia (former name of Telstra) promotional video touts the huge benefits broadband will create for business in Australia. Seems to get it right on most things despite the lousy acting, lousy script, lousy props and big glasses. My memory’s hazy about what you could do and couldn’t do in those days but I do recall at a meeting in 1991 seeing a portable projector attached to a laptop for the first time (worked liked an epidiascope IIRC).

So far as the period is concerned, I notice the boss doesn’t say please, blokes can’t touch type, the Japanese take laser copies and workers seem to be a trifle more physically familiar with their colleagues than would probably be acceptable today. Oh, and billion dollar investments were won on a night’s work, a few nods and some pretty pictures. My favourite bit is the map of the Red Water Creek plant that’s being printed in part 3 — do you recognize it? The biggest advances since 1992 have probably been made in the quality of corporate videos!

Note there are three parts to the video but they’re pretty short. BTW the video’s at Paleofuture, which is certainly one of the most interesting sites I’ve seen in a while.


Why are new buildings so…..modern?

Railways administration building, Spencer St

Many Australians admire old buildings like the Windsor and Parliament House, so I’m a little surprised there’re so few new commercial and public buildings with the elaborate decoration and classical references common in nineteenth century buildings. I was schooled in the modernist tradition so I don’t personally regret this absence all that much, but that doesn’t mean I’m not intrigued why there’s so little of it. Here are a couple of conjectures:

The first and probably obvious reason is that high labour costs mean highly wrought decoration simply isn’t affordable anymore. Modernism had to be invented after WW1 because historical styles were simply getting too expensive to emulate. Nowadays, workers with the requisite skills and artistic talent can get better pay and/or status in other areas. Artisans have been crowded out of the building industry by “new” industries like film, theatre, commercial design, media, advertising and, more lately, the web.

But with contemporary technology like CNC machines and the ability to import prefabricated components from low labour cost countries, this isn’t such a convincing explanation anymore. If there’s demand for greater visual complexity, a country like China – which has plenty of flamboyant modernist buildings – could be using its low cost base to construct buildings rich in decoration. These wouldn’t necessarily need to hark back to earlier periods, they might simply celebrate ornamentation and embellishment.

Another reason could be that large organisations are simply not as prepared to invest in the public domain – provide a positive externality – as they were a century ago. Expectations of proper civic behaviour might be much lower now than they were then. As mentioned here by Ajay Shah, companies and governments now have many other ways of signalling their wealth, power and prestige and accordingly don’t have to rely so much on buildings as a key form of communication.

Yet that argument isn’t entirely convincing either. Major buildings are more spectacular in form and scale than they’ve probably ever been (not least in China) – there seem to be an infinite supply of new architectural feats that apparently defy the laws of physics and mechanics (‘feat-urism’?). There still seems to be plenty of demand for buildings that put a lot of effort into how they look to outside observers — it seems like every city in the world wants a gleaming new art musuem designed by Frank Gehry. Read the rest of this entry »


Have trains gotten faster?

Heidelberg to Flinders St train services, weekday 5 AM to 10 AM, 1939 vs 2011 (express services shaded)

Passengers on Melbourne’s beleaguered rail system may suffer overcrowding, unreliable services and even threats to personal security. But at least improvements in technology mean commuter trains are much faster today than they used to be. Aren’t they?

Actually, no. We take technological improvements for granted in almost everything, but the speed of rail in Melbourne seems to be an exception. If my local rail line is representative of the rest of the system, then travel times today aren’t significantly faster than they were three generations ago!

I compared the 1939 train timetable for the trip from Heidelberg Station to Flinders St Station on the Hurstbridge line with today’s timetable. I started with the first train to leave Heidelberg on a weekday morning in both years and finished with the last departure prior to 10 am (see exhibit).

The number of stations is the same (although back then Flinders St was called Princes Bridge) so I was astonished to see the trip is only slightly faster now than it was 72 years ago. The only substantial savings in trip time have been achieved at the cost of by-passing some stations i.e. by increasing the number of express services.

The average duration of the 17 all-stop services offered in 1939 was 25 minutes, just one minute slower than the average for the 12 all-stoppers available today. The slowest trip time in 1939 was 27 minutes and the fastest, which by-passed some stations, was 20 minutes. In 2011, the slowest time is 26 minutes and the fastest – which by-passes more stations than the 1939 expresses – is 19 minutes. So after 72 years of progress, the trip from Heidelberg to Flinders St is one minute faster!

Modern commuters are nevertheless better off than their predecessors in two key ways, both of which are essentially a consequence of suburbanisation. First, whereas in 1939 there were 19 services from Heidelberg to the city up until 10 am, today there are 27. Second, today’s commuters have a greater choice of express services than the mere two that were available to pre-war residents (the shading in the exhibit indicates express services).

And the increased number of expresses doesn’t come at the expense of by-passed stations. For example, Alphington is by-passed by some services, but still gets 23 in-bound services in the morning. Most of the gains from expresses come from by-passing Victoria Park, Collingwood, North Richmond and West Richmond stations – who still do OK because they are also served by the Epping line (not that these stations generate much patronage).

These welcome and important improvements derive from operational decisions rather than from technological improvements. I’m puzzled why, given advances in technology, modern trains on this line aren’t appreciably faster than they were in earlier years. The speed of cars, planes and communications has gone up enormously since 1939 so why haven’t trains, which have the advantage of operating in a dedicated alignment, similarly gotten dramatically quicker?

This got me thinking about whether technological advances have made urban train travel significantly better in any other respects over the period. I’d guess that labour costs are lower today and energy efficiency is higher. There’ve been some design changes like wider doors and more standing room to increase performance. But my real interest is in how technology has changed things for the better from the customer’s perspective. Read the rest of this entry »


Would we build another Opera House?

The other 'Melbourne Opera House' - Powlett St East Melbourne

An argument I see frequently in relation to massive infrastructure projects like High Speed Rail (HSR) is that we should simply get on and build them because they’re ‘visionary’ and ‘nation building’. For example, a commenter recently likened investment in HSR to the decision to build the Sydney Opera House. If cost-benefit analysis had been done on the Opera House, he argued, it would’ve been still-born. Thus we would’ve been denied the enormous tourism revenue and the boost to national pride provided by this magnificent building.

I expect he’s right. Formal cost-benefit analysis would probably be hard-pressed finding that the benefits of any opera house exceed the costs, either then or now. There’s therefore always a chance if you look too hard at the costs and the risks you could end up missing out on some whopping future benefits. However the problem with this sort of argument is that it’s based on hindsight. We know for a fact from the perspective of 2011 that the Opera House is a grand success. But cost-benefit analysis isn’t retrospective, it’s prospective – it helps us to evaluate projects before we commit to building them.

Here’s a “thought experiment”. Consider a contemporary proposal to spend a fantastic sum of money on (say) The Melbourne Opera House (insert your city of choice). Imagine an architect of Frank Gehry’s stature (but please not Frank himself!) was asked to ignore the cost and come up with a design that would create an “international icon”. The promise is the building would “put Melbourne on the map” and more than repay the preposterous cost over the years in tourism revenue and civic pride. Of course while it would nominally function as an opera house, what we’d really be building is a piece of architecture so powerful, distinctive and attractive, that it would be as iconic as……well, the Sydney Opera House.

The trouble is the probability of achieving this vision is close to zero. No one knows what the recipe for international icons is. We can look back and more or less pick out the vital decisions and factors that made the Sydney Opera House the symbol it is today, but doing it prospectively is close to impossible. We’d almost certainly end up with a Melbourne Opera House that was functionally compromised and cost billions more than it needed to, but which nobody outside Victoria gave a second glance.

Actually even if the Sydney Opera House planners knew with certainty in the late 1950s what we know now, I’m not sure building it would’ve been the “right” decision to take at the time. The Sydney Opera House didn’t instantly become an international symbol so most of the tourism and “icon” benefits, which probably didn’t kick in seriously until at least the 1980s, would’ve been heavily discounted back to the time the decision was taken to proceed. The net present value of the benefits might not have exceeded the cost of construction which, let’s not forget, was very high. Read the rest of this entry »