2014.06.12 Mr. Bill’s magic roads

A few days ago in a radio news broadcast, I heard a short story about a longer speech by Ford Motor Company and Ford family heir Bill Ford. I’ve mentioned it before, but as I wrote then, it’s worth taking another look at this thing and contemplating it some more, although maybe not quite the way that Mr. Ford might have intended.

He was a guest in the event series known as TED Talks, an ongoing thing that I suspect is probably familiar to a lot of readers. The acronym is for Technology, Entertainment, and Design, and often features some really interesting material. Some of it maybe isn’t quite so great. You can find the profound and brilliant. You can probably also find examples of what presents a nice appearance of being profound and brilliant, that, really, are stellar examples of self-aggrandizing people practicing the fine art of talking out your ass.

One side note about this is that digging it up on the TED website, I was surprised to notice that the talk in question, that I just heard about on the radio, actually happened over three years ago.

Bill Ford, being the latest in the family line to find himself at the head of management of the Ford Motor Company, certainly finds himself as being a person of high importance in the realm of motor vehicles. Being in that position, you might hope that he’s given some extended serious thought to not just the business plans of his own company, but the near and distant future of motor vehicles and transportation in general. Apparently, he has. The problem, arguably, is that some of that thinking is a bit flawed, to put it mildly.

The big flaw is essentially about something that isn’t so unusual, and the fact that it’s not unusual probably makes a large portion of his audience think that it’s just fine, normal, even brilliant. One way to put it is that Ford’s thinking seems to follow right along in a path that is well-trodden, a general idea about anything involving any sort of technology (which includes transportation machines), that holds a principle thinking that more complex is more clever and therefore just better, more advanced, or, in a word, progress.

It’s a short talk (apparently a basic element of the TED talks… no long presentations), and you can go and read the transcript text in almost no time at all.

A main theme was Ford having some fantasy of future transportation revolving around “smart” cars, and other vehicles, with “smart” road systems, all flinging streams of data back and forth between computers and radio systems to magically sort out navigation and what Ford regards as the pressing issue of traffic and gridlock. Just one small item in his talk was revealing, and a real stunner, in my mind, as he said:

Today there are about 800 million cars on the road worldwide. But with more people and greater prosperity around the world, that number’s going to grow to between two and four billion cars by mid century. And this is going to create the kind of global gridlock that the world has never seen before.

That’s something to chew on for a while all by itself. What makes him so sure that we’re going to go from 800 million cars on the road (assuming that’s correct) to a few billion? This is probably a good example of something we might call extrapolation bias. I’m not sure if that’s actually a standard bit of terminology or not, but it works, if it isn’t. The idea that a line on a graph will just keep going as it has been, following the trend it shows so far, at a steady slope and rate, doesn’t necessarily fit how things will go in the future.

Right now, just a few days after hearing about this on a radio show, the current news includes government drama in the state legislature of the State of Michigan, home of Ford and Ford Motor Company. The drama? The state government is wrestling, however that’s going, with questions about how it is going to deal with the problems of repairing paved roads in the state that have been turned into broken wreckage by the harsh winter experienced in the area. Roads all over the place are apparently looking like they were on the receiving end of an artillery barrage, and are not just unpleasant, but causing real (and often expensive) damage to vehicles traveling them.

As I sit writing this, I haven’t checked back into the news on that, to see what the Michigan state legislature had figured out and done about the road repair problem. I do recall, from getting bits of this from checking out Detroit news media, that at least some locals (more than I few, I’m guessing) were getting upset about reports that the state legislature was getting ready to bail out and shut down their activities to go on a summer recess, even while they had not sorted out this problem, specifically, dealing with funding road repairs around the state.

You can take more than one view of that, of course.

One way of looking at that specific item would be as an example of people in authority and power in government managing to not deal with public needs and problems and generally function in their supposed roles and responsibilities as public servants, not letting some major problem interfere with their plans for their extended vacations. I imagine there are more than a few people looking at this situation in that way, and getting very annoyed about it.

Another element of it is considering as a situation involving state and local government and problematic public issues, in this case public roadways that are part of what people simply label infrastructure, and are part of the idea of the public commons, and simply running into knotty problems and dilemmas about what to do. Bits of this ongoing story I’ve caught are fairly straightforward, although the problems they present are not so simple to solve. The past winter has badly degraded the road surfaces in a part of the country where winter is a big deal, and where the government has increasing financial problems. Maintaining and repairing roads requires money, lots of it, and the people in charge of keeping that together have to get the money from higher authorities who then face questions about coming up with funding by not paying for something else, or coming up with new funding, which means some sort of taxation, and any way they go, somebody is angry.

This whole subject is not just problematic, but obviously leads off into a bunch of topics and subtopics, not just transportation, or infrastructure, but government, ideas of public commons, taxation, the economy in general, and so on. Simplifying and focusing a bit, a basic obvious problem, in light of all the above, is asking Mr. Ford: tell us, Bill, how much are your magical smart vehicles and systems of smart roads going to cost, and who will pay for it, and how? The fact that the crumbling roads problem is, as I said, happening in the home state of Mr. Ford himself and his family motor vehicle manufacturing company, makes his grand vision seem less like visionary brilliance and more like complete fantasy in the mind of a human severely detached from reality.

I’ve heard (and seen) Bill Ford pop up often enough being interviewed on TV that I’m pretty sure that the man is neither stupid nor crazy. For that matter, my general impression of the man so far has been that he seems like a reasonably sensible character, a thinking mind, with a relatively level headed sense of perspective about his place in the scheme of things, understanding the fortunes of fate putting him in the position where he is, fairly well grounded, not suffering from the pompous delusions of grandeur and overestimated sense of self-importance that are an obvious danger for a human being born into his circumstances. Considering all that makes it all more puzzling, and probably a good indicator of broader problems, that he, or other people in vaguely similar kinds of positions, could think and speak about things such as found in his TED Talks speech, and think of this as perfectly sensible and intelligent, even visionary, despite such obvious clues such as the basic simple roads crumbling around him in his home state.

This scenario reminds me of something I’ve mentioned more than once in notes here. New York Times columnist and occasional book author Thomas Friedman wrote something once about a “visionary” scenario of his own. According to him, one rosy vision was a situation where people would equip their homes with electrical power generation systems combining wind turbine generators and photovoltaic panels. Then, as part of the home’s systems, a combination of sensors and electrical controls and some clever “smart” digital controller would, as Friedman described it, sense the surroundings and operate the home’s electric-powered clothes dryer when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining.

This is a kind of idea that is probably likely to get a lot of people nodding their heads in agreement and regarding this as brilliant futuristic visionary thinking. When I read that, one immediate and almost comically obvious thought came to mind. I do mean immediate. The thought was, there actually already is an existing technology that will dry wet laundry when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. It’s called The Clothesline.

That was a perfect example of a way that people can get so caught up in notions of what’s more advanced and clever and sophisticated that they can manage to kind of miss the actual point, and be amazingly silly. For that matter, as I also think I said before when pointing out that story, even if you do simply recognize the old and dead simple and cheap technology of the clothesline, adopting it, in many places in the present day United States, is very likely to run you into some epic drama of stupid squabbling conflicts, and even actual legal hassles, whether civil legal problems from some pseudo-government homeowner’s association or actual governmental hassles because of local ordinances and laws that hold the use of a clothesline as some sort of violation in the form of aesthetic yuckiness.

Beyond that, when I read about the Friedman idea, one of the following thoughts was thinking more simply about it in terms of practical function. Right, so there you are. You have some laundry to wash and dry. So, with that system, what do you do? Do you wash a load of laundry, load it into the dryer, and just leave a pile of wet clothes in the dryer until the magic “smart” controller box decides that the conditions are right to kick the dryer into action?

The Friedman Plan in that area of human activities of getting chores done is to gather heat energy from the sun and kinetic energy from the moving air mass of the wind, convert it to electrical energy, then turn the electrical energy into heat energy and kinetic energy in a clothes dryer.

You could use the energy of the sun and wind to dry the laundry on a clothesline, but, then, that brings up a basic question: what are you really trying to do? Are you trying to get laundry done, or trying to show how clever you are, or, maybe, trying to sell people stuff? Obviously there can be more to consider, like, people would say that it’s simpler and less time consuming to dump a load into the dryer and pull it out when it’s dry than hanging the laundry and gathering it from the line, but you get the idea. It’s easy to get diverted from questions of what do we need to do and what’s the best way to go about that, because of other ideas tugging at people.

Bill Ford, obviously, is all about selling more and more cars, or, actually, vehicles, since the fact is that the domain of all that includes lots and lots of trucks, even when their use is as nothing else but personal transportation. He’s clearly a man of some intelligence, but probably a good example of a case where somebody’s position pulls them in particular directions toward some goals that maybe are not really the best in broader terms.

The last thing the world needs is to go from 800 million motor vehicles to a few billion. While Bill Ford thinks about how clever and cool it would be to build a world of billions of complex “smart cars” on “smart” roadways, missing from this is thinking about how those things are going to move- where’s the motive power? He vaguely mentions “fossil fuels” as a vague general issue, seemingly more as just a fashionable platitude than any real effort to get to grips with the problems. You know, vaguely mention “fossil fuels” without really getting into anything substantial about it, just to provide people with a fuzzy notion about “awareness”. I’ve already written loads about “fossil fuel issues” in this place, so I will try to avoid rehashing it all here, but taking a look at the subject of the moment, it’s really unavoidable. It’s pretty profound stuff, in my view of the TED show there, to notice how Mr. Ford made a superficial gesture about “fossil fuel issues” without even seeming to have any serious grasp of the things we need to understand and deal with. That, there, is arguably, by far, our biggest and most important “transportation issue”.

There was a huge clue right there in the middle of the speech. It practically smacked me in the head, a real shock in terms of how big, how fundamental, the clue was, while it was just skimmed over so lightly. I’m talking about the part where Ford was talking about his own personal experiences with these awful traffic issues, in the course of being a “commuter”, back and forth between Ford Motor Company (which is based in Dearborn, Michigan, a satellite town adjacent to the city of Detroit) and his home… in Ann Arbor.

If you’re unfamiliar with these places, take a quick look at a map. The cities of Dearborn and Ann Arbor are a substantial distance apart. So, there he is, doing his “commute” between home and work, between places something like 40 or 50 miles apart, along with who knows how many others doing a similar routine, and wondering what to do about all this traffic clogging the roads. For that matter, looking at that reveals a factor that’s found in so many places across the United States, where the clogged roads are actually parts of the national interstate highway system, officially, that end up being local/commuter traffic, not just for “commuters” journeying between home and work, but doing just about anything in daily life. This is regarded as normal, now, in a society that has become like what Steve Ludlum described so well once in a note on his Economic Undertow blog. In the ongoing project of perpetual suburban sprawl expansion since WWII, we’ve become a nation of places where, as Ludlum put it, everything is 15 miles from everything else.

To avoid a full repetition of so much I’ve said so many times before, the missing thing in Bill Ford’s speech is recognition of the basic overall idea that these traffic problem issues have a common cause shared with our energy problems. Put simply, it’s not about a need for some clever new more advanced technology. It’s about addressing the changes needed to change the problem of so many vehicles travelling so many miles for everything.







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