What fax machines teach us about electric cars

Oh, god. Image: Getty.

Imagine if you could gas up your GM car only at GM gas stations. Or if you had to find a gas station servicing cars made from 2005 to 2012 to fill up your 2011 vehicle. It would be inconvenient and frustrating, right? This is the problem electric vehicle owners face every day when trying to recharge their cars. The industry’s failure, so far, to create a universal charging system demonstrates why setting standards is so important – and so difficult. The Conversation

When done right, standards can both be invisible and make our lives immeasurably easier and simpler. Any brand of toaster can plug into any electric outlet. Pulling up to a gas station, you can be confident that the pump’s filler gun will fit into your car’s fuel tank opening. When there are competing standards, users become afraid of choosing an obsolete or “losing” technology.

Most standards, like electrical plugs, are so simple we don’t even really notice them. And yet the stakes are high: Poor standards won’t be widely adopted, defeating the purpose of standardisation in the first place. Good standards, by contrast, will ensure compatibility among competing firms and evolve as technology advances.

My own research into the history of fax machines illustrates this well, and provides a useful analogy for today’s development of electric cars. In the 1960s and 1970s, two poor standards for faxing resulted in a small market filled with machines that could not communicate with each other. In 1980, however, a new standard sparked two decades of rapid growth grounded in compatible machines built by competing manufacturers who battled for a share of an increasing market. Consumers benefited from better fax machines that seamlessly worked with each other, vastly expanding their utility.

At present, there is not a single standard for plugs to recharge electric vehicles. That means that people who drive electric cars can’t rely on refueling at any of a wide range of nearly ubiquitous stations on street corners the way gas-vehicle drivers can. This creates an additional barrier, slowing the adoption of electric cars unnecessarily. Several potential standards are competing in the marketplace now; as we saw with fax systems, the sooner one standard becomes dominant, the sooner the electric vehicle market will take off.

Making a new standard

The two basic approaches to creating standards involve letting the market decide or forging a consensus among participants. Both have benefits and risks. A free-market approach often splits a young market into several competing and incompatible systems. Believing in their technical or commercial superiority, firms gamble that they will create de facto standards by dominating the market.

In reality, as my research into the first two attempts at standards for fax machines in the 1960s and 1970s showed, competing incompatible equipment can slow the growth of an entire market. In the case of the fax, poorly written standards attempted to codify into common use certain fax machine manufacturers’ methods for connecting two machines and sending information between them. As a result, many firms sold machines that could not work with other companies’ devices. Some manufacturers even deliberately made their machines incompatible to lock their customers into their equipment.

No single firm dominated the marketplace, and nobody agreed to use a single common standard. As a result, the fax world consisted of several smaller self-contained markets, not one larger market. And many potential users didn’t use faxes at all, preferring to wait until an obvious winning standard emerged.


Third time’s the charm

Crowning that winner can take many years. So can creating standards by consensus. In the meantime, the spread of fax technology stagnated.

But then a force outside the marketplace began to call for a real fax standard. In 1977, the Japanese government pushed competing Japanese firms and telephone corporations to cooperate and create one standard. The government then convinced the International Telecommunications Union to adopt this as the worldwide standard in 1980. What ensued was the fax boom of the 1980s and 1990s.

This standard found two keys to its success. First, it was royalty-free, meaning any company could adhere to the standard without paying a fee to its creators. (A similar approach decades earlier proved essential for the adoption of standard dimensions for shipping containers.) The Japanese officials and companies calculated that the profits from a larger market would more than compensate for any lost income from the lack of licensing fees.

A modern fax machine. Image: Johnny T/Wikimedia Commons.

Second, the standard was not so restrictive as to prevent fax machine manufacturers from introducing other features – such as faster transmission. That allowed companies to compete on more than just price. The result was a continued flow of new, more capable and cheaper machines that attracted new users.

The need for a standard for electric cars

Successfully commercialising electric vehicles will similarly depend on the development, acceptance and implementation of standards. So far, just as happened with fax machines, incompatible chargers have slowed the spread of electric cars.

Depending on the type of car and its age, it may have one of four incompatible chargers. If the charging station you pull up to lacks the appropriate charger for your car, you are out of luck.

People considering buying electric cars already worry about how far they could travel between recharge stops. Then they realise that they can’t use just any charging station, the way a gasoline-powered vehicle can use any gas station. That doesn’t relieve their concerns and dampens sales of electric vehicles.


Developing a standard

Like fax machines, electric vehicles’ incompatibility reflected both evolving technology and groups of manufacturers promoting their own systems in hopes of dominating the marketplace. Already, the first generation of chargers is essentially obsolete because they take so long to recharge a car battery.

The real battle is among the three incompatible fast charging systems available in the United States: the Japanese CHAdeMO, the European-American CCS and Tesla Supercharger. (China is developing its own standard.)

CHAdeMO works only with Japanese and Korean vehicles like the Nissan LEAF and Kia Soul. CCS works only with European and American cars like the BMW i3 and Chevy Spark. The third system, Tesla’s Supercharger, works only with Tesla’s own cars. Tesla sells its customers a $450 adapter to use a CHAdeMO charger but does not offer adapters that would let CHAdeMO or CCS vehicles use Tesla charging stations.

The end of the battle?

This three-way split is changing. In the last few years, Tesla has veered from its initial exclusivity to cooperation. In 2014, Tesla announced it would share its patents royalty-free – including its charger and plug designs – to encourage the spread of electric vehicle technology. In 2015, the company agreed to make its cars and charging stations compatible with China’s new standard, possibly by using adapters at charging stations.

And in 2016, Tesla joined CharIN, an industry group promoting the CCS standard. That raised the tempting possibility that the company might allow CCS charging at Tesla stations, probably by providing adapters. It also threw Tesla’s significant support behind an effort to create a new standard for even faster charging. This could lead CCS to market dominance, effectively establishing a standard by out-competing CHAdeMO.

Fax machines needed three generations of standards before real compatibility emerged, thanks to Japanese government pressure to cooperate. For electric vehicles, Telsa’s embrace of CharIN may provide that needed pressure. The real winner would be the cause of electric vehicles.

Jonathan Coopersmith is professor of history at Texas A&M University .

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How the pandemic is magnifying structural problems in America's housing market

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Long before Covid-19, the United States suffered from a housing crisis. Across the country, working class and low-income Americans struggled to pay rent, while the possibility of home ownership receded into fantasy. In hot markets, affordability became a struggle for even the middle class: In California, 41 percent of the population spends over a third of their income on housing costs. 

The coronavirus pandemic will only make these trends worse as millions are unable to work and the economy dives into a recession. Building could slow down in the medium term, as construction loans (risky bets in the best of times) become harder to come by. Unsubsidised affordable housing is often owned by small landlords, who are more likely to struggle during recessions, prompting flips to home ownership or sales to rental empires. 

New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty documented America’s longstanding housing crisis – and California’s efforts to battle it – in his book Golden Gates, which debuted just before the pandemic hit. “My sense is that right now coronavirus is magnifying a lot of things that were already happening,” Dougherty says.  


While Covid-19 adds new pressures, he says that many of the same issues we were facing still loom over the issue, from developers crowding the higher end of the market, to escalating construction costs, to stagnating wages and vulnerable service-sector jobs that leave ordinary Americans struggling to keep a roof over their heads. “That’s my larger message,” Dougherty says. “I think the structural problems continue to be a much bigger deal than the cyclical problem in housing.”

CityMetric spoke with Dougherty about how his thinking has changed since Covid-19, Donald Trump’s pro-suburban rhetoric, and the apparent exodus from San Francisco. 

I’ve really been struck by how strong the housing market seems to be despite the epic economic crisis we are facing. Costs seem to be higher everywhere. I've heard realtors talk about bidding wars like they haven't seen before in Philly, where I live. But perhaps that's just pent up demand from the big shutdowns?

What you have is an economy that has bifurcated. You have fewer middle-income jobs, more lower-income service jobs, and more higher-end jobs in software and finance. That's how our economy looks and that's a problem that is going to take the rest of our lives to solve. In the meantime, we have this housing market where one group of people have so much more money to spend than this other group. Cities reflect that. 

What's important about this bifurcation isn't just that you have gross inequality, but that these people have to live next to each other. You cannot be someone's Uber driver and telecommute. You cannot clean someone's house remotely. These lower-end service workers have to occupy the same general housing market as the super-high-end workers. 

All the pandemic has done is thrown that even more out of whack by creating a situation where one group of people is buying and expanding homes or lowering their home cost by refinancing, while another group are at income zero while trying to live in the same housing market with no demand for their services. When you see home prices booming and an eviction tsunami coming in the same newspaper, that tells you the same thing the book was trying to show you.

Does America writ large have the same housing shortage crisis as California and the Bay Area more specifically? There are other super hot markets, like New York City, Boston, or Seattle. But in Philly, or in Kansas City, is there really a lack of supply? 

There are three kinds of cities in America. There are the really out of control, fast-growing, rich cities: the Bay Area, Seattle, New York. There are declining Detroits and Clevelands, usually manufacturing-centric cities. Then there are sprawling Sun Belt cities. This book is by and large concerned with the prosperous cities. It could be Minneapolis, it could be Nashville. But the housing crisis in places like Cleveland is much more tied to poverty, as you pointed out. 

Those kinds of cities do have a different dynamic, although they still do have the same access to opportunity issues. For instance, there are parts of Detroit that are quite expensive, but they're quite expensive because that's where a lot of the investment has gone. That's where anybody with a lot of money wants to live. Then you have Sun Belt cities like Dallas and Houston, which are starting to become a lot more expensive as well. Nothing like the Bay Area, but the same forces are starting to take root there. 

I think that the Bay Area is important because throughout history, when some giant American industry has popped up, people have gone to Detroit or Houston. Now tech, for better or for worse, has become the industrial powerhouse of our time. But unlike Detroit in its time, it's very hard for people to get close to and enjoy that prosperity. There's a certain kind of city that is the future of America, it has a more intellectual economy, it's where new productive industries are growing. I think it's an outrage that all of them have these housing crises and it's considered some insane luxury to live there. 

A recent Zillow study seemed to show there hasn't been a flood of home sales in the pandemic that would signify a big urban exodus from most cities, with the glaring exception of San Francisco. Do you think that could substantially alleviate some of the cost pressure in the city proper?

On the one hand, I think this is about the general economy. If unemployment remains over 12% in San Francisco, yes, rent is going to be a lot cheaper. But is that really the reality we're all looking for? If restaurants and bars that were key to the city's cultural life remain shut, but rent is cheaper, is that what everyone wants? I bet you when this is all over, we're going to find out the tech people left at a much lower rate than others. Yes, they can all work from home, but what do you think has a bigger impact on a city: a couple of companies telling people they can work from home or the total immolation of entire industries basically overnight?

I don't want to make predictions right now, because we're in the middle of this pandemic. But if the city of San Francisco sees rents go down, well, the rent was already the most expensive in the nation. It falls 15%, 20%? How much better has that really gotten? Also, those people are going to go somewhere and unless they all move quite far away, you're still seeing these other markets picking up a lot of that slack. And those places are already overburdened. Oakland's homeless problem is considerably worse than San Francisco's. If you drive through Oakland, you will see things you did not think possible in the United States of America. 

Speaking of markets beyond San Francisco, you have a chapter about how difficult it is to build housing in the municipalities around big cities – many of which were just founded to hive off their tax revenues from low-income people.

That’s why you see Oregon, California, or the Democratic presidential candidates talking about shaking this up and devising ways to kick [zoning] up to a higher level of government. We've always done this whenever we've had a problem that seems beyond local governance. Like voting rights: you kick it to a higher body when the local body can't or won't solve it. 

But for better or for worse, this suburban thing is part of us now. We cannot just undo that. This notion of federalism and local control, those are important American concepts that can be fiddled with at the edges, but they cannot be wholesale changed. 

The first time I ever met Sonja Trauss [a leader of the Bay Area YIMBY group], she told me she wasn't super concerned about passing new laws but that the larger issue was to change the cultural perception of NIMBYism. We were living in a world where if you went to a city council meeting and complained about a multifamily development near your single-family house, you were not accosted for trying to pump up your property values or hoard land in a prosperous city. You were seen as a defender of the neighbourhood, a civically-minded person.

What is significant about YIMBYism is that the cultural tide is changing. There is this whole group of younger people who have absorbed a new cultural value, which is that more dense housing, more different kinds of people, more affordable housing, more housing options, is good. It feels like the tide is turning culturally and the movement is emblematic of that. I think that value shift will turn out to have been much more lasting than anything Scott Wiener ever does. Because the truth is, there are still going to be a bunch of local battles. Who shows up and how those places change from within probably will turn out to be more important. 

As you said, we've been seeing a lot of Democratic candidates with proposals around reforming zoning. How does Joe Biden's plan compare to the scope of the ambition in the field? 

There are two big ideas that you could pull from all the plans. First, some kind of renter's tax credit. It is obscene that we live in a country where homeowners are allowed to deduct their mortgage interest, but renters aren't. It is obscene that we live in a world where homeowners get 30-year fixed mortgages that guarantee their house payment pretty much for life and renters don't. If we think that it's a good idea to protect people from sudden shocks in their housing costs, that is as good of an idea for renters as it is for homeowners. 

I tell people that in this country, homeowners are living in the socialist hellscape of government intervention and price controls. Renters are living in the capitalist dream of variable pricing and market forces. Homeowners think they're living in this free market, but actually they're in the most regulated market – there are literally price controls propping up their market mortgages. 

Then there is Section 8 housing. Right now homeowners get access to the mortgage interest deduction. That programme is available to as many people as can use it, yet only about a quarter of the people eligible for Section 8 can get it. I think rectifying that is hugely important and a lot of the plans talked about that. 

The second big idea is using the power of the purse to incentivise people to more robustly develop their regions. You should have higher density housing in fancy school districts, near job centres, near transit. We're going to use the power of the purse to incentivise you, within the bounds of your own local rules, to do this right. Of course, that’s what Donald Trump is running against when he talks about Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH). 

When I was a local reporter in Philly, the city went through with that AFFH regulation despite Trump and HUD Secretary Ben Carson not being interested in enforcing it anymore. The city produced a fat report that maybe a few people read, but I don't think it changed policy. It's this phantom that Trump is running against, an ideal version of the policy that did not exist. It's also a phantom no one's heard of until Trump started tweeting about it. 

It’s been bizarre to watch. But Trump does seem to recognise that suburban politics don’t neatly fit into a red or blue construct. People who live in Texas and claim to want a free market system will turn around and erect local regulation to make sure nobody can build apartments near them. People in the Bay Area who claim to be looking for a more diverse place will use different logic, anti-developer logic, to keep apartments being built near them. 

People like that regardless of how they feel about things nationally. The bluntness with which Trump is doing it is discordant with the electorate and quixotic because people don't know what he's talking about. But the basic things he recognises – can I make voters feel like their neighbourhoods are threatened – he's onto something there. As with many things Trump, his tactics are so off-putting that people may ultimately reject them even if under the surface they agree.

You hear people on the left say the scary thing about Trump is that one day a good demagogue could come along. They're going to actually tax private equity people and they're actually going to build infrastructure. They're going to actually do a lot of popular stuff, but under a racist, nationalist banner. I think the suburban thing is a perfect example of that. There's a lot of voters even in the Bay Area who [would support that policy] in different clothing.

The world has changed completely since Golden Gates debuted just a few months ago. Has your thinking about housing issues changed as a result of the seismic disruptions we are living through?

The virus has done little more than lay itself on top of all of the problems I outline in the book. Whether we have an eviction tsunami or not, a quarter of renters were already spending more than half their income on rent. There's a chapter about overcrowded housing and how lower-income tenants are competing with each other by doubling, tripling, and quadrupling up for the scant number of affordable apartments. We now know that overcrowded housing is significantly more of a risk [for Covid-19] than, say, dense housing. If you live in a single-family home with 15 people in it, that's a lot more dangerous than 40 apartments in a four-story building.

Housing is just a proxy for inequality, it's a way of us building assets for one group at the exclusion of another. It is an expression of the general fraying of American society. I don't feel like that larger message has been affected at all, it's only been enhanced by the pandemic. With the caveat that this can all change, it just doesn't seem to me like there's some uber housing lesson we can learn from this – other than having a bunch of people crowded together is a really bad idea. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.