Friday, July 28, 2017

Will robots rescue, or threaten, the airline industry?

Yesterday it was reported that US airlines were suffering a "staggering pilot shortage".

Passenger and cargo airlines around the world are expected to buy 41,000 new airliners between 2017 and 2036. And they will need 637,000 new pilots to fly them, according to a forecast from Boeing released this week. That staggering figure is matched only by how many will leave the profession in the next decade -- particularly in the U.S.

Retirements at U.S. airlines will start to rise precipitously starting in 2021 as the current crop of pilots turns 65, the mandated age of retirement. More than 42% of active U.S. airline pilots at the biggest carriers will retire over the next 10 years, about 22,000, according to a recent report by Cowen & Company.

In the next 20 years, airlines in North America are going to need 117,000 new pilots, Boeing estimates. And the farm team for training and recruitment in the U.S. -- the military and regional carriers -- are already struggling to find and keep aviators.

The coming retirements exceed the active U.S. regional airline pilots corps, which stands around 19,000.

Without enough pilots, the amount airlines can fly will be capped. And an acute shortage may wreak havoc on air travel, grounding planes and reducing air service to some cities if routes are cut or curtailed.

It's already happening.

Last month, Horizon Air, the regional arm of Alaska Airlines, said it was canceling 6% of its schedule -- more than 300 flights -- from August to September because it doesn't have the pilots. And Republic Airways filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2016 in part because it was "grounding aircraft due to a lack of pilot resources".

There's more at the link.

This pilot shortage has been developing for several years, and airlines and the military have been devoting a lot of time and attention to dealing with it.  Perhaps the best-known technological approach is DARPA's Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS).  The program "envisions a tailorable, drop-in, removable kit that would promote the addition of high levels of automation into existing aircraft, enabling operation with reduced onboard crew".  An early iteration was flight-tested last year.

Yesterday, a turboprop plane took off from a small airport in Virginia that from the outside, looked fairly unremarkable.

But inside the cockpit, in the right seat, a robot with spindly metal tubes and rods for arms and legs and a claw hand grasping the throttle, was doing the flying.

The demonstration was part of a government and industry collaboration that is attempting to replace the second human pilot in two-person flight crews with robot co-pilots that never tire, get bored, feel stressed out or become distracted.

. . .

Sophisticated computers flying planes aren't new.

But the ALIAS robot goes steps further.

For example, an array of cameras allows the robot to see all the cockpit instruments and read the gauges.

It can recognise whether switches are in the on or off position, and can flip them to the desired position.

And it learns not only from its experience flying the plane, but also from the entire history of flight in that type of plane.

The robot 'can do everything a human can do' except look out the window, Langford said.

But give the programme time and maybe the robot can be adapted to do that too, he said.

The programme's leaders even envision a day when planes and helicopters, large and small, will fly people and cargo without any human pilot on board.

The programme, known as Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS), is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and run by Aurora Flight Sciences, a private contractor.

. . .

Elements of the ALIAS technology could be adopted within the next five years, officials said, much the way automakers are gradually adding automated safety features that are the building blocks of self-driving technology to cars today.

Again, more at the link.

Here's a video clip of the ALIAS system being demonstrated on a helicopter and a light aircraft.  I suggest watching it in full-screen mode, to see the smaller inset videos to best advantage.

There's even a possibility that aircraft might fly without co-pilots at all.  Instead, multiple aircraft might have a single pilot, with all of them being assisted by ALIAS-type systems in case of emergency, directed by a controller on the ground.

NASA is exploring a related possibility: moving the co-pilot out of the cockpit on commercial flights, and instead using a single remote operator to serve as co-pilot for multiple aircraft.

In this scenario, a ground controller might operate as a dispatcher managing a dozen or more flights simultaneously. It would be possible for the ground controller to “beam” into individual planes when needed and to land a plane remotely in the event that the pilot became incapacitated — or worse.

. . .

The potential savings from the move to more autonomous aircraft and air traffic control systems is enormous.

In 2007, a research report for NASA estimated that the labor costs related to the co-pilot position alone in the world’s passenger aircraft amounted to billions of dollars annually.

Automating that job may save money.

More at the link.

Here's another video, showing the ALIAS hardware and software controlling a Boeing 737-800NG simulator.  It's a very short step from this, to putting it aboard a real airliner (replacing the co-pilot's seat) and taking it flying.

Of course, this automation technology might also pose a real threat to airline operations as they're currently structured, because it can be applied to other modes of transport as well.  Karl Denninger hypothesizes:

Prediction: Within 10 years every single airline will be reduced to carriers that operate routes consisting entirely of flights of more than 1,000 miles, most over water.


Because self-driving cars.

. . .

Look folks, most cars today can be retrofitted ... Show me a $500 Lidar array that can do the job and suddenly that $2,500 retrofit becomes not only possible it's easy and it's an option roughly equivalent in cost to a leather seating package on new vehicles.  At that point the "take rate" will be 90%.

Today I can drive from my home to Atlanta in about 5 hours.  All-in, including "mandatory" 1 hour pre-take-off airport arrival requirements it takes me almost 4 hours assuming no weather or schedule delays to fly that same route ... Actual operating cost of said autonomous vehicle is materially cheaper than the flight is and I can take a nearly-unlimited amount of cargo with me at no additional cost ... The day I can get into the car at midnight in the back where I have equipped half the fold-down rear seat and trunk into a comfortable place to sleep, push the button, go to sleep and wake up at 6:00 AM (1 hour time zone shift) in Atlanta in time for two espressos before a business meeting Delta is bankrupt.

. . .

Folks, there is no business model for the airlines as they exist today once this becomes rationally expensive ... Not only is this more-convenient and "on demand" rather than on someone else's schedule nobody gets bumped, nobody gets groped, there's no "extra fee and insult" garbage the airline industry has turned into a maze of and it's cheaper on top of it.

The airlines have cut their own throats, in short, and technology is about to kill them all, with the exception of 3,000 mile flights and over-water segments where you simply can't do it any other reasonable way.  That's a fraction of their current capacity and operating schedule and I'm going to enjoy watching them all burn in bankruptcy court.

More at the link.

I must admit, the thought of being able to avoid almost all airline travel is a very welcome one.  I long ago grew sick and tired of airlines handling me as if I was a cow on the way to the slaughterhouse, cramming me into an aluminum tube with minimal space or facilities (not to mention the TSA treating me with utter disrespect in the process!).  I hope Mr. Denninger is right.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Doofus Of The Day #967

A tip o' the hat to reader Snoggeramus in Australia for sending us this report.

A tip for offenders trying to avoid arrest, if you're going to use someone else's name, make sure that person isn't wanted on warrant as well.

Teenager Clayton Kraig Bligh knew he was wanted on warrant for not showing up at court, so when police spoke to him on the afternoon of May 25, he gave his name as "Travis Gordon", Toowoomba Magistrates Court heard.

However, when police checks found Travis Gordon was wanted on warrant, Bligh was taken into custody where he admitted his name.

There's more at the link.

I'd call that a classic 'own goal'!


Food fight - international version

Foodies have the best fights - or, at least, the funniest.  This one - according to its headline - concerns "crimes against the tortilla".

The British ambassador in Madrid made a daring foray into the world of Spanish cuisine on Wednesday night with an appearance on a popular cooking show where he defended UK chefs over alleged "crimes" against beloved national dishes.

Simon Manley had a starring role in the 45-minute edition of El Comidista, debating the merits of British versus Spanish food and receiving a tutorial on the perfect tortilla from host and chef Mikel Lopez Iturriaga.

The pair engaged in some light-hearted sparring over alleged British crimes against Spanish cuisine, with Mr Manly offering a valiant defence of Jamie Oliver, whose takes on traditional dishes have more than once incurred the wrath of the country's foodies.

Wearing a Union Jack apron and declaring "Vive la Majestad!" (Long live her Majesty), the diplomat rustled up Oliver's much-mocked recipe [shown below] with chorizo and - the host quipped - "raw onion".

He proudly championed the "Hispano-British tortilla", though Iturriaga was not entirely convinced.

There's more at the link.

That looks more like a toasted sandwich than a tortilla to me;  but then, I like toasted sandwiches as much as I like tortillas, so I'll gladly eat either.  Unfortunately, I'm supposed to be limiting my carbohydrate intake, so both are off my menu at the moment . . . (sob!)

If you're feeling adventurous with tortillas, here's Jamie Oliver's breakfast tortilla.  Looks and sounds delicious!

Damn, now I'm hungry!


Bringing back World War II high technology bombs

I was amazed to read that three of Barnes Wallis' so-called 'bouncing bomb' prototypes have been recovered from a Scottish loch where they were tested, more than 70 years ago.  These are examples of the 'Highball', a smaller version of the 'Upkeep' bombs used in the world-famous 'Dam Busters' raid in 1943.  'Highball' was intended to attack ships, rather than dams.  A Royal Navy press release announced:

A team of Royal Navy clearance divers from the Faslane-based Northern Diving Group (NDG) have assisted in the recovery of historic World War Two bouncing bombs from the bottom of Loch Striven.

On Wednesday, July 19, three of the famous “Highball” bombs broke the surface of the Argyll Loch for the first time in over 70 years.  They were among an estimated 200 of the Barnes Wallis designed munitions tested on the loch ahead of the famous Dam Busters raid in 1943.

The concept of the bouncing bomb was first described by engineer Sir Barnes Wallis in 1942 and was originally envisioned for use by the Fleet Air Arm.  However, in November 1942 the project was split into two strands – codenamed “Highball” and “Upkeep” – with one weapon designed for use against ships and the other, heavier, Upkeep bombs for targeting dams.

The unique design of the bombs meant they could skip over the surface of the water, avoiding anti-torpedo nets and defences, to hit their targets.

Many of the spherical Highball bouncing bombs were tested on Loch Striven, with bombers from RAF Turnberry flying up the loch to bounce their bombs towards old ships which were used as targets.

Footage from the tests was gathered for analysis by photographers from the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment (MAEE) at RAF Helensburgh and was eventually seen by hundreds of thousands of people after it was used in the 1955 film “The Dam Busters”.

The project to raise the Highball bombs is an important one as there are currently no examples on public display.  The recovered munitions will eventually be re-homed in the Brooklands Museum in Surrey and de Havilland Aircraft Museum in Hertfordshire in time for the 75th anniversary of the Dam Busters raid next year.

There's more at the link, including more photographs.

This is a fascinating piece of military history, and something I'd never expected.  I'd thought that the testing prototypes would have been recovered at the time, or would long since have rotted away.  It's amazing that they've survived this long, and in such good condition.

Here's actual World War II footage of the 'Highball' tests, including some at Loch Striven.  It's silent, so don't adjust your speakers.

If it's given to our souls to know about such events after our deaths, I daresay there are a number of the shades of the members of 617 Squadron, and others involved in the development and use of 'bouncing bombs', who are smiling nostalgically, somewhere up there . . .


Transgenders in the military - some practical considerations

President Trump made headlines yesterday by announcing his opposition to allowing transgendered persons to serve in the US armed forces.

I don't propose to go into moral and/or ethical considerations regarding the ability of transgendered persons - about whom I've written before - to serve in the US armed forces.  I have opinions on the matter, but so has everyone else.  There's no point in debating feelings and emotions, when what's needed is a hard-headed, medical/scientific approach to the transgender issue in general, and a practical approach to their military service in particular.

As anyone who's served in any reputable military will confirm, the basic training through which all recruits must pass is designed to form individuals into members of a group.  The training frequently consists of team evolutions.  If a team fails because one or more individuals can't or won't make their required contribution, the whole team is punished.  The implied lesson is that either you work together, or you fail.  In the South African armed forces in the 1970's, it was not at all uncommon for recruits or trainees to physically assault the person or persons who caused the group to fail.  What's more, this was implicitly encouraged, and certainly tolerated, by those in command.  It was a grim, sometimes brutal lesson in "get with the program, or else!"  Sometimes suicides resulted.  Fortunately, today that sort of thing is much more rare . . . but I'm willing to bet it still happens.

That attitude of group rather than individual focus continues into military service proper.  A ship's crew must work together at all times to operate and safeguard their vessel.  If any one person fails to do his or her job, it places everyone else aboard at risk.  There's no room for 'special snowflakes' who want to do their own thing.  The same applies, more or less, to army units on patrol or in combat, or an air force squadron where everyone - air and ground personnel alike - has to pull together to accomplish the mission they're assigned.  It's a team approach.

This is why the introduction of women into physically demanding combat roles in the armed forces has created such controversy among military veterans.  We know, historically and experientially, the demands placed upon personnel in a war situation (and, let's face it, the fundamental reason that an armed force exists is to fight).  No matter how you slice it, there's no way on earth that any woman I've ever known can exert as much physical strength in combat as a man can.  You need to have timbers and plates manhandled into position to plug a leak aboard ship, and stop it sinking?  You need to drag or carry a combat casualty for dozens, perhaps hundreds of yards, to get them out of the danger zone to where their wounds can be treated - and then go back for the others?  You need to hurriedly refuel and rearm a combat aircraft, or load supplies into a transport, to get it back into the air and 'on task' as quickly as possible?  All those activities, and many more, require the maximum possible exertion and physical capability.  I don't care how fit and strong a woman is, she will never, repeat, never be capable of performing such activities at the same level as a fit and strong man, even if they're of comparable size and heft.  It's a physiological reality, not a matter of opinion.  This may become, literally, a life-threatening problem.

(Let me emphasize that I mean no disrespect to women by saying that.  My strength training coach is a woman, for whom I have great respect;  and I've had female superior officers during my military service, and supervisors or managers during my commercial career, whom I also respected.  They didn't have to be physically stronger than me to earn that respect, because physical strength wasn't an issue.  However, we're not talking about that sort of thing here.  I specifically referred to women in physically demanding combat roles.  In that instance, in almost every circumstance, sooner or later, physical capability is a factor.  I know.  BTDT.)

This immediately brings up the first issue with transgender persons in the military.  According to what standards of physical performance are they to be measured?  A male 'transitioning' to female is likely to be stronger and more physically capable than the women around him, because - with vanishingly few 'intersex' exceptions - his chromosomes, his physical makeup, are still male.  He/she will likely outperform the physical performance standards established for women.  However, a female 'transitioning' to male cannot and never will measure up to the physical performance standards established for men, because - with vanishingly few 'intersex' exceptions - her chromosomes, her physical makeup, are still female.  How can a self-proclaimed, formerly-female 'male' suffering under such a limitation be accepted by a unit relying on typically male strength to repair damage, rescue casualties, or perform any of the dozens of other tasks that require performance at the level of the physical standards established for men?  The units in which I served would have a short, very simple (and undoubtedly profane) answer to that question.  It can literally be a matter of life or death - so feelings and opinions simply don't count.  Reality bites.

There's also the issue of "keeping one's eye on the ball".  Armed forces exist to fight wars.  That's their primary purpose.  There are others, such as aid to the civil power in disaster situations, or 'showing the flag', or what have you;  but all of those go by the board when war comes.  Training, equipment, organization, and everything else must be focused on and serve that basic purpose, or that armed force will fail when asked to do its job.  Even if it doesn't completely fail, it will take unnecessary casualties, lose far more equipment than necessary, or handicap itself in other ways, before it can get its head out of its collective fundament, re-focus on essentials, and eventually succeed.

It's been my (admittedly limited) experience that most (but certainly not all) transgendered people exhibit greater or lesser psychological or psychiatric issues.  They demand attention;  they demand acceptance;  they demand tolerance.  They aren't willing to shut up and demonstrate, by the way they live, that they're valuable members of society who can be judged and accepted (or otherwise) on the basis of what they do.  Instead, they're vocal in demanding acceptance based on their own (in most cases, medically flawed) definition of what they consider themselves to be.  That can't and won't work in the case of a unit preparing to fight.  It has to keep its eye on the ball, and perform as a team.  There's no time and no place for special snowflakes demanding special consideration and/or treatment.  I'd say four out of five transgendered individuals in my experience (and I know, or have known, a couple of dozen of them) simply could not function like that.

Allied to that group focus is the basic reaction of normal human beings to what's out of the ordinary.  It's all very well to say that people must change their ideas, and accept as normal what they have culturally been raised to regard as abnormal, even disgusting.  That doesn't happen very easily even in civil society, where there's time to make one's case, and the opportunity for leisurely discussion and a slow evolution of cultural and social norms.  (It sometimes results in tragedy - for example, as was reported this week in both Maryland and Mississippi.)  It's far less easy to make it happen in the stress of the military environment.  I've heard many complaints from military friends of mine that so-called 'sensitivity training', and other officially-mandated forms of political correctness and cultural relativity, are consuming so much time out of the training schedule that their units' military preparedness and readiness is suffering.  When you have to take so much time, and make so much effort, in an attempt to change human nature, you have to accept that your warfighting ability will suffer accordingly.  That's reality.  You can't expect your armed forces to be as strong as you want them to be when you're wasting their time on non-military activities like this!  What's more, you can't expect average troops to shed their instinctive cultural and social reactions under the stress of combat, when reactions are automatic and instinctive - because if they're not, you die!

Finally, there are financial issues.  I've been informed (but have no way of confirming) that after the Obama administration relaxed military recruitment standards to encourage transgendered persons to enlist, there was a wave of applicants who expected the military to pay for their transition (including surgery, hormone treatments, ongoing counseling, etc.).  This would have entailed costs of at least several hundred thousand dollars per individual during their service;  some said the overall costs of establishing and maintaining such programs, in armed forces that had never needed them before, might amount to millions of dollars per individual.  I'm sorry, but I have no sympathy whatsoever for such recruits.  If they want to transition, let them do so in their own time, on their own dime.  As a taxpayer, I see no reason whatsoever why they should do so on mine!  The military claims to have insufficient funds to do all it wants and needs to do.  Why should more of its limited resources be diverted from its primary task to pay for their personal needs?

For all those reasons, I think President Trump is correct in his decision to prevent transgendered people from serving in the armed forces.  I doubt there's any personal animus involved, or distaste, or any sort of sexual or gender discrimination.  Furthermore, I don't think it has anything to do with their being 'worthy' or not (as one former SEAL has alleged).  I think it's purely and simply a matter of practicality.

I also think that the arguments advanced by some, that transgendered persons can serve perfectly well in non-combat roles, are dubious at best.  Sooner or later, in any typical armed service, many non-combatants end up in a combat zone, and all too often in combat as well.  Examples are legion.  When that happens, all my reservations outlined above come into play;  so I don't think an exception should be made for non-combat positions.  I don't see this as discrimination.  I see it as understanding and accepting reality.

If some of my readers disagree, let's discuss the issue in comments below this post.  Let me say, however, that if dissenters have not experienced combat, I don't believe they can fully understand the realities of military life.  It adds a dynamic all its own.  It's like the difference between sex education and sex training.  The first is academic.  The second . . . not so much;  and, once experienced, one's understanding changes radically and completely.  That's just the way it is.


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Feeling old, redux

Last week I linked to a series of photographs that made me feel awfully old.  Well, looks like I'm not alone.  Stephan Pastis appears to get sort of that way, too.

Click the image to be taken to a larger version at the 'Pearls Before Swine' Web page.


Amazing aerobatics in Moscow

This is the aerial display by the Sukhoi Su-35 fighter at the MAKS 2017 air show in Moscow, Russia, last week.  The aircraft has very powerful engines, giving a thrust-to-weight ratio much better than 1:1, and also boasts thrust vectoring nozzles, allowing it to use engine thrust to augment its already impressive maneuverability.  Its agility puts most other aircraft in its class to shame.

Watch the video in full-screen mode for best results.

(EDITED TO ADD:  The first video I embedded was taken down.  Here's another, of the same display.)

I'd say the Su-35 is probably the best kinetic-energy dogfighting aircraft out there today . . . although that's not necessarily a war-winning attribute, in an age of stealth technology, long-range air-to-air missiles and active electronically-scanned radar arrays.  Nevertheless, if it comes down to knife-fighting range in future aerial combat, the Su-35 would seem to have a great many advantages.


We can't spare President Trump. He fights.

So says Evan Sayet.  Here's an excerpt.

The Left has been engaged in a war against America since the rise of the Children of the ‘60s.   To them, it has been an all-out war where nothing is held sacred and nothing is seen as beyond the pale.  It has been a war they’ve fought with violence, the threat of violence, demagoguery and lies from day one – the violent take-over of the universities – till today.

The problem is that, through these years, the Left has been the only side fighting this war.  While the Left has been taking a knife to anyone who stands in their way, the Right has continued to act with dignity, collegiality and propriety.

With Donald Trump, this all has come to an end.  Donald Trump is America’s first wartime president in the Culture War.

During wartime, things like “dignity” and “collegiality” simply aren’t the most essential qualities one looks for in their warriors.  Ulysses Grant was a drunk whose behavior in peacetime might well have seen him drummed out of the Army for conduct unbecoming.  Had Abraham Lincoln applied the peacetime rules of propriety and booted Grant, the Democrats might well still be holding their slaves today.   Lincoln rightly recognized that, “I cannot spare this man.  He fights.”

General George Patton was a vulgar-talking, son-of-a-bitch.  In peacetime, this might have seen him stripped of rank.  But, had Franklin Roosevelt applied the normal rules of decorum, then Hitler and the Socialists would barely be five decades into their thousand-year Reich.

Trump is fighting.  And what’s particularly delicious is that, like Patton standing over the battlefield as his tanks obliterated Rommel’s, he’s shouting, “You magnificent bastards, I read your book!”  That is just the icing on the cake, but it’s wonderful to see that not only is Trump fighting, he’s defeating the Left using their own tactics.

That book is Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals – a book so essential to the Liberals’ war against America that it is and was the playbook for the entire Obama administration and the subject of Hillary Clinton’s senior thesis.   It is a book of such pure evil, that, just as the rest of us would dedicate our book to those we most love or those to whom we are most indebted, Alinsky dedicated his book to Lucifer.

Trump’s tweets may seem rash and unconsidered but, in reality, he is doing exactly what Alinsky suggested his followers do.

. . .

So, to my friends on the Left – and the #NeverTrumpers as well -- do I wish we lived in a time when our president could be “collegial” and “dignified” and “proper”?  Of course I do.   These aren’t those times.  This is war.  And it’s a war that the Left has been fighting  without opposition for the past 50 years.

So, say anything you want about this president – I get it, he can be vulgar, he can be crude, he can be undignified at times.  I don’t care.  I can’t spare this man.  He fights.

There's more at the link.

Oscar Wilde said that "You can always judge a man by the quality of his enemies".  Well, given that President Trump's enemies are, in the main, politicians, that's not very high quality at all;  and given that they're from across the political spectrum, that can't all be laid at the feet of leftists.  Nevertheless, to annoy, outrage and just plain piss off so many politicians and liberals is quite an achievement in itself.  Methinks Mr. Sayet has a point.

Perhaps we should adopt another of President Lincoln's reactions to the problematic General U. S. Grant.

After the failure of his first experimental explorations around Vicksburg, a committee of abolition war managers waited upon the President and demanded the General’s removal, on the false charge that he was a whiskey drinker, and little better than a common drunkard. “Ah!” exclaimed Honest Old Abe, “you surprise me, gentlemen. But can you tell me where he gets his whiskey?” “We cannot, Mr. President. But why do you desire to know?” “Because, if I can only find out, I will send a barrel of this wonderful whiskey to every general in the army.”

It would, of course, have to be Trump-branded single malt whiskey. A man's got to make a profit, after all.


Lawdog goes dead tree!

'The Lawdog Files', which blasted its way into bestseller territory upon its release in e-book format less than two weeks ago, is now available in paperback.

I couldn't be happier for Lawdog's success.  He's been a friend for the best part of two decades, and to see his work so popular is warm, fuzzy happiness for his buddies.  He's hard at work right now, finishing some new material for the second volume, 'The Lawdog Files: African Adventures'.

I'm sure his fans will be delighted to learn that Brigadier-Captain Azikiwe, the anti-hero of the infamous Ratel Saga, will feature in the new material.  Lawdog's told us a few stories about him, over and above those that appeared on his blog, and some are now being prepared for publication.

The second volume is already available for pre-order on Amazon, and should be released early next month.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Quote of the day

From friend in meat- and cyberspace, fellow author and blogger, Daddybear:

If the people inside my head would learn to wait their turn, I’d be a lot more productive.

I know exactly whereof he speaks . . .


And now for something alcoholically different

Youtube has a large number of videos purporting to show Irish people trying various things from other countries.  Some are very amusing, including this one, where they try half a dozen varieties of American moonshine.  Love the reactions as their alcohol level rises and their inhibitions fall!

Given that Ireland's the home of potheen, and the source of uisce beatha, I'd thought they'd have liked moonshine more.  Oh, well . . .


Photographic evidence of the auto industry's dilemma

In a comment to my previous post, reader 'A Texan' pointed me to the blog of a lady in California.  In recent weeks she's photographed several parking lots, at defunct shopping malls and offices, that are being used as storage areas for a glut of unsold new vehicles.  Here's just one example.

Here are her blog posts, with pictures and (frequently snarky) comments:

She mentions how many of the cars have been standing there for up to a year, perhaps longer.  Their protective plastic coatings have weathered away, and they're extremely dirty.  My concern is that they haven't been run in all that time, either.  How many times have we seen mice, squirrels and other critters making nests in idle engines - and chewing their way through cables, pipes, tubes and wiring in the process?  How many engines can handle standing idle for that long, never being turned over, without risking damage when they're finally put into service?  Finally, just think of the financial burden represented by all those photographs.  There are hundreds of millions of dollars tied up in those overstocked vehicles in her part of California alone.  How much is tied up across the nation?

It's not just the USA, either.  Some years ago, Business Insider ran a photo essay titled 'Unsold Cars Around the World'.  Here's just one image from it, showing thousands of new cars being stored on the runway and taxiways of an unused Royal Air Force base in England.

There are many more photographs at the link.  They make sobering viewing - and the situation has gotten considerably worse since they were taken.  Late last year, the Detroit News reported:

At the end of November, the U.S. auto industry had nearly 4 million vehicles in inventory, or a 72 days supply, according to IHS. Automakers typically want to see a healthy level of between 60 and 65 days supply, IHS says.

The industry has 250,000 or 260,000 units of excess inventory “that kind of needs to be weaned from the system,” said Joe Langley, IHS principal analyst for North America light vehicle forecasting.

Again, more at the link.

The inventory and over-production situation has gotten significantly worse this year.

The imbalance was especially acute at General Motors, which entered March with a 123-day supply of cars and an 81-day supply of light trucks. Its Buick Division had an overall 167-day supply, the most of any U.S. brand. Buick's car stocks jumped to 239 days vs. 79 days a year earlier.

By comparison, Ford Motor and Fiat Chrysler US have sharply trimmed production of slow-selling cars in the first quarter. They were the only two of the seven best-selling automakers to reduce total March 1 inventory units from Feb. 1. Compared with a year ago, Ford's March 1 inventory fell 77,200 units to 678,300 and FCA was down almost 100,000 to 578,800 units.

In units, industry inventory stands at 4.1 million, up almost 300,000 from a year ago and the highest for any month since July 2004.

More at the link.

In other words, General Motors could sell cars for 123 days - a third of a year - at its normal rate without manufacturing a single new vehicle.  How much money is tied up in that inventory?  Think billions of dollars.  What's more, that overhang in new vehicle supply is going to be made far worse by the glut of vehicles coming off-lease over the next few years, all of which must be re-sold as used vehicles - over and above getting rid of the glut of new cars.

I stand by what I said in my previous post.  The US vehicle industry is in dire straits, and I don't see how it can survive in its present form.


Proof the US auto industry is in serious trouble

"Follow the money" is one of the oldest truisms.  Sooner or later, if you want to know the truth about something, or someone, or some industry, find out where the money is going, watch how it's being raised, see how it's being spent . . . and draw your own conclusions.

We've already seen how the US auto industry (and Europe's, too, for that matter) is threatened by a tidal wave of vehicles coming off lease over the next few years, as well as technological obsolescence.  Used car prices are predicted to drop by as much as 50% over the next few years, which will undoubtedly force new car prices to decrease as well - otherwise few will be willing to pay them, since the new-to-used differential will be so great.

There's another reason why vehicle prices are going to have to drop.  It looks as if many of us are struggling to afford them at any cost.  The Wall Street Journal recently reported:

The average price of a new car is now $31,000, up $3,000 in the past four years. But at the same time, the average monthly car payment edged down, to $460 from $465—the result of longer loan terms and lower interest rates.

In the final quarter of 2012, the average term of a new car note stretched out to 65 months, the longest ever, according to Experian Information Solutions Inc. Experian said that 17% of all new car loans in the past quarter were between 73 and 84 months and there were even a few as long as 97 months. Four years ago, only 11% of loans fell into this category.

Such long term loans can present consumers and lenders with heightened risk. With a six- or seven-year loan, it takes car-buyers longer to reach the point where they owe less on the car than it is worth. Having “negative equity” or being “upside down” in a car makes it harder to trade or sell the vehicle if the owner can’t make payments.

There's more at the link.

Jalopnik elaborates that there's a significant downside to longer-term loans.

These extra-long car loan terms seem good for new car buyers because they help keep the payments down, ideally under $500 a month. But as the story notes, it takes buyers much longer to reach the point where they owe less on the car than it is worth.

In the meantime, you're spending all that money each month for years at a time on a depreciating asset when it could be better spent on other things, like a mortgage or building up a savings account. You also may end up paying a ridiculous amount in interest over those years.

Again, more at the link.

Think about it.
  • 73 months = 6 years, 1 month - 50% longer than most people spend in high school, or to earn a 4-year undergraduate degree.
  • 84 months = 7 years - even worse.
  • 97 months = 8 years, 1 month - twice as long as most people spend in high school, or take to earn a 4-year undergraduate degree.

That's an awful long time to burden oneself with an auto loan, on top of existing debt such as study loans, credit cards, lines of credit, etc. (to say nothing of a housing loan).  What if you want to get married during the term of your auto loan?  You now have to carry that expense into your new (and hopefully lifelong) relationship, burdening your partner with it, even though the vehicle you bought may not be suitable for a couple (particularly if they plan to have children).  If you need a more suitable vehicle, as Jalopnik warns, you may be 'upside-down' on your loan (i.e. owe more than the vehicle is worth), and therefore have to take out an even larger loan to buy what you need.

There's another factor to consider.  I've written on many occasions about the real rate of inflation, as compared to the 'official' rate (which is deliberately understated to a ridiculous extent, so as to hold down mandated-by-law increases in entitlement costs).  The inflation-adjusted cost of a motor vehicle is claimed to be relatively constant over time.  (Click the chart for a larger view.)

However, average US incomes have not kept pace with the real level of inflation over time.  Even using the deliberately-skewed, politically-correct, understated 'official' inflation rate, the bottom three quintiles show a decline:

When one uses a more realistic measurement of inflation, as we discussed last year, the inflation rate - and the resultant decline in effective household income - is far greater.  Put in its simplest terms, most US households currently have significantly less disposable income, in terms of the buying power of their money, than they had in previous decades.  Therefore, while auto prices may have held reasonably steady in inflation-adjusted dollars, the incomes of those who buy them have not.  They're now effectively much lower.  (If you doubt this, do your own measurement.  Compare the cost of typical groceries and supplies for your household in 1997, in 2007, and this year.  I guarantee you, the cost difference will be much greater than can be accounted for by the official rate of inflation!  My wife and I reckon our expenses for normal household groceries and supplies have more than doubled over the past ten years;  yet our personal incomes have not grown to anything like the same extent.  I'll be surprised if you haven't seen something similar.)

That's why the duration of auto loans has had to increase.  People no longer have sufficient disposable income to afford both their normal living expenses, and the monthly payments on that auto loan over a more 'conventional' term.  That's also why many US cars are now sold through short-term leases rather than auto loans - because  loan payments are simply too high.  To take a wider perspective, it's also why most housing mortgages have stretched from fifteen to thirty years, in most cases, and why most people can't afford to put down a deposit of more than one or two per cent on their homes - and therefore are very, very vulnerable to another housing downturn.  (When Miss D. and I bought our house in Texas, a year and a half ago, I was told by the bank official handling our loan application that we were the first couple in six months to have taken out a 15-year loan, putting down a 20% deposit.  This is, apparently, simply impossible for most couples today.  That's a very scary thought!)

Putting all those factors together, I'd say the US auto industry is in very serious trouble indeed.  Many of its customers simply can't afford its vehicles at their current price levels;  and even those who can, often have to stretch out their auto loans to unconscionable lengths to reduce the monthly payment, thereby crippling themselves with additional interest charges (and affecting their ability to access other forms of credit, for the duration of the auto loan).  In order to sell cars to those who can't afford even such extended payment terms, the industry has hamstrung itself by leasing millions of vehicles.  As those short-term leases expire, they will vastly increase used-car inventories, making it impossible to both resell them all, and simultaneously sell more new cars, all at present, inflated prices.  The industry has been hoist on its own petard.

Herbert Stein famously said that "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop."  I rather suspect that's about to happen to the US auto industry in its present form.  Unless it changes, it'll simply price itself out of its own market . . . and that'll leave it nowhere to go.


Monday, July 24, 2017

They're at it again!

Lots more rally action here, after last week's two videos on the subject.  A lot of this is inside-the-cab video, which gives a new and very scary perspective on just how fast things can go wrong.



Charlie Gard: the inevitable result of a post-Christian world

I'm sure my readers have been following the sorry, tragic saga of Charlie Gard.

The real issue here is, who has parental authority over a child?  Is it the infant's natural, physical parents?  Or are they merely acting as custodians for the State?  In a post-Christian world, the latter view appears to be in the ascendant - and that should trouble not only Christians, but anyone who favors individual rights, freedoms and liberties over the authority of the 'nanny State'.

Charlie’s parents, Chris and Connie, have raised over a million dollars to bring Charlie over to America for an experimental treatment. But England’s health service seems to believe they know better than Charlie’s own parents. The National Health Service, NHS, told his parents he should be left to “die with dignity.”

Socialized medicine takes the human element out of health care and looks at illnesses and diseases in a strictly cost-based, quantitative view. If the likelihood of survival is low, the “national health experts” won’t take the “risk” with treatment. Never mind that the parents have already made plans to take the risk somewhere else.

However, the Charlie Gard case speaks to the ... redefinition of marriage in a broader, cultural sense. And this immorality affects medical care and health insurance, which leads to a socialized medicine with a subhuman view of man, while bestowing deity-like prominence on the State.

It isn’t just about denying parental rights in the medical treatment and health care of Chris and Connie’s child. It is denying they are even Charlie’s ultimate parents at all.

. . .

Charlie Gard isn’t just an example of the failures of socialized medicine. You’re thinking too small. It is the denial of true liberty.

There's more at the link.

This case is a direct, immediate warning to Americans of the likely consequences of single-payer health care.  The Chicago Tribune points out:

Why does the British government have such wide authority over Charlie's treatment? One big reason: Because the government funds a single-payer health system, picking up medical costs for British citizens.

We imagine many Americans reassure themselves that this country's largely private system of health insurance would never be so dismissive of a parent's right to make decisions about a child's health care. Or deny a parent the right to take a child home to die.

But this medical drama, no matter anyone's opinion, foreshadows the difficult decisions to come if America converts its medical insurance system into a single-payer model. (Note that "single-payer" is a euphemism for government-controlled health spending and care.)

The prospect of single-payer here isn't far-fetched: Medicare and Medicaid already account for about 38 percent of U.S. health care spending. Democratic politicians have floated the notion of lowering the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 55, or of a broader Medicare-for-all. Before Obamacare became law in 2010, there also was talk of a so-called public option — a government-run plan — to compete with private plans on market exchanges. That was widely seen as a Trojan horse for single-payer.

. . .

Bottom line: Single-payer is no panacea. Free treatment isn't free. Somebody — everybody — pays. To which proponents of single-payer would retort: Private insurers aren't models of generosity: Sometimes they pay for costly new treatments, sometimes they don't.

Chris Gard and Connie Yates probably never thought they'd be in this predicament, arguing with the British government about whether they could take a child home to die. Nor could anyone predict that a critically ill infant far from U.S. shores would provide one more reason for Americans to remain wary of a single-payer system.

Again, more at the link.

When Obamacare was introduced, there was much talk about so-called 'death panels'.  Opponents of the law warned of them;  supporters derided the very idea.  Well, the case of Charlie Gard demonstrates conclusively that in the absence of a morality that values human life as worthwhile in and of itself, even in the absence of any reference to a Divinity;  that sees human life as intrinsically valuable, rather than measuring that value in terms of dollars and cents . . . death panels are inevitable.  The British courts are, right now, functioning as a death panel in the case of Charlie Gard.

As a retired pastor, you'll understand that my own position on this is clear.  Others will doubtless differ.  Nevertheless, I pray most sincerely that God will protect young Charlie Gard from those who would see him dead, rather than allow his parents to spend their own funds and those donated by supporters, to give him a chance at life.  If his death is inevitable, let it occur;  but let it not be dictated by bureaucratic fiat, or imposed by a godless, indifferent State, overriding the wishes of his parents.

For the rest of us . . . the case of Charlie Gard illustrates the perils of allowing the State to dictate what health care we may, or should, receive.  "He who pays the piper, calls the tune":  and if we allow the State to pay the piper, we should not be surprised to find that we have no say at all in what he plays.  I'm absolutely certain that in time, this will extend to telling older people that they may no longer consume the lion's share of health care dollars, as they have in the past.  It's more cost-effective to let them die, because their utility to society is less than that of younger, more productive, less unhealthy people.  If you think that won't happen, explicitly or implicitly, there's this bridge in Brooklyn, NYC I'd like to sell to you.  Going cheap!  Cash only, please, and in small bills.

We have been warned.


End of a long-drawn-out death

Readers will recall the saga of the wreck of the Costa Concordia cruise liner off the Italian coast in 2012.  It was raised from its watery grave in 2014, in what turned out to be the largest and most complex marine salvage operation in history, and towed to Genoa, where dismantling began.

The Ship Recycling Consortium has announced the completion of their task of scrapping the Costa Concordia.

Less than three years have passed since the arrival of the Concordia wreck in Genoa, on July 27th 2014. Below some of the most significant numbers of this project since the beginning of the operations:
  • Workforce employed: up to 350
  • Total effective hours worked: approximately 1 million
  • Companies and suppliers involved: 78 (98% of them are Italian)
  • Total recycled material: approximately 90%, equal to over 53,000 tons for almost 4,000 trips to recycling facilities in Italy
  • Total dismantled material: 8,000 tons with over 850 trips to dismantling facilities.

There's more at the link.

It's a sad farewell to a ship that should never have sunk, but for the tragic and criminally stupid actions of her Captain.  He began serving a 16-year prison sentence for his crimes in May.