Monday, May 29, 2017

Why the American Way Of Life Is Negotiable: the Coming Transport Revolution.

Image: Volkswagen advertising in 1939 (source). Already at that time, Germany was planning to adopt the American model of "a car in every garage." But car ownership seems to be becoming more and more obsolete. Sooner or later, people will have to give away their cars, closing a peculiar and unusual cycle in the history of humankind (BTW, this is the most subversive post I ever published, I think)

In a previous post,  I discussed the RethinkX report by James Arbib and Tony Seba on the future of transportation. The report discusses a technological revolution that would bring about a new concept: "Transportation as a Service" (TaaS) that will see people move mainly by using publicly available, driverless cars. Many took the report (and my comments on it) as just another technofix aimed at keeping things as they are; business as usual. Indeed, the report framed the "TaaS" concept in terms of economic growth. Nothing else is acceptable in the public debate, today.

So, it seems that few people realized what kind of sacred cow Arbib and Seba are planning to slaughter and serve as well cooked burgers. It is nothing less than the private car, the pivotal element of the American way of life (yes, exactly what George Bush 1st said "is not negotiable"). This idea is as far from business as usual as I can imagine, one of the most disruptive and revolutionary ideas that I came across in recent times. So, I think I can go more in depth into this subject and explain why it is so disruptive and revolutionary.

Let start from the beginning: it all started in 1908 with the Ford T (figure from "The Daily Signal")

The growth in car ownership was the result of a political decision that most Western governments took at some moment (even Adolf Hitler took such a decision, at least in part). It didn't necessarily have to be taken: for instance, the Soviet Government always discouraged private car ownership. But governments, although not benevolent organizations, are made of people and people can recognize a good business when they see it. More cars meant more highways, more bridges, more shopping centers, more housing developments, and more opportunities to build things. That meant a lot of money flowing. So, the explosive development of private motorization happened because it could happen.

But, in recent times, the trend is reversing. The number of cars per person and per household is going down. These data by Sivak (2015) seem to be the most recent ones available

And it is not just the number of cars that's going down, also the number of miles driven per person or per car is falling. The trend is the same in many Western countries: we went through some kind of "peak car". 

So, what's going on? One factor is that cars are becoming more expensive (image from "The Atlantic"): 

That's mainly because cars are becoming heavier and more complicated. Today, a classic Volkswagen Beetle would cost very little, possibly less than it did at the time of the great motorization growth of the 1950s. But no insurance company would want to insure it, and no government would provide a license plate for it: too noisy, unsafe, and polluting.

But the increasing cost of ownership is probably a minor factor in comparison to deeper changes that are taking place. The increasing social inequality that leads to a larger and larger fraction of people becoming poor or very poor. See below the behavior of the "Gini Coefficient", a measure of the inequality in society.

So, cars are more expensive and there are more poor people. No wonder that car ownership is going down: a gradually higher fraction of the population cannot afford cars any more.

We shouldn't be surprised: for most of humankind's history, most people would walk; only a few could afford horses or coaches. One car in every garage was a very peculiar phenomenon that couldn't possibly last for a long time and that won't probably ever be repeated in the future. But the end of the cycle may not be painless for many. If you live, or have lived, in a Western suburban area, you know what the problem is (image from Pinterest).

There you are: miles away from anything that's not other people's homes. Miles from your workplace, miles from the nearest supermarket, miles from the closest train station. No car means no job, no groceries, no place to go.

By far and large, most families living in Western suburbs still own at least one car. They have to, even though that means an increasingly heavy strain to the family's budget. But, as the current trends continue, there will come a moment in which owning a car will become a burden too heavy to carry for a non negligible fraction of the suburban population. Then what happens? Well, there are several possible ways for people to cope: biking, carpooling, using donkeys, move to the city to live in a shack made of discarded cardboard containers or, simply, go zombie and die.

Cities are unlikely (to say the least) to establish conventional bus services for the citizens who find themselves stranded in the bloated suburbs: it would be awfully too expensive. So, as it happens in these cases, technological innovation is supposed to come to the rescue. And it does that with the concept of "TaaS" (Transportation as a Service). It is, basically, a high-tech car rental service where you use a vehicle only when you need it, thanks to the technological marvels of Global Positioning Satellites, automated driving, and electric power.

It is not obvious that TaaS will be less expensive than car ownership in terms of dollars per mile. But, with TaaS, you don't have the fixed costs of owning a car: you can save money by reducing your travels to the bare minimum. So, you can use TaaS to reach your workplace (if you still have a job) and to reach a supermarket to redeem your food stamps. For the rest of the time, you stay home and watch TV or use the social media. What else do you need?

Arbib and Seba have correctly described in their report how this phenomenon is not going to be gradual: it is going to be explosive. As car ownership goes down, the cost of cars will increase simply because of diminishing economies of scale. Add to it the decreasing profits of the oil industry and the whole thing is going to implode fast, generating a textbook example of the "Seneca Cliff".

By the end of the cycle, people (those who will survive the ordeal) might abandon the suburbs and move into high-rise apartment building that can be serviced by public transportation at reasonable costs. At this point, the American landscape could look much like that of the old Soviet Union (image from Wikipedia)

Eventually, TaaS is just an example of the concept of the "Internet of Things" that's so fashionable nowadays. It means that you won't own things anymore: cars or whatever; you rent them. So, your refrigerator, your TV set, even your toaster, are not your property but of the corporations leasing them to you. It looks like a good idea, because you can have the latest models and you don't have to worry about maintenance. At least as long as don't run out of credit, because, if you do, your toaster will refuse to toast your bread.

All this sounds like... well, you know what it sounds like. Would you have ever imagined that Communism would come one day to the US brought by corporations and in the name of technological progress? The "American way of life" really turns out to be negotiable


  1. ....and while from ultra-communist the Soviet Union turned ultra-capitalist the USA turned from ultra-capitalist to ultra-communist.

  2. There won't be any electricity. At least not for TaaS. Your idea is DOA.

  3. Spot on. To implement this we need a lot of clever technology. And we'd be at the mercy of not only the electricity companies but also some high tech infrastructure, ie a lot of servers. Compare this to a bicycle that can be fixed mostly by yourself and is in most instances enough to get you around in a city. My prediction is that if anything people will start using e-bikes.

  4. calculate online fast and easy the TCO of your newest gadget (example is the crazy V8 dyson vacuum cleaner)

  5. I own 2 cars. The cost is negligible, one is 15 years old, the other almost 30. Both run great. It costs me close to nothing to own them, because I hardly ever drive them!

    Car OWNERSHIP isn't expensive, DRIVING cars is expensive! That's because the energy it takes to move such a hunk of metal around is getting more expensive. TAAS doesn't make moving carz along the road any cheaper. Assuming you could implement such a system (and you can't for reasons I will detail below) each car gets more use carrying more passengers with less down time for more total miles, but summed the total driving miles are the same for the population given the same infrastructure layout. So same total energy requirement there. Since each carbot does more miles quicker, it also wears out quicker and needs to be replaced quicker. TONS of embedded energy in the manufacture of an automobile, ICE or EV powered. You won't have any of them lasting 30 years like my Mazda.

    In terms of the computational requirements to completely replace human driven carz with Carbots, it's one thing to have a few of them on the road passing data across the net, it's another story to have the entire fleet of vehicles doing this basically 24/7 globally. They can't keep airline reservation systems working these days for crying out loud! British Airways was just down for 3 days, and that isn't even processing real time data!

    Then you have the energy distribution system necessary to run all your Carbots. The amount of electricity passing across the grid would easily quadruple and I bet go up by an order of magnitude. The current wiring cannot take that load. You would need to restring copper cable easily triple the diameter of the current cables to handle that kind of load, and I'm not sure even that would be thick enough. You can't do it with individual charging stations with solar PV panels either. Where around NYC for instance is there going to be enough space for the fuel up station to have enough solar panels collecting enough energy to fill up every UBER Cab that needs a charge to move people around all day and night?

    You're a Physical Science professor Ugo, this just doesn't pencil out in any way, shape or form. TAAS does not resolve the absolute energy requirement to begin with, the complexity is outrageous and the computational power to pull it off simply is not there.

    You gotta stop shooting up on Techno-Hopium. Your addiction is getting bad.


    1. @DD Strangely, I see most elements you have remarked on quite differently.

      Cost of ownership rather than cost of miles travelled is the significant factor for me. An EV with solar primary energy is very cheap to run within limited horizons. The cost of depreciation, insurance and registration is very much more.
      Energy abundance and distribution need not be as difficult as you suggest. Those suburban roofs can power both homes and low mileage commuter transport (my 3kw array does both in total energy terms.)
      When people begin to realize the necessity, I suggest, based on my own experience, that most will find energy savings and workarounds of 80 to 90 % of the energy previously 'consumed'.
      All dependent on many local factors and individual circumstances of course.
      As I see it, TAAS may fail for most of humanity because the charge for the service may outweigh the value of the service compared to other ways of operating (really good bike infrastructure could facilitate the vast majority of local travel if push came to shove)

    2. I don't know the whereabouts of Mr DD, but the most expensive part of owning a car in most Western places is due to all insurance and vehicle taxes. Even if your vehicle just stand still most of the time, the agencies want their due.
      As for the points of administrative mess etc. who says it couldn't change? Cartels etc. with some help from the government would take care of that just fine.

      One other thing: TAAS would put the use of the car to almost 100% of the time. Contrast this to many Western families where the car is NOT used 95-99% of the time. In many industries the average use of a household machine (including all appliances) as part of the day would be considered a horrendous waste. The rental policy ("Internet of things") could also be marketed as a environmental policy. From what I've heard it is insurance companies that have invested in automated cars due to their costs for all traffic accidents caused by human behaviour. If these interests get the upper hand you wouldn't have much choice, except to become that rich you'd tell the insurance agency to get off (an option which won't be available for most)

  6. "Would you have ever imagined that Communism would come one day to the US brought by corporations and in the name of technological progress?"

    In a sense, yes. Or rather, The Twelve Southerners did in their 1930 book "I'll Take My Stand". From the intro:

    "[T]he true Sovietists or Communists -- if the term may be used here in the European sense -- are the Industrialists themselves. They would have the government set up an economic super-organization, which would in turn become the government."

    It's interesting to see the limits to growth as the underlying factor that will spur on their 87-year-old vision.

  7. Here is another problem for you with the theory of Soviet style high rise architecture to pack lots of people into a small geographical neighborhood they can in theory walk around or bike around.

    To get water to the upper stories in those buildings takes quite a bit of energy. This is why in the early years in NYC your tenements and cold water flats were limited to around 6 stories in height. That's as high as the gravitational pressure will drive the water up, as it flows downhill from the watershed in the Adirondack Mountains, and actually NYC is one of the best places in the world for doing this, in terms of having a large watershed and a good drop in total altitude. It was only once they could start pumping the water up 12 stories or 100 that they could build skyscrapers and have flush toilets on the upper floors.

    Besides that of course, you need Elevators in these buildings, nobody is going to walk up and down 12 flights of stairs every time they need to go outside for some task. I lived in a 6 story walk up while in college on just the 3rd floor, and even that was a pain in the ass.

    The ONLY solution here is a major population reduction. Too many people occupying a planet with limited space and resources that can support such a population without the energy collected over millions of years in the fossil fuels. Once they are too expensive (like now it begins), the population has to contract. There is no techno-cornucopian solution to this problem.


  8. I would fully expect in the picture you show of the typical 50's layout suburb that the first thing that is going to happen will do so without official sanction - the rezoning of unused residential housing into commercial property. The reason the suburbs are miles from nowhere is simply because zoning laws designed to maintain property values forced business to go elsewhere. Once you have a total collapse of housing values (due to travel costs) that equation changes. It certainly isn't ideal but you'll have a vast number of small service venues using those houses for commercial ventures - everything from haircuts to corner groceries. The first step those remaining will take to salvage the value left to them is to remove their reliance on cars as much as possible to make usage of cars when truly needed possible.

    1. That is a valid point. In Sweden housing in downtown areas was converted to offices in the 70s-90s. Now they are once more turned into housing because there is a higher demand for that. Old wharfs are converted to fancy studios. It is reasonable to expect suburbs to also experience some kinds of transformation.

  9. Like most articles on transport, it misses the point.

    Transport is about beneficial purpose---that applies whether you ride a bike to work, or go to Mars with Elon Musk.

    If your journey has no purpose, they you don't make the journey.

    The purpose of a journey to your place of employment, is to return with more energy tokens (money) than were used to make the journey.

    Again--if that is a negative figure--the journey is pointless. Unless you return with souvenirs and photographs---in which case youve been on holiday

    Thus, in our future without surplus cheap energy, we will have little or no employment to go to.

    (Employment, whatever it is, requires energy) Therefore we will not make journeys requiring anything other than muscle power---which is the living condition of our forefathers.
    Powered wheels are a very recent phenomenon, which cannot exist beyond the availability of cheap fuel

  10. TaaS looks like yet another 'solution' to the problem of addressing large-scale human activities in an enviornbment of declining energy that itself will not scale in an environment of declining energy. Happy Motoring (© JH Kunstler) did not metastasize across the planet because of the invention of the internal combustion engine but because of the abundance (for a time) of the combustible substance the internal combustion engine combusted. TaaS, it is supposed, will dismantle the huge auto industry that currently serves to turn oil energy into a functioning industrial civilisation via the relatively simple expedient of using a billionb vehicles to burn priceless fossil sunlight. Should TaaS 'succeed', the likely outcome will only be a system that is vastly more complex and expensive to operate than happy motoring while at the same time killing off the large-scale auto industry it needs to keep its unit costs manageable at the same time as it does a worse job of converting liquid fossil energy into modern civilisation (although that is now a resource-limited process anyway). As Marcus Kracht put it rather more succinctly than me, electric bikes are a much more probable next step down the net energy curve than 'TaaS-in-autonomous-Teslas'.

  11. "One thing for sure about the future, it's hard to predict."

    The most effective way to decide on future transportation needs is to let the future figure it out. That's the way it will be, anyway. It works best nudged along by a steeply rising carbon tax, ideally divvied up on a count-the-noses basis and returned to the people. Kinda like "Let a thousand flowers bloom" (Chairman Mao actually said 100 flowers, but an order of magnitude is a trivial error).

    While living in Mexico City in the 1990's, my wife and I were enchanted by all the old VW's we saw (Mexicans called an old-style beetle a "Vocho"). I saw the remains of a full-frontal collision between a Vocho and a Tsuru (the smallest Datsun model). The two people in the Tsuru got out and took a taxi. The two people in the Vocho left horizontally. My wife and I lost all enthusiasm for a Vocho.

    When I looked at the Soviet era housing for proles, I thought it was the old St Louis Pruit Igoe "project" housing.

    The prediction by "Ragelle" has already started near the campus of the brand-new University of California at Merced. The Garage Mahals (starter castles) became student housing during the housing industry bust after the 2007 collapse.

    It's easy to predict the future when it has already happened. This keeps surprising everybody (including me).

    1. Ugo and all
      @DC "It's easy to predict the future when it has already happened. This keeps surprising everybody (including me)"

      I think most of us, or our children and grandchildren, are going to be lots 'poorer' than we have been. . Flash back: - early in my adult life (it all seemed very modern, I have to say) fewer than 40% of the British population had regular access to personal motor transport. It seems such a short time ago.

      I think Ugo you are right that motorised life is a ‘blip’, an anomaly. More recently, on-and-off from 1999 – 2006 I worked in the Balkans. Understandably, it was pretty quiet to start with. Gradually activity resumed but people did not take to bicycles. In some places we saw a lot of taxis. The roads were still there if badly maintained. In some cases there were a lot of very old used cars for a while used as taxis. The point to remember is that when we have a lot less aggregate purchasing power, people generally including drivers are lower-cost. Relative cost structures change, sometimes dramatically. We will live on certain legacies for a long time; others will decay rapidly. Piped water, for example, is a dramatic work-saving alternative to carrying buckets and might be long lasting. Some Roman aqueducts were used right up to modern times, though new ones were not created.

      Somebody I think on this site once remarked that they were ok with being poorer if everybody, at least those round them - was the same. I think that is worth further thought.


  12. Great post. It will not be the first time capitalism will generate "communist" solutions. In my book Global Eating Disorder I write about the food and catering industries:
    "Socialist utopians, such as Edward Bellamy, and the Soviet Union and the Israeli kibbutzim had a vision that we would not cook at home. We would either get ready-made foods from factories or eat in collective kitchens. In some Israeli kibbutzes people were not even allowed their own kettles to make tea. This vision, or part of it, has ironically enough now been materialized through the capitalist food industry taking over our food supply."

  13. In Ukraine I experienced a low cost, low tech version of transport as a service when I hitch-hiked. They system was that you paid the driver the equivalent to the bus fare. The guy I rode with picked up and let off four-five people en route when I travelled with him. In Africa, you can hardly see a not overloaded vehicle. So poverty is a very strong driver for sharing many services. New technologies are of course also sometimes a help in this, but mostly they are not the game-changers they pretend to be.

  14. Cars are grossly underutilized in advanced countries. Cars used by commuters are 80% empty. That is a huge waste of resources - cars, fuel and roads.

    Here is my suggestion:

    Press the "Simulator" button to try it out.

    BTW, driverless cars will take decades to become a large part of the market - as people don't scrap cars until they are 20 years old. The average car age in the USA is currently 11.6 years.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017