Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Roundabout vs. The Hybrid

Everything clever has already been thought, one must only try to think it again.

Americans love cool, new technology, and it's probably safe to say that most of the world is becoming just as obsessed with novelty as Americans. Cool and new does not always mean better, however. To demonstrate this point, I am starting a new series of posts that will compare an example of something that is undoubtedly cool-and-new with something that many might consider dull-and-pedestrian. In making these comparisons, I will show that dull-and-pedestrian is usually better than cool-and-new. 

I will begin this series with a face off between cool-and-new hybrid automobiles and dull-and-pedestrian roundabouts.

Stop and go traffic kills automotive efficiency, because when you stop or slow down, you have to speed up again, and it takes force to accelerate the vehicle, and this force comes from consuming energy. The loss of efficiency is suffered by all types of vehicles, even if they are electrically powered. In recent years hybrid vehicles have gained popularity, because they store the mechanical energy normally wasted in braking in the form of chemical energy in a battery, which can then be used to run an electric motor to accelerate the car once you are ready to go again. The use of energy normally lost as heat during breaking is called regenerative braking. The combination of regenerative braking along with using electrical power at low speeds, when electrical motors are most efficient, and gasoline power at high speeds, when internal combustion engines are most efficient, gives hybrids a 25% boost in fuel efficiency over their conventional automobile counterparts. 

All advantages come at a cost, however. Hybrid technology is complicated and comparatively expensive, and it requires large, heavy batteries that don't last forever. What if I offered you a simpler and more reliable technology that is far cheaper and can boost your fuel efficiency by 30%, a full 5% higher than what is achievable with hybrids? That technology exists and most of you have probably already encountered it - the roundabout. Don't yawn! The old fashioned roundabout, that so many people find annoying and confusing, is a fuel efficiency booster. They save on fuel by eliminating the necessity of stopping. As I mentioned already, most of the energy used in transportation comes from accelerating, that's when most of the force is applied to a vehicle. A roundabout allows traffic to  flow smoothly through an intersection without the necessity of ever coming to a stop.

Roundabouts have gotten a bad rap in the US, because they compete with the far more common intersections regulated by stop signs or traffic signals, and people just haven't had much opportunity to get used to them. 

In addition to being automobile fuel efficiency boosters, roundabouts are quite a bit safer than stop-and-go intersections. According to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), roundabouts reduce the incidence of crashes causing injury by 75% at intersections where stop signs or stop lights had previously been used for traffic control. Also, the elimination of traffic signs and signals to control traffic makes roundabouts cheaper to build and maintain than ordinary intersections. I will go further and argue that roundabouts are more aesthetically pleasing than a cross made from concrete or asphalt.

It's very satisfying to have a nice, new automobile in your drive way, and if you are concerned about efficiency and climate change, it's doubly satisfying to have a hybrid. With a hybrid, you are getting a fun toy that isn't doing as much harm to the planet as your neighbor's gas guzzler. However, your hybrid doesn't make your neighbor's vehicle any more fuel efficient. A roundabout will. In fact, a roundabout will almost magically turn your neighbor's gas guzzler into its hybrid equivalent, and your neighbor wouldn't have to have paid to replace his vehicle. The roundabout will even help your lovely hybrid be just a little bit more fuel efficient. 

You can't force everybody to buy a hybrid, but with some activist city planning, everybody can be made to use roundabouts. In science, we often speak of Occam's razor, which is a principle that states the simplest solution is usually the best. The application of Occam's principle to the contest of hybrid vs. roundabout, decidedly shows that from the point of view of fuel efficiency, cost, and aesthetics, the roundabout is the clear winner. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Future Should Belong to the Reducers, Not the Producers!

Elon Musk, no idler he, has given the world the Tesla PowerWall. Thanks to brilliant producers like him, a better world is sure to come.

Wow, isn't our technological progress amazing? The possibilities are endless… or are they? Most people wouldn't have imagined the internet 60+ years ago, but the internet we have today lies well within the limits imposed by the science we had more than 60 years ago. The technology of today and the foreseeable future is running on the fumes of early 20th century science. Yes, I’m serious. For technology to go much further, apart from sexier more powerful internet capable watches, implantable brain enhancements, etc. we need new science. It's like talking about architecture using only bricks and cement. You can make amazing structures with those materials: Medieval Cathedrals, Baroque Palaces, etc., but there are limits that you cannot exceed unless you employ steel beams and modern materials. It is that way with our current technology. We are doing impressive things with the science we have, and we will continue doing more, but the future innovations will be incremental improvements. We can't have radical new technology without new science - we need to go beyond the "bricks and mortar" of current science if we want to avoid running into a technological brick wall in the next few decades.

I think we will hit that brick wall (PowerWall?), because I doubt we will produce major new fundamental insights into the workings of the world (at least not on the scale of relativity and quantum theory) that will be amenable to practical utilization for the benefit of humankind. Meanwhile, population grows and resources become more scarce. By the way, let’s not forget the other inhabitants, plants and animals, that we share this world with. No matter how clean and efficient we become, increasing numbers of us will result in more space occupied by humans and less habitat for our fellow earthlings. Isn't that a consideration that we shouldn't lose sight of?

Growing up in the latter third of the 20th century, my outlook was formed by the zeitgeist that commanded us to innovate our way out of our problems. Our leaders, both on the right and the left, parrot the quotidian call for ever more growth. Can’t they see that growth is the problem? Unchecked growth is cancer. As much as we innovate, our problems will forever outpace our innovations if we continue to follow the clarion call for ever more growth. Study Jevons’ Paradox - it’s inescapable. These problems are driven by our growing population and its ever expanding demands on Earth’s resources. Benevolent technology, green technology if you will, is only a treatment for the disease of population overshoot, and though it may delay collapse, it in the long run, will provide a positive feedback to actually worsen the ultimate problem. The only cure is to curb our addiction to growth. Otherwise an apocalyptic global crash lies inevitably around the corner.

Our current paradigm is to produce - produce more stuff for ever more people, train more workers to produce that stuff, and produce more consumers to consume that stuff. As much as I dislike it, I find it exceedingly difficult to think outside this paradigm - I frequently catch myself wondering "can’t we make solar panels more cheaply from renewable resources, can’t there be a killer app that will curb humanity's compulsive acquisitiveness, is there anything more adorable than a new baby…?" I need to get these thoughts out of my head as surely as the protagonist of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart felt he needed to stifle the beating of the dead man’s heart to keep from going stark raving mad. Rather than produce, we need to reduce. Instead of celebrating producers, we should revere the reducers. When will we hail reducers as heroes? What kind of economy could reward a reducer more than a producer?