2014 October 19 Sunday
Nuclear Reactor Operators Want Extensions To 80 Years

The plants were built decades ago. If brittle parts can be replaced they could operate for 80 years.

What I wonder: Could new nukes be designed to make it much easier to extend their lives? The most obvious step: make it easier to swap in replacement parts for those parts that get brittle from radiation. Is that practical? Already possible?

The market is going to undervalue designs that can last for 80 years. Bonds sold to build a nuclear power plant will have 10-20-30 year redemptions.

On a related note, The Tennessee Valley Authority's Watts Bar 2 reactor is finally being completed after first being ordered in 1970. If it finishes fuel loading by its expected December 2015 date and then operates for 80 years it will shut down in late 2095.

By Randall Parker 2014 October 19 06:42 PM 
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When Will Self Driving Cars Become Mandatory?

Self driving cars will eventually be safer on average than human-driven cars. Vivek Wadhwa predicts 15 years until we start debating a ban on human driving of cars. I expect many incremental steps toward autonomous vehicles before that happens.

The regulatory pattern with safety features on cars is that they almost all become mandated as soon as they become affordable. Among the current mandatory car safety features in the United States: Seat belts, air bags, and (started in the 2012 model year) Electronic Stability Control (ESC). The ESC is most interesting because it requires a computer to make decisions to prevent an accident. The ESC computer code makes decisions that effectively override the decision of the driver for how hard to apply the brake. Though ESC actually enhances braking by preventing skidding. So it enhances the ability to carry out the driver's intent.

Before we reach widespread availability of fully autonomous vehicles many more incremental expansions of computer decision making will become first optional and eventually mandatory. For example, lane departure warning systems, adaptive cruise control, forward collision detection warnings, automated braking to prevent collisions, and blind spot warnings could easily all become mandatory before fully autonomous vehicles become the norm.

Early autonomous driving systems will be too expensive for the mass market. But the accident reduction and life saving potential of autonomous vehicles is so large that mandatory installation will come at a higher price point than has been the case with other safety features.

The move to autonomous vehicles will come in at least 5 regulatory steps:

  1. Allow autonomous vehicles on the road. There may be substeps here for allowing operation on highways versus on surface roads and in cities.
  2. Require new cars and trucks to come with autonomous driving features.
  3. Require drivers to activate the autonomous driving features in some road conditions (and the list of circumstances where autonomous operation is required will grow with time and depend on jurisdiction).
  4. Require higher risk drivers to only operate cars with autonomous features.
  5. Require non-autonomous vehicles to be upgraded or removed from the road.

When looking at steps 1 thru 5 above it is important to keep in mind that autonomy is not a simple binary attribute of a car. Vehicles will be able to drive themselves on highways before they can do the same on city streets. They'll be able to drive themselves on sunny days before they can in rain storms or snow storms. So step 3 above starts out at a short list of road conditions and gradually expands with later models and software upgrades.

Similarly, the safety gains from autonomous vehicle operation depend on the driver and on the road conditions. Higher risk drivers ought to be shifted to autonomous driving sooner. Also, very old drivers and other drivers with lower performance ought to let computers take over sooner.

Laws and the regulatory environment will slow things down. But some more technophilic legal jurisdictions will first allow computers to take over on highways. Then we will be able to watch what happens to accident rates and death tolls in those jurisdictions. Dropping accident rates for autonomous models and lower death tolls in early adopter jurisdictions will very likely cause big political pressure to allow autonomous vehicles in the remaining jurisdictions.

A lengthening list of jurisdictions reporting death toll drops from non-mandatory use will lead to support for mandate autonomous vehicles for new cars. Mandatory activation of the autonomous features will come soon after. Some jurisdictions will first impose regulatory requirements on higher risk young drivers or very old drivers. In the early stages they'll be required to drive semi-autonomous vehicles with aggressive accident avoidance technology that takes over when danger is detected.

My own prediction: Before 2020 look for early deployment of partial autonomy in luxury vehicles such as the Mercedes S Class, Tesla, BMW, and Cadillac. This is already happening with lane detection, collision avoidance, and self-parking. The luxury cars will take over more of the work on the open highway by 2019 or 2020 model year. Computer operation on city streets will come by the early 2020s (at least in some jurisdictions). In the mid to late 2020s the technology will go mainstream and show up in lower priced vehicles. Various forms of mandatory usage will show up first for dangerous drivers by the mid 2020s.

Dangerous drivers will be told they've got to pay a higher price or not drive at all. The dangerous drivers who can't afford to own autonomous vehicles will have to rent or pay autonomous taxis to move them around. Personal ownership of cars will start to decline.

As costs drop regulatory mandates will encompass a larger fraction of the driving public. By the 2030s we'll see moves in some jurisdictions to force retirement of older cars without autonomous driving tech. Lower insurance premiums for autonomous vehicle operation will accelerate this trend.

Update: But where will autonomy really begin? Long haul trucks which operate without humans on freeways seem to offer the highest ROI in the earlier (and much more expensive) stages of autonomous vehicle employment. The trucks could be driven too and from the freeway by humans. Or the trucks (which will carry expensive sensors and computers) could drop off their trailers in yards along freeways, pick up other trailers, and get back out on the freeways. Then local trucks operated by humans could tow the trailers into towns and cities.

Autonomous trucks will lower shipping costs and also cut shipping time. This will cost railroads some market share.

By Randall Parker 2014 October 19 02:09 PM 
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2014 October 05 Sunday
FedEx Going With Diesel Electric Drive Trains

Constant speed diesel engines can recharge the batteries in Federal Express delivery trucks.

FedEx is working with Wrightspeed, the Silicon Valley-based company founded and run by Ian Wright, who helped create Tesla in 2003. Wright is still all about electric mobility, but his new company doesnít make cars. It makes electric powertrains to be dropped into existing vehicles. And itís sold 25 of them to FedEx for a pilot program.

Read the whole thing. Sounds promising.

As battery costs decline higher capacity batteries can be used and the ratio between precharged grid power to diesel will rise. This allows a very gradual shift from oil to assorted grid electric power sources.

What I would be curious to know: how much electric power could be generated from thin film solar panels installed on the roof of a deliver truck? I say thin film because the panels would weigh less. Recently a new record was set for CIGS thin film PV: 21.7%. Could a few panels on the roof of a delivery truck make much of a difference?

By Randall Parker 2014 October 05 08:32 PM 
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Big Fuel Savings From Massive Container Ships

High oil costs are driving the construction of larger ships. The Mary Maersk can carry 18,000 containers and cuts fuel usage per container almost in half as compared to ships about 10 years older.

During a recent voyage to the Suez, the Maryís crew sailed on a parallel course with a 10-year-old Maersk container ship that held half as much cargo, but the Mary used only 6 percent more fuel.

We read about composite materials improving aircraft fuel efficiency by 20%. But the construction of bigger ships has more than doubled container carrying fuel efficiency over the last 20 years. Ships carrying 5000 containers have been replaced by ships carrying 18,000 and soon 19,000 containers.

Only European and East Asian ports can handle these ships. Higher fuel prices could cause some North American ports to upgrade to handle them.

One limit to this source of higher efficiency: doesn't work between lower population places.

What I expect will do more to cut shipping costs in the long run: Highly flexible robots that can manufacture complex products locally.

By Randall Parker 2014 October 05 11:35 AM 
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2014 October 02 Thursday
Thinking About Computer Security Breaches

The latest security breach, in JPMorgan Chase computers, is amazing in its extent.

By the time the bankís security team discovered the breach in late July, hackers had already obtained the highest level of administrative privilege to dozens of the bankís computer servers,

The hackers against Chase found out all Chase's backend software (many apps leased from other companies), found out their vulnerabilities, and found lots of weaknesses.

Russian hackers, possibly working for the Russian government, know the names, addresses, and email addresses of 83 million people. Attacks against other companies have netted large amounts of credit card info.

What I worry about in our highly computerized society: computers automate and speed up our lives. But computers can also speed up how fast things can go wrong and can make things go wrong on a much larger scale. Will we some day witness a financial panic or a massive death toll because hacks craftily mess up critical infrastructure? Too many companies don't know how to make their computers secure.

By Randall Parker 2014 October 02 07:34 PM 
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