Category Archives: transportation

Car2Go: great idea, but some major problems to work out

As I’ve written here before, I am a member of Zipcar, AutoShare, and Car2Go. Lately, I’ve found myself using Car2Go the most because of the nature of my travels. I work from home two or three days a week, but the rest of the time head downtown to the office. I’ve found that taking a Car2Go to work after rush hour, then taking it back home, has been a great way to commute now that the weather is getting colder (I usually bike in the spring, summer and early fall). It works out to less than half the price of taking a cab.

Now, the beauty of Car2Go is the one way nature of the trips — I pick up a car at one lot and can drop it off at another. It makes the drives short (average trip is 15 minutes) and I don’t have to pay for parking when I’m downtown. But there are some major problems with the service:

1) Parking isn’t always guaranteed. A number of lots downtown are often full, meaning you can’t drop off the car at your desired location. Car2Go users are supposed to keep driving around looking for a lot that isn’t full, but that’s not practical and doing so comes at a cost, as you’re charged for every minute you drive. Many people, including myself, resort to double parking — because the Smart Cars are so short, you can usually park one behind the other and it doesn’t affect the flow of the lot. Unfortunately, city officials don’t like this and will ticket the car. Car2Go passes that $30 ticket on to you, and adds a $25 processing fee on top. Not nice.

2) The wireless entry system for the cars is unreliable. Three times now I have had a car unable to connect with the main system. The first time I couldn’t properly return a car because it wouldn’t connect to tell the system that my ride was over. I had to call customer service and spent 20 minutes trying to figure it out. In the end, I had to leave the car unlocked in the lot and just walk away hoping someone didn’t steal it. Other times, I have walked to lots and tried to sign out a car, only to find out it won’t connect. Just today, this happened to me. I walked 20 minutes to the nearest available car, swiped my card, only to find out there was “No Connection.” I called customer service and they couldn’t figure it out. I was told, “Yeah, this sometimes happens.” Great. I ended up having to spend $30 to take a cab (a premium compared to the $9 the Car2Go would have cost me) and was 15 minutes late for an important meeting. Did I mention it was friggin’ cold outside? I was told I might get a credit for the inconvenience — the request would be made. Might?

3) Another issue has to do with picking up a car in a large, multi-level Green P city parking lot. Based on the iPhone app, you know there’s a car there somewhere, but you don’t know exactly where it is. You end up having to walk through each level looking for this little car. One lot on the Esplanade in Toronto has five or six levels. Took me 15 minutes of walking around to figure out where it was. In these situations, the company should really look to have dedicated spots, like Zipcar or AutoShare have.

4) This isn’t the biggest issue, but it’s still a problem. The iPhone apps that help you find available cars don’t do a good enough job of telling you where some lots are. Zipcar and AutoShare, by comparison, go into a great amount of detail to tell you exactly how to get to the car.

So there you go. I love the concept of Car2Go, but so far I’m getting really frustrated by the experience. The company better sort them out, otherwise I’m going to ditch this service and go for something more reliable.

Lady Gaga tweets are not enough… movie/rock stars should unite for climate awareness, action

Back in the mid-1980s dozens of high-profile music artists from the United Kingdom, United States and Canada got together in their respective countries to raise awareness and stimulate discussion of famine in Ethiopia.

Bono, David Bowie and Sting helped lead Band Aid, the U.K. supergroup that created the song Do They Know It’s Christmas? This was followed by USA for Africa’s We Are The World, which included Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.

Canada’s contribution was Northern Lights’ Tears Are Not Enough, featuring heavyweights Bryan Adams, Neil Young, Anne Murray and Geddy Lee.

In all, the three songs resulted in the sale of more than 35 million copies worldwide and shined a bright light on an issue that had received little attention by the mainstream media, politicians and the general public.

I couldn’t help but recall the impact of these songs, and the phenomenon of celebrity influence, while listening earlier this week to Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson, who spoke at an event at the University of Toronto co-hosted by several community groups, including the Citizen’s Climate Lobby and Post Carbon Toronto.

I’ll make the link between star power and Jacobson later in this column, but first some background on the good professor.

Jacobson is a bit of a rock star himself in academic circles, at least when it comes to another problem that’s putting millions – potentially billions – of lives at risk. He has spent his career trying to understand the global impacts of air pollution and climate change, as well as how to quickly and responsibly transition from our dependence on fossil fuels to a world powered by renewable energy.

“Air pollution alone kills 2.5 to 3 million people at least a year worldwide,” he told those gathered to attend his Toronto lecture. He then rattled off a list of other problems associated with fossil fuels—rising global temperature and sea level, record Arctic ice loss, more frequent extreme weather events, and volatile energy prices, to name a few.

“These are drastic problems that require drastic solutions, and we think they need to be addressed immediately. We can’t wait 20 or 30 years, which is why we’ve really got to focus on technologies that exist today, that can be implemented for the most part right away, and that can be implemented at large scale.”

Jacobson caught people’s attention three years ago with his co-authored article A Plan To Power 100 Percent of the Planet With Renewables, which was the cover story for a 2009 issue of Scientific American.

Many roll their eyes at the suggestion that renewables can do it all for us, but one by one Jacobson’s article dispelled many myths about green power and convincingly argued that wind, water and sun could do the heavy lifting if we had the collective will power to make it happen.

It analyzed the impacts of each type of “clean” energy source independently, including land and water footprint, the materials required to make it, how much pollution would be created during its full lifecycle, and overall contribution to global warming.

Wind turbines, various forms of solar technology, hydropower and geothermal plants, and to a lesser extent wave and tidal energy, got top marks. Nuclear, coal with carbon capture and storage, natural gas and biomass didn’t make the cut.

In the area of transportation, he favoured electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles over those that used compressed natural gas or biofuels such as ethanol.

“Why not natural gas?” he said last week. “Because it releases at least 50 to 70 times more carbon and air pollution than wind energy per kilowatt-hour generated… It’s a bridge fuel to nowhere.”

Jacobson has calculated that a world where all industry and transportation is powered by renewables would require installation of 3.8 million wind turbines, 1.7 billion residential and commercial rooftop solar systems, about 90,000 solar plants each 300 megawatts in size, 5,350 geothermal plants 100 megawatts in size, and about 1.5 million wave and tidal devices.

It seems like a lot, but it’s all relative. Consider the estimated 20 to 30 million abandoned oil and gas wells worldwide, or the many millions of smokestacks that dot our city and urban landscapes. Considers that the planet is wrapped in a mesh of more than two million kilometres of pipeline infrastructure, enough to stretch to the moon and back nearly three times.

His renewables plan, he pointed out, would take up less than 1 per cent of land space on the planet.

Now comes the star power. Jacobson has teamed up with the greenest, most powerful ally one could imagine: the Incredible Hulk. Well, actually actor Mark Ruffalo, who played the Hulk in The Avengers movie.

They’re leading an initiative called The Solutions Project, which is trying to bring together high profile scientists, business people, investors, movie makers and Hollywood stars in an effort to drive home the message that 100-per cent renewable energy is not only doable, but should be done.

Their first effort, to be announced shortly, will be to develop a comprehensive green plan for New York State, followed by other states and eventually other countries.

Actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson are lending their star power to the cause, along with documentary movie director Josh Fox, celebrity entrepreneur Elon Musk, and philanthropist Eileen Rockefeller.

Jacobson and Ruffalo, who co-authored an article for Huffington Post that appeared in June, said their goal is to “inspire millions to take part in an energy revolution.”

“Today, with social media and the reach of pop culture, we can educate people and achieve what was unthinkable five years ago,” they wrote. “It is up to us to grab hold of our potential and change our world for the better.”

Individual tweets from Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber are not going to change things. Having celebrities join forces with scientists and policymakers against a global threat like climate change, as they did for African famine in the mid-80s, just might.

For this reason, Jacobson is on the right track.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Smarter parking management is another way to ease city congestion, reduce emissions and raise revenues for transit

If you drive in this city, you’ve probably been in one of these two situations:

Too cheap to pay for parking, you go to a side street and take advantage of one-hour free parking. But having stayed a little longer than an hour, you find a $30 ticket on your windshield.

En route to an important business meeting, you park on a main street. When you pay at one of those solar-powered payment machines you are forced to gaze into the crystal ball and estimate how long your stay will be. You pay for 90 minutes but your meeting goes a few minutes late. You come out and have a $30 ticket on your windshield.

I’ve been in both situations several times. Once I got a ticket after being stuck in a waiting line at Metro Hall. It was a bitter pill—the reason I was there in the first place was to dispute an earlier parking ticket.

Inflexible city parking is also one of Bern Grush’s pet peeves. An outspoken transportation consultant, Grush has been in the pages of the Toronto Star before.

As founder of Toronto-based vehicle metering start-up Skymeter, he has been a vocal advocate of using GPS satellite-tracking technologies and sophisticated software to charge drivers for the number of kilometres they travel, with the fee based on when they drive and where they go.

Earlier this year, I hitched a ride with Grush after leaving a downtown conference. As we cruised across the city, he drew attention to how the municipality was throwing money out the window by undercharging for some parking spots and being too rigid with the rules.

In his view, Toronto could generate millions of dollars a year in additional revenues, reduce vehicle emissions, and make drivers happier by simply managing its parking inventory more efficiently. This could be done using the same technology that Skymeter uses for pay-as-you-go driving.

Free one-hour street parking is a waste, he said, adding that most drivers would gladly pay a reasonable fee for the convenience of such spots. What drivers don’t like is getting ticketed just because they parked for longer than an hour, even if just by a minute.

That’s why motorists often avoid these one-hour spots, and end up driving around the block several times looking for a less risky and reasonably priced alternative – burning fuel in the process.

Why not charge an additional fee beyond that hour, and have the fee increase gradually as more time passes?

If you’ve ever driven a car-share vehicle, you’ll know the technology exists to do this automatically. Essentially, it would be an iTunes-like model. Sign up, put your credit card on file, and get a monthly bill reflecting your parking charges.

No need to dig for change in the glove compartment, and no need to rush out of that restaurant or meeting for fear of getting a ticket.

Like pay-as-you-go driving and pay-as-you-drive insurance schemes, parking fees could also be adjusted for location and time of day – a premium charge for rush hour, for example—to control congestion in certain parts of the city.

The municipality, meanwhile, would no longer need a costly fleet of parking enforcement officers driving around streets chalking tires. The same approach could eventually apply to metered spots on main streets and at Green P lots.

Studies have shown, said Grush, that motorists place top value on four things when it comes to parking: ease of finding a spot, avoiding tickets, convenient method of payment, and reasonable cost – in that order.

“The scheme I describe satisfies all four,” he said. “This approach can bring a lot of value to Toronto – city finances, drivers, congestion, air, sanity and retailers.”

Whenever this idea of GPS-based vehicle tracking comes up, it inevitably draws legitimate concerns about privacy. After all, you’ll have a black box in your car that follows you around all day.

Obviously, securing the data that is collected and following key privacy protection principles would be a minimum requirement. But Grush said another way to ease concerns is to make the service and the added convenience it offers voluntary.

It is human nature – people don’t like being forced to do things, and when they are, most are suspicious. But make it voluntary and no problem, suddenly you’ve got nearly a billion active Facebook users and hundreds of millions of iPhone-toting consumers signing up to location-based apps.

Under Grush’s scheme, it’s best to think of your vehicle as just a big smart phone on wheels, and pay-as-you-park services as just another app that makes your daily routine a bit easier.

I’d sign up.

Now, some might shake their heads and say the focus should be on reducing the number of vehicles on our streets, not making it easier for people to park. True, we need to get more people taking transit, cycling and walking, but cars are here to stay.

The challenge is to reduce their impact as much as we can and accommodate them in a way that keeps the city both functional and a more enjoyable place to live and work.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Car-sharing in Toronto more ubiquitous than Tim Horton’s, Starbucks, Second Cup and Timothy’s combined!

My latest Clean Break column:

Two years ago I made a decision to ditch my car and start navigating the growing universe of transportation offerings available in the city.

One of my first decisions was to join the car-share service Zipcar, which has about 470 cars in its fleet spread across roughly 200 locations. Zipcar, along with public transit, cycling, the occasional cab ride, and a bit of day-before planning, has made it quite simple to move around the city without worrying about the hassle of car ownership: insurance, repairs, fuel costs, and parking.

There are currently three major car-share options in Toronto. In addition to Zipcar, there is Toronto-founded AutoShare, which has about 300 cars across 150 locations, and the Daimler-owned Car2Go, which launched this summer with 250 Smart Fortwo cars scattered across 200 city-owned Green P parking lots.

In all, Torontonians now have access to more than 1,000 vehicles at 550 different city spots, making car-sharing more ubiquitous in this city than all Tim Horton’s, Starbucks, Second Cup and Timothy’s coffee shop locations combined.

It’s tempting to view the three as competing services; to labour over choosing one over the other the same way you might weigh the pros and cons of different cellphone service. The companies surely view themselves as competitors.

But for the consumer it’s not necessarily a choice of this “or” that. I decided this month to also join AutoShare and Car2Go because for an extra $45 a year, beyond what I would pay per hour or minute to sign out a car, doing so has dramatically expanded my travel options. (Pay-per-use fees range from about $10 to $12 an hour).

AutoShare and Zipcar may be quite similar, but having extra locations and cars to choose from is comforting. Just being with Zipcar, for example, I occasionally found it difficult to book a car nearby at the time it was needed. AutoShare now serves as a backup for Zipcar, and vice versa.

The vehicles in each company’s fleets are also different, offering the chance to try out different types of cars, such as the hybrid-electrics (Chevy Volts and Toyota Priuses) and all-electric vehicles (Nissan Leafs and Mitsubishi i-MiEVs) in AutoShare’s growing fleet.

Car2Go is quite different from both AutoShare and Zipcar in that you don’t have to return the vehicle to its original location. Instead, you can take one-way trips and only pay by the minute, not the hour.

The catch is you can only reserve a car up to 24 hours in advance, or just take your chances. If there’s one parked in a city Green P lot, you just swipe your member card against a device attached to the car’s windshield and you’re off.

This came in handy last week when, having rode my bicycle to work, I didn’t feel well enough at the end of the day to cycle home. I found a Green P lot a block from the office, grabbed a Smart car, and drove it to a lot near my home in the Beaches. A ride in a cab would have been twice as expensive.

Kevin McLaughlin, founder and president of AutoShare, prefers to think of Car2Go as a “self-driving taxi” service and not true car-sharing. “By far their (Car2Go’s) biggest impact, at least at the beginning, will be on taxis, Bixi (bike sharing), walking and even transit.”

Even with three services now operating in Toronto, the market continues to grow “very well,” says McLaughlin. “We are having our biggest growth this year by far.”

Christian Demers, general manager of Zipcar’s Toronto office, says he doesn’t expect that growth to slow down. “If you look at the development going on downtown it simply can’t slow down,” he says. “It will drive more people to join car-share programs because parking spots are less and less available.”

Innovation will also continue to grow the pie. The Zipcar, AutoShare and Cars2Go business models aren’t economical in areas with low population densities, such as the suburbs. This has created opportunity for peer-to-peer car sharing – services that allow car owners to rent out their own vehicles hourly, right out of their own driveways, when they’re not using them.

Earlier this month, General Motors’ announced that any GM vehicle equipped with the OnStar service could be rented out by the owner through a partnership with the peer-to-peer car-share service RelayRides, which started out in Boston and San Francisco and has since expanded its offering throughout the United States. It’s only a matter of time before it comes to Canada.

Ontario law currently disallows peer-to-peer car sharing, so legislative changes would be required, but both established players such as Zipcar and AutoShare and new players are kicking the tires and keen to experiment.

“People are still trying to figure it out,” says Demers, adding that wireless connectivity, GPS, the Web and the management of all three through increasingly advanced software has brought concepts like vehicle sharing to a new level.

“The technology in all these vehicles, like OnStar, changes the landscape of what you can do versus where we were 10 years ago,” he says.

The big caveat is that there will continue to be a big percentage of the population that, because of where they live or the nature of their work, simply can’t benefit from car-sharing.

It’s not for all people—but it is for a lot of people, such as the growing number of folks who work from home or have flexibility with their job. For this reason, car-sharing isn’t just here to stay, it will – has? – become an increasingly visible reality of city life, and a welcome one.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Canada’s James Gosling, the “father of Java,” embraces robotics and ocean science

Had the pleasure this past week to chat with James Gosling, the Canadian who invented the Java programming language. As you’ll read in my Clean Break column below, Gosling has spent the past 10 months working for a small company that makes ocean-scouring robots that are powered by wave energy and the sun. It’s a big change for the computer scientist, who is used to working for big companies such as Sun Microsystems and Google. But I bet it’s a hell of a lot more fun…


Tyler Hamilton

Calgary-born computer whiz James Gosling is known in the technology world as the “father of Java,” the write once, run anywhere programming language used on billions of mobile phones and Internet servers.

But having spent the past two decades of his life producing Java applications for other people, the 57-year-old computer scientist is now getting a chance to use it himself. After 26 years working at Sun Microsystems and a more recent five-month stint at Google, Gosling decided in August 2011 to leave the world of big IT and dive – literally – into the ocean.

Ten months ago Gosling joined a small company co-headquartered in Silicon Valley and Hawaii called Liquid Robotics, maker of a self-propelled, fully autonomous marine research robot that scours the oceans collecting scientific data with solar-powered sensors.

As Liquid Robotics’ chief software architect, Gosling’s job is to design the back-end systems to best store, manage and visualize what’s expected to become a growing volume of data as more robot drones, called Wave Gliders, are added to the global fleet.

“What could be cooler than robots in the ocean doing science?” Gosling tells me during an interview.

Indeed, they are the first marine robots to use the inexhaustible energy from ocean waves to propel themselves without fuel, meaning zero-carbon mobility.

Each Wave Glider comes in two parts. The first floats on the wavy surface of the water and looks like a surfboard covered in solar panels. It is connected by a six-metre “umbilical” cord to a multi-winged device below called a glider.

The motion of the waves causes the board to bob up and down in the water, movement that is mimicked below by the glider. The wings and fin on the glider are design in such a way that the up and down movement is translated into forward thrust. Navigation can be controlled remotely or pre-programmed into the robot.

“Most people have been trained to try to harness waves for electricity generation, and that turns out to be really, really hard,” Gosling tells me. “But getting thrust? That’s worked out well for us.”

So well that Liquid Robotics broke a Guinness World Record in March when four of its Wave Gliders each travelled roughly 6,000 kilometres across the Pacific Ocean on a meandering journey from the shoreline of San Francisco to Hawaii. The previous record for an unmanned wave-propelled vehicle was 4,630 km.

Two weeks ago the robots embarked on the final stage of their 16,700-km voyage. Departing Hawaii, two will head to Japan and two to Australia. They should get there by early 2013, possibly earlier.

Gosling says people don’t realize how rugged the Wave Gliders are until, as he has, they’re in the water swimming with them. “When you see pictures of them they look deceptively simple, but they can handle amazing weather,” he says.

That includes eight-metre high waves, gale force winds, and powerful ocean currents. The only serious run-in for one Wave Glider was a shark attack. “This shark just went nuts on it,” Gosling says. “He lost a tooth. He was all over this thing, but all he ever did was scratch the paint.”

So what’s the point of this ambitious Pacific expedition? The sensors on the robots will collect and wirelessly transmit an unprecedented amount of detailed information about ocean conditions.

This includes data points on ocean temperature, wave height, weather conditions, water quality and chemistry, and many others that will shed light on the impacts of global climate change and pollution (though any kind of sensor can be attached to suit the mission, be it scientific or commercial).

Liquid Robotics is making the data available to any scientist, educator, and student – even the general public. As part of what it calls the PacX Challenge, it and its sponsors are offering a $50,000 prize to the research proposal that makes best scientific use of the data. The idea is to raise awareness of Wave Glider capabilities and ocean science in general.

Gosling, who considers himself an environmentalist but not the card-carrying type, admits there’s a huge feel-good aspect to working with a company like Liquid Robotics. The oceans are under stress and the climate is a catastrophe happening in slow motion, he says. Raising awareness of and understanding the problem, its impact and how to adapt is crucial.

“Boy, if we had 10,000 of these in the ocean we’d be able to do an immensely better job of predicting the weather. Even if we just had 100 out there in the Atlantic we could really change hurricane predictions,” he says.

“With so much of the earth, we really don’t know what’s going on.”

Using renewable-powered robots to find out more is, in his words, “incurably cool.”

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.