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Midgrade Gasoline: Worst Deal on the NJ Turnpike February 24, 2017

Posted by federalist in Energy, Government Regulation, Markets, Transportation.
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The New Jersey Turnpike is an interesting study in government price regulation. In order to avoid price gouging by the gas vendors at Turnpike rest stops, the NJTA requires prices to be set competitively with regional gas retailers.

Furthermore, the NJTA contract allows only one price change per week. A familiar consequence of this has been that during spikes in gas prices people flood the Turnpike to fill up at the old prices during the few days before the Turnpike vendors are allowed to raise their prices to the market level.

Another strange pricing quirk has persisted for years: Sunoco, which has the contract for most of the rest stops, offers four grades of gasoline. A recent offering was:

  • 93 octane: $2.83 (“Ultra”)

  • 91 octane: $2.81 (“Premium”)

  • 89 octane: $2.70 (“Plus”)

  • 87 octane: $2.37 (“Regular”)

The weird thing is that 91 octane is always priced 2 cents per gallon lower than 93 octane. It turns out that this 93-91 price spread is specified in the NJTA contract, because most competitors used in the survey to set prices only sell three grades of gas.

This makes 91 octane the worst deal on the NJ Turnpike. Why? Gasoline octane is a linear function of blending. I.e., you can get a tank of 91 octane gas by mixing two parts 93 octane with one part 87 octane. (In fact, most gas stations only store two grades, and the pumps blend them to produce the mid grades.) At these prices, one could buy a tank of 91 octane by blending 93 and 87 at a cost of just $2.68/gallon – that’s lower even than the listed price for 89 octane!

I suspect Sunoco is exploiting this in two ways. First, NJ still does not allow customers to pump their own fuel. So blending a tank requires explaining the process to the attendant, who rarely seems that attentive. Second is the fact that Sunoco labels the overpriced 91 octane blend as “Premium.” The manuals and stickers in cars designed for high-octane gas typically specify “premium” fuel. Depending on the season and location the highest grade available might be 91, 92, or 93 octane, so drivers are likewise accustomed to asking for “premium.” On the Turnpike, “premium” gets you a tank of 91 octane. You have to explicitly request “Ultra” or “93” to get the highest grade.

Experts Agree: 165 MPH is a safe speed limit September 4, 2014

Posted by federalist in Transportation.

Safety is relative. There’s no guarantee you won’t be in a collision if you drive on public roads, no matter what precautions you take. So society, via engineers and legislators, weighs costs, benefits, and risks and reaches designs and compromises that are generally accepted.

But they are grossly inconsistent. Consider: America is full of roads with no physical divider and speed limits of 55 MPH. I.e., it is not considered excessively risky to drive 110 MPH relative to cars in adjacent lanes, separated by nothing more than a double yellow line. If you have ever designed, approved, or driven on one of these roads you evidently agree.

On a divided highway with a speed limit of 65 MPH this is equivalent to 165 MPH.

Many Americans to whom I have pointed this out seem appalled by the equation. What about distracted drivers? Can regular cars even handle such speeds? A small mistake at 65 MPH becomes catastrophic at 165 MPH.

Amusingly, on the unrestricted sections of the German Autobahn the answers to those questions are on display every day. For one thing, every modern road vehicle has a speed limiter (a.k.a. governor) set by its manufacturer to ensure that it isn’t pushed faster than its design limits. Drivers who push their cars well into triple digit speeds don’t do so without care. And distracted drivers, knowing that they share the road with aggressive drivers in high-performance cars, learn quickly to stay out of the left lanes. Of course they have accidents there too, and speed certainly contributes to their severity. But allowing drivers to speed on suitable divided highways does not seem to create more accidents.

So why do Americans accept the risks of passing oncoming vehicles at 110 MPH, but shudder at the idea of overtaking at the same rate on a divided highway?

Transportation Stupidity Administration — Part IV March 30, 2013

Posted by federalist in Transportation.

Following September 11, 2001, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created to strengthen the security of the nation’s transportation systems and ensure the freedom of movement for people and commerce.  [tsa.gov/about-tsa]

My last post pointed out how stupid are the rules propagated by the massive “Transportation Security Administration.”  The purpose and practical operations of the TSA bear further scrutiny.  After all, the institution directly consumes around $10BB of government funds each year.  Its rules and activities impose even greater indirect costs in terms of delays and obstructions throughout the global transportation infrastructure.  The TSA also imposes enormous political and social costs, since in its zeal to pursue its mission it consistently infringes what were once considered fundamental human rights against unreasonable search and harassment by government agents.

Given the public image of the TSA, its official mission and vision are downright Orwellian:

Mission: Protect the Nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.
Vision: Provide the most effective transportation security in the most efficient way as a high performing counterterrorism organization.

I assume the agency’s political reasoning goes something like this: “People who are afraid of terrorism targeting transportation systems will hesitate to use those systems to travel.  Therefore, our job is to minimize our citizens’ fear, so that their fear will not prevent them from using the Nation’s transportation systems.”  And this would explain a lot of stupid stuff the TSA does in practice.  “Security theater,” and all that jazz that supposedly makes people feel safer.

Never mind the fact that a lot of people object to what the TSA does, often to the degree that they avoid commercial air travel explicitly because of the TSA’s antics.*

As I will explain in a moment, the TSA can’t prevent or even significantly reduce acts of terrorism.  If the TSA were to honestly pursue its vision it would simply close up shop because, given the current threat environment, “the most effective transportation security” would be to leave us alone — let the travelling public and for-profit transportation companies take care of themselves.

Let us think, for a moment, like a terrorist.  Your goal is to generate fear and attention through random acts of mass mayhem.  You may be willing to die in the act, and you may be able to conspire with like-minded individuals.  Would you target commercial aircraft?  9/11 demonstrated that a heavy airplane can be turned into the most powerful conventional weapon you could hope for … if you’re able to take control of it.  9/11 also made that nearly impossible to repeat: Today you not only have to breach a fortified cockpit and overcome armed pilots, but also hold off a cabin full of people who realize they’re probably dead if you succeed.  If you’re able to pilot a heavy jet wouldn’t you rather face down the two or three guys in charge of one of those cargo planes at the far end of the airport?

So, with or without the TSA, you can’t turn a commercial aircraft into a guided weapon.  But what about destroying it?  If you can get a modest explosive on board and detonate it in flight you can kill a few hundred passengers and cost an insurer a few hundred million dollars.  You might cause further damage on the ground.  Sure enough, airplanes have been consistent targets for terrorist bomb plots over the years.  The TSA does not appear to have put a dent in either the number of attempts or in their rate of success.  After all, even the TSA admits of bombs, “These items are extremely hard to spot.”  So what does the TSA do?  More reactionary security theater: A bomber conceals explosives in his shoes, and now we all have to remove our shoes.  A plot is uncovered using liquid explosives, and now we can’t carry liquids through security barriers.  A bomber conceals explosives in his underwear, and now we all have to have our underwear groped.  None of these charades change the fact that the TSA passenger screening process cannot detect explosives.

In fact, even if you were strip-searched and had agents X-ray and paw every item in your carry-on luggage you could, with 100% certainty, make it through security with enough solid secondary explosive to buckle a heavy jet’s wing spar from a cabin seat.  The thing that seems to keep this from happening more often is the detonator, which is the trickiest part of a bomb.  But the TSA has no better chance at identifying a concealed detonator.  Apparently the only thing that keeps plane bombings from happening more frequently is that nobody who is good at building detonators is willing to kill himself, and somebody is preventing good detonators from getting into the hands of suicidal terrorists with airplane tickets.  TSA passenger security lines are not stopping airplanes from being bombed.

Still thinking like a terrorist: What if the TSA were effective?  What if the thing keeping your functional suicide bomb from instilling fear into the heart of the flying public was that long security line?  I wonder what would happen if you instead detonated your bomb right there in the middle of an airport on a peak travel day.  You could potentially kill as many people as you’d get on the plane.  You’d certainly wound many more.  And unlike on the plane, you might be able to slip away right after your bomb makes it to the center of mass and you trigger a detonator with a slight delay.  You might get away, or you might get caught, but either way you’d be alive and have all the publicity you could want.  I have a theory on why no terrorist has tried this: Because the TSA is already terrorizing the flying public.  What more could a terrorist hope for?  The diversion of more resources to a bureaucracy determined to harass and humiliate the flying public to the utmost tolerable extent?  Of course not.  The TSA is a grotesque, living reminder that terrorism works.

We don’t need the TSA.  If you’re a terrorist and you can build a bomb you’ll blow up an important building, bridge, or tunnel.  Otherwise you’ll rent a heavy truck and plow it into a large crowd at a public event.  Or you’ll carry a bag of weapons into a “gun-free zone” and kill as many law-abiding citizens as you can (starting with any government officers who might be armed).

* A June 2008 study by the U.S. Travel Association revealed a deep frustration among air travelers that caused them to avoid an estimated 41 million trips over the past 12 months at a cost of more than $26 billion to the U.S. economy.  Air travelers expressed little optimism for positive change, with nearly 50 percent saying that the air travel system is not likely to improve in the near future. The effect of avoided trips cost airlines more than $9 billion in revenue; hotels nearly $6 billion and restaurants more than $3 billion.  Federal, state and local governments lost more than $4 billion in tax revenue because of reduced spending by travelers. (Source: Air Travel Survey, 2008)

Transportation Stupidity Administration — Part III March 17, 2013

Posted by federalist in Transportation.
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Apparently bureaucratic stupidity is contagious: A bunch of industry leaders are upset and scared that the TSA is letting commercial airline passengers carry some small knives and sticks onto planes.

When I first heard about this policy I just tweeted,

Nitpicking: TSA Bureaucrats doing what bureaucrats do best: tsa_permitted_items_update.pdf … #TSA #DontYouFeelSaferNow?”

If there was an objection, I thought, it would be to the fact that the TSA is just compounding rules for no good reason. After all, “Abandon your rights and your property if you want to board a commercial plane” was easy to understand. Then they started enumerating policies and procedures — no liquids, 3-ounce containers, shoes off, laptops out — and it just got more confusing and annoying but we didn’t really get our rights back and we didn’t get any safer.

I never dreamed people would use safety as a premise for objecting to the new TSA allowed list. For reference, this is the pocket knife I routinely flew with throughout the 1990’s, right up until September 11, 2001:


In those halcyon days the rules on carrying knives on planes were similar to those in many metro areas: no restrictions so long as the blade was shorter than 4 inches and it wasn’t spring-loaded. I would drop the knife in the little bin to pass around the metal detector and clip it back in my pocket on the other side. I only remember one time a security screener took the time to open it and measure the blade against the width of her palm to ensure it wasn’t too long.

I’ve made this point before but apparently it hasn’t sunk in: Knives in the hands of airplane passengers were never an extraordinary threat, but for two hours on the morning of 9/11 during which they were incidental in a ruse to turn heavy aircraft into weapons of mass destruction. As soon as the ruse was discovered it could never be repeated. Any future attempt to use a heavy commercial plane as a weapon will have to overcome overwhelming obstacles: A fortified cockpit door, armed pilots trained to resist cockpit incursions, and a flying public that now realizes any violent actors could be suicidal fanatics who should be stopped at any cost, not placated.

The Holiday Orgy of Wealth Destruction December 21, 2012

Posted by federalist in Finance, Transportation.

[S]omething like $13 billion a year, is what’s destroyed through gift giving in the U.S.

Joel Waldfogel wrote a whole book on this: Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays. Add me to the list of those efficiency-lovers who disdain our suboptimal holiday customs.

If you want to give a person something of real value then give money. This gives the recipient maximum flexibility to meet their needs or wants. Purchasing a gift for them (including gift cards or items with gift receipts) simply takes something with maximal utility — money — and turns it into something with less utility.  The best you can hope for is to break even, and that occurs only if the recipient would have spent that money on that item at that time.

This guidance does not apply to gifts of time, expertise, or other devotion that aren’t fungible, and which may not even be available for purchase. Which may be where we lost our way: Money seems to be most stigmatized as a gift for occasions where consideration is more appropriate than value. In such cases cash is considered a cop-out — the refuge of scoundrels who don’t know or care enough about the recipient to find something meaningful. In past epochs when markets were less developed and efficient perhaps you could chance upon something at the bazaar that the recipient wouldn’t be able to readily acquire. But today if you could order the item online then you’re fooling yourself if you think that spending hours shopping to find it — on top of whatever time it took to earn the money to pay for it — is doing anyone a service.

Waldfogel has pointed out more systemic problems with holiday consumption patterns. For example: We have to carry excess capacity in our market infrastructure to sustain the holiday surge.  That capacity goes idle during the rest of the year.  The most efficient economy hums along at 100% utilization year-round.

This is not just a problem of gift-giving. Anyone who has tried to travel during holidays would have to agree that they are barbaric. Our goal as both individuals and as a society should be to smooth out surges, not to, for example, create “the busiest travel day of the year” by simultaneously crowding highways and airports, or overwhelming the same vacation destinations at the same time. These customs spawn deadweight surge capacity, though even that is invariably insufficient for peak demand.

Why do people voluntarily queue up for travel delays and long lines? It’s inefficient and unsafe. It’s insane.

QOTD: “Sudden Acceleration” February 28, 2010

Posted by federalist in Transportation.
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Car accelerating out of control? Even if you don’t have the presence of mind to shift out of gear or turn off the ignition, Car & Driver published an amusing test showing that just slamming on the brakes will bring your car to a halt even with the throttle running wide open. And unless you’re running a 500hp sports-car at triple-digit speeds you will come to a stop almost as quickly as if the engine were off.

So what’s the deal with these horrifying “uncontrolled acceleration” reports? Tort lawyers will never admit it, and car companies can’t act dismissive when people have been injured or killed, but the simple fact is that these are uncoordinated drivers who couldn’t find the brake pedal. Holman Jenkins notes:

Years ago, the George Washington University neurologist [Richard Restak] coined the term “neurobehaviorally impaired” for such drivers: “He or she acts too fast or not fast enough; steps on the accelerator when the intention is to put on the brake; slips the gear into reverse instead of forward; comes to a full stop when the sign merely indicates ‘yield.’ In all cases, the response is almost but not quite appropriate to the situation . . . [and] leaves a wake of dented fenders, sore necks and inflamed tempers.”

Why Don’t Cars Display Engine Performance Data? July 27, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy, Open Questions, Transportation.
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Most modern cars have engine control computers and sensors that can tell not only whether your current tank of fuel is contaminated but also whether you would benefit from higher-octane gasoline. Yet few (if any) cars readily communicate those data to the driver. Why not?

Many car engines are designed with higher compression ratios that require “premium” gasoline for optimal performance. These cars can still run on lower-grade fuel: They rely on knock sensors to detect the failure of low-octane fuel to resist detonation and can adjust valve timing to counteract it. However this adjustment reduces engine efficiency and power, so typically drivers want to avoid it. (Conversely, higher-octane gasolines are sometimes sold at such a premium to regular that their higher cost might outweigh the efficiency benefit to engines tuned for them.)

But gasoline octane rating is not the only factor that determines safe engine timing. Air density, which decreases with altitude and temperature, also affects detonation. Fuel that works great in summer or mountains may bog your car down in cold or sea-level conditions. Only your engine knows for sure whether it’s running optimally, or whether it would benefit from a bump in your fuel tank’s octane.

Apparently some aftermarket engine computer interface devices (e.g., the ScanGauge or the DashHawk) can allow a driver to monitor engine timing retardation in realtime. Ideally manufacturers should convert these data into useful dashboard information. Perhaps something like, “Your current fuel is handicapping the engine. Increase tank octane by 2 for optimal performance in current conditions.”

Why Did CAFE Regulations Hurt American Automakers? June 3, 2009

Posted by federalist in Government Regulation, Transportation.
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The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations were enacted decades ago to improve the fuel efficiency of cars sold in the U.S.  Conventional wisdom is that U.S.-headquartered automakers reacted by turning out fleets of small, weak cars that they had to sell at a loss to boost their average fuel economy.  Meanwhile, foreign nameplates essentially ignored the CAFE standards.

I had always wondered why, and now I’m even more bewildered: It turns out that the civil penalties allowed under the law are a one-time fine of $50 per mpg below the target per vehicle sold.

For example, this year the CAFE standard is 27.5mpg for passenger cars (“light trucks,” a.k.a., SUVs, get their own category and lower standard).  Suppose a car maker ignored the standard and only sold enormous gas-guzzling sedans that on average get 20mpg.  At the end of the year they would owe a fine of $375 per car sold.  Is it worth building fleets of small cars nobody wants in order to avoid a fine of this magnitude?  This is no more than a few percent of the cost of a car!

Obviously the foreign companies got it right by essentially ignoring the disregarding the law, factoring the fine into the price they charge, and selling only what people want to buy at that price: Year after year BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Porsche, et. al. simply coughed up a few million dollars in fines and went about their business.  (One suspects that American car makers easily spent more just lobbying for more loopholes to squeeze through to avoid fines.)

Why Focus on Ethanol Instead of Biomass Incineration? June 2, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy, Transportation.
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Government has been paying domestic companies to turn food into vehicle fuel, even during food supply shortages and even though more ethanol is being produced than the current vehicle fleet can consume.  Government is also funding efforts to build plants that can convert non-edible biomass into ethanol.

At the same time, government is funding initiatives to make vehicles more dependent on electricity and less dependent on liquid fuels.

If the goal is to increase the domestic supply of liquid fuel for the transportation sector, there is no question that coal liquification is the most cost effective and realistic solution: We have vast coal reserves, and liquified coal produces heavier fuels that can support existing kerosene, diesel, and gasoline engines.  (Ethanol is a light, hygroscopic fuel that can only run efficiently in modified gasoline engines.)

If the goal is to effect a shift from fossil to biomass fuels then simply burning biomass to generate electricity is far more efficient at recovering energy than first trying to distill it into ethanol.  Even if we do develop effective cellulosic ethanol technology, WSJ reports:

An acre of crops can generate enough electricity for a battery-powered SUV to travel 15,000 miles, nearly twice the distance that would be covered if the crops were turned into cellulosic ethanol….

And unlike all these other tentative technologies biomass power plants have been in existence for decades.

Government Can’t Order Results May 19, 2009

Posted by federalist in Government Regulation, Taxation, Transportation.
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The Obama administration plans to order auto makers to increase the fuel economy of automobiles sold in the U.S. to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016.

Well gosh, if the government can just order automobiles to be more efficient, why stop there?  Wouldn’t 50mpg be even better?  Indeed, it is not clear how the government intends to effect this order.  If it’s anything like past enforcement of CAFE mandates then:

  1. Domestic companies will try to comply by building fleets of efficient cars nobody wants and selling them at a loss.
  2. Foreign companies will generally try to make a profit, either by seeking subsidies or by paying government fines for noncompliance and passing them on to their customers.
  3. All companies will game the regulations — e.g., redefining “automobile” to exclude SUVs, or substituting diesel engines for gasoline (thereby achieving the nominal goal, but probably not in the way proponents wanted.)

Two years ago I noted that any bad regulation is just a disguised tax, and it is usually helpful to rephrase regulation in terms of taxation.  In this case, there is a simple tax that would achieve the government’s stated goal:

“If gasoline is cheap, there’s going to be a huge disconnect” between the vehicles available and what consumers will want, argues AutoNation Inc. Chief Executive Mike Jackson. He has long advocated a higher federal gasoline tax to ensure that gas prices stay above $4 a gallon, the level that drove demand for small cars last summer.

I.e., if the government really thinks it’s important to increase the distance an average car travels on a gallon of gasoline, it can avoid all gamesmanship and politics in achieving that goal simply by raising the existing gasoline tax.

But apparently The People don’t think it’s worth paying more at the pump to get more efficient cars on the road.  So instead the government pursues its agenda through supply-side regulation, disguising the costs to such a degree that nobody can hope to quantify them.  Of course, in the process all sorts of special interests crowd into smoke-filled rooms with bureaucrats and politicians to trade favors.  If the objective is met, it is at a much higher economic cost than the transparent and straightforward tax would have accumulated.

Why Run Ships on Oil? April 29, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy, Open Questions, Transportation.

Vote for Dave asks an excellent question: Massive container ships burn low-grade “bunker” fuel for power. Wouldn’t it be more cost effective to run them on nuclear power, as our navy has done without incident for decades on submarines and large warships?  Shouldn’t global warmists be thrilled at such low-hanging fruit in the fight against carbon dioxide emissions?

[Addendum: Four nuclear-powered cargo ships were built, but the technology is simply not cost-competitive with fossil fuels.  The United States Navy has abandoned nuclear power for all vessels but submarines and aircraft carriers, where nuclear power confers unique tactical benefits.]

The Case for Government Investment March 28, 2009

Posted by federalist in Economic Policy, Government Spending, Markets, Taxation, Transportation.
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As a libertarian I like to believe that anything worth doing will be done by for-profit entities.  But we know that in practice there are many public goods and services worth providing that will not be provided in anarchy — typically because they suffer from at least one of three characteristics:

  1. They require more up-front or concentrated capital than private entities can reasonably provide.
  2. Potential returns are too risky or distant, rendering the risk/reward calculus untenable for a profit-seeker.
  3. Returns are too difficult to capture for a non-government entity (practically by definition of a public good).

If public infrastructure investment can reliably increase economic activity, then not only can government capture returns on the investment through constant-rate taxes on a growing economy, but it would even be reasonable to fund the investment with government debt.  This is, in broadest terms, the premise for a large amount of the Obama administration’s proposed deficit spending.  Robert Reich today presents a reasonable argument based on this premise:  He suggests that the United States grows and competes internationally based on its productivity, and that public goods like a ready base of strong human capital and infrastructure are critical to growing productivity.

Only those Americans whose parents can afford to give them a high-quality private education and health care, and who can situate themselves in locations with excellent infrastructures of telecommunication, transportation, public health and safety, have been able to link up with global capital on more positive terms. But not even they are entirely secure economically, because they face growing shortages of talented people they can rely on within easy reach, and can’t entirely avoid the disadvantages of a deteriorating public infrastructure, such as ever more congested roads and airports.

Obamanomics recognizes that the only resource uniquely rooted in a national economy is its people — their skills, insights, capacities to collaborate, and the transportation and communication systems that link them together. Public investment is the key to attracting long-term private investment so that a nation’s people can prosper.

Reasonable Security and Asymmetric Threats February 5, 2009

Posted by federalist in RKBA, Transportation.
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I see the “cell phone gun” Email is circulating again, encouraging Americans to acquiesce in government’s efforts to disarm them in “sensitive” places like airplanes and schools.  I am not phased:  A disguised device that can launch four subsonic .22 caliber bullets?  That doesn’t scare me any more than a homicidal man wielding a few sharp pens.

And it certainly doesn’t justify the indiscriminate harassment and disarmament of the public at “security checkpoints.”  Excluding areas where the government has disarmed people (e.g., schools), no shooting rampage in the United States has produced casualties greater than those that have been produced by homicidal individuals wielding knives or cars in other incidents.  Clearly, when anyone can be armed, firearms, knives, and other traditional (megawatt class) weapons do not pose an asymmetric threat.

In another discussion I explained what I mean by asymmetric weapons:


[A]n individual with a truck bomb is asymmetric: Your next door neighbor could surreptitiously build and detonate one, and … conceivably get away with it.  And even if he were connected to the crime how can you hold one man to account for the wanton murder of hundreds?  There is no way to deter, defend against, punish, or seek redress from an average guy who snaps and has ready means to commit a truck bombing.

Contrast this with firearms: Yes, psychopaths arm themselves and launch shooting sprees.  But individuals can and do deter and defend against such acts by arming themselves with guns.  In the worst case a gunman kills a few people before being stopped, which is not out of proportion to the punishment that can be meted out to him.


The only threats worth screening for in public places are the asymmetric ones: chemical weapons and explosives.  Current countermeasures for these are alarmingly weak.

If government stopped gate-raping airline passengers looking for knives and guns they could devote more resources to catching the truly asymmetric threats.  After all, if citizens weren’t deprived of their fundamental right of self defense when they board a commercial aircraft then any goons who tried to make trouble would expect to be promptly shot by any number of fellow passengers carrying concealed firearms.  But if somebody sneaks a bomb onto a plane and detonates it in the air there is no way to prevent the death of everyone on board.

Private aviation for the masses? January 18, 2009

Posted by federalist in Transportation.

I am not uninitiated in the science and practice of aviation, but I am continually bewildered by the lack of technological and commercial development in bringing private aircraft to the masses.

  • Why are rotary-wing aircraft still so outrageously expensive to operate?
  • Why isn’t fly-by-wire technology penetrating general aviation?  Private cars are now universally equipped not only with electronic engine control but also with multiple vehicle stability control systems that prevent drivers from exceeding safe operating envelopes.  Analogous systems on aircraft would bring safer vehicles within reach of people with less time and money for training than the hobbiests who presently dominate general aviation.
  • Why is decentralized air traffic control still not the norm?

At least Kirk Hawkins offers a step in the right direction:  He aims to fill the relatively new “light sport” niche carved out by the FAA with an seaplane whose wings easily fold for towing and whose controls are designed only for VFR (daylight, fair-weather) flight.  Essentially, it’s the aircraft equivalent of a sports car or personal watercraft.  A former F-16 pilot, Hawkins notes:

Flying had this complex, regulated-transportation mentality, but the best flying I’ve ever done was always at low altitudes with the window open.

Low-Hanging Fruit in Transportation Efficiency January 14, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy, Transportation.
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No, it’s not electric hybrids, which depending on the longevity and cost of their battery packs may never break even.  It’s incremental improvements to internal-combustion engines.  Ford is rolling out “EcoBoost direct-injection gasoline engines, which should boost fuel economy by about 20%.

The company argues the premium for EcoBoost … is a better value than a hybrid or diesel. [A]ssuming a gallon of gas is $3 or less, it would take 12 to 18 months to see the cost savings of owning an EcoBoost vehicle. The equivalent for a hybrid … is five to seven years and as long as a decade for diesel at current prices.

Further down the road are homogenous-charge compression-ignition (HCCI) engines that should offer another 10% boost in efficiency.

Granted, no matter how efficient engines become they will always lose useful energy through braking.  But I still think hydraulic hybrids are the answer for maximizing fuel efficiency in vehicles that make frequent stops (like delivery trucks and inner-city cars), since the hydraulic motor can potentially recover practically all of the energy currently lost as heat through braking.  Electric hybrids will always be limited in how much they can recapture by the size of their motors and the charge rate of their batteries.  And even if battery lifespans are improved there is the problem that battery packs do not scale as gracefully (in size, weight, or cost) as hydraulic cylinders.  [Addendum: Dave Vanderwerp has a great column detailing the state of the art in hydraulic hybrids, including prototype hybrid UPS delivery trucks.]

One other piece of low-hanging fruit is materials: Most of the transportation fuel we burn is spent moving the frames and bodies of our vehicles, not their passengerss.  Mass-produced vehicles contain tons of frame metal that in principle could be replaced with vastly lighter and stronger carbon fiber or other composites.  Someday soon we will look back on the era of steel and aluminum vehicle bodies as archaic.

[Update: Gordon Murray provides a technical history of Structural Composites in Cars.]

Grand Survival December 24, 2008

Posted by federalist in Energy, Social Politics, Transportation.

Yesterday I pointed out that those who claim to care about worldly things grander than individual freedom (be they human life or local ecosystems) should concern themselves with perpetuation beyond our precarious planet.  The premise here is clearly fascist, but that does not mean it isn’t noble or worthy.

A program for interstellar propagation of earth life would certainly be a tremendous challenge.  But it would also be salutary: In the absence of a grand threat or challenge humans tend to degenerate, focusing our energy on selfish amusement and petty disputes.  Mankind’s admirable traits emerge most clearly when we collectively step up to overcome great obstacles.

Perhaps the greatest good our present leaders could do is to sell this vision: The survival of our species is in imminent danger so long as we are bound to this planet, and if we focus our energy on breaking our ties to it we can achieve a collective immortality.

Interstellar propagation requires the focus of vast quantities of skilled human resources in a number of areas:

Energy: Enormous sums of energy are needed to get machines into deep space and to sustain them at large distances from solar and material fuel sources.  Presently we struggle to produce enough energy to sustain even core terrestial activity.  The first hurdle we face is the development of practical fusion technology, which will finally produce massive quantities of energy “too cheap to meter.”  The second hurdle is is the creation of antimatter batteries (i.e., devices capable of controlled storage and reaction of antimatter with matter), which provide the densest energy we can currently conceive — indeed, energy density 10 orders of magnitude greater than the chemical power sources with which we are familiar, and 5 orders of magnitude greater than fusion media.

Machines: We need advances in nanotechnology and materials sciences so that we can create self-replicating and self-healing machines.  With access to massive amounts of energy a “von Neumann” type machine could in principle turn raw matter into plasma, extract refined elements, and synthesize the compounds needed not only to repair itself but also to build new copies of itself.  In deep space this reclamation capacity is essential since all matter must be recycled in order to sustain a functioning system for leaps between star systems that might last eons.  Interstellar exploration requires fleets of von Neumann probes, not just to find new bases for establishing life, but also to build caches of materials and energy for life-sustaining vessels traveling in their wake.  Life-bearing vessels themselves should self-replicate when resources are available: If propagation is limited to a non-increasing fleet then there is some probability that the entire fleet will eventually be wiped out by accidents or unforeseen problems.

Humans: We may be able to build enormous ships containing functioning biospheres that would support thriving human societies for thousands of generations as they travel between settlements.  But natural modern human creatures are far too unstable and ill-equipped for efficient interstellar propagation.  After all, we have to reproduce at least every forty years, and we die after a hundred.  Each new generation faces risks of polymorphism: We’re not quite sure how each child will turn out in terms of capacities, limitations, or disposition.  This “generational polymorphism” is a tremendous risk in a small, isolated population.  Small inbred populations also face increasing genetic risks that over many generations can destroy them.  Aside from problems of breeding, there are problems of gravity and biophilia: Man is not naturally equipped for long-term survival in microgravity or in completely artificial environments.

What we really want to create is an Explorer subspecies of homo sapiens: Purged of all genetic diseases and disabilities, able to live its entire life on synthetic food, able to maintain physical and mental health in the limited environment of an interstellar space ship.  Perhaps capable of indefinite suspended animation; if not, then enjoying an exceptionally long lifespan.  Capable of reproducing to populate new copies of seed ships that would be constructed at every opportunity.  And finally, capable of starting new settlements of vital populations of human beings to fill and maintain new biospheres indefinitely.

Either that, or we could just stay here, fight to keep other people off our lawn, and see how long this lasts.

Diesel Fuel Efficiency Myths August 18, 2008

Posted by federalist in Energy, Transportation.

Do you get better mileage in a vehicle running on diesel fuel instead of gasoline?  Given the increased demand for diesel cars in the United States you would think so.  Congress seems to think so, since its CAFE regulations are based on “Miles Per Gallon” (MPG), regardless of whether those are gallons of diesel or of gasoline.

Any significant difference between diesel and gasoline disappears if we instead talk about “Miles Per Pound” (MPP), or “Miles Per BTU” (MPB).  A gallon of diesel weighs 7 pounds and contains 139kBTU of energy.  A gallon of gasoline weighs 6.2 pounds and contains 124kBTU of energy.  I.e., gasoline and diesel contain the same amount of energy per unit weight.  It’s just that gasoline is less dense, so it takes more volume (gallons) to hold a given amount of energy.

An unbiased measure of fuel economy would quote MPP, not MPG.

(The price per BTU (PPB) of diesel can be different from that of gasoline, but that is primarily a function of refining, storage, and distribution infrastructure.)

Privatize Driver Licensing June 27, 2008

Posted by federalist in Government Regulation, Transportation.
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Why is government in the business of licensing drivers?  The public certainly has a compelling interest in ensuring that only individuals capable of safely operating dangerous machinery are allowed to do so in public.  Government licensing of vehicle operators is one way of pursuing this goal.  But it is by no means the only way.  It is not self-evident that governments should be particularly good at setting criteria for what constitutes competency in operating machinery, or that governments should they be particularly efficient in certifying individuals in accordance with those criteria.  Anyone who has interacted with a Department of Motor Vehicles or driven on America’s roads can attest to that.

Some competent young people are ineligible to get licenses just because of their age. Many elderly and infirm citizens retain their licenses even as their faculties decline to the point that they pose a clear danger to others.  People who have proven to be dangerous drivers can often stay on the road by gaming arbitrary “point” schedules and the mix of courts and bureaucracy responsible for administering these systems.

We already have a parallel and private driver licensing system called “insurance.”  In this system the government merely requires that car owners secure insurance (or post bond) against damage their cars could inflict during operation.  Insurance companies have a far more nuanced system for assessing the risk and competence of each driver they insure.

Why maintain a licensing system when we could just depend on private insurers to determine who should be allowed to drive?  Government need only require that every driver be insured.  Insurance requirements should be substantial — given the amount of damage that a vehicle can cause I would think $100,000 in liability insurance would be a bare minimum.

If a corporation or individual is willing to put that amount of money on the line with an individual driver, they will do a much better job than the government in ensuring that the driver is safe and competent.  And you’ll never have to go the the DMV again!

Fair Game for Regulation? September 16, 2007

Posted by federalist in Government Regulation, Transportation.
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James Surowiecki does a decent job of trying to deflate the libertarian dream. I was reading his recent New Yorker essay on commercial aviation and began to wonder whether we must acquiesce in government interference in certain large markets.

I can think of two major reasons commercial aviation may not be suitable for free market operation — i.e., operation without government regulatory interference. However, both of these causes are themselves the product of government involvement in the industry.

The larger of the two is Air Traffic Control. All jet aircraft are subject to the air traffic control system. The sky is a public commons, but nobody is willing to let people put a metal missile up there flying near the speed of sound without a reasonable system for avoiding collisions with other sky users. Until recently, the only practical solution to this problem was a common ground-based air traffic control network. The ATC system is ridiculously inefficient, but it meets the standards of safety demanded by the public.

If the ATC problem were attacked today any number of private industry organizations could solve it with decentralized, economical, and efficient technology. (I recently saw just one such example, called ADS-B, on trial in Alaska.)

The second problem is security, which I have previously discussed, and for which I have proposed a generalized framework for resolving.

No Blood for Travel! July 31, 2007

Posted by federalist in Transportation.
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One of the best essays I read last month, “My Only Son” by Leon de Winter, contrasted the price we pay in lives for efficient transportation by motor vehicle with the price we are paying to fight terror and build democracy in the Middle East.  An article today provides some interesting statistics on the former.

The NHTSA last week released preliminary figures for highway fatalities in 2006, and heralded a 2% decline in overall motor-vehicle fatalities to the lowest absolute number (42,642) in five years and the lowest rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled the government has ever recorded.

Motorcycles, on the other hand, have not enjoyed the same improvements in life-saving technology that have permeated the passenger car market.

Adjusted for miles traveled, [motorcycle] riders were 34 times more likely to die in a highway accident than occupants of passenger cars in 2004, according to the NHTSA study.

NB: Motorcyclists can still significantly boost their odds by not drinking and driving, and by wearing a helmet:

[A] majority of riders die with blood-alcohol concentrations above the 0.08 level now designated as the legal limit. … About 66% of riders who died in helmet-optional states weren’t wearing head protection….