Monday, June 29, 2015

Residential Solar Energy: Power to How Many People?

A friend of mine recently installed an array of solar panels (photovoltaic generation) on his roof.  It's part of an Austin Energy plan that makes it straightforward for well-heeled consumers to get a turnkey installation done.  After a stretch of sunny days he'll meet me for lunch and tell me how much power he sold to the utility that week. 

I was reminded of this when I read a recent article by environmental writer Bill McKibben in The New Yorker.  Entitled "Power to the People," McKibben describes how residential solar-power installations such as the one at my friend's house are getting cheap enough so that ordinary blue-collar workers and other middle-class types can afford them, at least when their electric utility cooperates in various ways.  McKibben starts his piece with the story of a couple in Vermont who had their house made over for energy conservation and production:  better insulation, a heat-pump heating unit, all-LED lighting, and a solar panel on their garage.  After the installations, their electricity usage for a heating season (October to January) went down by 16%, and they were able to get by without starting up their old oil-burning furnace at all. 

McKibben is supporting the presidential run of Bernie Sanders, the far-left independent senator from Vermont.  But to read his New Yorker piece, you might not guess it—he sounds more like a free-market libertarian.  His main point is that it's starting to make not only environmental and political sense (depending on your view of the environment and politics) but economic sense for more people to go solar and invest in energy-saving technology, simply because it's getting cheaper to do so.  And so McKibben is looking to the free market to do what his years of playing a prophetic Cassandra in the wilderness of environmentalism haven't done so far:  to foster a major move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy for electric power.

 While I welcome Mr. McKibben's newfound friendliness toward the market economy, one can question how realistic his optimism is.  As he points out in the article, one of the main obstacles in the way of further adoption of solar power in private housing is the electric utilities themselves.  While some, notably in California and Vermont, have been in the forefront of renewable-energy initiatives, others feel threatened by the idea of home-grown electricity.  And the reason is money. 

Nearly all electric utilities are regulated to some degree by state utility commissions, which allow them to set rates that guarantee a certain profit in exchange for highly reliable delivery of power.  This sort of environment fosters conservative behavior and a set of rules that favors the status quo.  For example, if people start making their own power, who pays for the expensive and maintenance-intensive electric grid, especially if more and more fossil-fuel-burning power plants that feed it are shut down?  The economic incentives built into the system were not designed for power to go backwards, and it's not clear how the organizations that operate distribution networks are going to get paid for what they do in a highly distributed power-generation situation such as the use of extensive solar power would create.

Here in Texas, things are a little less regulated than in other places.  It's not quite true here, as McKibben states in his article, that "utilities are granted exclusive rights to a territory."  That's true for electric distribution companies, but not for electric generation in Texas, where most electric-utility customers can choose from a variety of generation sources, including renewables such as wind power.  And partly due to a recently phased-out subsidy, Texas leads the nation in terms of wind-powered electric generation.  So in a way, there's evidence even in fossil-fuel-friendly Texas that what McKibben hopes will happen is already happening.

But a totally free market for electric power is almost inconceivable, and so we have to look soberly at what it would take for renewables (solar being the newest contender) to make a significant dent in the use of fossil fuels for electric power in the U. S.  According to the U. S. Energy Information Administration, about two-thirds of all electric power in the U. S. is produced by burning coal, oil, or natural gas.  Say we wanted to reduce that fossil-fuel usage by a third, out of concern for climate change and so on.  Anything smaller would be a drop in the bucket  (and we're not even getting into the question of what other countries are doing and whether this U. S. contribution would make a difference globally).  That's about a trillion kilowatt-hours per year (1015 watt-hours, for you exponential-notation fans).

Now, suppose everybody—not just upper-class environmentalists, but everybody in every kind of rental and owner-occupied housing in the U. S.—installed solar panels with an average generating capacity of 5 kW, which is the typical size for residential installations.  That is an upper limit, by the way—clouds, nighttime, and other issues mean that you don't get 5 kW twenty-four hours a day.  Even if everybody had solar panels, we would still need the utility network for emergencies, to ship surplus power to places where it was needed, and so on.  The question is, would we be able to make a dent in that trillion kilowatt-hours?

My very sketchy back-of-the-envelope calculations say yes, sort of.  You would still need peak-capacity generators hooked to the grid to deal with hot days and so on.  But yes, you could afford to shutter a lot of old coal-burning power plants if everybody installed solar panels.

And while we're dreaming, how would we pay for all those solar panels?  A typical residential solar installation today is still expensive—$18,000 might be a typical actual cost, not including subsidies, tax breaks, and so on.  While this figure is going to decline in the future, it can't follow the path of Moore's Law and get down to practically zero, because there's a certain amount of labor involved, and even if we could make solar panels for free they don't climb up on the roof by themselves.  Multiply $18,000 by over a hundred million U. S. housing units, and you get $1.8 trillion.  The U. S. federal budget for 2015 is $3.8 trillion.  As you can see, this solar-installation idea is not a trivial deal.  Even if it were spread out over a decade, you'd be spending each year as much on solar panels in the U. S. as one optimistic solar-industry estimate says annual global sales will be by 2021.

Yes, it could be done.  But I think it's clear that unless there is a huge degree of government intervention in the forms of subsidies, incentives, or other external market manipulation, the free market isn't going to put solar panels on everybody's roof any time soon.  Maybe President Bernie Sanders could do it, but offhand I can't think of any other way.

Sources:  Bill McKibben's article "Power to the People" appears in the June 29, 2015 edition of The New Yorker, pp. 30-35.  I used statistics on the fraction of electric energy produced with fossil fuels from the website  The Solar Energy Industries Association website has plentiful data on historical and current trends in solar-energy installations.  The 180-billion-sales-by-2021 figure is from 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Pope Francis' Vision for a New Ecology

When the spiritual leader of the largest division of the Christian faith says something about climate change and the problems of technological progress, engineers of all faiths and no faith should take notice.  Last Thursday, Pope Francis released his latest encyclical, Laudato Si', known in English as "On the Care of Our Common Home."

Contrary to some reports, in the encyclical Pope Francis doesn't come out in favor of Marxism, though he does say that international efforts to control greenhouse-gas emissions have failed and that something stronger is needed.  And he doesn't say you can't be a good Catholic if you use air conditioning, though he does use air conditioning as an example of a "harmful habit of consumption."  What he does is to lay out a vision for how humanity can turn around from a lot of wrong paths and get back on the right path, which is all a good sermon does anyway. 

What are the wrong paths?  While most environmental activists concentrate on actions, statistics, and policies, Pope Francis goes to the heart of the problem:  sin.  God's world as originally created was good.  But when man decided he knew better than God, things started to go wrong.  There's nothing new about sin, but what is new in the last couple of hundred years is mankind's ability to transform the environment through technology.  A few hundred thousand cave men armed with spears couldn't make much difference to the global environment no matter what they did.  But seven billion people using massive amounts of organized technological power and treating the earth simply as a raw-material resource can cause tremendous harm, both to the environment and many of the poorest people who try to live in it.

Pope Francis's roots are in the Global South, and his concern for the billions of the poorest people around the world is evident on every page of Laudato Si'.  What if you are the father of a family on the coast of Africa, trying to feed yourself by fishing, and some pollution kills the fish and the ocean rises so much that your land is flooded out?  What if you then move to the city and try to commute to a low-paying job three hours a day on filthy, crowded buses while breathing soot-filled air that gives you a lung disease that makes you so sick that you lose your job?  While the physical environment and the marvelous biodiversity of plant and animal life on our planet come in for mention, Pope Francis's fundamental concern is for people, each one of whom is a child of God and deserving of respect, attention, and love.  But when giant economic and technological systems conspire to deprive millions of their culture, their land, and their livelihood, these folks can no longer receive what they have a fundamental right to as human beings.

What are the answers?  Pope Francis wisely refrains from making explicit scientific pronouncements or calling for specific laws or policies.  Instead, he spends much of his time asking for dialogue between governments and citizens, between the privileged and the empoverished, and between scientists and religious believers.  He hopes—and there are many places where he expresses hope—that men and women of good will, emboldened by a vision of humanity as one family sharing one planetary household, can change their ways for the better.  These changes include everything from family efforts to save energy and recycle products up to stronger international agreements that could make a real difference in the rate at which fossil fuels are being used. 

At the beginning and again at the end of the encyclical, he mentions the saint whose name he bears, St. Francis of Assisi.  St. Francis was a revolutionary figure in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Jesus himself.  He lived in utter poverty, but with such love for all creatures, both animal and human, that he collected followers who sought to carry out his vision of Christian love in a unique way that was both humble and vastly effective. 

Much of what Pope Francis criticizes is the byproduct of pride, which theologians know is the root sin, the sin that enables all the others.  If we think we have all the answers and that the material world is simply waiting for us to bend it to our whims, we are in fact enslaved to the sin of pride, and all the problems mentioned in the encyclical can be traced in one way or another back to that attitude. 

On the other hand, if we look on the world as a wonderful gift, packed with hidden prizes and meanings to be treasured, not just exploited, we will tread more gently.  We will think before we act, or buy, or sell, or design.  We will bear in mind not only our own family, and our friends and social groups, but also others who might be affected by what we do, or purchase, or waste.  And we will change our ways accordingly.  Among other things, that is what engineering ethics is all about.

With Laudato Si', Pope Francis has not gone off the deep end politically or theologically. The encyclical emerges from a deep consideration of the entire Christian tradition and its meaning for how spiritual beings can best live in a material world, being themselves material as well.  While not many previous popes have made ecological concerns a focus of their ministries, I think Pope Francis has chosen the right time to do so.  And anyone who has any dealings with modern technology, whether as an engineer or an ordinary citizen who simply lives in the modern world, needs to give serious consideration to what he is saying.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Life In the Robotic Economy: Two Views and One Conclusion

Worries about machines or robots taking the place of humans go back at least as far as 1932, when Jean Harlow famously mentioned it in the film Dinner at Eight, from which the clip was taken.  While the post-World-War II boom ended the Great Depression and allayed such concerns for a while, they have returned recently with a vengeance.

When a guy with dreadlocks who plays obscure Egyptian musical instruments writes a book warning of a future economic disaster as technological unemployment spreads, you can be excused for thinking he's just one voice in the wilderness.  But when a clean-cut British high-tech entrepreneur comes along saying close to the same thing, maybe you'd better listen.  What are both of these gentlemen talking about?  Both of them are worried that as computer and network technology improves, not just many but most jobs in advanced economies will be done better, cheaper, and faster by machines.  And then what will all the displaced workers do?

The clean-cut Brit is Martin Ford, who founded a Silicon Valley software firm and wrote Rise of the Robots:  Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.  While I haven't read the book, in a recent interview published in the San Jose Mercury-News Ford echoes the concern posed in his book's title.  He foresees a bleak future not only for semi-manual laborers such as truck drivers, but for many white-collar workers such as radiologists, journalists, and even lawyers.  The problem is a two-edged sword.  Not only will lots of people be unable to get good-paying jobs, but the supply side will suffer as well.  If nobody can earn any money, it's going to be hard for the smart non-robotic elite who own all the means of producing goods and services, to sell those goods and services.  Already, Ford says, high-volume goods firms such as Wal-Mart are having trouble selling all their stuff, because their customers are having trouble earning enough money to buy it.

The dreadlocked musician is Jaron Lanier, who I mentioned briefly in this space a few weeks ago.  He wrote the book Who Owns the Future? in which he makes essentially the same point.  Suppose virtually all the service jobs end up being performed by networked robots that are owned and operated by only a few big privileged companies, which is typically the way this kind of thing ends up.  Then, Lanier says, "When only certain privileged players can own capital, while everyone else can only buy services, the market will eventually consume itself and evolve into a nonmarket."  What will the vast unemployed majority buy those services with?  Credit cards? 

Lanier and Ford have moderately different answers to the problem, though neither one thinks solving it will be simple, easy, or fast. 

Ford advocates a guaranteed income, citing for support no less an authority than the economist Friedrich Hayek, who is usually viewed as favoring a conservative free-market approach.  While it is true that Hayek accepted the notion of a guaranteed minimum income, it's unlikely that he envisioned an economy in which a few super-rich people and firms would provide nearly all goods and services, and the rest of us poor slobs would take our government checks and go buy whatever the super-rich people wanted to sell to us.  Instead, Hayek viewed a minimum income as a small-scale safety net intended for the few who either could not work by reason of disability or were temporarily thrown out of work, not as a way of running the whole show.

Lanier's solution is more complicated.  He thinks that we should transition to an economy in which average people are paid for their teeny incremental contributions to giant databases.  If, say, you write a review of a book that you bought on Amazon, you ought to get paid, not only for writing the review, but every time somebody reads it online, or copies it and uses it for something else, for a good long while.  His ruling principle would be that anything useful or valuable that anyone does online should have that person's name attached to it.  And nobody should be able to use it for any purpose without paying something to the person who originated it. 

No crystal ball is perfect, and so just because two different high-tech gurus foresee the same looming problem doesn't mean it's as inevitable as death and taxes.  In my own mostly white-collar profession of engineering, I have seen something like what Lanier and Ford are talking about take place over the years.  When I started out in this business in the 1980s, the typical electrical engineer spent most of his (yes, his, rarely her) time with his fingers in circuit boards or with a soldering iron in his hand, building and testing prototype circuits.  It was both a craft and an intellectual activity, but craftsmanship was a good part of it.  Contrast that with a fairly typical senior design project I'm helping to oversee this year.  The students took some raw signal data from the sponsoring company, are developing some software using advanced commercial software tools to process it, and will finish with a presentation of their software package to the sponsor. 

It's all typing on a computer, as so much of engineering has become.  And while the human brain is still involved in the process, it's moving toward a situation where all it will take is one person (probably in sales) looking up the solution to a customer's problem on a proprietary database, tweaking a few options, and selling it.  All the engineering either has been done already, or is being done by software operating on more software.  Yes, somewhere somebody has to write the software, but as software engineering gets more efficient and people quit reinventing the wheel all the time and swap known algorithms around, you need fewer and fewer people to get the same job done.

Will it all end up like Ford fears, 99% of us sitting around on the dole playing computer games all day in our subsidized housing, while the 1% live their fabled lives in Aruba or Cote d'Azur?  Or like Lanier prefers, where the middle class resurges with value in the form of money coming back to them as they create value in the form of data, data that is currently being sucked into the Googles and Facebooks with nothing spendable being given in return?  Or like something else that neither Ford nor Lanier foresees, except in patches?

My money is on the third option.  It won't necessarily be better than the other two.  But I think these two gentlemen are on to something that technologists and everyone else ought to be aware of.  Whether we can do something about the problem before it gets much worse is another question entirely.  And if Jean Harlow were here today, she might have to deal with a virtual-reality replacement for her—unless she had a good robotic lawyer.

Sources:  The interview with Martin Ford by Matt O'Brien was published in the online version of the San Jose (California) Mercury-News on June 12, 2015 at  Jaron Lanier wrote Who Owns the Future? (Simon & Schuster, 2015), from which I quoted p. 356.  I blogged about Lanier last on May 11, 2015.  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on Friedrich Hayek.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Will More Auto Safety Investigators Save More Lives?

Last Friday, the U. S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that it was planning to improve the way it keeps tabs on automakers and the safety of their products.  NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind admitted that the changes were largely inspired by his agency's failure to catch the GM ignition switch problem early enough.  The defective switches on older-model small cars such as the Saturn Ion and the Chevy Cobalt could accidentally cut power to both the engine and the vehicle's airbags, and have been identified as the cause of over 100 deaths and 200 injuries that took place before a massive recall of some 2 million vehicles last year to fix the problem. 

Rosekind acknowledged that although his staff had access to some of the data on the switch problem, they didn't understand that the switch could disable the airbags, and so in two reports issued by the agency, there are calls for improved technological expertise and more investigators in the agency's Office of Defects Investigation (ODI), which currently has about 60 full-time employees.  The report calls for increasing that number to 150, and maybe more.  Rosekind says that NHTSA has already undergone a "culture change" which relies less on the automakers to do self-policing and more on the agency to hold automakers accountable for producing needed data, and also for the agency to do more on-the-ground accident investigation itself.

The question here, as in any change of resources to address a problem with engineering implications, is:  will it do any good?  And will the good that might result be worth the resources expended?

As bureaucracies go, the NHTSA's ODI is pretty small compared to the total number of non-military Federal goverment employees—about 2.7 million people in 2014.  A few million dollars will give the NHTSA all they're asking for and more.  If you asked any of the relatives and friends of those 100 people who died because of defective GM ignition switches about this proposal, they would say the expenditure is worth it if it will save even one life in the future.  And here we get to an issue that tends to come up a lot in discussions of engineering ethics:  the monetary worth of a human life.

I'm not going to waste time playing with dollar/life quotients, because doing that means you have slipped into the never-never land of utilitarianism.  The philosophical approach to happiness called utilitarianism is conveniently (if not entirely accurately) summarized by the phrase "the greatest good for the greatest number."  It has a sneaky kind of appeal to engineering types, because it holds out the (false) promise of reducing complex morally-freighted issues to a straightforward process of mathematical optimization. 

I reject utilitarianism for a number of reasons.  While it has limited usefulness in extreme cases—it tells you, for example, that placing the value of a human life at zero is unwise—the thing usually falls apart well before you can actually sit down with a calculator and do a mathematical operation that will tell you which of several alternatives in an ethical problem is the right one.  It falls apart for me because the very act of putting a dollar value on a human life makes one no different in principle from the slave traders who did exactly that for profit.  It is simply a thing not to be done.

Well, if we can't make the situation into an optimization problem in mathematics, how should we decide if giving the NHTSA more bucks to hire more inspectors is a good idea?  To begin with, a little background might be helpful.

The history of U. S. auto safety has been one of gradual but cumulatively remarkable improvement, starting with the adoption of safety glass in the 1920s by Ford Motor Company, and progressing to seat belts, air bags, and many other safety-related technologies, only some of which were federally mandated.  The result of these improvements has been a pretty steady decline in deaths due to automobile accidents from a high of nearly 3 per 10,000 people per year in the 1930s to about 1 per 10,000 today.  So to begin with, things are getting steadily better, and if self-driving cars realize their early promise, the operator errors and drunk-driving accidents that cause most crashes today may largely go away too.  In the perspective of these numbers, while the 100 or so people who died in the GM switch accidents died needlessly, they were only 0.3% of the 30,000 or so people who died in auto accidents in each of the last few years. 

Ironically, it looks like the public is less upset when a single bad guy can be identified as the cause of a fatal crash, than when the immediate cause is something mechanical like a weak ignition switch spring.  This has nothing to do with mathematical optimizing of resources, and everything to do with how people perceive risk and danger.  You get in your car and tool out on the highway.  Maybe there's a drunk driver out there, but you think you can do something about that.  You can see him weaving around and steer out of his way, for instance.  But some un-thought-of hidden mechanical defect like a defective ignition switch—there's nothing you can do about that.  It's a lot scarier, and the news media know that, and the automakers know that.  Which is why they have been highly motivated to avoid causes of safety recalls, and deeply regret the ones that slip through their own bureaucracies (as the GM ignition switch problem did) and cause only a few verifiable fatalities.

So what is the bottom line here?  I think the bottom line is, there is no bottom line.  This is not an accounting problem.  Maybe three times as many investigators at the NHTSA will make the automakers three times as vigilant to catch the next major safety flaw before it gets built into millions of cars.  While that would be nice, I doubt it will happen, and I don't know of any objective way to tell whether it's happened after it happens, if in fact it does happen.  But the public has read in headlines that the feds are doing something about the problem, and that perception itself, rather than any meaningful actions that may happen afterwards, may have been the main point in this exercise.

Sources:  The Associated Press article on the NHTSA reports was carried by a number of outlets, including the Los Angeles Times under the headline "U. S. auto safety agency admits flaws, starts reform after GM case" at  I referred to the Wall Street Journal for the statistic on the current (2014) number of Federal employees at  I also referred to the press release of June 5 at the NHTSA website,, and the Wikipedia articles "List of motor vehicle deaths in U. S. by year" and "Windshield."  I most recently blogged on the GM ignition switch issue on April 7, 2014 at

Monday, June 01, 2015

End Of the Silk Road

Last Friday, Ross Ulbricht received a sentence of life in prison in a New York City federal courtroom.  His crime was drug dealing on a massive scale through a "dark-web" Internet site called Silk Road.  Prosecutors showed how Ulbricht, a libertarian with a master's degree in material science, brokered drug deals worth millions and got paid in the online currency called bitcoin.  In October of 2013, the FBI caught him as he was administering the site from a San Francisco library.  He was convicted in February of this year and sentenced last week.  His lawyers say they will appeal.

Ulbricht had some interesting things to say after hearing his sentence.  What he said shows that he is an extreme case of what can happen when an educational system gets so compartmentalized that it can produce people with massively developed technical abilities along with huge blind spots in their moral views.  Ulbricht apparently saw the drug laws of the various countries in which the Silk Road customers lived as intrusions upon the supreme value in his moral universe, which was freedom.  He rationalized that because these laws stood in the way of those who wished to use drugs, he was actually striking a blow for freedom every time someone used his site to buy illegal drugs.  And of course, he got a tidy profit from the transaction too. 

According to prosecutors, Ulbricht believed so strongly in his right to spread his kind of freedom, that he paid FBI undercover agents to assassinate someone who threatened to make public a list of his customers.  The glaring contradiction between Ulbricht's espousal of freedom and his attempt to take the life of a fellow human being apparently never occurred to him, at least not until he had lots of time to think about his actions in jail.  According to a New York Times report, Ulbricht reflected after he was sentenced that "the laws of nature are much like the laws of man. . . . Gravity doesn't care if you agree with it—if you jump off a cliff you are still going to get hurt.  And even though I didn't agree with the law, I still have been convicted of a crime and must be punished.  I understand that now and I respect the law and authority now."

We will never know for sure if a different educational experience could have stopped Ulbricht from doing what he did.  He grew up in Austin, Texas, graduating from high school there in 2002, and must have picked up some of the sky's-the-limit entrepreneurial atmosphere of the place, because before he went over to the dark side, he operated an online used-book site that donated some of its proceeds to charity.  But the inner compass, conscience, moral fiber, or whatever you want to call it, that keeps the vast majority of ordinary people on the good side of the law most of the time, was missing in his makeup and education.  For all I know, he may have taken an ethics or philosophy course in college, but in his case, it obviously didn't take.

Ulbricht used technologies that were designed at least in part to promote freedom.  Bitcoins are a form of digital currency that is designed to be untraceable, and Silk Road used Tor, a subset of the Web that the U. S. Navy developed to allow secret communication with, for example, freedom fighters in totalitarian countries.  But as Ulbricht himself has learned, freedom is not an absolute virtue, taking precedence over all others.  If you try to act as though it trumps all other values, you can end up in jail.

Ulbricht committed the same sort of error that many fringe sects do:  they take one virtue and put it on a pedestal above all others.   While some might argue with his comparison between the laws of man and the laws of nature, Ulbricht got that one absolutely right.  The moral law is just as objective and real as the law of gravity.  Ulbricht erred in seizing upon one part of that law—the goodness of freedom—to the neglect of the rest, including the Golden Rule:  do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  If he'd been the person threatening to reveal the names of customers, I don't think he would have liked it if someone put out a contract on him. 

This kind of moral reasoning is not rocket science.  But Ross Ulbricht's case shows that a highly intelligent person can get all the way through a complex educational system in the U. S. without being able to bring himself to reason morally in a way that most twelve-year-olds can.

All that human law can do is to try to model the moral law, whose ultimate source is God.  To the extent that it does so, it can serve as a teacher, though sometimes its lessons are painful to learn, as Ross Ulbricht has found.  A high priority in libertarian circles these days is liberalization of drug laws, and some states such as Colorado have already found that the effects of practical legalization of marijuana are not all good.  While drugs, like the Internet, can be used either for good or harm, I think Ulbricht now has a different view of human laws after his experiences than he did in his more innocent libertarian days.  Yes, some people will abuse drugs no matter what kind of laws are passed.  But if people are taught, both in school and by the laws, that some things are right and other things are wrong, maybe more of them can choose the right paths.  And we won't see as many Ross Ulbrichts running Silk Roads in the future.

Sources:  The news of Ross Ulbricht's conviction was carried by many news outlets such as the New York Times on May 30, 2015 at  I also referred to a New Yorker online article by Joshua Kopstein posted on Oct. 3, 2013 at  I blogged on Ulbricht's Silk Road on Jan. 20, 2014.  For more on the absolute nature of the moral law, see C. S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man, available in numerous print editions and online at

Monday, May 25, 2015

For Want of a Spectrum Allocation: The Philadelphia Train Derailment

There's a proverb of uncertain origin that begins, "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost; being overtaken and slain by the enemy, all for want of care about a horse-shoe nail."  That particular version is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but all the various versions make the same point:  lack of attention to apparently minor details can sometimes have major consequences.  As more information emerges about the tragic AMTRAK train derailment in Philadelphia on May 12, it looks like what began as a minor kerfuffle over frequency allocations may well have kept a new train-control system from preventing the deaths of eight passengers and the injuries of many more.

At this writing, no one seems to know for sure why the Northeast Regional train heading from Washington, DC to New York City sped up to 106 MPH (169 km/hr) as it entered a curve near a rail intersection called Frankford Junction.  The maximum recommended speed for the curve was 50 MPH (80 km/hr).  All the train's cars left the track, killing eight passengers and injuring at least 200 others.  There were some reports that an object might have hit the train's cab in the minutes before the wreck, but presently the reason for the train's excessive speed is not definitely known.  At the time of the wreck, the train was under the manual control of engineer Brandon Bostian, who was apparently knocked temporarily unconscious in the crash and claims to have no memory of the moments immediately before the derailment.

In many parts of the U. S. including the Northeast, railroads have installed an automatic system called Positive Train Control (PTC) that could well have prevented the May 12 tragedy.  A fully operational PTC system continuously monitors a train's position by means of radio links to trackside transmitters, and calculates the maximum speed that is allowed at each point along the route.  If the system notes that the train is going too fast, it will automatically apply the brakes to reduce speed. 

Why wasn't the Northeast Regional using PTC in Philadelphia?  Because AMTRAK hasn't been able to purchase a 220-MHz radio-frequency allocation (channel, essentially) to put it into operation there yet.  And thereby hangs a rather tortuous bureaucratic tale.

On their own over the past decade or more, railroads have developed pieces of what amounts to PTC using various existing equipment, and the most popular type of train-control radio systems use the 220-MHz frequency band.  For most of its existence since the 1930s, the U. S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allocated the limited resource called the radio-frequency spectrum through a purely administrative process, and in principle at least, money had nothing to do with it.  In practice, political pull and other arbitrary factors influenced the FCC's decisions.  Partly in response to accusations of unfairness, in 1994 the FCC began auctioning spectrum slots to the highest bidder, and most observers say that auctions have led to a fairer and more efficient set of allocations.  But in the case of the railroad's need for 220-MHz slots for its PTC system, the market method of frequency allocations may have failed.

The legal requirement for railroads to use PTC originated with a Congressional mandate passed in 2008 mainly to improve safety.  In that legislation, Congress told the railroads to finish the job by December of 2015.  Most railroads have largely complied by now, despite problems with interoperability of different systems developed by different lines and the fact that one railroad may operate on tracks owned by several other railroads.  When PTC was passed into law, the most common frequency band used for these types of train control and monitoring operations was 220 MHz, so the railroads decided to use their existing 220-MHz hardware and to require all PTC equipment to use that band.  If more bands were used, a single train might have to carry equipment that works with three different bands, for example, and as PTC was already costing billions of dollars to implement, they stuck with 220 MHz.

That was fine for most areas, but the railroads ran into a snag in some regions, including Philadelphia.  There the 220-MHz slots were either not available, or were priced at a prohibitive level.  The railroads asked the FCC simply to allocate the needed frequencies for free, so that they could meet the Congressionally-mandated deadline, but the FCC essentially said tough beans, go buy them like everybody else does.  And Congress did not fund the costs associated with the PTC mandate, so the rail lines have been doing it on their own dime.  So at the time of the Philadelphia crash, PTC was not working, but not because of any hardware problems.  The bureaucracy had simply not done its job yet.

PTC is not a flawless system, and it is not absolutely certain that it could have prevented the Philadelphia crash even if it had been working at the time.  Putting on the brakes for a train is not as simple as jamming your foot on the brakes of your car.  A friend of mine is a locomotive engineer on an excursion train that operates near Austin.  He has explained to me how the brakes on each car have to be applied at a certain carefully judged rate, and sometimes even in a certain order, so that the train doesn't undergo stresses that can cause severe shocks or even break couplings and separate the cars.  Even just locking the brakes so the train skids along the track can severely damage the wheels, necessitating extensive repairs.  But sometimes it's necessary in an emergency.

We will never know whether PTC could have prevented the Philadelphia train wreck.  But excessive-speed wrecks are exactly the sort of thing that PTC was designed to prevent.  While making everybody pay for frequency allocations seems to be the fairest way to do things in most cases, the FCC ought to consider making exceptions in situations involving serious safety issues.  Sometimes the old ways are better, and allowing for emergency no-fee allocations in situations where an organization is caught between an FCC rock and a congressional hard place seems like a good idea.  But it won't bring back those who are no longer with us because of what happened in Philadelphia. 

Sources:  I referred to news articles on Brandon Bostian at, a list of fatalities in the wreck at, and the Wikipedia articles "2015 Philadelphia train derailment," "Positive Train Control," and "For Want of a Nail."

Monday, May 18, 2015

Why Most Engineers Turn Into Managers, and Whether It's a Good Thing

The other day, a student asked me why gray-haired engineers are so rare.  He's been working as an engineer himself for a few years, and had noticed that most of his engineering colleagues are his age or at most ten or fifteen years older.  The vast majority of people with gray hair that he encounters in his job are managers.  At the time, I didn't do much more than confirm his observation from my own experience.  But he touched on an issue that anyone considering engineering as a career should know about.

Depending on the discipline, the purely technical side of engineering can be largely a young person's game.  If you're in a rapidly changing field such as semiconductor chip design, the entire life cycle of a product can often be measured in months.  Recent graduates with the latest skills are eagerly sought after, and those who do the actual programming and design have to be constantly learning volumes of new information simply to do their jobs.  On the other hand, a discipline such as civil engineering doesn't change as rapidly, and the experience of a decade or two of building-design work can make you even more valuable as a designer than a freshly minted but inexperienced engineer just out of college.

By and large, though, the tendency is for most engineers to move into management at some point in their careers.  Why is that?  I can think of at least two reasons. 

One is that as a person ages, acquiring and using great volumes of new information simply gets harder.  Some people can keep doing it better than others, but typically, doing cutting-edge technically intensive engineering in a rapidly changing field gets to be more than most middle-aged folks can deal with, at least without a lot of strain.

The other reason is, engineers do not take kindly to being bossed around by someone who does not have at least a basic grasp of the technology in question.  Many management decisions in engineering organizations involve technical issues, and a manager with a background in accounting or advertising is not often going to receive the respect needed when dealing directly with technical people.  Of course, as you go up the chain of command in most engineering organizations, you will find managers with little or no engineering background, and sometimes they do a fine job anyway.  But that is only because they have good middle managers under them who are former engineers, and who can translate and buffer the stuff coming down from the upper-management heights into terms that the engineering staff members can understand and deal with calmly. 

What if you go into engineering because you find that technical work is interesting in itself, and you have no desire whatsoever to take a management job?  That was my position when I started out in my first industrial position, some thirty-five years ago.  At the time, I was told that the large engineering organization I was joining had two promotion "ladders": a technical ladder and a management ladder.  If you wanted to stay in a hands-on engineering position, you could aspire to the technical titles that were, if I recall correctly, laid out in a little chart that paralleled the more commonly-known management rungs of group leader, section manager, department manager, and so on.  The chart gave me the impression that it was simply my choice as to which ladder I climbed, and I'd be just as well off going the technical route as I would be on the management route.

Well, yes and no.  I don't doubt that there were people in the organization who had climbed the technical ladder—I even met one of them.  But they were few and far between.  On the other hand, managers were everywhere, and it was pretty clear that, to state the obvious, the place was run by managers.  And the more people a manager managed, the more rewarding (in monetary terms) the management job was.  In retrospect, the dual-ladder chart was something that the company showed young engineers to give them the hope that staying in the technical side of engineering was not simply a dead-end job with no possibility of promotion.  But that was largely all it was—a hope, that I suspect relatively few engineers realized.

The cynical way of looking at this is to say that, in the term popularized by the animated cartoon "Despicable Me," engineers who do technical work are simply minions, hired only because the company can't do what it needs to do without them.  They are overhead, treated the same accounting-wise as the light bill, and anything the firm can do to minimize the overhead expense of hiring engineers is good, because that money can now go instead to the shareholders as profit.  And profit is what engineering firms are all about.

This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough.  Engineering can make the world a better place, and unquestionably has for billions of people around the globe.  To do good things, engineering organizations of any size require chains of authority in which the actual engineering work at lower levels is coordinated by a management structure, many members of which may be former engineers. 

Good engineering organizations also play positive roles in society beyond simply making a good return on monetary investments.  They also contribute to human well-being, and avoid harm to the extent possible.  That is the ethical side of the engineering equation, and it is the deeper reason to go into engineering, not simply because it provides you with a well-paying job.  Yes, managers are needed to make all this possible, and in the nature of things, most engineers who stay in the field at all eventually take on management roles.  Depending on the person, this can be a good outcome or a not-so-good outcome.  Some engineers turn out to be born managers, and others couldn't manage their way out of a paper bag.  But as long as we need engineers to do things, and as long as engineering is a complex activity that has to be done by large numbers of coordinated workers, we will need managers, and many of them will be former engineers. 

Sources:  Although the issue of engineers going into management was not their focus, the sociologists Diane E. Bailey and Paul M. Leonardi did an extensive study of three types of engineering organizations—electronic engineering, civil engineering, and automotive engineering—and some of what I wrote above was inspired by their book Technology Choices (MIT Press, 2015).  The career path of technical engineer to manager (and out of engineering altogether) was described well by the self-taught engineer John Robison in his memoir Look Me In the Eye:  My Life with Asperger's (Three Rivers Press paperback edition, 2008).