Topic: Energy and Environment

Are Driverless Cars Fool-Proof? Not Quite

Randal O’Toole discussed the idea of safe, efficient, driverless cars in his book Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do about It and in this full-page Wall Street Journal essay in 2010. It wasn’t exactly a new idea – Norman Bel Geddes first imagined the idea 75 years ago at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 – but O’Toole was on the cutting edge of bringing it to more popular attention. And as he noted, one of the important benefits of driverless, or “self-driving,” cars is safety. As a driving-test site, citing British studies, says: “By far the biggest cause of road accidents is driver/rider error or reaction, which causes 68% of all crashes.” The loss of control, the reliance on mysterious computers, scares many of us. But there’s good evidence that computers can guide both airplanes and automobiles more reliably than human operators.

But maybe not all human operators.

Meredith Shiner of Yahoo! News reports:

Scientists from Carnegie Mellon University on Tuesday brought a prototype of a driverless car to Washington in an attempt to show Congress that it could embrace a future devoid of man-made errors. 

And then Congress broke that car.

It was not immediately clear whether the mere proximity to the Capitol created the series of events that led to an emergency switch being flipped, causing the car to shut down, or if an actual member of Congress did it….

In true Washington fashion, no one would take immediate responsibility for the developing car situation.

Okay, not entirely fool-proof. But getting there.

Update: NBC News reports: “D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton hit the kill switch on the car before she was supposed to take a ride, and they couldn’t get it running again.”

EPA’s Loss Is the Separation of Powers’ Gain

At the bottom of the Supreme Court’s decision today tossing out, in large part, the Obama Administration’s greenhouse gas emissions scheme is a stiff dose of constitutional common sense: “When an agency claims to discover in a long-extant statute an unheralded power to regulate a significant portion of the American economy, we typically greet its announcement with a measure of skepticism.”

Here, skepticism was certainly warranted. At issue was one of the Obama Administration’s earliest efforts to skirt Congress and achieve its major policy goals unilaterally through aggressive executive action.

A bit of background is necessary. The Clean Air Act’s 1970’s-era “Prevention of Significant Deterioration” and “Title V” programs are aimed at the few hundred largest industrial sources of pollution in the country and impose what the Court correctly identified as “heavy substantive and procedural burdens,” far beyond the red tape that most businesses are able to shoulder. To that end, the statute limits regulation to sources that emit more than 100 or 250 tons per year of certain “air pollutants.”

EPA’s trick was to redefine “air pollutant,” as used in those programs, to include carbon-dioxide emissions. Because carbon-dioxide is emitted in large quantities even by smaller sources, that interpretation expanded the number of sources subject to regulation from a few hundred to millions altogether. Regulations that had previously been confined to major power plants, chemical factories, and the like would now apply to retail stores, offices, apartment buildings, shopping centers, schools, and churches. To avoid what even EPA recognized to be an “absurd result,” the agency went on to claim authority to decide exactly which sources have to comply—in other words, the power to choose winners and losers by exempting the vast majority of sources from compliance, for the time being at least. It called this approach “tailoring.” 

The Court, in a lead opinion by Justice Scalia, called it “patently unreasonable—not to say outrageous.” EPA, it held, must abide by the statute: “An agency has no power to ‘tailor’ legislation to bureaucratic policy goals by rewriting unambiguous statutory terms.” And if such tailoring is required to avoid a plainly “absurd result” at odds with congressional intentions, then obviously there is obviously something wrong with the agency’s interpretation of the statute. To hold otherwise, the Court recognized, “would deal a severe blow to the Constitution’s separation of powers” by allowing the executive to revise Congress’s handiwork.

The loss for the administration was not complete. The Court did allow that EPA can regulate greenhouse emissions by newly-built (or substantially modified) sources that would already be subject to PSD or Title V without taking into account their greenhouse gas emissions—known as “anyway sources.” But even this authority, the Court explained, is not “unbounded” and does not authorize to EPA to mandate any manner of efficiency gain.

The Court’s decision may be a prelude of more to come. Since the Obama Administration issued its first round of greenhouse gas regulations, it has become even more aggressive in wielding executive power so as to circumvent the need to work with Congress on legislation. That includes recent actions on such issues as immigration, welfare reform, and drug enforcement. It also includes new regulations for greenhouse gas emissions by power plants, proposed just this month, that go beyond traditional plant-level controls to include regulation of electricity usage and demand—that is, to convert EPA into a nationwide electricity regulator. Today’s decision—as well as one last month by the D.C. Circuit rejecting a nearly identical regulatory gambit by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—suggests that this won’t be the last court decision throwing out Obama Administration actions as incompatible with the law. 

Climate Change, Heat Waves, and Adaptation

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”


The main idea, as it is portrayed, driving the Obama administration’s pursuit of carbon dioxide regulations is that climate change is leading to all manner of bad things. Pointing to concrete example of bad things that have resulted from human greenhouse gas emissions, however, is much more challenging than just saying it is the case. In fact, for most climate/weather events and their resulting effect, the bulk of the science contradicts the administration’s contentions.

Roger Pielke Jr. makes it a habit to point out how White House proclamations concerning extreme weather events go awry. We have similar habits.

An especially egregious example concerns heat-related mortality. It is true that extreme heat can lead to excess mortality. It is also true that global warming should lead to more heat waves. However, it is NOT true that global warming will lead to more heat-related mortality—the logic forwarded by the administration. Frequent readers of this blog are well aware of this.

However, as not everyone (to his or her detriment) is a frequent reader of this blog, we presented our findings on climate change and heat-related mortality to the audience at a science policy conference held by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) this week. Our conclusions were:

Debunking the Induced-Demand Myth

“Building bigger roads actually makes traffic worse,” asserts Wired magazine. “The reason you’re stuck in traffic isn’t all these jerks around you who don’t know how to drive,” says writer Adam Mann; “it’s just the road that you’re all driving on.” If only we had fewer roads, he implies, we would have less congestion. This “roads-induce-demand” claim is as wrong as Wired’s previous claim that Tennessee fiscal conservatives were increasing Nashville congestion by banning bus-rapid transit, when actually they were preventing congestion by banning the conversion of general lanes to dedicated bus lanes.

In support of the induced-demand claim, Mann cites research by economists Matthew Turner of the University of Toronto and Gilles Duranton of the University of Pennsylvania. “We found that there’s this perfect one-to-one relationship,” Mann quotes Turner as saying. Mann describes this relationship as, “If a city had increased its road capacity by 10 percent between 1980 and 1990, then the amount of driving in that city went up by 10 percent. If the amount of roads in the same city then went up by 11 percent between 1990 and 2000, the total number of miles driven also went up by 11 percent. It’s like the two figures were moving in perfect lockstep, changing at the same exact rate.” If this were true, then building more roads doesn’t make traffic worse, as the Wired headline claims; it just won’t make it any better.

However, this is simply not true. Nor is it what Duranton & Turner’s paper actually said. The paper compared daily kilometers of interstate highway driving with lane kilometers of interstates in the urbanized portions of 228 metropolitan areas. In the average metropolitan area, it found that between 1983 and 1993 lane miles grew by 32 percent while driving grew by 77 percent. Between 1993 and 2003, lane miles grew by 18 percent, and driving grew by 46 percent.

That’s hardly a “perfect one-to-one relationship.”

Polarization and Freedom

A new Pew poll finds that three out of four “consistent liberals” would rather live in a community “where the houses are smaller and closer to each other” but within walking distance of schools, stores, and restaurants. Conversely, three out of four “consistent conservatives” would rather live in a larger home on a large lot even if it means driving to schools, stores, and restaurants.

Source: Pew Research Center. Click chart to download Pew’s 121-page (3.5-MB) report on polarization in America.

Pew says this shows that “differences between right and left go beyond politics,” which Pew claims is one of the seven most important things to know about polarization in America. Yet the left has turned the choice between a traditional suburb and a so-called walkable community into a political issue, so it is no wonder that people’s views on this choice are polarized.

Disappointingly, Pew’s report on polarization defines everything in terms of liberal vs. conservative. Pew’s big news is that the share of Americans who are consistently conservative or consistently liberal has more than doubled since 1994–yet you have to read deep into the report to learn that these groups make up just 21 percent of the country. The report says little about the other 79 percent of Americans, yet you’d think they would be important since they outnumber the consistent ones by almost four to one.

Voting Themselves Bigger Budgets

An implicit principle in a democracy is that the officials who decide how your taxes are spent represent you, the taxpayers, and not the bureaucracies that receive your taxes. But Congress violated this principle when it wrote MAP-21, the 2012 transportation law. As detailed in a proposed rule earlier this month, the law gives transit agencies in major urban areas a vote on how much of each region’s transportation dollars are spent on transit.

State legislatures are made up of people elected by various voting districts, not representatives selected by the state departments of transportation, justice, welfare, fish & wildlife, parks, and other bureaucracies. Similarly, city councils are made up of people elected by the voters in that city, not by representatives selected by the various water, transportation, fire, and other bureaus.

In 1962, Congress mandated that urban areas of 50,000 people or more create metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that would decide how to spend federal transportation and housing funds. At that time, it recognized this principle, specifying that the governing board of each MPO consist of elected officials from the various cities and counties in that urban area. While this was one step removed from the voters, it at least insured that the voters had an indirect say over how their money is spent.

However, MAP-21, the 2012 law reauthorizing federal transportation funding (including funding for MPOs), departed from this principle by requiring that transit agencies in all urban areas with 200,000 or more people be given representation on the MPO boards. In other words, the bureaucrats themselves will get to vote on their own budgets.

Some might think that it is unfair that transit agencies get a vote on MPO boards but highway and street agencies don’t. In fact, it is unfair for any agency to have votes on the boards that help determine their own budgets.

Others might argue that transit agencies are a part of the community and deserve to have a say on the future of that community. But they already have a say through the city councilors and county commissioners elected by the people of the urban area, which includes most transit agency staff and employees (except those who commute from outside the region). Giving transit agencies their own seat on the MPO board violates the one-person, one-vote rule established by the Supreme Court in the 1960s.

We wouldn’t be happy if the NSA got to have a seat on a Congressional committee investigating NSA spying on American citizens or one determining NSA budgets. We wouldn’t be happy with oil companies having a seat on Congressional energy committees, or if university athletic departments got an automatic seat on a state higher education committees, or if a pavement company got an automatic seat on a city council’s transportation committee. Why should transit agencies get an automatic seat on the board determining transit’s share of federal and regional funding?

MAP-21 specified that the requirement that transit agencies have a seat on MPO boards go into effect by October 1, 2014. But MAP-21 itself expires on September 30, 2014. So Congress has the opportunity to redress this problem when it writes a new law to replace the current one.

Given a divided Congress, observers expect Congress will simply extend the current law with a few minor changes. But MAP-21 itself was simply an extension with, supposedly, a few minor changes.

If those who believe in the principles of representative government demand it, Congress could easily remove this provision from the law and specify that any transit (or other) agency officials already on MPO boards be taken off those boards immediately. Removing this conflict of interest is a small change compared with what fiscal conservatives might like to see done with federal transportation law, but it needs to be done to maintain the integrity of public decision making.

Remembrances of Prof. M.A. Adelman

As Peter noted, M.A. “Morry” Adelman—a great economist, mentor, and friend—passed away last month at the age of 96. The first paragraph of The New York Times obituary (June 8, 2014) had this to say of Professor Adelman’s passing.

Morris A. Adelman, an energy economist who marshaled free-market principles and hard data in arguing that the world’s oil supply was not running out, died May 8 at his home in Newton, Mass. He was 96. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught and researched for 65 years, announced the death on May 15.

I first had the pleasure of meeting Morry in June of 1967, shortly after I had joined the faculty at the Colorado School of Mines. The Rocky Mountain Petroleum Economics Institute had convened a meeting at Mines; Morry was one of the speakers on a star-studded program. I had been invited to edit a book, Essays in Petroleum Economics, of the conference papers.

As a rookie facing what was, at the time, an array of the most notable petroleum economists in the world (Adelman, Richard Gonzalez, Minor Jameson, John Lichtblau, Milton Lipton, Wallace Lovejoy, Stephen McDonald, James McKie, and Frank Young), I was, to put it mildly, anxious. But, thanks to the likes of Adelman, that problem was quickly put to rest.

Morry knew how to mentor young rookies. He also knew more about the oil industry–even the institutional details–than most of the conference representatives from the industry. He was not only a master of applied economics and detailed, sharp pencil work, but was an economist with a personality–a very sharp wit, very sharp indeed. This wit and his personality come through loud and clear in his writings. So, Morry remains with us, fortunately.

As I reread “Trends in Cost of Finding and Developing Oil and Gas in the U.S.”, which was Adelman’s chapter in Essays in Petroleum Economics, I am struck by just how careful he was to protect his text–a master of rhetoric, too. He paid the most careful and anxious attention to stressing that he was not making predictions, but only presenting short-term projections. As for intermediate projections, beyond 1980, Adelman thought (in 1967) they “only were of minor interest.” And “projections past the year 2000 are funny because it is better to laugh than to weep in the vain presumption of thinking we can see that far ahead.”

That said, Adelman’s chapter does suggest that he had what turned out to be very clear ideas about the possible long-run scenarios:

Nobody can tell what will happen either to energy demand or supply. All we need mention are a decisive breakthrough on: shale oil extraction, or direct finding of conventional crude oil, or coal conversion to liquids, or nuclear power, particularly the fast breeder reactor, or the fuel cell and other methods of energy conversion, not to mention the electric automobile. A major change in any one of these would put altogether new perspectives on developments in oil supply and cost.