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Archives for September 2016

A crumbling infrastructure by any other name...

By Martha Spizziri | September 26, 2016 | 4:40 PM | Categories: Transportation

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I'm a fan of the podcast 99 Percent Invisible, which points out how design affects our lives in ways that we often don't even notice. In a recent episode, the host, Roman Mars, interviewed Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University. Petroski recently wrote a book called The Road Taken: The History and Future of America's Infrastructure.

It's no secret that the federal gas tax isn't nearly keeping up with the costs of road maintenance, but raising it isn't a popular idea with voters. The interview pointed out that, with the advent of hybrid and electric cars, a fuel tax might not be the best way to fund highway projects anyway. Instead of taxing gas, says Petroski, we should be taxing miles. Pilot programs to do that are underway, but there are problems with that idea, too. Petroski thinks it will be at least 10 years before a new funding mechanism is in place—but he does think it will happen.

A surprising fact that came up during the interview: the word "infrastructure" is actually pretty new. Infrastructure projects were called "public works" up until about the 1980s, according to Petroski. But because people started to equate public works with dubious "pork-barrel" projects, advocates began using the term "infrastructure" instead.

Mars suggested that reclaiming the phrase "public works" might help motivate the voting public to fund those programs. After all, the word "infrastructure" is pretty abstract and hard to get excited about. "Public works," on the other hand, emphasizes that we, the people, benefit from these projects.

The episode is called "Public Works: Rethinking America's Infrastructure." It's just under 20 minutes long, and it's worth a listen. 

Finnish government to launch autonomous cargo ships by 2025

By Ben Ames | September 23, 2016 | 7:28 AM

Plans to launch robotic cargo ships took another step forward this week when the Finnish government announced plans to launch a suite of unmanned maritime products and services by 2025.

In pursuit of that goal, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation—known as Tekes—will help finance the development of an autonomous marine ecosystem by a combination of information and communications technology (ICT) startup firms and established marine suppliers. And once those new teams are ready to test their robo-ships, Finland’s Ministry of Transport and Communications has promised to apply flexible standards for the trials of autonomous vessels in the country’s waters.

“We are especially enthusiastic about colliding our world class ICT start-up scene with strong maritime players,” Tekes program manager Piia Moilanen said in a release. “New networks will boost exchanging ideas and create pioneering community for intelligent shipping.”

As a first step toward that goal, the shipping initiative has convened a group of industry partners led by Finnish incubator DIMECC Ltd., an acronym for digital, internet, materials & engineering co-creation. The group hopes to draft a common roadmap for reaching autonomous marine operations by coordinating development between businesses, research institutes, engineering societies, and government authorities.

One of those partners will be Rolls-Royce, the marine, automotive, and aeronautic engine manufacturer that recently announced a plan to build a demonstration version by 2020 of a shore-based control center for remote-controlled cargo ships.

Starship robots deliver donuts in San Francisco

By Ben Ames | September 22, 2016 | 12:27 PM

San Francisco residents see a lot of curious things on the sidewalks that helped launch the hippy movement of the 1960s. But even jaded Californians could be forgiven for gaping when a self-driving, Estonian, robotic delivery vehicle cruised down the Richmond District’s Balboa Street this week.

The autonomous, six-wheeled, picnic cooler steered carefully down the sidewalk at a pedestrian 4 mph before stopping at a predetermined address, opening its lid, and releasing its precious cargo of fresh pastries.

In addition to delivering donuts, the promise of driverless parcel transport could have huge implications for last-mile logistics. But while Amazon.com Inc. is still testing its aerial drones, these rolling robots are well into their demonstration phase.

The vehicles are a product of Starship Technologies, an Estonian startup staffed by two founders of Skype, the Swedish voice-over-internet-protocol (VOIP) telephony company now owned by Microsoft Corp.

Starship ran earlier tests of the 40-pound, single-package delivery platforms earlier this year at various sites in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and said in March that it said to launch U.S. trials soon.

That day is now here, and curious onlookers can see proof at Starship’s Instagram site. No word yet on whether the robots have been trained to take selfies.

Bloomberg Businessweek asks: "Will Amazon kill FedEx?"

By Martha Spizziri | September 09, 2016 | 9:38 AM | Categories: Transportation

In case you missed it: last week, Bloomberg Businessweek published an article titled "Will Amazon Kill FedEx?" 

As the title indicates, the piece speculates that Amazon aims to upend FedEx and UPS—a topic we've written about here and elsewhere.

A few of the more interesting facts from the Bloomberg article:

  • There's been resistance to Amazon's expansion in at least a couple of major European cities.
  • According to a June Deutsche Bank report, Amazon has patented a technology called "anticipatory package shipping," which will allow it to figure out when a customer will need products replenished and have a package ready in advance. The technology should save Amazon money, since it potentially could use a slower shipping method and still get shipments to customers exactly when they're needed.
  • Also from the Deutsche Bank study: Amazon has employed "hundreds of Ph.D. mathematicians" whose job is to model logistics networks.

There's also a short (about 10 minutes) interview with the article's author.

Amazon also recently hired lawyer Seth Bloom, who used to be general counsel to the Senate Antitrust Committee, as a lobbyist.

The opinions expressed herein are those solely of the participants, and do not necessarily represent the views of Agile Business Media, LLC., its properties or its employees.

Thoughts from our editors.



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