Saturday, November 17, 2007

The weird world of ITS, VII, IVI

Let me just clarify right away:

ITS: intelligent transportation systems
VII: vehicle infrastructure integration
IVI: intelligent vehicle initiative

It’s an insular and esoteric world that is being created by Department of Transportation and industry experts. Excellent goals are behind the acronyms. Vehicles on the highway will collect and transmit data to each other and to centralized databases so that we can: avoid collisions in intersections; avert hundred-car pileups; avoid congested highways: ultimately be able to have cars on autopilot that can squeeze more vehicles onto the same roads and move them at higher speeds safely.

I’m all for these goals. Clearly this is what the future will bring us. The thing I find insular, esoteric, and weird is the method being used to accomplish these goals.

All of these systems are based on the wireless frequency of 5.9 GHz, specifically allocated for DSRC (oops, another acronym: Dedicated Short Range Communication), specifically dedicated to wireless use among automobiles.

Now here is the question, and I ask it honestly, why do cars need their own frequency and therefore their own hardware and software?

The rest of society – that is financial, education, health, consumer, retail, emergency services – are all happily communicating on other frequencies, using equipment that is interoperable, more or less. Data bits are data bits. Right now we mingle voice, data, video, graphics, music over the same devices, and increasingly one single device. In what way is parking data, or congestion data different?

Is the security needed for transmission of financial data less demanding than that needed for transportation?

Are the wireless mobility demands required by the cell phone in my car, or the laptop in police cars different when encased in the car itself?

Curiously, this requirement for a different standard means that we can’t use the cell phones, laptops, and wireless gateways that permeate our environment. The VII, IVI, and ITS system demands a whole new network and set of investments be made before the system starts throwing off benefits. Why go this route?

It would cost much less money, be much less complicated, and be a reality much sooner if the goals of car-to-car networking were achieved with the devices and standards used by the rest of the wireless world.

Hmm. Maybe that is the point. Weird.

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Infrastructure changes are important but we need to change behavior now

When I first read Jim Hansen and John Holdren reference the time frame for action – now! In 10 years is too late – I got out my pencil, sketched out this time frame, and drew in all the transportation solutions I could think of: more transit and trains; fuel efficient and alternative fuel cars; smart growth; walkable communities. Above is the powerpoint version of my sketch.

What I realized is that technology and infrastructure solutions –invent things, build things, and get these things distributed and used by people all across the country – can not produce the outcomes we need in the time frame we need. It is physically impossible. They are great and needed products, and we need to start today because they take so long to implement. But they are not enough.

What we need today, right now, are changed behaviors. It is the only thing we can change fast enough. How? Money talks: congestion pricing, car sharing, carbon taxes.

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Friday, November 2, 2007

Carbon Taxes or Cap and Trade for Overnight Success?

A debate is raging over whether the next president of United States (we’ve given up on this president taking action) should propose carbon taxes or cap and trade. We need progress now. I will support whatever produces concrete reductions in CO2 emissions immediately and over the long term, meeting the necessary schedule. But carbon taxes are what will actually do the trick.

As far as I can tell, Cap and Trade doesn’t touch the 33% of emissions that come from the transportation sector because CaT is targeted at big industry and utilities. These big players will be forced to buy, trade, and sell for the right to emit. I don’t see how that touches you and me driving our cars (20% of America’s CO2 emissions).

A recent report by Robert Stavins of the Brookings Institute argues that Cap and Trade is less susceptible to political shenanigans and more likely to produce real outcomes. But that certainly hasn’t been the European experience. A New York Times article tells the story of an incinerator in China, financed by Europeans buying carbon credits. The Europeans paid a 100-fold markup on the cost of the reductions achieved by improving the Chinese plant, with plenty of middle men getting rich with little environmental advantage.

Carbon Taxes, on the other hand, will impact every person and sector of the economy. We will all be aware on a daily basis of the cost of our choices (drive or transit? lettuce from Chile or the one from the local farm? Insulate or turn down the thermostat?) and be able to make trade-offs based on our own priorities.

People respond quickly and immediately to price signals as I have learned from Zipcar (where people reduce the vehicle miles they travel by as much as 45% because they decide that it simply isn’t worth $8-$10/hour to go buy some ice cream or return the video). London and Stockholm’s congestion pricing schemes illustrate this reality more overtly. When they turned on congestion pricing, congestion dropped by 20-25% overnight -- literally, not metaphorically. And when Stockholm turned theirs off after the seven-month trial, it increased by 25% immediately, overnight in fact. And this is what we need, overnight success.

Stavins argues that CaT can deliver results, while carbon taxes might not. It'll take years for the investments in cleaner technologies and infrastructure to actually reduce emissions. We don't have time for these investments to be conceived, approved, drafted, built, run over schedule, etc. While we want these improvements in the long run, we need results today.

I recommend that we set the tax rate at whatever is the right price to deliver the desired reductions. We set the US CO2 emissions goal for each year and make a plan for the next decade. Then we set the price of the carbon tax. We review emissions quarterly. On schedule? We clearly have set the price right. Too much carbon still being produced? Raise the tax. Ahead of plan? Reduce the tax. We are already using a system similar to this today: the Federal Reserve changes interest rates periodically to meet money supply goals.

What about poor people and what about middle class people? Won’t this new tax be unsupportable? No. The increases in carbon taxes can be written off against income taxes. Carbon taxes can be tax neutral with respect to your annual tax outlay. But we will be focusing everyone’s behavior on the desired outcome: reduced CO2 emissions.

Given the timeframe we have in which to get worldwide CO2 emissions on a downward path (3 years?), we need to do something that works immediately. We no longer have time to for incentive plans or opt-in plans – that was Kyoto. We no longer have time to get the fine print just right or fret about the gray areas. We need to implement the tax now, monitor closely, and adjust as needed.

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