The IT revolution comes to transport

One of the striking features of technological progress over the past fifty years or so has been that of incredibly rapid progress in information and communications technology, combined with near-stasis in most other sectors. Here’s what I wrote on the topic in 2003, and could have reposted, essentially unchanged, a decade later

On most of the obvious measures, technological progress in transport stopped sometime in the late 1960s and, at the frontiers, we are now seeing retrogression.

In 1970, we had regular visits to the moon, and supersonic passenger flight via Concorde was on the way. Now we have neither. Even the space shuttle, designed as a low-cost “space truck” to replace the expensive moon program, is now headed for oblivion, with no obvious replacement.

At a more prosaic level, the 747 jumbo jet, introduced in the late 1960s, is still the workhorse of passenger air transport. Boeing’s attempts at producing a new generation of passenger planes have failed, and the likely replacement for the jumbo jet is the Airbus A380 – essentially just a double-decker jumbo. In all probability, this will be the standard for the next thirty or even fifty years. Of course we don’t have flying cars, or even personal helicopters, as most projections from 50 years ago supposed.

Quite suddenly, this looks out of date. Electric cars, drones and, most significantly, self-driving vehicles have been transformed from curiosities (or, in the case of drones, military hardware with no apparent positive value to humanity) to the likely transport technologies of the near future.

There have been quite a few thinkpieces about these topics, particularly self-driving vehicles, but nothing I’ve seen has been really satisfactory to me. The central focus has been on the challenge of introducing imperfect self-driving vehicles to our current road network. But if we’ve learned anything from the last fifty years (from electronic watches to desktop publishing to digital cameras) it’s that, whatever the initial limitations, a technology that’s been digitised will inevitably improve to the point where it outperforms the analog competition on just about every dimension.

So, it’s safe to predict that, quite soon, self-driving vehicles will be safer and more reliable than all but the best human drivers, and cheaper than vehicles designed for human control. That raises some obvious questions

* what will vehicles be like once the design constraints imposed by the need for a human driver are no longer relevant;

and, more importantly,

* if unskilled or careless human drivers are more dangerous to fellow road users and pedestrians than self-driving vehicles, should they be allowed to drive at all?

To spell out the second point a bit further, if self-driving vehicles are readily available and affordable (and particularly if self-driving technology can be retrofitted to existing vehicles), there’s no argument from the necessity of personal mobility to give speeders and drunk drivers multiple chances to kill other road users. The fact that these people might enjoy driving themselves is scarcely relevant. In fact, to the extent that enjoyable driving is dangerous driving (and, in my limited experience, it mostly is), it’s an argument against allowing it.

Just writing this, I can imagine the ferocity of the responses. I suspect that policies on self-driving cars will turn out to be a long-running front in the endless culture wars in which we seem to be permanently enmeshed.

There’s a lot more to think about here, but that’s enough to be going on with.

Clean coal

The most plausible argument put forward by opponents of immediate action to mitigate global warming is that some form of ‘clean coal’ technology will emerge that will obviate any need for costly changes in our current way of doing things.

The term ‘clean coal’ is sometimes used to refer to ‘ultra-supercritical’ or ‘high efficiency, low emissions’ (HELE) coal-fired power stations. Despite these impressive sounding description, HELE plants provide only a 30 to 40 per cent reduction in emissions relative to standard coal-fired power plants. They aren’t as clean as gas-fired fossil fuel plants, let alone renewables (or nuclear power, though this isn’t a viable solution for other reasons).

‘Clean coal’ is also used to refer to the idea of ‘carbon capture and storage’, (CCS) in which the carbon dioxide produced in coal-fired power stations would be captured before being emitted into the atmosphere, then pumped into underground storage, or captured through ‘biosequestration’ into products such as biochar.

CCS was an appealing idea for a coal producing country like Australia. Enthusiasm for the idea led to the establishment of the Global CCS Institute in Melbourne. However, the Institute’s own website shows that CCS is not a viable option. After decades of work, there is exactly one operational power plant using CCS, the Boundary Dam project in Canada. Two more, both deeply troubled, are under construction in the United States.

Even if all the coal-fired CCS power plant projects anywhere in the world that are listed by the Institute as possibly happening by 2030 are included, the total amount of CO2 captured would be less than 20 million tonnes a year. That’s about what Australia generates in two weeks.

To sum up, what’s usually called ‘clean coal’ isn’t clean. The real thing, cost-effective coal-fired power stations with CCS, is never going to happen.

Windyware

In the computer business, the term “vaporware” refers to products that are announced, described in glossy brochures, and even offered for sale, but never actually delivered.

A similar term is certainly needed for books. My own book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons is years behind schedule, but a first draft is, at least, in sight.

The prize, in this respect, must surely go to Keith Windschuttle. His Fabrication of Australian History: Volume I, released in 2002, made a big splash This was not so much because of the contents (some quibbles over footnotes, along with a lawyerly attempt to blame Tasmanian indigenous people for their own disastrous fate). Rather, it was the promise of future volumes II and III, on a yearly schedule. Volume II, in particular, was supposed to be in advanced state of preparation and would refute Henry Reynolds’ work on the violence of the Queensland frontier. Volume III was to do the same for WA.

Year followed year, and nothing appeared. Windschuttle got a number of gigs on the strength of his promises, notably including a seat on the ABC Board and the editorship of Quadrant. He also turned out a book on White Australia and then, confusingly, a Volume III of Fabrication, which was not the promised WA volume, but a rehash of the rightwing side of the Stolen Generations debate. He then promised a Volume II, for 2015, which of course has not appeared.

In all the time since 2002, as far as I can tell, he hasn’t released so much as a magazine article backing up his claims about WA and Queensland. I doubt that this can be simple laziness. More likely, he started the research and realised that the evidence wasn’t going his way. Rather than act like the objective historians he claims to admire, and report the facts, he strung along his fellow-believers in the inherent goodness of British civilization with promises that, Real Soon Now, he would come up the facts to refute those nasty leftists.

I was going to let sleeping dogs lie, but Windschuttle has appeared with another new book, this time attacking constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians. So, in honour of the non-appearance of the book that was going to set the historians straight, I propose the term “Windyware” for all such non-books.

Market Failure and Income Distribution: Notes for Economics in Two Lessons

For quite a while now, I’ve been working through my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons (partial draft here), focusing on applications of Lesson 2

Lesson 2: Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.

Thinking about the standard market failures (monopoly, externality and so on), I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to say more about the interaction between market failure and income distribution. I’ve already looked at the opportunity costs involved in income redistribution and predistribution, but different kinds of questions are coming up in relation to issues like monopoly, privatisation and for-profit provision of public services.

The discussion here and at Crooked Timber has been very helpful in stimulating my thoughts, but I need to do a lot more clarification. Some preliminary thoughts are over the fold: comments and criticism much appreciated.

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