Category Archives: Transportation

Backstabbing in the Self-Driving Car Industry

Bloomberg has a long article about Google’s lawsuit against Uber over self-driving car technology. In a nutshell, one of Google’s top engineers, Anthony Levandowski, left Google to start a new company called Otto that was then purchased by Uber for $700 million, and Google is accusing Levandowski of taking its company secrets with him and giving them to Uber.

The real story, though, is not over patent disputes but a debate in the industry over how to introduce the new technology to the market. This debate has to do with the distinction engineers are making between self-driving cars and driverless cars. Advocates of self-driving cars, meaning cars that can increasingly drive themselves but sometimes need humans to take over, argue that this stage is needed to collect as much information as possible to perfect the technology.

On the other hand are advocates of driverless cars, meaning cars that never need a human operator, who argue that not only is the self-driving phase not needed, but that it could be dangerous because a self-driving car may not be able to alert on-board humans that they need to take over in time for them to do so.

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Transit Ridership Down 2.3% in 2016

With little fanfare, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) released its fourth quarter 2016 ridership report last week. When ridership goes up, the lobby group usually issues a big press release ballyhooing the importance of transit (and transit subsidies). But 2016 ridership fell, so there was no press release.

The report showed that light-rail ridership grew by 3.4 percent, probably because of the opening of new light-rail lines such as Seattle, where the opening of the University line increased ridership by 60 percent. In the past, light-rail ridership has grown with the addition of new lines, but the number of passengers per mile of light rail has fallen, indicating diminishing returns to new rail construction.

Commuter-rail ridership grew by 1.6 percent, mostly due to growth in New York City. Trolley bus ridership grew by 1.8 percent, almost all of which was in San Francisco. Demand-response (paratransit) grew by 0.7 percent.

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Making a Good Budget Great

President Trump’s 2018 budget takes a meat cleaver to many federal programs. In my issue areas–transportation, housing, and public lands–it would end the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program; end funding for Amtrak’s long-distance trains; eliminate HUD community development block grants; and reduce funding for public land acquisition. There’s no high-speed rail or trillion-dollar infrastructure program, and nothing that suggests Trump would support federal funding for those things.

Trump calls this the “America First” budget. What it really is is a “Federal Funding Last” budget, as Trump proposes to devolve to state and local governments and private parties a number of programs now funded by the feds. In theory, the result should be greater efficiency and less regulation. However, in most of the areas I know about, Trump could have gone further and produced even better results.

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APTA Wants a Piece of the Infrastructure Pie

Everyone wants a piece of Trump’s trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, even though they don’t really know what that plan is. Perhaps most arrogant of all, the American Public Transportation Association thinks that transit industry should get $200 billion, or 20 percent of the total.

That’s the same transit industry that carries 1 percent of all passenger miles in the United States–and no freight. That’s the same transit industry into which taxpayers have pumped more than $500 billion in operating subsidies and $350 billion in capital improvements since 1990, only to see annual transit trips per urban resident fall from 47 in 1990 to 40 in 2016. That’s the same transit industry that’s likely to be mostly replaced by self-driving cars in a few years. So, sure, blow $200 billion on it.

APTA’s plan might sound reasonable to transit fanatics who think that transit is worth a lot more than roads. But this assumes that the entire trillion-dollar infrastructure plan is for transportation. In fact, infrastructure includes things like Flint, Michigan’s water supply, a smart electrical grid, and high-speed internet to rural and low-income areas. With all these potential projects, why should an obsolete transportation system that carries 1 percent of passenger travel and no freight get 20 percent of the funds?

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Intel, California Want to Be Players in the Autonomous Car Races

Add Intel to the list of companies working on self-driving cars. It just spent $15.3 billion purchasing Mobileye, a manufacturer of sensors used in autonomous cars. Intel’s CEO says he expects to have a complete hardware package ready for auto makers in 2024. Considering Ford’s promise to have fully autonomous cars on the road by 2021, that might be late, or it might just be more realistic.

Meanwhile, after much criticism from the industry, California has revised its proposed rules for self-driving cars. The original rules did not provide any possibility for testing of cars that did not allow a human override. This led Google and other companies to migrate their testing operations to Texas and other friendlier states.

Most states still don’t have any laws providing for self-driving cars, but because the people who wrote those laws never conceived of the possibility, most states also don’t outlaw them. Arizona, for example, has no law, and the governor “welcomes them with open arms.”

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Saving Energy Should Be Its Own Reward

The New York Times headline (in its paper edition), “State-by-State Assault on Electric Cars,” presents an image of people smashing windshields, throwing stones, or overturning vehicles. Instead, the article is about the debate over tax breaks to purchasers of electric cars.

According to the Times, electric cars couldn’t exist without tax breaks. Georgia had a $5,000 tax break on electric vehicles and in its last month 1,300 such cars were sold. In the month after it was repealed, sales declined to less than 100. (The paper doesn’t say so, but knowing that the tax break was disappearing probably led more people to buy in the last month.) The article makes it clear that supporters of electric cars, and the Times itself, believe that they are entitled to such tax breaks.

The Antiplanner has encountered similar attitudes during discussions of mileage-based user fees. Oregon, which is experimenting with such fees, says that, “Unlike semi-trucks, the impact on roads created by regular cars and light trucks–from small compacts to large pickups—is practically the same across the board.” (Oregon already has a mileage-based fee for all heavy trucks.) Some people are outraged by this, taking it for granted that cars that get better gas mileage or run off of electricity should get a break.

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The Sunset Limited: Extend or Cancel?

The Antiplanner recently had the privilege of meeting Amtrak’s new president, Wick Moorman. He is a charming guy who has impressive managerial skills that allowed him to rise to be CEO of Norfolk Southern, one of America’s largest railroads. Those are probably the talents that Amtrak needs right now.

Since we both love trains, we have a lot in common so we agreed to simply ignore our disagreements on the future of passenger trains. I did tell him that, if he were an efficient manager, he would kill Amtrak’s worst-performing train, the Los Angeles-New Orleans Sunset Limited, but I knew he couldn’t do it for political reasons. So I was chagrinned to read that, not only is he not proposing to cut it, he wants to extend it to Orlando, Florida.

The Sunset Limited was originally a Southern Pacific train and starting in 1894 it went all the way from San Francisco to New Orleans. Passengers could take a steamship from New Orleans to New York and arrive just about as quickly as taking a train. In 1930 the train was cut to Los Angeles-New Orleans, and San Francisco passengers would have to change trains in L.A., which probably wasn’t a huge inconvenience.

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Caltrain Electrification Tests Chao

The proposed electrification of the San Jose-to-San Francisco commuter-rail line, which the Antiplanner briefly mentioned last week, looks to become a bellwether for Trump transportation secretary Elaine Chao. On one side are California Republicans who don’t want to see dollars going to the high-speed rail boondoggle. On the other side are rail proponents who think that any money spent on trains is a good thing.

Currently, the rail line is powered by “aging, smoke-spewing, diesel-powered locomotives,” the New York Times objectively reports. Are those similar to the aging, smoke-spewing, diesel-powered locomotives that power most Amtrak trains outside the Northeast Corridor? Or the aging, smoke-spewing, diesel-powered locomotives that power America’s freight trains that, rail supporters love to report, are hundreds of times more energy efficient than trucks?

The Times tries to make it appear ironic that cutting-edge Silicon Valley engineers are forced to rely on primitive technologies. Yet electric trains are actually older than diesel. Electrification dates back to the nineteenth century and the Pennsylvania Railroad first electrified some of its lines more than 100 years ago. The first Diesel locomotive was made just over 90 years ago and the first really important Diesel, the FT–the one that convinced the railroads to switch from steam–was made less than 80 years ago.

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CO2 Glut Threatens High-Speed Train

Jerry Brown’s brilliant plan to fund the California high-speed rail line out of greenhouse gas emissions allowances appears to be coming to a screeching halt. California’s most-recent sale of such allowances was expected to bring in at least $600 million; instead, it earned just $8.2 million. At the projected average cost of $200 million per mile, that’s enough to build about 200 feet of rail line.

The problem is that there is a “glut of emission allowances on the market” because so many entities, including various European nations and, in California, various public utilities, are trying to earn money selling them. On the other hand, potential buyers are unsure about whether the program will continue; if it is cancelled, the allowances they buy will be worthless. The California law is supposed to sunset at the end of 2020, and if revenues remain so law the legislature is not likely to renew it.

The other problem is that Brown was counting on emissions sales to fund projects the state can’t really afford. While the efficiency benefits of cap-and-trade are proven, it is far from efficient to use permit revenues to fund boondoggles. Even the Pope questions the morality of selling the right to pollute.

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New Research on Bus & Rail

The latest issue of the Journal of Public Transport, which is published by the National Center for Transit Research at the University of South Florida, has several articles relevant to bus-rapid transit and the debate between buses and rail. In general, the articles support the notion that buses are an adequate if not superior substitute to rail in many situations.

Click image to download the complete issue (9.8-MB); click the links in this post to download individual articles.

One article compares the accuracy of bus-rapid transit cost and ridership forecasts and finds that cost forecasts are much more reliable than for rail, while ridership forecasts may need some work. Of 19 BRT projects considered, only two went significantly over their projected cost, while two others cost less than 90 percent of their projected cost.

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