Friday, December 30, 2022

Developments in Transportation, from Hyperloop On Down

I’ve published a fair amount of material on driverless cars, but haven’t had much to say about other forms of conveyance, which could also have real effects on jobs and the economy.  Which ones am I talking about, and what’s happening with them?

Starting with the largest, in addition to his other escapades, “Musk floats possibility of hyperloop tunnel between Austin, San Antonio” (Andrew Miller, Fox Business, August 23rd).  The transit form, which uses generally underground tunnels and magnetic-propulsion capsules, has been successfully tested at 100 miles per hour with humans aboard and 200 mph unmanned, and if implemented for longer distances could go over 600 mph.  It could work and could be built, but “Is the Hyperloop Doomed?” (Eric A. Taub, The New York Times, September 22nd).  Taub related that “some industry observers believe that regulatory, financial and political hurdles may doom hyperloop as a viable high-speed alternative to air travel,” mainly because “a hyperloop system would require creating an entire infrastructure,” involving “constructing miles-long systems of tubes and stations, acquiring rights of way, adhering to government regulations and standards, and avoiding changes to the ecology along its routes.”  Various planned efforts, from Alberta to the United Arab Emirates, have stalled or fizzled out also from a lack of capital.  Overall, a few isolated routes could be built, but constructing a tunnel network matching the complexity of European rail lines would be daunting even in an age of adequate civic-project will.

Without changing the logistics of air travel, we have had efforts to ease its hassles.  One is hitting controversy, as if you are “Annoyed with Clear, the Company That Fast-Tracks Its Customers Through Airports?” (David Zipper,, December 20th), you will need to “get in line.”  Customers of that product, designed to jump TSA PreCheck priority lines, have their fingerprints and retinas registered and are escorted to the front.  Zipper called it “a way for a company – and airports themselves – to make money at the expense of passengers,” said “its insertion into aviation security undermines a core government function,” and, unlike PreCheck, provides “no public benefit.”  Although Clear had a successful 2021 IPO, its survival does seem uncertain.

In the age of hybrid and variable work schedules, what new forms is commuter transportation taking?  Per its communication pieces, the Via company has been offering alternatives, now in Germany, Tokyo, Canada, and America’s Silicon Valley.  Via’s on-demand “corporate shuttles” allow employees to walk to nearby points for rides to large corporate building complexes.  Their BASF Standort Shuttle also deals with the problem of getting around a huge office park, and BlueVia works like Lyft or Uber, but is company-provided.  These innovations, which could be called gap-fillers, may become more and more common, and there will be more.

The most basic electric vehicle problem is the inability to power them up, and, as Mark Phelan put it in the August 17th Detroit Free Press, “EV drivers aren’t happy with public chargers, new survey says.  Neither am I.”  What may seem like the number of charging stations not keeping pace with the faster growing number of electric cars has, per Phelan, been worse than that.  He reported that “just this month” he “had a charger stop working long before the battery was full” and had “been double-billed for a single charge.”  Even an industry president asked, “what if one of every four times you went to the gas station, the pumps weren’t working?,” and called the current state of charging facilities “totally unacceptable.”  These malfunctions have been particularly irritating to users shopping during charging and then discovering they had received little or no power.  In general, drivers expect the same readiness and reliable refueling, and refilling times almost as short, as they get from gas or diesel-powered vehicles.  They don’t have that yet.

However, per Jack Ewing and Peter Eavis in the November 13th New York Times, we are seeing “Electric Vehicles Start to Enter the Car-Buying Mainstream.”  Sales for the first nine months of 2022 made up 5.6% of new vehicle sales, up from 2.9% for the same time last year.  Although this article took a more favorable view of electric cars than the previous one, it still pointed out that “chargers are few and far between outside coastal urban areas,” that planning trips is much harder since the locations of charging stations and the time they take need to be incorporated, that they use more power when more loaded, that many owners also see a need to have gas-powered vehicles, and that home charging, the cheapest and most convenient method, usually takes “all night.”  Electric vehicles are most suitable when they are in cities and driven limited miles, but any idea that most people will be happy to trade in their liquid fuel-powered ones is not yet justified.

Finally, we have the smallest transportation form.  Are you ready for “Green Technology” (David Zipper, again in, August 15th)?  He’s not kidding – he’s talking about golf carts!  Some places, notably Sun City West in Arizona, allow them on roads, while others, such as Peachtree City, Georgia now have many on bicycle routes and other paths.  There, these roughly $10,000-when-new items do not require licenses or insurance and can be driven by people aged 12-15 with adults on board and by anyone 16 or older.  I could see these becoming popular nationwide, and, yes, they do consume less power.  It may be that the best and most practical new transportation form is the smallest – be ready.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Driverless Vehicles and Technology: Progress, Problems, and the Same Merits

How are we groping along with what we expected, five years ago, to now be widespread?

The partially autonomous version, per “11 more crash deaths are linked to automated-tech vehicles” (Fox Business, October 18th) has issues of its own.  While it’s not as bad as it sounds, for “mid-May through September,” and is not really “alarming” – we don’t hear about how many fatalities come from, say, faulty tires – it’s still getting attention.  Ten of these deaths involved Teslas, of which there are 830,000 in the United States with this technology.  But driver errors still kill over 40,000 Americans annually.

One application having real if small-scale autonomous success is taxicabs.  In the November 1st Emerging Tech Brew, Hayden Field looked at how it might continue growing in “Why some robotaxi companies are looking for their Goldilocks cities.”  Waymo, the implementation leader, has decided to focus on “scaling up an individual city rather than trying to be in 15” simultaneously.  When the company wanted to operate in “a city that was semi-challenging but not impossible,” Phoenix offered “medium-high speed limits across many roads; a friendly regulatory environment; a fast-growing population; challenging maneuvers like unprotected left turns across three lanes of traffic; neighborhoods with varying population density;” and no snow or ice on roads.  Next up is San Francisco, where similar efforts have been tried, valued for technical proximity and compactness.  The piece also mentions a potential financial hurdle, as cities not wanting excessive numbers of empty robotaxis driving around might levy a “zombie tax” on them.

Soon thereafter, we got bad news from there, in “Self-Driving Taxis Are Causing All Kinds of Trouble in San Francisco” (David Zipper, Future Tense, December 8th).  They had a 140-passenger trolley stopped as an autonomous vehicle “halted on the streetcar tracks and wouldn’t budge,” though human intervention held the delay to seven minutes.  Such cars also have “blocked a travel lane needed by a siren-blaring fire engine” headed for a three-alarm blaze, and “dozens” of them “drove daily into a quiet cul-de-sac before turning around, much to the frustration of nearby residents.”  Accordingly, people there and elsewhere “should brace for strange, disruptive, and dangerous happenings on their streets.”

Reporters have told us before what it is like to take rides in autonomous vehicles, so how different was the latest, from Cade Metz et al. in the November 14th New York Times, as they told us “What Riding in a Self-Driving Tesla Tells Us About the Future of Autonomy”?  This six-hour ride was in Jacksonville, Florida, not a hub of self-driving activity.  The story, which with pictures printed out to 14 pages, showed a mixed bag, with “more than 40 unprotected left-hand turns against oncoming traffic,” ability to change lanes and recognize green lights, and general success at dealing with “highways, exit ramps, city streets, roundabouts, bridges and parking lots,” but also, when going to a restaurant, “veering from the road into a motel parking lot,” almost “hitting a parked car after we rolled over a low curb,” and a need for the test driver to retake control “every so often” as the vehicle “makes a mistake.”  The authors concluded that this “Tesla Model Y provides a glimpse of the future we are moving toward, which may prove to be safer, more reliable and less stressful, but it still years away from reality.” “Experts,” they maintained, “say no system could possibly have the sophistication needed to handle every possible scenario on any road,” as “this would require technology that mimics human reasoning – technology that we humans do not yet know how to build.”  This conclusion seems after-the-fact, as it was not present in the great expectations of 2017 – we don’t know if it is true or not, and if so, how long it would take to create it.

After returning from a family driving vacation, Ross Douthat held forth on “What Driving Means for America,” in the July 20th New York Times.  He invoked a Matthew Crawford book, Why We Drive:  Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road, in which the author backed “the human being who moves purposively through the world rather than simply being carried through it,” and advocated being “mentally involved in our own navigation and locomotion.”  Douthat considered driving a way “to a nonvirtual experience of the America beyond your class and tribe and bubble,” but admitted there might be other means to that end.  We could relate experiences of airline passengers, who go from airport to plane to possibly very distant airport just as passively.  It is certainly a tradeoff, but seems like a problem more comparable to that of choosing only more entertainment instead of fdgconstructive and self-directed pursuits.  We won’t solve either one soon, but driverless cars, to the extent that we can get them effective and common, can offer us a great deal, and should not be precluded or rejected.  On that we need to aim.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Employment: Shorter Hours (or Just Fewer Official Working Days), and Beyond

This week, I bring my focus to the “jobs” part of “jobs and the economy.”  What’s been happening?

We start with a “new” idea in the works so long it seems like an old chestnut – and, indeed, as this piece reported, it dates at least from 1956.  Per Jenny Gross in the September 22nd New York Times, “4-Day Workweek Brings No Loss of Productivity, Companies in Experiment Say.”  The advantages aren’t new – it gives them “more time to exercise, cook, spend time with their families and take up hobbies, boosting their well-being and making them more energized and productive when they were on the clock,” with 33 of 41 involved companies seeing “productivity” unchanged, with six reporting gains.  You say I seem skeptical?  Yes I am, and you would be too it you realized these were studies for fixed amounts of time where it was in employees’ interests to make it look good in hopes of permanent implementation.  The author also finished the roughly 700-word piece without mentioning either whether that really meant 80% of previous obligations, or how many hours workers who were previously doing more than 40 a week put in under the newly-official 32. 

Another on this topic, “Increased revenue, fewer resignations:  New data spotlights benefits of a 4-day workweek,” by Arianne Cohen of Bloomberg News, came out in Benefit News on December 1st.  It was based on another study, after which “not one of the 33 participating companies is returning to a standard five-day schedule.”  Here, in this trial of American, Irish, and Australian companies, they found that “dozens of indicators, ranging from productivity to well-being and fatigue, all improved as the companies transitioned,” and 97% of employees continued four-day workweeks afterwards.  The only comment on what that meant for hours worked, in this longer piece, came in a dissenting view from a human resources consulting firm CEO, who said that “if companies are really committed to this, they would demonstrate it by turning off network access on the days that they’re not scheduled to work, and asking people to leave their laptops in the office, but I just don’t see companies doing that.”  I would also like to see some corporate leader saying straight-out, especially about a pure-production setting, that shorter workweeks would mean less completed work.  Until then, what some might view as a great discovery should be held to a test of years instead of months.

On other aspects, we saw, first, “10 jobs most likely to recover from the pandemic,” in other words with the largest expected employment percentage gain though 2030, by Deanna Cuadra in the September 12th Benefit News.  I was glad not to see any IT technician positions, riper than ever for outsourcing, in this list, which comprised medical and health services managers, financial managers, nurse practitioners, management analysts, general and operations managers, postsecondary health specialties teachers, computer and information systems managers, market research analysts and marketing specialists, lawyers, and construction managers.  A heavy emphasis on managing instead of doing here, but a better set of projections than many I’ve seen.

On November 9th, Laura Amico took a look at “Fear and Stress on the Job” in the Harvard Business Review.  This article was about supporting customer-facing employees being abused.  Most important was for supervisors or managers to physically intervene when such situations materialized, and their need to “try to defuse the angry person quickly and get them out of the store” and then discuss the problem with the worker and document what happened.  These are appropriate guidelines, for cases when it is clear that the customer is, this time, not right.

I have written before about how science, technology, and engineering fields are overrated as good-job sources, and so are not worthy of the superior reputations they have enjoyed over the past decade or more, so was glad to see, by Natasha Singer and Kelley Huang in the December 6th New York Times, that “Computer Science Students Face a Shrinking Big Tech Job Market.”  This piece was mainly about how recent layoffs at technology companies have cut demand for new workers, fleshed out with anecdotals, but the overall message was that focusing on very specific opportunities may fail, and that even favored fields come with no guarantees.  That, along with the immaturity of four-day workweek efforts, is, this time, most important.

Friday, December 9, 2022

Cryptocurrency: Maturity, or the End?

When historians look back on 2022, they will see, along with the midterm elections, the recession that wasn’t, the shifting of Covid-19 from a pandemic to another bug, and Aaron Judge’s steroid-free 62 home runs, the rise of a new medium of exchange.

I start with the entire March 20th New York Times Sunday Business section.  That’s right – except for a Square ad on the back, the entire 10-page thing had nothing else in it.  The first article’s title, “CRYPTO IS HERE TO STAY” (all capitals in the balloon-like letters used), set the tone.  The second one, “THE BASICS” also by Kevin Roose, told us that cryptocurrencies “involve blockchains,” the “public, permanent databases that nobody owns” which are “distributed ledger systems” “allowing people to send and receive money over the internet without needing to involve a central authority.”  The blockchain databases generate new units of Bitcoin and 10,000 other currencies by allowing “crypto-mining,” “a process… played by computers all competing to solve cryptographic puzzles in order to add new information to the database and earn a reward in return.”  So more of these currency units are created, and their value is determined by supply and demand.  At the time this piece was written, one Bitcoin was worth “about $40,000.”

Since then, what has happened?  On May 22nd, Justin Baer related in The Wall Street Journal, reprinted in MarketWatch, that “Wall Street reluctantly embraces crypto,” as “many banks are moving towards storing and trading cryptocurrencies,” some in effect creating mutual funds where investors can buy and sell Bitcoin or others without dealing directly with the blockchains, while others consider that “the opportunity today is not big enough to take the reputational risks of being early.”

On the regulatory side, Clive McKeef reported on August 20th in MarketWatch that “’There’s no reason to treat the crypto market differently from the rest of the capital markets just because it uses a different technology’: SEC chief Gary Gensler.”  Per McKeef, “across decades of cases, the Supreme Court has made clear that the economic realities of a product – not the labels – determine whether it is a security under the securities laws.”  Accordingly, total freedom from government involvement is not realistic for cryptocurrency.  That was also the point of Will Gotsegen’s September 9th The Atlantic “Crypto’s Core Values Are running Headfirst Into Reality,” which chronicled legal wrangles between regulators and those in the cryptocurrency industry.  Although the federal government is dominating, the matters are clearly not all resolved.

After more time, and further Bitcoin price drops, Paul Krugman asked “Is This the End Game for Crypto?” (The New York Times, November 17th).  He cited the bankruptcy of FTX, “one of the biggest crypto exchanges,” caused when, most likely, “the people running it simply made off with billions of depositors’ money.”  He said that “after 14 years… cryptocurrencies have made almost no inroads into the traditional role of money,” because “they’re too awkward” and “their values are too unstable.”  For most, they have become another item bought through “exchanges like Coinbase, and, yes, FTX, which take your money and hold crypto tokens in your name,” requiring trust, meaning that “the crypto exchange has basically evolved into exactly what it was supposed to replace:  a system of financial intermediaries whose ability to operate depends on their perceived trustworthiness.”  Krugman concluded that “even if the value of Bitcoin doesn’t go to zero (which it still might), there’s a strong case that the crypto industry, which loomed so large just a few months ago, is headed for oblivion.” 

In the November 23rd Economist, Buttonwood explored “How crypto goes to zero.”  The person or group behind this pseudonym concluded that it wasn’t at all likely, as its distributed technology would make hacking all of it almost impossible, and while “unravelling,” or dropping demand and hosts not wanting their systems, would still leave some investors remaining, especially as “crypto’s reputation has been undermined before” and “has collapsed in value repeatedly throughout its lifetime.”  As of December 8th evening, one Bitcoin, per, traded at $17,219. 

But the chance of all value going away is not the only, or even the primary, measure of evaluating investments.  Cryptocurrency has the same problem as Uber, Lyft, or Airbnb – its regulatory situation is unsettled.  If Uber and Lyft were held to the same rules as traditional taxi companies, they would be greatly reduced or extinct altogether.  If Airbnb was subject to the same regulations as true hotels, it would similarly suffer.  The same may or may not be true for Bitcoin and the others, but it is a real exposure not shared by buyers of Walmart, Amazon, or PepsiCo.  That is the problem, and how it is resolved will tell whether cryptocurrency is just taking another punch, or, this time, going down for the count. 

Friday, December 2, 2022

This Morning’s Jobs Report and AJSN: Strong Gain in Their Numbers, Otherwise Light and Variable Changes with Latent Demand Now Down to 15.8 Million


As with a month before, published predictions were for 200,000 net new nonfarm positions.  As was within 2,000 of a month before, it turned out to be 263,000.  As with almost every month since mid-2020, our population added far fewer people, not all aging into prime working years, and the gain here was nothing to take for granted.

As for the other numbers, nothing changed greatly.  Unadjusted and seasonally adjusted unemployment stayed the same at 3.4% and 3.7%, the latter in its ninth consecutive month between 3.5% and 3.7%.  The adjusted number of jobless fell 100,000 to 6.0 million, with the count of officially unemployed out for 27 weeks or longer still 1.2 million, and the number of those working part-time for economic reasons, or looking thus far unsuccessfully for full-time work while maintaining lower-hours propositions, remaining at 3.7 million.  While the two measures showing how likely Americans are to be either actually working or one step away, the employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, were each off 0.1% to 59.9% and 62.1%, for the first time since inflation this decade was more than 4%, average private nonfarm payroll wages exceeded it, up 24 cents per hour to reach $32.82. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the statistic showing how many new positions could be quickly filled if all knew getting one would be easy and routine, decreased about 150,000 as follows:

Almost the entire difference came from those wanting work but not looking for it for the previous year and those officially jobless – the others each contributed differences below 52,000, for a net total of plus 28,000. 

The share of the AJSN from those unemployed as above was only 31.5%, down 0.2% - it has been telling us that if someone takes a job without immediately having one before, on average it is almost 7 to 3 against that their job status, using the categories in this chart, was not “unemployed.” 

Compared with a year before, the AJSN has fallen almost 900,000, with 700,000 of that from those officially unemployed, with substantial reductions from those in the non-civilian et al. category above and those wanting jobs but not pursuing that for 12 months or longer. 

In the Covid area, per the New York Times, the November 16th number of new daily cases had a seven-day weighted average of 39.265, up 3% from October 15th.  The same measure of hospitalizations also went slightly up, 4% to 27,859, but deaths were off 25% to 279.  With cases typically less severe, especially for those fully vaccinated and boosted, there is still no indication here that people are imprudently working.

What can we make of this data?  I previously said we were in a good rut, and we remain there still.  Although more people are leaving the labor force, jobs are more than keeping pace with demand.  We have areas for improvement, but these are still unusually strong employment times.  The turtle, once again, took a good-sized step forward.