#179 - Feature: Transportation

12 minute read

Motto: Cars Go Fast

This Column is long, but I think it's more interesting than my average post. Don't be offput by the following wall of text.

In the last 20 years communications technology has advanced with a screaming pace. 20 year ago today, we had a landline in each household along with a phonebook and everyone got a newspaper to get the news. Today, each person has their own phone that they carry with them. That phone gives them access to the biggest, fastest growing library of information ever collected known as "the Internet". Now let's look at transportation: 20 years ago today, Ford made an f150 truck that got around 18 miles to the gallon and could tow 15000 pounds. Today, Ford makes an f150 truck that gets around 19 miles to the gallon and can tow 15000 pounds.This is just ONE vehicle, but it represents the point I'm trying to make. The improvements we've seen in transportation have been anything but awe-inspiring. More like "ahh" than awe. Where's our hoverboards? Where's our teleporters? We Were Promised Jetpacks! The most basic, fundamental reason humans need transportation is because things are in different places... and we need to move people and stuff between these things. The problem is this: our transportation methods suck. Almost all the way across the board, they suck. They are inefficient, resource hungry, bad for the environment, dangerous, and in general, don't impress me. Automobiles in particular... suck. Let me expand upon that: Inefficient: The purpose of a vehicle is to move its passengers and cargo from here to there. The point of a vehicle is not to move the vehicle from here to there, that's just a characteristic of how vehicles work. At my heaviest, I weigh about 225 lbs. According to the Goog, my car weighs a bit over 3375 lbs, but we'll use that number because it makes things round. The combined weight of my car and me is 3600 lbs. My car weighs 15 times more than me. That means that I use 15 times MORE gasoline moving my CAR down the road than I do moving myself. Using these numbers, 93.75% of the fuel I use is going towards moving the vehicle I'm in (which is not the point) from here to there, while only 6.25% of the fuel I use is going towards moving me (which is the point). Now let's generalize that a bit. Taking average numbers I found online, then inserting margins of error to find the BEST CASE SCENARIO (maximize cargo weight to vehicle weight ratio) - Average # occupants per car: 1.3 people, we'll use 1.5 Average weight of a human in the US: 180 lbs, we'll use 200 lbs Average weight of an automobile in the US: 4000 lbs Average weight of an automobile + its average passenger load: 4300 lbs Let's be generous and assume there's 100 pounds of non-human cargo in any given car (groceries, a bike, your cat, whatever) - average weight of an automobile + its average cargo: 4400 lbs. % fuel toward moving the automobile: 91% % fuel toward moving the cargo: 9% So then, automobiles are 9% efficient? Not even close. Depending on where you read, modern internal combustion engines have peak efficiencies around 25-30%. So that 9% is more like 2%. But that's peak efficiency. Take into account average efficiency and you're looking at efficiencies closer to 1%. So, of that gallon of gasoline you just bought for $3.69 (the nationwide average as of today), 4 cents of that ACTUALLY went toward moving you and your cargo from here to there. The other $3.65 was wasted. Makes you kind of not want to drive anywhere anymore, doesn't it? Resource hungry:
Automobiles use oil. The US alone used an estimated 1.345 billion gallons of oil in year 2013 alone. That's a pool nearly a half mile wide by a half mile long by a half mile deep. That volume is approximately equal to the total volume of all humans alive on planet earth.

The infrastructure needed to support automobiles (roads) use vast amounts of real estate. There is about 61000 square miles of road surface area in the United States. Thats an area slightly bigger than Georgia and slightly smaller than Wisconsin. Those are all natural resources... but automobiles are also resource intensive on a personal level. Vehicles are expensive. More likely than not, your car is either the first or second most expensive thing you own (depending if you own your home). The average price of a new car today is over $30,000. You then have to get insurance. The average insurance payments in the United States varies wildly from state to state, but it's probably around $1500/year ($125/month). So, if you own your new car for 5 years. You're paying $7500 just to keep in insured. $30000 + $7500 = $37500. Did you want to drive your car? Because that's going to take gasoline. The average person drives between 12000 and 15000 miles per year. We'll go on the low side of that and just say 12000. As I said before, the average price of gasoline in America right now is $3.69. Let's pretend gasoline won't get more expensive and just say you're paying $3.69/gallon. In 2013, the average fuel economy of all vehicles sold is estimated to be 23 miles per gallon. We'll say your car is a little better than average, 25 mpg. 12000 miles/year / 25 miles/gallon = 480 gallons/year 480 gallons x $3.96/gallon = $1900/year $1900/year x 5 years = $9500. $30000 + $7500 + $9500 = $47000 Then there's maintenance, taxes, and the other logistics of owning a car that I haven't already spelled out. I've read that you should budget "around $100/month" for maintenance cost of your car alone, but that number varies wildly. So lets aim really low and say that you'll only pay $1000 year for everything else. That's another $5000. $30000 + $7500 + $9500 + $5000 = $52,000 That's an estimate of car ownership over a 5 year period using conservative numbers. That sucks. Bad for the environment: I'm not going to write at length about this because everybody knows cars are bad for the environment. They pollute. The are a contributing factor to global warming. Telling you cars are bad for the environment will only serve to bore you. Instead - let me talk about solar power for a second. I said before that roads take up an 61000 mi^2 area in the United States. You'd only need 2000 square miles of solar panels to produce enough electricity to power the United States. There's an interesting movement to have roads paved with solar panels. It makes sense the more you think about it. Roads go from place to place. Places need electricity. Urban areas need more electricity and have more roads. Simple idea. Impossible implementation. So, there's that. Dangerous: I'm having a difficult time finding hard numbers on this one. Also, despite the fact this is kind of a random spot in the middle of the Column, it's actually the LAST thing I'm writing for this post and I'm running out of patience. But, car accidents are the cause of just over 2% of deaths. 1 out of every 50 people you know will die thanks to a "road traffic accident".
In general, don't impress me:
The last thing I'd like to talk about regarding transportation is people's obsession with motor vehicles. I don't get cars. Cars don't impress me. Here's the way I see things - as I've already stated, the point of an automobile is to move you (and maybe some of your stuff) from here to there. A $20,000 car can move you and your stuff from here to there just as well as a $80,000 car, or $150,000 car, or a $1500 junker. They perform the exact same function and, assuming the vehicle is capable of driving the speed limit, they all do so equally well. More expensive cars tend to have one to a few things going for them out of a set of "good" traits for cars: Crazy acceleration Crazy top speed Crazy power Those three things can all kind of be summarized under the category of "crazy performance capabilities". The situations that call for those capabilities are usually far and few between (the exception being crazy power, if you own a trailer or something). Utilizing your crazy speed and crazy acceleration is illegal on both counts. And, ultimately, no matter what, you're only taking yourself and your cargo from point A to point B. My car does the exact same thing. If your car goes "faster", whoopdee doo. The limiting factor of getting from point A to point B is the laws governing the road, not the performance capability of the automobile. If you don't care about those laws and want to drive 120 mph, be my guest, idiot. Just don't do it on any road I drive on. If somebody owns a really cool car. I can say "this guy appreciates really cool cars", but I'm not impressed. I've never been all that moved by any vehicle I've ever seen on the road (that was a pun). So long as my car gets me from here to there at around the speed limit, turns on and runs consistently, has good safety features, and has a comfortable ride (headroom, air conditioner, and radio that I can hook my phone into), I'll be just fine

/end rant.
Having said everything I just said - I can intellectually understand the appeal of a hotshot sweet ride. I just can't emotionally appreciate it. If you are a car person, that is totally and completely okay. I have no beef with you. More power to you. It's a perfectly valid interest/hobby. I just won't ever really be able to appreciate anything you say on the subject like you'd want me to, just like you wouldn't probably truly appreciate Marvel movies and computer stuff and other stuff I like. Wake me up when the self-driving cars start to take human hands off the wheel. Wake me up when the road is full of electric vehicles. I won't be impressed until I can plug coordinates into my automobile, fresh off a change from a wind turbine, solar panels, or some other naturally renewable energy source, and it will automatically and safely take me to where I want to go. My eyes, ears, body, and mind free to do with what I please. I'll be impressed at that point, but probably not much until then. 

Hopefully that's something I'll see in my lifetime. That's my take on transportation. Interesting things I learned while researching/writing this Column: I have a hybrid car. It's lighter than most cars. Also, I'm heavier than most people. My energy efficiency is slightly better than average. The efficiency of 1 average person and no cargo in an average vehicle was less than 5%. Mine was 6.25%. Cool. I weigh about the same as two average Vietnamese people. A liter of unleaded gasoline has about 7650 calories in it. If your body was capable of digesting and metabolising gasoline, one Liter would sustain you for over 3 days. A gallon would get you over one and a half weeks. The Top 5 regards energy efficiency in different modes of transportation. You'll notice I assign everything a unit of "miles per gallon", even things like "walking". That might not make much sense at first, but think about it this way: a "gallon" of gasoline contains a fixed amount of energy. Walking burns calories in the exact same way that driving burns gasoline energy. The two things are directly comparable. To get the MPG, I just Googled how many calories you burn doing different physical activities, then extrapolated out to miles per gallon. The Top 5 uses the following two assumptions: 1. A gallon of gasoline contains 31000 dietary calories = 123000 BTU = 130 megajoules = 36 kilowatt hours. This number was quoted across several websites. Other websites listed similar numbers.
2. You weigh 180 lbs and are capable of using each item listed below with at least an average competency.

Top 15: Most Energy Efficient Modes of Personal Transportation
15. M1 Abrams Tank - 0.6 mpg 14. Truck - 14 mpg 13. SUV - 15 mpg 12. Car - 24 mpg 11. Prius (2014 Prius) - 50 mpg 10. Motorcycle (2014 Harley Davidson Lowrider) - 51 mpg 9. Scooter (2014 LX 150 IE Vespa) - 75 mpg 8. Tesla Model S - 95 mpg 7. Electric Smart car - 107 mpg 6. Swimming (1 mph) - 150 mpg 5. Running (6 mph) - 237 mpg
4. Walking (4 mph) - 295 mpg 3. Bicycle (13 mph) - 565 mpg 2. Recumbent Bicycle - 632 mpg 1. Velomobile - 1500+ mpg

"What's a velomobile?" Basically a recumbent bike with a case around it:

“Wow. Cool guy.”
- Anytime some guy drives by and guns his engine to show how macho he is, most people say this (most people I know) -