Monday, December 28, 2015

The Ironies of Carbon Capture Technology

In a recent article in Scientific American, reporter David Biello summarizes the current state of carbon-capture technology, and it's not good.  If a negative view of carbon capture appeared in some obscure climate-change-denier publication, it could be dismissed as biased reporting.  But the elite-establishment Scientific American has been in the forefront of the anti-climate-change parade, and so for such an organ to publish such bad news means that we would do well to take it seriously.

The basic problem is that capturing a gas like carbon dioxide, compressing it, and injecting it deep enough underground where it won't come out again for a few thousand years is not cheap.  And the worst fossil-fuel offenders—coal-fired power plants—make literally tons of the stuff every second.  It would be hard enough to transport and bury tons of solid material (and coal ash is a nasty enough waste product), but we're talking about tons of a gas, not a solid.  Just the energy required to compress it is huge, and the auxiliary operations (cleaning the gas, drilling wells, finding suitable geologic structures to hold it underground) add millions to billions to the cost of an average-size coal-fired plant.  Worst of all, the goal for which all this effort is expended—slowing carbon-dioxide emissions—is a politically-tinged goal whose merit is doubted by many, and which is being ignored wholesale by some of the world's worst offenders in this regard, namely China and India. 

However, shrinking the U. S. carbon footprint is regarded by many as a noble cause, and a few years ago Mississippi Power got on the bandwagon by designing a new lignite-burning power plant to capture its own carbon-dioxide emissions and send them into a nearby oil field, whereupon they expel oil that is, uh, eventually burned to make more carbon dioxide.  Here is the first irony.  Evidently, one of the few large-scale customers for large quantities of carbon dioxide are oil companies, who send it underground (good) to make more oil come to the surface (not so good). 

The second irony is an economic one.  It is the punishment meted out by economics to the few good corporate citizens in a situation where most citizens are not being so good.

Currently in the U. S., there is no uniform, rational, and legally enacted set of rules regarding carbon-capture requirements.  So far, the citizenry as a whole has not risen up and said, "In our constitutional role as the supreme power in the U. S., we collectively decide that capturing carbon dioxide is worth X billion a year to us, and we want it done pronto."  Instead, there is a patchwork of voluntary feel-good individual efforts, showcase projects here and there, and large-scale operations such as the one Mississippi Power got permission to do from the state's utility commission, as long as they didn't spend more than $2.88 billion on the whole thing.

So far, it's cost $6.3 billion, and it's still not finished.  This means big problems for the utility and its customers, in the form of future rate hikes.  Capturing carbon is not a profitable enterprise.  The notion of carbon-trading laws would have made it that way, sort of, but for political reasons it never got off the ground in the U. S., and unless we get a world government with enforcement powers, such an idea will probably never succeed on an international level.  So whatever carbon capturing is going to be done, will be done not because it is profitable, but for some other reason.

The embarrassment of Mississippi Power's struggling carbon-capture plant is only one example of the larger irony, which is that we don't know what an appropriate amount is to spend on carbon capture, because we don't know exactly, or even approximately, what it will cost if we don't, and who will pay.  Probably the poorer among us will pay the most, but nobody can be sure.  (There's a lot of very expensive real estate on coasts around the world, and sometimes I wonder if that influences the wealthy class to support anti-global-warming efforts as much as they do.)  

The time factor is a problem in all this as well.  Nearly all forecasts of global-warming tragedies are long-term things with timelines measured in many decades.  That is good in the sense that we have a while to figure out what to do.  But in terms of making economic decisions that balance profit against loss—which is what all private firms have to do—such long-run and widely distributed problems are chimerical and can't be captured by any reasonable accounting system.  Try to put depreciation on an asset you plan to own from 2050 to 2100 on your income-tax return, and see how far you get. 

So the only alternative in many places for large-scale carbon capture to happen is by government fiat.  A dictatorial government such as China's could do this tomorrow if it wanted to, but as the recent Paris climate-accord meeting showed, it doesn't want to—not for a long time yet, anyway.  In a nominal democracy such as the United States, the political will is strong in some quarters, but the unilateral non-democratic way the present administration has been trying to implement carbon limits has run into difficulties, to say the least.

My sympathies to residents of Mississippi who face the prospect of higher electric bills when, and if, their carbon-capturing power plant goes online.  Whatever else the project has done, it has revealed the problems involved in building a hugely expensive engineering project for a payoff that few of those living today may ever see.

Sources:  The article "The Carbon Capture Fallacy" by David Biello appeared on pp. 58-65 of the January 2016 edition of Scientific American.

Monday, December 21, 2015

California Puts the Brakes on Autonomous Vehicles

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (CDMV) has issued proposed regulations for self-driving cars (also known as autonomous vehicles, or AVs), and what they are planning wasn't all good news, at least to hopeful AV developers such as Google.  Last Wednesday, the CDMV released a draft version of rules that would apply to AVs used not for experiments and tests (these have been allowed for some time already), but by paying customers.  They are pretty restrictive.

For one thing, the CDMV doesn't want anybody selling AVs yet—only leasing.  For another thing, a specially licensed person has to be in the vehicle whenever it's operating, and able to take over manual control at any time.  These restrictions rule out some of the most commercially promising potential applications for AVs, namely, driverless delivery vehicles.  In its defense, the CDMV says that more testing is needed before such vehicles can be let loose on California freeways.  And having driven on California freeways myself, I have to say they may have a point.

You can't blame the CDMV for being cautious.  So far, the testing Google and automakers such as Mercedes and Tesla Motors have done has not turned up any show-stopper problems with autonomous vehicle systems.  But effects that don't show up in small-scale tests can raise their ugly heads later.  I'm not a traffic engineer, but there may be new types of problems that don't arise until the percentage of AVs on the road rises above a certain threshold.  Despite all the manufacturers' efforts, AVs will act differently than human-driven cars, and depending on the programming, sensor layout, and other factors, there may be some unknown interactions, perhaps between cars of different makes, that will lead to weird and possibly hazardous problems that nobody could have suspected in advance.  We simply don't know.  So going slow in the largest automotive market of any state is perhaps a good thing.

On the other hand, history shows that government restrictions on new technology can quickly become absurd and even obstruct progress.  Historians of the automobile are familiar with the "red flag laws" that the English Parliament enacted in the latter part of the 1800s.  A typical law of this type required any "powered locomotive" on a public road to be accompanied by a person walking at least sixty yards (55 m) ahead of the vehicle, holding a red flag to be used as a signal to the operator to halt, and also to warn passersby of the machine's approach.  Despite rumors that these laws were passed specifically to slow down the spread of self-powered passenger vehicles, they were actually aimed at steam tractors, which were mobile steam engines used to operate agricultural machinery.  Steam tractors were developed as early as the 1860s, and the larger ones could do considerable damage to the roads of the day and frighten horses, so the regulations were appropriate at the time they were first passed.

However, when the newer, smaller passenger automobiles of the 1890s came along, the 4-miles-per-hour speed limits and other restrictions that were appropriate for steam tractors made little sense for autos, and it took some time for popular demand and pressure from automakers to change the red-flag laws.  Something similar happened in a few U. S. states, but by 1900 most red-flag laws had been repealed or transformed into regulations more suitable for internal-combustion cars.

There are a couple of lessons here for what could happen next with regard to AV regulations.

First, we should expect some overreacting on the part of government regulators.  No regulator I know of ever got fired for being too vigilant.  Unfortunately, very few regulators get fired for not being vigilant enough, either, but the tendency of a bureaucracy whose mission is to regulate an industry, is to do more than necessary rather than less, up to the limit of the resources the regulator has at hand.  Some commentators have said that what's bad for California is going to be good for Texas, which has taken a much more laissez-faire attitude toward AV experiments by Google and others.  So we can thank what remnants of federalism remain in the U. S. for the fact that if one state passes excessively restrictive laws on an activity, companies can simply pull up stakes and go to a more friendly state.

The second lesson is more subtle, but has deeper and broader implications.  It has to do with the gradual but pervasive spread of what is called "administrative law."  To explain this problem, we need another historical detour.

Those familiar with the U. S. Constitution know that the powers of the federal government were purposely divided into three parts:  the legislative branch for making the laws on behalf of the people it represents, the executive branch for enforcing the laws, and the judicial branch for judging whether citizens have violated the laws.  This was done in reaction to the so-called "prerogative" that the English kings of the 1600s and earlier liked to exercise.  In those bad old days, a king could haul off and make a law (legislative power), have his royal officers drag a subject in off the street (executive power), and pass judgment on whether the guy had broken the King's law (judicial power).  Combining these distinct powers in one person was a great way to encourage despotism and tyranny.  The authors of the U. S. Constitution had enough of that, thank you, so they strictly divided the operations of government into three distinct branches corresponding to the three basic functions of government, and made sure that new laws could be originated only by representatives elected by the people.

But over the last century or so, the dam holding back government by prerogative has sprung lots of leaks in the form of administrative laws.  Nobody elects anyone who serves in the California Department of Motor Vehicles.  It's just a bunch of bureaucrats who can make up regulations (legislate), pronounce penalties for violation of those regulations (execute), and in some cases even decide on whether a party is guilty or innocent of violating the regulations (judge).  Yes, the California Senate, a representative body, asked the CDMV to do this, but in turning over the power to make laws to the CDMV, the Senate abdicated its legislative function and handed it over to a non-representative body.

This is an oversimplified version of a huge and pervasive issue, but once you understand the nature of the problem, you can see versions of it everywhere, especially in the alphabet soup of federal agencies:  OSHA, FDA, FCC, etc.  At least in the case of the red-flag laws, it was Parliament itself which passed the laws, and which modified them in response to public demand when the time came.  But if the voters of California don't like what the CDMV does, they don't have a lot of options.

Perhaps the streets of Austin will see lots of consumer-owned AVs before you can find any in Los Angeles.  That's fine with me, as long as they drive at least as well as the average Texas driver.  And that shouldn't be too hard.

Sources:  I learned about the proposed CDMV regulations from an article by Kevin Williamson "The Long Road to Self-Driving Cars" in National Review at  I also referred to an article in Fortune's online edition at and Wired at  A summary of the proposed CDMV regulations can be found at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article "Locomotive Acts."  I am currently reading law scholar Philip Hamburger's lengthy tome Is Administrative Law Unlawful? (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2014), which contains hundreds of arguments against administrative law.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Collecting Thoughts, Ethical and Otherwise

The world of publishing is changing rapidly as electronic media such as ebooks open up new distribution channels that allow authors to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of hard-copy publishing houses.  One effect of this is to allow writers with small audiences to consider publishing their own books without having to sink thousands of dollars into a vanity press run of a thousand copies, for example.  Instead, these days you can spend some time learning how various ebook-publishing software and distributors work, and do the whole thing yourself (or at most, with the help of an artist for covers).  That is just what I've done with a collection of many of the most popular articles in this blog, and the result is Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines, the cover of which you can see in the sidebar to the right.

I apologize for taking over the blog this week for self-promotion, but I promise not to do it more than once per book.  So here goes.

Ethical and Otherwise has a total of 46 articles culled from the nearly ten years that I've been writing this blog.  They were selected largely on the basis of page views, and so to that extent you, the reader, have played an essential role in its production. 

It's organized into three broad sections:  "Tragedies Large and Small", "Cautionary Tales", and "The Engineering Profession."

The "Tragedies" section is the largest and describes disasters of various types:  "Earth, Air, Wind, and Fire" (natural or nature-assisted disasters); "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" (transportation accidents); "Mines, Wells, Oil, and Gas"; and "Construction and Destruction."  In this section you'll find out what really caused the Titanic to sink, what set off the natural-gas explosion that killed three hundred students and others in New London, Texas in 1937, and what caused the submarine theater in the Aquarena Springs amusement park in San Marcos, Texas to flip over, besides many other disasters, both well-known and obscure.  In an interview with an engineering podcast a few years ago, I expressed some regret that so many of my blogs deal with death and mayhem, but that's what grabs the headlines, and it's apparently what people like to read about too. 

The "Cautionary Tales" section deals with engineering and technical-enterprise wrongdoings of various kinds:  cyber attacks, counterfeit electronic components, bribery, corruption, copyright battles, and similar matters.  Following that, the section on the engineering profession takes up questions about licensing, engineering education and employment, and other thoughts about the human enterprise of engineering.  Finally, I had to put in a section called "Engineering Ethics In Movies" because (for reasons that are still not clear), the most popular blog article of all time by far is a review of the Tesla film "The Prestige" I wrote back in 2006, and it didn't fit any of the other categories.

So far, the book is available in two formats:  as an iBook in the iTunes bookstore, and as a Kindle book at  If demand warrants, I will consider issuing a hard-copy paper version through an on-demand publisher, though I have not explored that option much up to this point. 

The selections are distributed fairly evenly throughout the history of the blog, so if you have started reading this blog only recently, you will encounter pieces in the book that you probably haven't read before.  While it's true that all the articles are out there for the reading without your having to buy the book, there's something to be said for the selection process, as the book represents less than 10% of the total number of articles—the most interesting 10%, I hope.

Those of you who have instructional responsibilities regarding engineering ethics may have found engineering-ethics case studies on the web in various places.  For example, Texas A&M maintains a website with case studies, as does the Illinois Institute of Technology, the National Academy of Engineering's OnlineEthics Center, and the National Society of Professional Engineers.  What the NSPE has is actually summaries of cases brought before their board of review, stripped of identifying information.  While these collections are useful, their scope is sometimes limited to certain types of engineering (e. g. civil), and they can sometimes be on the dry side. 

While I didn't put together Ethical and Otherwise exclusively with the classroom in mind, I hope ethics instructors will find it useful.  All the articles are about the same length (I aim for a thousand words, more or less), and they are all drawn from real-life situations of one kind or another.  While I haven't tried to do a full-dress scholarly bibliography, all the URLs referenced in the book were still working at the time of publication.  So I think it will be a useful and possibly even entertaining resource for those who teach ethics-related technical subjects.

Because most of the articles are independent of the others, it's the kind of book you can pick up and put down almost at random.  To be frank, I don't use a Kindle much myself, but my impression is that the kind of lighter tell-me-a-story reading that Ethical and Otherwise has lots of, is fairly well suited to the ebook format. 

At any rate, that's what the book is about, and so if you're looking for more of a dose of this sort of thing than my weekly posts provide, consider buying Ethical and Otherwise.  As far as sales go, I'll be happy if it earns back the $125 it cost to buy the ISBN number.  If after reading it, you like it, you will earn my undying gratitude by writing a favorable review on Amazon.  But don't let my urging bias your review.  That would be unethical, wouldn't it?

Sources:  Ethical and Otherwise:  Engineering In the Headlines is available in the Kindle format at  To find the iBook version in the iTunes store, go all the way to the bottom of the iTunes main page where it says "Explore" and click Books, then in the search box at the upper-right corner type "Ethical and Otherwise."  Texas A&M's collection of civil-engineering ethics cases can be found at  The case collection at the Illinois Institute of Technology is at  The National Academy of Engineering's Online Ethics Center has case studies and other ethics-related material on its main website at  And the National Society of Professional Engineers keeps their review board cases at  The phenomenon of a medium (such as a blog) advertising itself is known (at least to me) as Stephan's Law, as described in my blog of Dec. 15, 2014.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Child's Play: Hacking the Internet of Things

A company called VTech based in Hong Kong makes smart toys for kids.  One of their tablet products can connect to a parent's smartphone with a service called KidConnect, allowing children to send photos and text messages to their parents.  Sounds all nice and family-friendly, yes?  Well, in November the website Motherboard revealed that a hacker had managed to get into VTech's servers and download thousands of private photos, messages, passwords, and other identifying information that KidConnect users had sent and received.  This has understandably upset digital media commentator Dan Gillmor, who swears in a recent Slate article that not only he will never buy any Internet-enabled toys for children, he doesn't think anybody else should, either.  Reportedly, VTech has shut down the KidConnect service until they can do something about security.  But this incident brings up a wider question:  what dangers does the Internet of Things pose for children?

In case you've been living in a cave somewhere, the Internet of Things (IoT, for short) is the idea that in the very near future—by some measures, right now—internet connections, sensors, and the hardware and software needed to use them will be so cheap and ubiquitous that lots of everyday items will be connected to the Internet, sending and receiving data that will make great changes in our lives.  The promoters of IoT naturally hope that these changes will be for the better, and can point to examples that have done that.

This matter gets close to home for me personally, because for the last several years I have supervised electrical engineering senior design teams at my university, and several of the past and current teams have worked on projects that are IoT-related.  About four years ago, one team's project was a communications system designed to monitor electric-power consumption in the home, at a finer-grain level than just what the electric meter could sense about overall power consumption.  The idea was that if consumers have a detailed profile of their electricity usage, they can make more intelligent choices about what to turn on when.  Maybe doing the laundry late at night instead of right when you get home in the afternoon will put usage into a more favorable rate period, for example. 

As I was discussing the project with the team, it occurred to me that this information could be used for nefarious purposes.  You can tell a lot about a person if you have the kind of usage information the team was planning to measure: whether the user is home, for instance, and even what appliances are used and how often.  So I brought up this ethical issue with the team and made sure that they mentioned it in their final report. 

Since then, companies such as Freescale Semiconductor have jumped into IoT-related products and devices in a big way.  (Full disclosure:  Freescale has donated equipment and funds to the Ingram School of Engineering, where I work.)  From all I can tell, the Internet of Things is going to happen one way or another, and it behooves both engineers and the general public to give some thought to any possible downsides before something really bad happens.

Returning to the question of children and IoT, we are in a peculiar position these days.  Many children and young adults are vastly more tech-savvy than their parents, and this makes it hard for the parents to institute meaningful controls on what kids do online.  In the bad old days when the list of dangerous things in the home was mainly physical—guns, knives, poison, screwdrivers near electric outlets—it was a fairly simple matter for parents to keep toddlers out of harm's way.  But in the case of some toy that hooks up to your WiFi network, odds are that the parents are as clueless as the children regarding the privacy and security measures taken by the device's maker.  VTech itself didn't know how vulnerable its servers were until some enterprising hacker cracked into them and notified the media. 

Despite living with the Internet for close to thirty years now, we still have some things to learn about it, among which are new ways of using it that are potentially hazardous.  And children are an especially vulnerable population, as everyone agrees.  It's shortsighted to think of children always as the innocent parties in these matters too.  Some kids can be downright wicked, bullying others mercilessly.  Before we got so interconnected, a bully's sphere of influence was limited to the radius reachable by his fists, but hand a bully a smartphone with some sort of anonymous chatting app on it, and it's like putting wings on a wildcat.  His bullying sphere has instantly widened to include the entire globe, limited only by language ability and time.  And we have already seen instances in which Internet bullying has driven some vulnerable individuals to suicide.

Nobody is calling for a wholesale ban on Internet-enabled toys or anything like that.  But as I have often emphasized to my students in discussions of engineering ethics, many ethical lapses in the area of engineering can be traced to a lack of imagination.  When you are dealing with a physical structure like a bridge, it's relatively easy to calculate the maximum loads and find out how strong each member has to be for the bridge not to fall down.  But in any system that is intimately bound up with the behavior of people—especially millions of people at a time—your imagination has to anticipate the character and intentions of persons perhaps very different from you, who will twist your system around to serve their possibly sinister purposes. 

That is why privacy and security concerns need to be considered at the very beginning of any project that involves the Internet, and especially when a product is intended to be used by children.  VTech clearly did an inadequate job in this area, but they can serve as a bad example to warn future designers and users of IoT-enabled gizmos.  The craft of lockmaking is nearly as old as the craft of housebuilding, and for a good reason.  There are bad actors out there, and any time we open up a channel of communication involving a private citizen or residence, it needs to be guarded with the same care that we would extend to our own physical possessions.  Beyond mere technical ability, doing that well requires moral imagination, which should be in the toolkit of every good designer.

Sources:  The online magazine Slate carried the article "Parents: This Holiday Season, Do Not Buy Internet-Connected Toys for Your Kids" by Dan Gillmor at  That article referenced a report at Motherboard describing the VTech hack and what the hacker found, which is at