Automation has already helped wipe out many manufacturing jobs around the world, as robots now perform factory line tasks that used to be done by humans. Now the technology is starting to be deployed through self-driving vehicles in places like ports, with similar results.
KQED radio in San Francisco ran an excellent piece recently that describes the battle going on in Southern California’s ports. These critical areas of goods movement typically offer some of the highest-paying union jobs around for longshoremen. But a new project with automated, self-driving cargo vehicles and cranes has led to layoffs.
This video below, shot by one of the laid off workers at the Long Beach port, shows in stark terms both the promise of these amazing (and zero emission) technologies as well as the human cost (profanity included):
We certainly can’t turn our back on new technology that offers societal benefits, from cleaner transportation to cheaper goods. But we can’t be insensitive to the human costs from this deployment. One would like to think that the benefits will outweigh the costs, that the savings will help the economy overall to create more jobs, and that new jobs will be created to work on these automation technologies.
But we know there will be losers, and policy makers will need to devise ways to address what they’ve lost. Meanwhile, the trend will only intensify, as automation through self-driving technologies will eventually displace jobs from truck driving to airport shuttles to taxis, and everything in between.
The Alameda Democratic Club is hosting a meeting tonight at 7pm with a panel on housing — specifically the challenges facing Alameda and the region from the statewide housing shortage. I’ll be one of the speakers on the panel, which features a wide range of viewpoints (including a member of the Alameda City Council):
- Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, Alameda City Council
- Victoria Fierce, East Bay for Everyone
- Paul Foreman, Alameda Citizens Task Force
- Catherine Pauling, Alameda Renters Coalition
- Jose Cerda-Zein, Realtor
Members of the public are welcome, and it will be held at the Alameda Hospital, Second Floor Room A. I’ll be sure to discuss SB 827 (Wiener) and other policies needed to address the housing shortage. Hope you can attend!
The Trump Administration yesterday unveiled its long-heralded “infrastructure plan,” which Trump himself claimed would be a top priority in his 2016 election night speech.
While some headlines described it as a $1.5 trillion plan, it actually boils down to $200 billion in new spending, supposedly from offsetting savings elsewhere in the budget. And that $200 billion is conditioned on state and local government funding together with private investment. Think toll roads, which create a necessary revenue stream in order for the federal money to flow, as my colleague Dan Farber explained.
But even if the $200 billion didn’t have the privatization strings, it’s a drop in the bucket. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the current infrastructure backlog amounts to $4.59 trillion in needed investments by 2025, per Politico. $200 billion is therefore negligible (although arguably at least a start). But to make matters worse, his proposed federal budget seeks to gut other infrastructure spending programs on badly needed investments like new rail transit and Amtrak.
In addition, the infrastructure plan proposes putting a hard time limit on environmental reviews, ostensibly to weaken their efficacy. I’m definitely in favor of re-examining our environmental review processes, as I’m sure there are efficiencies that could be gained. But knowing the people involved in the Trump Administration and their record on the environment versus business interests, it’s hard not to be skeptical of this proposal.
Ultimately, a robust infrastructure bill without the privatization strings should have been passed during the last recession, when we needed the jobs and the construction and labor costs were much lower. Now we have a tepid proposal which mostly seeks to privatize public assets and weaken environmental laws, during a time when the economy is humming and construction costs are high.
My guess is the bill is either not going to pass Congress anywhere near its current shape, or it simply won’t be effective in spurring much infrastructure investment. Either way, the country has missed an important economic window for this needed investment, and now only has this relatively weak offering to show for it.
Cape Town, South Africa, a city of about 4 million people, is just three months away from having to shut down their water supply for residents, barring rain between now and then. Residents will then have to line up at 200 sites around the city to pick up a ration of 6 gallons of water per day per person.
How did this major city, which ironically won an international award for water conservation at the Paris UN climate talks in 2015, end up in this situation? Climate change-induced drought, a growing population, and poor planning are the major culprits. As Warren Tenney from Arizona Municipal Water Users Association explained:
Cape Town’s reservoirs are drying up. There is no precedent in their records for three consecutive years this dry. The extreme drought is compounded by a 79 percent growth in population since 1995, while water storage capacity increased only 15 percent. Plans for developing new water supplies, including a desalination plant, are behind schedule. Steps were not taken early enough to head off this slow-moving disaster. Cape Town is now trying to catch up by lowering water pressure in its distribution system and investing in a far-reaching public information campaign to conserve water. These actions have helped to cut the city’s daily water consumption by 45 percent. If Cape Town can reduce consumption yet another 25 percent, they may make it to the rainy season that is supposed to begin in May – if the drought eases and it rains.
Cape Town’s situation should be particularly alarming for California and other parts of the American West that only get rain during winter seasons. Cape Town has a Mediterranean climate like California with long dry spells, plus a similar agricultural industry. Climate change is already contributing to major droughts on the West Coast, and our growing population could one day face Day Zero conditions as well.
What can be done? The obvious step is to encourage as much water conservation as possible, and use recycled wastewater as much as possible as well. Secondarily, we need to be smarter about our groundwater usage and ensure that we leave enough groundwater in our aquifers as possible (California’s 2014 groundwater legislation is for the first time spurring needed management of this resource here). And finally, we’ll need to explore options to boost supplies through desalination. But this costly and potentially polluting step should be a last resort, after conservation and recycling measures (my Berkeley Law colleague Mike Kiparsky is featured in this Wired article explaining the drawbacks of desalination).
These steps may help other jurisdictions avoid a Day Zero scenario — but for how long? As climate change takes us into unprecedented weather changes, even these actions may not be enough. But that’s no excuse for not trying or not planning.
Lost riders on L.A. Metro alone, which serves L.A. County, accounted for fully 72 percent of lost transit patronage across the entire state. Those losses are even further concentrated: Remarkably, just a dozen bus and rail routes in L.A. County account for nearly 40 percent of all the vanished ridership in California.
Right now, the best explanation seems to be a staggering increase in cars on the road, owned and driven by the very people who used to ride buses, the report states. From 2000 to 2015, the population of the Southern California region grew by 2.3 million people, and the region added 2.1 million household vehicles—close to one new car for every person and a huge jump from the previous decade. In the same period, the proportion of immigrant households that own zero vehicles dropped 42 percent, and a whopping 66 percent among Mexican immigrant households specifically.
The ridership gap and vehicle usage seems to be particularly high among immigrant communities that previously were a backbone demographic for transit.
What are the solutions? One option is simply to make it more expensive to drive a car, through mileage-based fees, congestion pricing, and other taxes and fees. There’s merit to that approach, particularly if the funds generated help support transit in those corridors as an alternative.
But the other alternative is to stop forcing people to use cars as the most convenient travel option, and similarly stop subsidizing automobile infrastructure, particularly “free” mandated parking. And that all boils down to land use. People use cars to travel because their home is nowhere near convenient transit, they may have readily available free parking on-site and at their jobs (while paying for it via higher home prices and rents), and their jobs and other destinations are similarly not near transit.
So the most effective solution, as we’ve seen all over the world throughout the history of transit, is to encourage more homes and jobs near transit. It’s not really complicated: we need to build transit-oriented, walkable and bikeable neighborhoods within a convenient transit-ride of clustered job centers. Needless to say, this is exactly the goal of SB 827 (Wiener), which would lift local restrictions on growth near major transit stops.
Possibly the biggest beneficiaries in government from an SB 827 to approach to housing would be transit agencies. These agencies across the country have suffered this declining ridership over the past decade, hurting their revenues and undermining political support.
So far I haven’t heard California transit agencies clamoring to support SB 827, probably due to the complicated politics involved. But if they were honest, they would tell the public that SB 827 and similar approaches are what is truly needed to bring ridership back.
I’ve been familiar for the past decade or so with the Avett Brothers, a North Carolina-based folk band centered around two brothers. But after watching the new HBO Judd Apatow documentary on them, consider me a full-fledged fan. Apatow filmed the documentary May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers over more than two years, which coincided with the recording of their most recent (and biggest hit) record True Sadness.
A few things stood out to me in watching the documentary:
- The brothers initially rejected their North Carolina musical roots in favor of bands like Nirvana and Prince. But they got tired of playing more amped up music and instead focused on acoustic guitar and banjo southern folk traditions — essentially returning to their roots.
- Their grandfather was a prominent minister, and from him they took the advice that people may actually care what they think and feel about things. While that might sound arrogant, that guidance gives them the courage to share some deeply personal lyrics and stories through their music, and is probably an essential mindset for any compelling artist to have.
- They view music and songwriting as essentially putting their diaries on public display. Again, it’s that kind of courage and honesty that makes their music compelling and at times inspiring.
The documentary is filled with some fascinating moments, particularly around the brothers’ deeply supportive and close relationship. It also focuses on their humility, both through their personalities, actions to help their bandmates, and their living circumstances in their hometown near their parents and sister.
One particularly revealing moment came after they recorded the waltz “No Hard Feelings” (video below), where the brothers had difficulty processing their emotions while professionals in the studio discordantly celebrated their new “hit.”
It’s that kind of sensitivity that helps make their music passionate, personal, and sometimes toe-tappingly enjoyable.
The Trump Administration’s new tariffs on foreign solar panels were met with cries of doom and gloom from some in the industry. But so far, the signs from the market may indicate that industry can weather the storm, albeit without the hoped-for gains in U.S jobs.
Two reasons stand out: first, the tariffs themselves are time-limited. As a result, foreign companies may be reluctant to make a long-term investment in moving their facilities to the U.S. for only a temporary gain, as E&E news reports [pay-walled]:
The tariffs, which begin at 30 percent in the first year and decline 5 percent each of the next three years, weren’t as extreme as the solar industry envisioned in terms of rate and length. That’s calmed fears for the broader domestic industry, though installations are still expected to fall.
But that also likely squashed the Trump administration’s goal of boosting domestic production — considered a long shot in any case by the broader solar industry — through a tariff and tariff-free quota for cell imports. That’s partly because companies might be willing to absorb the cost of tariffs in the short term rather than make more expensive, longer-term investments in the United States, which opponents of the tariffs argued was always the case.
Second, solar panel manufacturing appears at this point to be almost entirely automated, meaning few jobs are actually at stake. Take First Solar, a U.S. manufacturer that recently renovated its Ohio plant as an almost fully automated operation. As Bloomberg News reports:
Today a visitor to the factory, which reopened in December, looks out over a line of robotic arms guiding sheets of specialized conductive glass onto rollers that snake 3 miles through cleaning, grinding, and spraying machines. A final robot grabs the completed panel, about the size of a large flatscreen TV, and places it in a box for shipment. There are just a few dozen workers scattered about; before the renovation, there were hundreds. The company acknowledges that it’s cut jobs, but it says the ones that remain are safer and pay better.
As a result of the automated nature of solar manufacturing, it may be relatively cheap for those foreign companies who do wish to set up a plant in the U.S. to do so, albeit without any significant domestic job gains. For example, JinkoSolar just announced that it plans to invest more than $400 million in a manufacturing plant in Jacksonville, Florida by the end of 2019, apparently in response to the 30 percent tariffs, per the Wall Street Journal. If the company was planning to expand anyway and can save on shipping costs, this investment may be relatively minimal for them, compared to the alternative.
Meanwhile, to the extent that solar installers are hurt by this tariff, it seems clear that beneficiary will be natural gas. Bloomberg quoted SolarReserve Chief Executive Officer Kevin Smith along these lines:
“Solar energy’s main competition is natural gas and that’s where I think we’ll see some changes on the margins,” Smith said. “We’re going to see a shift to a little less solar and a little bit more gas sales.”
In the long term, increasing the price of solar by the 8-10% that some analysts predict from these tariffs only brings the price of solar PV back to where it was in 2016. And with further price declines due to industry innovation, plus the phasing out of these tariffs, the solar industry should weather this storm and emerge stronger after a few years. And in the meantime, the Trump Administration will likely have failed to slow the foreign advantage on solar panels or create the hoped-for domestic manufacturing job boost.
Scientists have been stunned by a recent surge in climate warming, potentially exacerbated by warm waters during the recent El Nino event, per E&E News [paywalled]:
Global temperatures rose by a record-breaking amount between 2014 and 2016, new research finds.
Over the course of three years, mean surface temperatures jumped by nearly a quarter of a degree Celsius, or more than 0.4 degree Fahrenheit. That’s a whopping 25 percent increase over the total amount of warming the Earth has experienced in the last 150 years. The research is published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
“As a climate scientist, it was just remarkable to think that the atmosphere of the planet could warm that much that fast,” Jonathan Overpeck of the University of Arizona, one of the paper’s authors, said in a statement.
Basically, it appears that most of the warming on Earth over the past few decades has been absorbed by the oceans, which then released a lot of that heat during the recent El Nino event.
This kind of data isn’t exactly news to those who have seen the changes on the ground, particularly in our western mountains. Take for example the reclusive 67-year-old Billy Barr, who has spent the last 46 years in a remote cabin in the Rocky Mountain woods. In a Denver Post profile, Barr describes how he began taking notes every day on weather in 1974 out of boredom, recording the low and high temperatures, snow-water equivalent and snowpack depth.
He doesn’t necessarily analyze his data. But he’s seeing a trend: It’s getting warmer. The snow arrives later and leaves earlier.
Lately, he’s charting winters with about 11 fewer days with snow on the ground; roughly 5 percent of the winter without snow. In 44 years, he’d counted one December where the average low was above freezing — until December 2017, when the average low was 35 degrees.
Interview with billy barr, accidental captain among climate researchers
More than 50 percent of the record daily highs he’s logged have come since 2010. In December and January this season, he already has counted 11 record daily-high temperatures. Last year he tallied 36 record-high temperatures, the most for one season. Back in the day, he would see about four, maybe five record highs each winter.
Meanwhile, Colorado just had its second-warmest year on record and is now at a 30-year low in snowpack. And in California, a study published in the hydrological science journal Water shows that in Tahoe and the northern Sierra Nevada mountains, the average elevation of the “snow line,” where snow turns to rain during a storm, has risen roughly 236 feet over the last 10 years.
All in all, the global data show more of these on-the-ground changes in our near future.
Conscious feelings of gratitude can contribute to overall happiness. It may seem obvious, but we now have some interesting data and examples from UC Berkeley. Sara Orem described her experience teaching a “module” course on gratitude to adults through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC Berkeley, from the Greater Good Science Center’s online course The Science of Happiness.
Participants in the course read articles, watched videos, and worked on gratitude practices at home each week, and then came to five weekly classes to discuss. The group kept a gratitude journal, wrote a gratitude letter, and expressed gratitude as a way to recover from a negative experience. They also tried a new gratitude practice between class sessions, such as watching inspiring videos or appreciating nature. A final project involved participants planning to write a “gratitude letter.”
And the results? As Orem reports, after students filled out before-and-after surveys on their gratitude and life satisfaction, the average gratitude score went up from 5 to 6.6 (out of 7), and the number of people who were highly satisfied with their life doubled. But she was most struck by some of the individual stories:
During our first session, our oldest participant expressed concern that the course would be too challenging for her. “Say more about that,” I asked. Abigail said, “I thought you were going to teach me two or three more ways to say thank you. This isn’t that. This is going to require that I think more deeply about my approach to life and I’m not sure I’m up to it.”
At the end of the first class, I said that I hoped Abigail would consider coming back the following week. She responded, “Oh, I’ve already decided I’m going to try to meet the challenge.”
And some students took some inspiring concrete steps to follow:
Brian said he would write a letter of appreciation to his secretary, who had made his professional life so much easier and smoother. As a lifelong military officer, he told us that these letters were very important in military files to facilitate promotions and awards. At the end of class, he expressed his own gratitude for the course and for the change it had made in his approach to life. Like Abigail, he had decided to meet the gratitude challenge.
Not that everyone has the time and inclination to take such a course, but it’s a reminder that making an effort to mark reasons for gratitude and then following up with concrete steps can make you happier overall — and probably the people around you, too.
It’s commonly understood that the lack of electric vehicle charging stations is a significant barrier to consumer adoption. Whether you live in an apartment without a dedicated parking spot or a single-family home and need to charge quickly on longer road trips, the infrastructure availability can make or break decision-making.
But it’s less understood among even electric vehicle drivers themselves how complicated charging can be, in terms of the multiple formats and charging speeds. First, the good news: the U.S. now has 47,114 public EV charging outlets, up from 25,602 at the end of 2014, per the U.S. Department of Energy.
But here’s the problem, as E&E news covered [pay-walled]:
But they’re not all the same, and not all cars can use them all. Tesla Inc.’s Supercharger Network, for example, only works for Tesla drivers. Charging at home on a Level 1 or 2 charger can take all night; charging at a public fast-charging station can take 30 minutes or less, depending on the power provided and technology.
One of the key technology developments has been increasing the power — and speed — of the charging stations. Tesla’s Supercharger Network of 8,496 stations provides up to 120 kilowatts per car, but it is proprietary.
Other automakers have increased the capacity of their latest models, and an increasing number of stations are planning to deliver more than 100 kW, a change from the earlier 50 kW. ChargePoint Inc. has developed a 400-kW charging technology. EVgo, another charging company, is installing up to dozens of high-powered fast-charging stations of 145 to 350 kW. Automakers and technology startups have developed technology that would fully charge a car in five minutes or less, although it’s not yet widely available.
All these numbers can be confusing, and really people just want a simple answer to the question: how long will it take me to charge my battery? Here’s how I like to explain it to the average person:
- “Level 1” (or your standard wall outlet) will charge your car about 5 miles per hour. The formats are the same across all vehicles.
- “Level 2” (or 240 volts, like for a large home appliance) has more variability, but generally will give you about 20 miles per hour. The formats are also the same across all vehicles. But the variability in charging speed can be fairly significant, due to the divergent amperage (or “amps,” measuring essentially the volume of the electric current) allowed by various batteries and charging stations. Here are the three big examples of differing charging speeds just within Level 2:
- If you can only Level 2 charge at 16 amps, that’s total power of 3.8 kilowatts (you multiply 240 volts by amps for total power). At that speed, with a Chevy Bolt EV’s 60 kilowatt-hour battery, it would take you 15.8 hours to fully charge from zero (60 divided by 3.8). With 238 mile range, that equals 15 miles per hour.
- If the battery could accept 32 amps, that equals 7.6 kilowatts of power at the Level 2 charging station, which means the Chevy Bolt would charge fully from zero in 7.9 hours. That equals 30 miles per hour.
- And if your battery could accept 48 amps (like all Teslas do), you could fully charge at 11.5 kilowatts in 5.2 hours, or 45 miles per hour. So 5.2 hours to 15.8 hours is a huge range, just within Level 2.
- “Fast Charge” has the most variability and also three incompatible formats across North American/European, Asian and Tesla vehicles. As the article above mentioned, most fast chargers have 50 kilowatts of power. That means you could charge your Chevy Bolt EV in a bit over an hour (60 kilowatt hours divided by 50 kilowatts), although really less than that because the car is programmed to charge at a reduced speed for the last 80% to minimize harm to the battery. So I’d bank on about two hours, or 120 miles per hour, for a full charge from zero in a 50 kilowatt fast charger. Tesla fast-chargers are much quicker at 120 kilowatts, meaning your Chevy Bolt EV (which can’t use those chargers but just for the sake of calculation) could charge closer to 30 or 40 minutes, or 200 miles in 30 minutes (although slower given the last 20% slowdown I just mentioned). And at 350 kilowatts, you could charge your Chevy Bolt EV like you are at a gas station, in perhaps just 20 minutes.
So we need more 350 kilowatt chargers, and we need them all over major interstate corridors and in urban “plazas” for apartment dwellers. We covered some solutions for this deployment in the report Plugging Away last year.
And hopefully one day charging will be so simple and ubiquitous that nobody will need to bother with all the calculations and explanations I’ve offered here.