Thursday, January 31, 2008

History of PATH in IEEE

For those with access to IEEE Intelligent Transportation Systems online, PATH researcher Steven Shladover has written a 20 year retrospective of the organization. The abstract reads thusly:
The California Partners for Advanced Transit and Highways (PATH) Program was founded in 1986, as the first research program in North America focused on the subject now known as intelligent transportation systems (ITS). This paper reviews the history of the founding of PATH and of the national ITS program in the U.S., providing perspective on the changes that have occurred during the past 20 years.

Schladover explains well the significance of 20 years for the booming ITS field and some of the generational shifts that have occurred since its inception.

AC Transit's Van Hool débacle

AC Transit (Alameda County, California) in recent years has eliminated bus routes (from 157 to 93), raised fares (to $1.75 local without a transfer, with a plan to raise fares to $2) and increased taxes for county residents all to facilitate the purchase of Belgian made buses against the advice of experts and to the detriment of riders and the agency's own drivers. A recent article by Robert Gammon in the East Bay Express details the saga of AC Transit administration's extraordinary expenditure on Van Hool busses. The agency has recently spent $97.2M in public funds on 236 buses, which one AC Transit driver describes as, "the worst buses we have."

The reasons given for purchasing the Van Hools are the low floors and the extra set of doors, both of which facilitate boarding and leaving the bus. With the low floors, however, come sections of seating on raised platforms which have resulted in a post-boarding injury rate 100% higher on those buses. The third set of doors requires a shorter wheelbase which results in a much bouncier rider -- especialy for passengers sitting behind the rear wheels -- so AC Transit is now ordering some new Van Hools to be custom made with a longer wheelbase and only two sets of doors ... just like the old domestic buses.

In the second part of this two part story, Gammon tells us that to purchase the Van Hools AC Transit has spent over $1 million on employee trips to Western Europe and paid for a bus inspector to live near Antwerp for over five years, at more than $500,000 -- including $2,637 a month for his auto allowance -- on top his $121k annual salary. Since 2001 general manager Rick Fernandez, who earns $260k/yr., has made seven trips to Europe at taxpayers' expense totaling $22,983. During that period, 2001 through 2007, AC Transit employees filled out 163 travel vouchers for trips to Europe for a total of $947,238. And AC Transit has just increased the meal allowance from $50 to $134 per day.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

No Free Rides

Photo courtesy of Charles Haynes.

Today the SF Gate reports that there will be no free rides on Muni any time soon. They write:
"It's not something that we plan to pursue at this time," said Stuart Sunshine, the mayor's top transportation aide.

Newsom asked transit officials in March to study a no-fare system, saying at the time, "If it could happen here, it could happen anywhere." His suggestion was aimed at luring people out of their cars to reduce air pollution and traffic.

The consulting team hired by the city, led by Sharon Greene & Associates, looked at what happened when other jurisdictions adopted free transit programs. In larger cities, such as Austin, Texas, Trenton, N.J., and Denver, ridership increased by nearly 50 percent.

If that happened to Muni, which now provides nearly 700,000 trips on an average day, the annual operating and maintenance costs would rise by nearly $69 million. Muni's annual budget is about $670 million.

While it is an interesting idea, and lots of people would love it, it doesn't appear to be feasible at this time. Somehow I doubt this is the last of the idea though.

Next-Gen Aviation - Coming sooner than later?

Photo courtesy of ITT

The poor conditions of our air traffic control towers is nothing new. People have been talking about the next generation of aviation for quite some time, but Aviation Week reports that Next-Gen systems might be closer than before:

Better late than never -- even if never was never really an option -- regulators are moving to define and accelerate the shift toward surveillance and navigation based on satellite systems. The United States is further along on the surveillance part, known as Automatic Dependent Surveillance - Broadcast (ADS-B) Out, with FAA's proposed rule (O&M, Nov. 2007, p. 19), while Europe's SESAR (Single European Sky ATM Research) group is further advanced on datalink communications. Both Europe and the U.S. clearly are moving toward the same goal, although the pace and emphasis during the transition to next-generation traffic management still must be worked out.

The article goes on to describe a number of factors pressuring the industry to switch over. As oil prices continue to rise and more people are starting to worry about carbon emissions and global warming, any Next-Gen system should increase system efficiency and reduce fuel costs and flight times.

Listen To Your Flight Attendant

George Bibel, author of Beyond the Black Box: The Forensics of Airplane Crashes, wrote an editorial in the New York Times in which he reminds us of some very good reasons to listen to our flight attendants as they explain the in-flight emergency and evacuation procedures. Some interesting statistics Bibel brings up, lest you think that there is no hope of getting out of a plane crash alive; the vast majority of passengers involved in airline accidents do survive. For instance, a crash landing at Heathrow last week resulted in only 13 injuries among 152 passengers. Even routine measures like keeping your seatbelt buckled during turbulence can keep passengers from getting injured as the plane suddenly drops a couple hundred feet.

Friday, January 25, 2008

ITSL's new cataloging intern

Our technical services section has a new hand on deck. Matt Schmitz, a second-year student at San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science, is with us for three months as a cataloging intern. Matt’s input will be welcome indeed in helping us catalog the ceaseless flow of technical reports, government publications, conference proceedings and foreign-language publications in print, on CD, and online. Matt intends to become a professional cataloger, and after experiencing cataloging at its toughest here in the Transportation Library, he'll be well able for anything that comes his way in future.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Is Too Much Ethanol a Bad Thing?

Biofuels, such as corn ethanol which typically makes up 10% of gasoline in the U.S., have for years been considered an environmentally sound alternative to dependence foreign oil. Regan Suzuki of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization says, however, that an increase in ethonol production for many countries is causing an increase in the price of corn and other crops and may lead to water shortages and land use problems. Dan Kammen, a physicist at UC Berkeley is quoted by NPR as saying that production of ethanol "does not take more energy than you get out of the amount of ethanol. So it's a net good if you grow ethanol and use it." Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren of the CATO Institue, on the other hand, have a different take on the benefits of corn ethanol.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Switchgrass: The Fuel of the Future?

The results of a five year study by the USDA conducted on farms in Nebraska and North and South Dakota show that switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) can deliver more than five times the amount of energy used to farm it. For comparison, corn, which is currently the biofuel crop of choice in the U.S. delivers only 25% more energy than is used to farm it. However, in a March 2005 paper David Pimentel and Tad Patzek report that corn based ethonol is produced at a 29% energy deficit.

Switchgrass, which is native to North America, is a permanent crop, meaning that it does not need to be replanted every year like most commercial crops. And because the switchgrass fields are not tilled under every year, the crop is effective at permanently storing the CO2 it takes out of the atmosphere.

One might wonder why all commercially produced ethonol is still being made with corn. For starters, there are no commercial cellulosic biorefineries to process the switchgrass, although the Department of Energy is contributing funding for the construction of six such refineries. Also, corn farming is heavily subsidised in the U.S., with the Farm Bill distributing an average of $5.1 billion per year to corn farmers.

Flying Car Sells for $131K

The winning bid for the Sky Commuter prototype which sold on ebay this morning was $131,700.00. This vehicle is the only one remaining of the three which were built by Boeing in the 1980s at their Arlington, Washington facility, the other two having been scrapped when the $6 million Sky Commuter project was dismatled. The one seen here was saved from the scrapyard because it was not onsite at the time. Its sister ships have actually gotten off the ground -- about 10 feet off the ground, although this one is not flyable. The other two prototypes were damaged during testing and the original electric motors on this one were replaced with less powerful motors to prevent its getting off the ground. A former employee of Payne Aerospace writes, "ALL the flight tests were crash failures. They had overcome many issues but could not get away from power/rate/control issues. Years of testing, never a safe mode flight."

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Semiotics Meets The World of Transportation

A new, quite interesting dissertation out of our UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies offers an analysis of the semiotics of Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV). Perhaps a foreign concept to those outside the humanities, semiotics is the study of signs and sign processing by humans. Semiotics is relevant to HEVs, author R. Heffner argues, as the perceived image of the HEV, its sign, is a relevant factor in its appeal to consumers. In Heffner's summary, he writes:
This study addresses the relationship between image and car purchases. Image, defined as the associations linked to a product or brand name [...] is often cited as influential in automobile purchases. But relatively little research has been conducted into what image is or why it is important to consumers. [...] The objective [of this study] was to understand how buyers of HEVs perceived the image of their vehicles, and the role image played in buyers' purchase decisions.

Using a data set consisting of a number of interviews with HEV buyers, Heffner analyzes the significance of the symbolic power of HEVs (perceived as being bother environmentally sound and economically prudent) in customers' purchasing decisions. Heffner also draws explicitly from philosophers like Ferdinand de Saussure and Roland Barthes and implicitly from the American pragmatist C.S. Peirce's semeiotics (and here).

The First Trainspotter

The BBC reports that a new exhibit at the British National Railway Museum has documents from the first known Trainspotter. The museum is showing a letter written by 14-year old John Backhouse of County Durham to his sister in 1825 that describes a steam locomotive.

It was a very grand sight to see such a mass of people moving on the road from Stockton to Darlington, 600 people were said to be in, on and about the wagons and coaches! And the engine drew not less that 90 tons!!!!!

There was an excellent dinner prepared at Stockton for the railway gentry. I could tell you a great many more particulars but suppose that you are tired of it by this time.

Trainspotting saw it's heyday in the 1930s and steady decline since the 1960s when rail was superseded as the dominant mode for transporting goods and people.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A Natural Way to Clear a Runway

Wildlife activity close to runways often compromises airport safety. While airports have tried traps, poison and ultrasound to scare off pesky animals, the southern Italian port town of Bari is about to try something different. Its airport has been plagued by foxes hunting the swarms of mice and rabbits abounding in the airfield at dawn and dusk. It seems that foxes are terrified by large birds of prey, so a young golden eagle has been trained to scare them away from the runway areas. The eagle, called Cheyenne, will commence her patrols in a few weeks' time.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Mitsubishi Builds World's Tallest Elevator-Tester

Mitsubishi Electric has just opened its new elevator testing facility. Solae, the 567 foot tall tower located in Inazawa, Japan, is purportedly the world's tallest elevator tester. For comparison, the Otis testing tower in Bristol, Connecticut, has a 300 foot shaft. The Mitsubishi facility was built primarily for testing the new generation of high speed elevators. Currently the world's fastest elevators are in the Taipei 101 tower and travel from the ground floor to the observation deck on the 89th floor at 3314 ft. per minute (37.66 mph).

Fast elevators can be problematic, however, as atmospheric pressure changes too rapidly. The express elevators to the observation deck in the Sears Tower had to be slowed from 9.0 meters per second (20.13 mph) to 8.0 mps (17.9 mph) after a visitor's eardrum ruptured (see Mega high-rise elevators in Elevator World). To combat this problem, new high speed elevators are using pressure control systems to make the pressure change more steady and gradual.

Several new ultra-tall skyscrapers are planned or currently being built. The tallest currently under construction is the Burj Dubai and its express elevators, traveling at 18 meters per second (40.26 mph) will be even faster than those in the Taipei 101. And elevators in these tall skyscrapers will need to transport ever larger numbers of passengers to more destinations. This can lead to logistical challenges, so "smart" elevators are being developed. If you happen to be in downtown Manhattan, you can ride one. These smart elevators have no buttons inside for floor selection. Instead, you key in your destination outside the elevators and a display panel tells you which elevator to wait for. The software determines the most efficient elevator/passenger combinations.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

California Sues the Fed!

Some information today on California's suit against the EPA from NYTimes and The case has been brought by Gov. Schwarzenegger due to a waiver requested by the state of the federal government to make more stringent its greenhouse gas emissions standards. The EPA rejected the waiver on grounds that new federal standards would be "more efficient" than California's proposed standards and that, contrary to the state's claim, no state is more greatly affected than another in terms of the effects of global warming.

Gov. Schwarzenegger made the following statement concerning the waiver rejection:
It is unconscionable that the federal government is keeping California and 19 other states from adopting these standards.
They are ignoring the will of millions of people who want their government to take action in the fight against global warming. That's why, at the very first legal opportunity, we're suing to reverse the US EPA's wrong decision.
Who knew Arnold kept a pair of birkenstocks and a hemp necklace in his closet?