Weekly Roundup, January 14, 2022

A lovely picture – will the reality of the Volar flying car match this artist’s impression? See article, below.

 

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Good morning

We’re halfway through January already, and typing “2022” no longer feels quite so unnatural.  On the other hand, so much does seem unnatural at present, what’s a tiny little thing like the year compared to some of the other bigger things we’re all struggling with?

One of the unnatural things is the cost of rental cars.  While not quite as spectacularly bad as they had been for some of 2021, they remain higher than “the good old days”.  Of course, the other side of that coin is that few companies have ever done extremely well by operating a rental car business, and the US has had extraordinarily low rates on rental cars, compared to the rest of the world, for decades.

But, whether the numbers are high or low, everyone loves a bargain, especially when it seems like a “clever” bargain in which everyone wins.  A reader had written to me a couple of weeks ago after I commented on the high cost of rental cars when I go to Arizona soon, and suggested I hire a “Turo” rental car instead.   My answer to him lengthened somewhat, and became this week’s feature column – should you preferentially seek out Turo type rental cars next time you travel?

It is truly getting harder and harder to feel good at continuing to churn out more and more material about Covid.  But each time I think I’ve said everything that could possibly ever be said about Covid, something happens, and I’m encouraged to keep the data flowing to you.  One reader wrote in criticizing me for maintaining my “Ivermectin crusade” – to him (and to everyone else not yet aware of this) I point you to the “must read” item at the top of Thursday’s diary entry.

What else this week?  Here is the usual collection of the unusual :

  • Still Waiting on the TSA to Get US Air Passenger Numbers Right
  • International Travel Update
  • Delta’s Classy Move
  • Boom SST Getting More Backing
  • Virgin Galactic Shares Drop Some More
  • Tesla’s Cybertruck Delayed Again
  • FAA Exhibits “An Abundance of Caution”
  • More FAA “Caution”
  • Another Flying Car
  • And Lastly This Week….

Still Waiting on the TSA to Get US Air Passenger Numbers Right

I’m really missing the regular every-day reliable data from the TSA about air passenger numbers.

They’ve come up with a new “fix” to the data problem they are struggling with.  Their solution to having two days with the same numbers (ie the numbers for each day are identical in 2019, 2020 and 2021 with the same numbers for the next day) is simply to stop showing the next day in those three years in their data series.  That makes the data look better, but doesn’t fix the underlying problem.

So I can only guess when I say that the numbers seem moderately level and not greatly increasing, compared to 2019.

International Travel Update

I’ve been thinking about this from a slightly different perspective over the last week or so.  I am getting the sense that many/most countries are giving up on Covid, and it is only the desire to save face, and a few “die hard” stalwarts who persist in their advocacy of more and more controls, that is preventing a total abandonment of all restrictions.

There have not been the draconian responses  to the Omicron outbreak I’d half expected to see.  In addition, that outbreak is now miraculously disappearing in many countries, and equally miraculously the Omicron infection is proving to be very mild indeed.

The not entirely irrational answer and outcome to the situation where everything all governments have tried, for two years now, has colossally and abjectly failed, might indeed be to stop doing anything at all.  Sweden’s largely unrestricted non-response to Covid has done no worse than Denmark’s, and is comparable to Europe as a whole.  There’s seldom if ever been a clear correlation between social distancing and mask wearing and case numbers.  Australia, for 18 months a hermit nation with no-one able to enter or leave, now is the country with the third highest rate of weekly new Covid cases. One of the two countries with a higher rate of new Covid cases is ultra-vaccinated Israel.

The vaccines, while a great safety-blanket to clutch on to, have utterly failed at preventing the ongoing spread of Covid, and increasingly, not only are more people in hospital with double or triple or even quadruple doses of the vaccine and also a Covid infection than people with no doses at all, but some reports are now noting large numbers of vaccinated people dying of Covid (as well as dying of many other mysterious causes too).  That was the last bastion of the vaccine advocates – it stops you from dying.  If (and it is a big if) that claim is now falling, what is left?

My point is simply this – the trend seems to increasingly be learning to live with Covid rather than trying to eliminate it.  My guess – and it is just a guess, tinged with hope – is that by the time we’re into the middle of spring, and with the huge assumption of no new killer-variant of the virus, international travel will become easier and less fraught with uncertainty than it has been at any time in the two years preceding.

So, I’d hesitate to travel next week, or maybe not in February either.  But as soon as Covid case numbers start to drop not just in isolated countries but in entire regions, I hope for quick relaxations of any remaining Covid-related controls.

One more point.  Stay away from cruise ships for a few more weeks.  It just doesn’t seem like much fun if you end up affected by the virus on a cruise at present.

Delta’s Classy Move

The airlines sensibly understand an issue that also causes me to write weekly with the “international travel update”.  It is difficult to commit to future travel plans when there’s a measurable risk you’ll need to change or cancel your plans due to an unforeseen outcome of the virus.  They’ve tried various approaches to allowing for free changes to tickets to encourage people to still plan ahead and book travel.

It is beyond essential for the airlines that people plan ahead and book ahead for their travel.  That’s part of the reason why they discount tickets that are booked in advance, because, yes, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush to the airlines.  Any sort of hinted at understanding of what actual travel numbers will be next month, next week, and even next day, is also vital in terms of scheduling planes and crews and generally planning for every part of an airline’s operations (including deciding when/if to put air fare sales out there).

Delta has now announced what I believe to be the best and most liberal of the current change policies, allowing all tickets and travel vouchers to remain valid for rebooking through until the end of 2023, with the rebooked travel dates permitted through the end of 2024.  That’s a very generous policy and removes a lot of the sting and potential loss if you need to change/cancel your travel arrangements.

Boom SST Getting More Backing

Boom announced this week that its planned passenger SST has secured another $60 million of support from the US Air Force.  This is the second tranche of backing from the Air Force; the AF’s interest in SSTs is probably obvious and self-evident, although one has to observe that an SST flying at about March 1.7, while fast, is almost exactly half the top speed of the glorious SR-71, a plane that first flew in 1962 (in its A-12 variant), and which was developed by engineers using slide rules rather than super computers.  The last SR-71 retired in 1999.  It may or may not have been replaced with an even faster and more secretive plane (which some people suggest has already been obsoleted and also replaced)….

Here’s a wonderful article about flying the SR-71 that you’re sure to enjoy.  It is a compressed “best bits” of a longer book, “Sled Driver”, written by the guy who also wrote the shorter article, Major Brian Shul, a former SR-71 pilot.  Both the short article and the longer book are wonderfully good reads.

There are of course many wonderful stories about the SR-71.  Here’s one you might not have heard before :

Los Angeles Center reported receiving a request for clearance to FL 60 (60,000 ft).

The incredulous controller, with some disdain in his voice, asked, “How do you plan to get up to 60,000 feet?

The pilot (obviously a SR-71 pilot), responded, “We don’t plan to go up to it, we plan to go down to it.”

Boom is doing an impressive job of lining up support for its plane.  There’s the much boasted about United Airlines “order” (it isn’t an order) for 15 of their planes, two rounds of funding from the USAF, an earlier “option” by Virgin for ten planes, and support also from JAL and a conditional “pre-order” for 20 planes.

This article, in 2017, writing about JAL’s support, suggests the Boom plane would be in commercial service in 2023.  Back then the jet was expected to fly at more than twice the speed of sound, but it has successively slowed down and now is claiming Mach 1.7.  For comparison, the Concorde cruised at Mach 2.02.

The big wild-card I see (or don’t see) is engines.  I don’t clearly understand where Boom is getting its engines from.  Designing a SST is relatively easy, the “heavy lifting” is all in the engines, not the airframe.

The current timing suggests commercial service in 2029.  So in the five years since the 2017 article, the entry into service date has slipped six years.  Which provides an obvious segue to the next article.

Virgin Galactic Shares Drop Some More

There’s so much going on in the space arena at present that it is easy to forget about Virgin Galactic.  They continue to delay the date when they’ll start taking commercial passengers into space, and the current version of the truth suggests that might happen in October this year.  But a bit like the pot of gold that remains stubbornly unreachable at the end of the rainbow, Virgin’s creeping date for commercial service remains similarly unattainable.  Its first target date was to be “by 2010”.

Since that time, the date has steadily moved further and further forward, while both SpaceX (Elon Musk’s company) and Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos’ company) have taken people aloft repeatedly.

Virgin Galactic’s share price, which reached $59.41 in February last year, closed at $10.03 on Thursday after news of a new round of capital raising by the company.  Details here.

Oh, and talking about delays and Elon Musk…..

Tesla’s Cybertruck Delayed Again

When Tesla announced its strangely shaped Cybertruck in November 2019, they were talking about deliveries starting in late 2021.  Two years from concept to commercial deliveries seemed great, although on the optimistic side of achievable.

Clearly that never happened, and Tesla acknowledged the obvious in August last year, shifting deliveries into 2022.  But their web page was updated this week, and now there is no delivery date/promise shown at all.

Musk has said he’ll say something about this in the next couple of weeks.  Some commentators are wondering if the vehicle has been entirely cancelled, after watching the assorted initial promises about its price, capacities, and specifications all cloud over and disappear.

Details here.

FAA Exhibits “An Abundance of Caution”

A strange thing happened on Monday evening when the FAA imposed a “ground stop” on flights along the west coast as “a precaution”, for a bit less than 15 minutes.

What was the precaution the FAA was taking; what was the threat that was so severe that the FAA had to stop flights departing across the board?

Well, the FAA doesn’t feel the need to tell us that, or to be accountable to the people it inconveniences and the money it causes people and airlines to lose through flight delays.  But it has been observed the ground stop happened at the same time that North Korea launched another test missile.

But – here’s the thing :  Where would you rather be if there was a possible incoming missile headed to the US west coast?  On the ground at an airport, or at 35,000 ft in the middle of nowhere?  For me, that’s an easy choice – give me the altitude and get me “out of Dodge”.  That way, in the almost vanishingly unlikely chance it was a missile attack, the plane pilot can choose where to fly after the missile has exploded.  But on the ground, any plane is almost literally “a sitting duck” for any nearby air bursts.

One does have to wonder though who at the FAA is having paranoid attacks of a level requiring that level of response to yet another DPRK missile test, particularly because, almost certainly, when they first got word of the launch from Norad or some other security/monitoring service, the advice would include trajectory and plotted destination data.

The missile flew 430 miles before falling harmlessly into the sea.  The distance from its launch point to the west coast of the US is between 5,000 and 6,000 miles.  Suffice it to say we were probably never in any danger.

More FAA “Caution”

There’s another possible interpretation of what seems to be the FAA’s unreasoning and unrealistic fear of 5G phone signals anywhere near an airplane.

The thing is that if the FAA had insisted on good design of what the FAA claims are airplane instruments at risk of interference from 5G phone signals in the first place, there’d be no need for any concern now.  But if the FAA told such manufacturers “There’s no need to worry about interference, no-one else uses any frequencies like those ones at all” (a statement that was true but shortsighted some years ago and demonstrably not true, now) and allowed them not to follow best radio design practices, then perhaps there are some challenges.

But the FAA wouldn’t knowingly allow any airplane part manufacturer to cut corners in order to save a dollar or two and make a bit of extra profit, would it?  Certainly not when – as they now claim – airplane and passenger safety are at risk?

One thing is certain.  If there are any problems, they are entirely not the fault of the wireless phone companies, who seem to be following normal best practices in terms of frequency control, limiting harmonic emissions, and so on.  But the FAA-monitored airplane electronics companies?  Ummm, who knows……

Another Flying Car

Stories of new flying car concepts seem to be appearing at an increasing rate.  I liked this story about Bellwether Industry’s Volar flying car because of the lovely picture (above) that came with it.  They are boasting having done a test of a half-sized prototype, with the actual production vehicle, if/when it eventuates, being planned to seat 4 – 5 people, fly at up to 135 mph, and have an operating range (time) of 60 – 90 minutes.

Oh, yes, it will also cost about the same as a luxury jet.  That’s a fairly flexible price target, but suggests the price will be probably eight figures rather than seven, so don’t make space for one in your garage just yet.

The plan is for a vehicle that is 10.5 ft wide.  I guess no-one told them that would be too wide for US roads (the vehicle width limit is typically 8.5 ft).  Hopefully the rest of their plans shows a bit more attention to practicalities.  The plan is for commercial production to start in 2028.

The big question in my mind is what happens if there’s a traffic jam in the air, like happens on the ground all the time at present?  You might think there’s more space for more vehicles in the air, but that is not necessarily the case – you need vastly larger separation distance between planes than you do between cars.  For many flying cars, you can’t just stop in mid-air and wait, and for the ones that do allow a stationary hover, your fuel burn rate goes up when hovering, while your distance traveled goes down, and sooner or later you’re going to need to urgently land, no matter where you are at the time.

Flying planes seem to lack both the ability to scale in terms of mass-market sales, and the ability to scale in terms of air traffic management systems.  But it is a lovely picture, isn’t it.

And Lastly This Week….

Has the USPS discovered a form of limitless energy?  This article, talking about their diminishing plans to electrify their new fleet of mail trucks, has an interesting pair of statistics buried within it.

If the new generation of mail trucks use regular gas powered engines, they’ll average about 14.7 mpg.  The new trucks are planned to feature a/c – the current ones just have a fan.  When the a/c is running, the fuel economy plunges down to 8.6 mpg.

The alternative design, with a battery-electric motor, promises a range of 70 miles on a single charge, without air conditioning.  So, you might ask, what is the range if the a/c is on?  Noting how fuel consumption almost doubles in the gas-powered vehicle, you’d expect a major drop in range in the electric version, wouldn’t you.

Well, if the Post Office is to be believed, the range miraculously stays the same when you turn on the a/c.  A certain South African gentleman wonders how that is possible.

Talking about battery powered cars, this article quotes the Chief Scientist at Toyota, who argues against giving battery powered cars a long range.  You might be excused for thinking this is merely another manifestation of Toyota’s ill-concealed dislike of all BEV technology, but there is a modicum of sense in what he says.  It is certainly true that almost always, none of us ever drive our cars away from home and back for distances of even 100 miles, let alone many hundreds of miles, and so a 95% or greater solution for us would be a BEV with a simple 100 mile range.

This would greatly reduce the cost of the batteries needed to be added to the car, and would also reduce the car’s weight, reducing still further the car’s cost and giving the lighter car still more range, allowing for even fewer batteries, and so on.  (Hey, Mr Postman – I know what you’re thinking – a few more iterations of that virtuous loop and you’ll be able to have a mail truck that weighs nothing, costs nothing, and has a 100 mile range with the a/c on….)

But, of course, “range anxiety” has most of us seeking the greatest range we can for our EVs, and in response, car manufacturers are rushing to increase their car ranges, with 300 miles now being the aspirational target, and some new cars promising over 400 miles, and a new Lucid vehicle (the “Air Dream”) claiming 520 miles.

The sensible concept of the shorter ranged EV is far from the first sensible concept to founder on the rock of irrational customer fears and wishes.

And talking of irrational fears and car manufacturers, have you been watching the increasingly desperate attempts by the car manufacturers to delay the new Massachusetts law requiring them to share their manuals and digital codes with all car repair shops, not just their own franchised dealers?

Speaking as one who unhappily is way too familiar with car repair issues, the happiest day in my Land Rover-owning life was discovering a specialty privately owned repair shop that does work so much better than the local dealership, and at lower cost as well.  Right to repair laws should be universally enacted, and extend to all products.

If you regularly read my Covid diary entries – or even if you only read them very rarely – you’ll know that I’m sometimes slightly critical of the FDA.  Well, yes, perhaps more accurate to say that I’m usually extremely critical of them, and consider their actions to directly flow through to the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans from Covid.

I’ve never been able to understand how slow they’ve been to respond to important urgent things, and how generally distracted they seem to be about many things.  But now, I think I’ve found the answer – they’ve been busy regulating what ingredients are allowed to be used to make a French Dressing.

Lastly, a somber thought.  Yesterday was 40 years from when the Air Florida 737 crashed into the Potomac river and 14th St Bridge after taking off from DCA.  All but five of the people on the flight perished; with the cause of the crash being pilot error.

Until next week, please stay happy and healthy

 

David.

 

 

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