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Ashley Nunes

  • ‘Zero emissions’ from electric vehicles? Why that claim has zero basis

    October 31, 2022

    As California, New York, and other states move to phase out the sale of gasoline-powered cars, public officials routinely echo the Biden administration’s claim that…

  • ‘Zero Emissions’ From Electric Vehicles? Here’s Why That Claim Has Zero Basis

    October 27, 2022

    As California, New York, and other states move to phase out the sale of gasoline-powered cars, public officials routinely echo the Biden administration’s claim that…

  • The truth about the child tax credit

    October 21, 2022

    An article by Ashley Nunes: As Democrats celebrated the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, their glee was tempered by inaction over a long-standing…

  • Want to Fight Climate Change? Do It Yourself.

    August 30, 2022

    An op-ed by Ashley Nunes: President Biden finally has his climate bill. Earlier this month, America’s 46th president signed the Inflation Reduction Act. The move—which…

  • Illustration of an electric vehicle in a garage.

    Who should drive an electric vehicle?

    August 19, 2022

    Research by Ashley Nunes, Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program fellow, found that many electric vehicle owners are doing more environmental harm than good.

  • Poor mothers get shut out of the Child Tax Credit, our research finds

    May 4, 2022

    An article by Ashley Nunes: With the midterm elections coming, Democrats are trying to push through key legislative priorities — including renewing the child tax credit (CTC), which gives working parents a credit for each child and will expire in December 2025. No one doubts that it will be renewed; the credit has broad bipartisan public support. But what will it look like? That’s less clear. In general, Democrats want an expansive version that sends funds to parents in poverty, as was true briefly during the pandemic; Republicans want to return to a more restrictive version that gives working parents a lower tax bill — which means that people who don’t owe taxes don’t get the benefit. But in January, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) refused to support the expanded version in the Build Back Better social spending bill, which meant the bill couldn’t pass an evenly divided Senate.

  • Your Tesla is killing the planet

    April 19, 2022

    An article by Ashley Nunes: It’s now or never. That’s the message climate scientists have for politicians, policy wonks and anyone (and everyone) willing to listen. Members of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say that global carbon dioxide emissions must peak within the next three years to avert the most severe impacts of climate change. Their solution? Action that delivers, “rapid, deep and immediate” emissions cuts. For IPCC leadership, this entails “having the right policies, infrastructure and technology in place.”

  • Electric vehicle parking space marked with a green stencil of the letters

    Current electric vehicles subsidies fail to reduce overall emissions, says Harvard Law study

    April 7, 2022

    Subsidies offered by the federal government for the purchase of new electric vehicles (EVs) may actually increase total greenhouse gas emissions without similar aid for secondhand buyers, concludes a new study led by Ashley Nunes, Ph.D., a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program.

  • Re-thinking procurement incentives for electric vehicles to achieve net-zero emissions

    April 5, 2022

    An article co-written by Ashley Nunes: Procurement incentives are a widely leveraged policy lever to stimulate electric vehicle (EV) sales. However, their effectiveness in reducing transportation emissions depends on the behavioural characteristics of EV adopters. When an EV is used, under what conditions and by whom dictates whether or not these vehicles can deliver emissions reductions. Here, we document that replacing gasoline powered vehicles with EVs may—depending on behavioural characteristics—increase, not decrease, emissions. We further show that counterfactual vehicle inventory—how many vehicles a household would own absent an EV purchase—is an important influencer of these effects. We conclude that achieving emissions reductions using EVs requires redesigning procurement incentive programmes in a manner that (re)distributes incentives towards the second-hand EV market. Doing so would not only facilitate emissions reductions but also address fiscal prudency and regressivity concerns associated with these programmes.

  • Be Honest About What EVs Can and Cannot Do | Opinion

    March 31, 2022

    The following is a lightly edited transcript of remarks made by Ashley Nunes during a Newsweek podcast debate about EVs being the future of transportation. ... Electric vehicles seem like a good idea, because we are often told that they're cleaner to drive and cheaper to own. But when you dig a little deeper, a different truth emerges. Are EVs cleaner than existing alternatives? Not in China, or the United States — where major auto markets derive the bulk of their power from coal. Are EVs cheaper to operate? Yes, but only if you hold onto those cars for a longer period of time, because they have higher upfront costs. Proponents of EVs say that things will get better over time, because they've become cleaner, and costs have dropped. But past performance is certainly no guarantee of future return. I'm not saying that driving gas guzzlers is the way to go; I just think that we should be honest with the public about what EVs can and cannot do, particularly when public funds are used to back climate policies.

  • Electric vehicles don’t need gas, but the costs are racking up

    December 8, 2021

    An op-ed by Ashley Nunes: Americans fretting over gas prices could soon be in for relief. OPEC+ — a cartel of countries that controls some 80 per cent of proven oil reserves — last week hiked global production by an extra 400,000 barrels a day. Over a year, that’s enough to fill a large football stadium 53 times over. The result of boosting production? A drop in oil price. And when prices drop, if gas prices follow, consumers are happy. There is an alternative to relying on Saudi Arabia’s generosity: Going electric. When compared with gas guzzlers, electric vehicles (EVs) need less energy to move, which means more miles travelled per dollar spent. Electricity is also cheaper than gas, which delivers further savings. Hence, the White House’s penchant for all things electric. In a recent interview, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg stressed that families who buy EVs would, “never have to worry about gas prices again.” Perhaps. The ebb and flow of global oil production — and the ensuing impact on gas prices — admittedly matters little to EV users. Why should it? Foregoing gasoline affords the luxury of being unfazed by gasoline prices. In this regard, the Secretary isn’t wrong to tout EVs’ savings advantage. But his laser sharp focus on one type of saving should also be called out for what it truly is: a fiscal shell game that conveniently embraces one set of truths, while downplaying others.

  • Canada’s new airport testing rules are needlessly confusing

    December 6, 2021

    An op-ed by Ashley Nunes: A bumpy ride awaits Canadian travellers. On Tuesday, Ottawa unveiled new pandemic travel measures that are creating confusion for flyers. The move – spurred by the rise of the highly infectious Omicron variant – will require all incoming passengers from non-U.S. foreign destinations get another COVID-19 test when they land in Canada. The new testing requirement is in addition to the pre-departure test travellers must undergo before leaving for Canada. The move is being touted as necessary to keep Canadians safe. ... Look, I’m all for a science-based approach. Science should inform public policy and we need more scientists working in public policy. I’m also for packing an extra dose of patience. Enduring hardship well is a trait in short supply in public (and political) discourse, and society is poorer because of it. Unfortunately, Ottawa’s new pandemic travel measures aren’t particularly scientific, which has a knock-on effect on my patience. As I write this, I’m in Europe, and heading on a plane back to Canada tomorrow. Despite my best efforts to educate myself, I’m still confused about what to expect when I land.

  • Flying solo: Technology takes aim at co-pilots

    November 28, 2021

    Aircraft pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright had to resort to a coin toss to decide who would attempt the first powered flight, but almost all modern aviation relies on at least two pilots in the cockpit. That could soon change, as airlines and planemakers develop new technology that would rely to a greater extent on automation and eliminate the need for a co-pilot. ... Whether passengers will be willing to use a single-pilot plane depends largely on cost, according to Ashley Nunes, a research fellow at Harvard Law School.“For the average consumer, cash is king. If the price is low enough, you’re going to catch that flight,” he said. “The saga with the Boeing 737 MAX is a great example of this; in the aftermath of that particular event, large groups of consumers said, ‘We’re not going to fly that plane.’ And guess what? They’re flying it today.” But reducing the number of pilots on board may not in fact drive down airlines' costs and allow them to offer cheaper flights, Nunes warned: “There are numerous industries where you remove the human, your costs actually increase because of the amount of safety oversight that is required for the technology."

  • Sure, it would be better if Air Canada’s CEO spoke French, but it’s not essential

    November 8, 2021

    An op-ed by Ashley NunesQuebec’s language quagmire has long been a sore spot for politicians. Last week, Air Canada chief executive officer Michael Rousseau got in on the action. He delivered a near 30-minute speech at the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, during which he spoke in French for some 20 seconds. When later questioned about why – after 14 years in the province – his French language skills weren’t up to par, Mr. Rousseau responded, “I’ve been able to live in Montreal without speaking French, and I think that’s a testament to the city.” The outrage has been swift. Quebec Premier François Legault denounced Mr. Rousseau’s attitude as “insulting.” The province’s Minister Responsible for the French Language, Simon Jolin-Barrette, said that Mr. Rousseau showed “contempt for our language and our culture in Quebec” and subsequently opined that the CEO was “not worthy of his duties.” And then there’s Justin Trudeau. The Prime Minister called Mr. Rousseau’s position “an unacceptable situation,” adding that the Minister of Official Languages is “following up.”

  • Automation Doesn’t Just Create or Destroy Jobs — It Transforms Them

    November 3, 2021

    An op-ed by Ashley Nunes, Labor and Worklife Program fellow: The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of cutting-edge technologies. From contactless cashiers to welding drones to “chow bots” — machines that serve up salads on demand — automation is fundamentally transforming, rather than merely touching, every aspect of daily life. This prospect may well please consumers. Forsaking human folly for algorithmic (and mechanistic) perfection means better, cheaper, and faster service. But what should workers — who once provided these services — expect? Can they also benefit from technological progress? If so, how?

  • Will Canadians with mixed-vaccine doses be blocked from U.S. flights?

    October 1, 2021

    An op-ed by Ashley NunesMany Canadians hoping to visit the U.S. have been nervously eyeing incoming American travel regulations. Starting in November, the Biden administration will require that anyone flying into the U.S be fully vaccinated. Those who don’t comply will be refused entry. At first glance, the move, which is aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 locally, shouldn’t irk Canadians. We have a higher vaccination rate than Americans, and the Canadian government is also set to bring in rules requiring air travellers here to be vaccinated. However, the U.S. has yet to approve the mixing of COVID-19 vaccines, meaning large numbers of Canadians who had two different shots might not be considered vaccinated south of the border.

  • Want to save the planet? Share a ride

    September 16, 2021

    An op-ed by Ashley Nunes, a research fellow at Harvard Law School: “We don’t have any more time” was Joe Biden’s outcry last week as he urged climate action after visiting hurricane-wracked New Jersey. The storm made landfall in Louisiana before roaring up the East Coast. Along the way, it unleashed flash floods, fast-moving tornadoes, and high speed winds that prompted the evacuation of thousands and caused over 50 deaths. Biden’s response? A public spending hike he says will better protect Americans. The president’s $1.2tn infrastructure deal and a $3.5tn spending package — which are working their way through Congress — is stuffed with green goodies like power lines that can carry more renewable energy, upgraded insulation for homes and, most notably, subsidies for electric autos. ...Luckily, when it comes to curbing emissions, there’s a solution. It doesn’t rely on electrification, automation, or any other technological knowhow, but it’s got teeth. It’s called ride-sharing. Our work shows that were the public to forego individual trips in favour of communal ones, emissions would fall and fall fast.

  • Electric robotaxis may not be the climate solution we were led to believe

    August 31, 2021

    For years, we’ve been told that electric autonomous taxis can help fight climate change by reducing air pollution. But new research from Harvard Law School suggests these supposedly “zero emissions” vehicles could actually exacerbate many of the problems we are facing today. A new study led by Ashley Nunes, a fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, concluded that fleets of electric autonomous taxis could “dramatically increase energy consumption and emissions that contribute to climate change — not reduce them.” “While electric vehicles themselves have lower emissions than traditional gasoline-powered ones, our work shows that deploying electric robocabs en masse on America’s streets could actually increase the number of trips, miles driven, and overall emissions,” Nunes said in a release.

  • Fleet of autonomous vehicles

    Robocabs could make climate change worse, say researchers at Harvard, MIT

    August 24, 2021

    A new study led by Dr. Ashley Nunes, a fellow at the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, concluded that, counterintuitively, fleets of electric, autonomous taxis could dramatically increase energy consumption and emissions that contribute to climate change — not reduce them.

  • If Belarus believed the Ryanair flight was a threat, it had authority to make it land. That’s a big if.

    May 24, 2021

    An article by Ashley Nunes: Earlier Sunday, a commercial jet — scheduled to fly from Greece to Lithuania — made an emergency landing in Belarus. The intended destination of the Ryanair flight was Vilnius. Passengers and crew members ended up in Minsk instead. Radar data shows the plane flying through Belarusian airspace headed toward Lithuania. As the plane approaches the Lithuanian border, however, it makes a sharp right turn and heads toward the Belarusian capital. Belarusian state media outlets say the diversion was prompted by a bomb scare, which caused local authorities to scramble a military jet to escort the plane to Minsk. After the plane landed, passengers and crew members underwent additional security screening and were subject to “verification activities.” Luggage and personal items were also subject to additional security checks. Among the passengers was Roman Protasevich. The Belarusian journalist is the former editor of NEXTA, the opposition Telegram network, and has long been critical of the Belarusian political establishment.

  • The Biden administration shouldn’t ignore hybrid cars

    April 28, 2021

    An op-ed by Ashley Nunes: It pays to own a car. Earnings rise when an auto sits in the driveway. But car ownership comes at a price. Transportation is a leading cause of greenhouse gases and the bulk of these emissions come from personal autos; coupes, vans and wagons that ferry consumers everywhere from work to the grocery store to weekend soccer practice. Electrification would help. So-called EVs, are less reliant on fossil fuel for power and less fossil fuel reliance means fewer greenhouse gas emissions. This makes EVs a greener alternative to the status quo. But EVs pose a thorny challenge. The technology remains pricier than gasoline powered autos. And few things influence car sales like sticker price. The solution is purportedly subsidies. Nothing – we are told - tempers sticker shock like government handouts. Joe Biden certainly thinks so. America’s 46th President recently announced $174 billion in federal funding to realize an EV nirvana. The move – Biden argues – will, “unify and mobilize the country” to address climate change, and “reduce the impacts of climate change for our kids.”

  • Electric cars aren’t the climate-change answer Joe Biden is selling you

    April 21, 2021

    An op-ed by Ashley NunesAmerica is going green. Recently, President Joe Biden unveiled plans to accelerate the transition toward electric cars. The move — neatly packaged as the American Jobs Plan — is being sold as a way to “unify and mobilize the country to meet the great challenges of our time: the climate crisis and the ambitions of an autocratic China.” In recent years, Beijing has fared well in the race to build, and sell, green technology. No more. Instead, expect the American Jobs Plan to help us “out-compete China" and, more important, “reduce the impacts of climate change for our kids.” Victory won’t come cheap of course. The White House pegs the total cost of the plan at $2 trillion. Then again, with more than $28 trillion in national debt, $2 trillion seems like a bargain. The White House wants $174 billion of that directed toward boosting electric car sales. Fossil fuel use in transportation is significant, and gas-guzzling autos are one reason why. Electric cars — admittedly cleaner by almost every metric — offer relief. Well, they would if people could actually afford them. Forgoing gas is pricy, preserving the status quo less so. Which explains why only 2% of autos soldannually are powered by electricity.

  • Hype versus reality – getting some perspective on the future of cars

    February 11, 2021

    From ridesharing to electric cars to self-driving vehicles the line between application, potential and promise is often very blurry. In this episode we take a reality check on the future direction of the automotive industry. Guests: Dr. Wulf Stolle – partner with Kearney (Europe); Dr. Ashley Nunes – senior Research Associate, Harvard Law School; Professor Shirley Meng – Director of Sustainable Power and Energy centre, University of California, San Diego; Nick Kilvert – ABC science reporter.

  • Climate change’s bogeyman isn’t only big oil

    February 4, 2021

    An op-ed by Ashley NunesBig oil is in the hot seat. Again. Two weeks ago, the US Supreme Court heard arguments on whether a lawsuit brought by Baltimore city officials against oil companies belongs in state courts, which favours the plaintiffs, or in federal courts, where oil companies stand a better chance of winning. A ruling on the case — expected later this year — could cost (or save) the industry billions. The impetus for this and many other fossil-fuel related lawsuits is climate change. Plaintiffs want oil companies to pony up cash because company executives knew — and didn’t tell us — that fossil fuels harm the environment. Court filings by some plaintiffs describe, “cascading social and economic impacts,” like rising sea levels and deadly heat waves, all of which are tied to the burning of fossil fuels. Had oil execs admitted the truth sooner, so the reasoning goes, we’d all be saved.  To be sure, the link between fossil fuel use and climate change is irrefutable and the oil companies have long known about it. In 1954, geochemists from the California Institute of Technology warned industry leaders that burning fossil fuels was responsible for rising global temperatures. Noted physicist Edward Teller voiced similar sentiments in 1959, as did researchers from Stanford in 1968. By 1988, even the oil industry’s own scientists were concerned that burning fossil fuels could produce “significant changes in sea level, ocean currents, precipitation patterns, regional temperature and weather”.

  • Ottawa wants airlines to give us refunds. Ten months after Air Canada cancelled my flight, I can’t even get my voucher

    February 2, 2021

    An op-ed by Ashley NunesCanadian airlines are set for a windfall. Sort of. Ottawa is teeing up a bailout package – one that could see carriers receive millions in taxpayer cash. They could certainly use it. The coronavirus pandemic has hit airline revenues hard with some carriers edging close to bankruptcy. Lawmakers need these companies to thrive, not fail. Air travel is after all, to our generation what horses and buggies were to previous ones. But taxpayers want something too: refunds. As the pandemic cripples economies worldwide, thousands of Canadians remain stuck with tickets in hand and no place to go. I’m one of them. Air Canada promptly cancelled my flight last April citing coronavirus concerns. But rather than refunding my money, the carrier offered a travel voucher – one that could be used towards future travel. The move doesn’t irk me. Airlines are cash-intensive businesses where expenses often exceed earnings. I would know. I spent years in the industry looking over balance sheets. I concur with the industrywide sentiment that “running an airline is like having a baby: fun to conceive, but hell to deliver.” That explains why I’m probably more willing than most to give airlines some leeway. A travel voucher is – I would argue - a reasonable alternative to a full refund. That sentiment has since fizzled. Anticipating travel later this fall, I tried redeeming my voucher on Air Canada’s website. The airline’s response? “Please allow up to six weeks for processing.”

  • What the 737 MAX’s return tells us about automation

    November 18, 2020

    An article by Ashley Nunes The longest grounding of a commercial jet is set to end. Sometime this week, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to certify the Boeing 737 MAX fit to fly. The aeroplane was grounded in 2019 following two crashes. The first involved a Lion Air jet which killed all 189 people on board. Months later, a second MAX jet, operated by Ethiopian Airlines, crashed. It also left no survivors. The crashes triggered lawsuits and government investigations. The purported culprit in both crashes was technology — more specifically, a new flight-control feature dubbed MCAS (short for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System). The feature was designed to prevent the aeroplane’s nose from getting dangerously high by automatically lowering it. However, under certain conditions, the MCAS lowered the nose so strongly that pilots struggled to maintain control. In the aftermath, Boeing drew fire on several fronts. Firstly for charging extra for certain safety features. Where the MAX is concerned, the company wanted airlines to pony up more cash — at least $80,000 by one estimate — for add-ons that would alert pilots if the aircraft’s systems were malfunctioning. But Boeing was more broadly criticised for not properly vetting its technology before selling it. That was then, this is now. Moving forward, not only is the company making all safety features free, Boeing has also dedicated tens of thousands of staff hours towards fixing the MAX.

  • Why driverless cars have an emissions problem

    October 9, 2020

    An article by Ashley Nunes:  Without the heavy footedness and over-exuberant steering of human motorists, self-driving cars might seem to be the answer to all of our woes on the road. Algorithms can’t get drunk, drowsy, or distracted, which are the leading causes of road fatalities and are largely responsible for killing 1.3 million people in traffic accidents every year. They are not prone to road rage, eating while driving, or fiddling with the entertainment system. And they can move faster, yet more safely, through traffic, which decreases congestion. Computerised systems are also better than their human counterparts at choosing the most fuel-efficient route. They accelerate and brake more smoothly. These eco-friendly driving practices collectively save fuel, which ultimately reduces exhaust pipe emissions. This all sounds great. After all, cars, trucks and buses currently account for nearly 30% of the US’s global warming pollution. Motor vehicles are also a major source of air pollution in cities around the world. It is easy to see why some see the precision and predictability that comes from handing control of vehicles to algorithms as a solution to not only the safety issues, but environmental problems that road transport faces. But realising this reality means overcoming numerous challenges. Here are three of them.

  • Joe Biden’s climate bet is misguided

    October 2, 2020

    An article by Ashley Nunes: Joe Biden is betting big on climate change. Should he win in November, the presidential hopeful vows to pursue a “clean energy revolution”; one that will help American workers and the environment. His proposal, impressively titled “The Biden Plan To Secure Environmental Justice and Equitable Economic Opportunity in a Clean Energy Future”, (say that three times quickly) promises to create “stable, well-paying jobs that drive clean energy here at home and abroad”. It won’t come cheap, of course. What is the estimated sticker price for going green? $2tn. And details on funding the plan remain murky. Publicly, the campaign says the rich will have to pony up more cash (how creative). Privately, officials concede deficit spending is likely (how unsurprising). Biden’s reluctance — for now at least — to stiff taxpayers with a hefty climate tab is to be expected. After all, climate change matters less to the electorate than what they tell polling companies, and they are often unwilling to pay for tackling it, as I have written here before. But don’t just take my word for it. Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger expressed similar sentiments in 2017. “We figured out that no one cares about global climate change, because this is something that’s going to happen 20 years from now. If people were worried about 20 years from now, why would they have $20,000 debt on their credit card?” Schwarzenegger noted. “People care about what happens today.” And what’s happening today is that Americans are worried. They’re worried about getting stuck in jobs that offer nothing more than low pay and long hours, with few benefits. Saving the polar bears isn’t a priority. So how do you address economic and environmental concerns simultaneously? Why, by creating green jobs. And contrary to the popular adage, you can — with Joe Biden in charge — have your cake and eat it too, apparently.

  • Ride-hailing’s collapsing house of cards

    August 13, 2020

    An article by Ashley Nunes: Uber and Lyft drivers are employees, not contractors. That’s according to a court ruling issued Tuesday. The ride-hailing giants had argued they shouldn’t be considered “hiring entities”. Ethan Schulman disagreed. Schulman, a judge for San Francisco’s superior court, said “substantial public harm will result” from preserving the status quo which deprives ride-hailing drivers of “the panoply of basic rights to which employees are entitled under California law.”  For the gig economy, it seems the jig is up. The ruling isn’t surprising. Ride-hailing companies have long tried to have it both ways; one moment arguing that drivers aren’t employees and the next, saying drivers should get government-sponsored coronavirus relief handouts typically reserved for full time workers. Last year, Uber argued its drivers weren’t employees because they weren’t ‘core’ to Uber’s business. After the pandemic hit, the company asked President Trump to provide, “support for independent workers”. It’s all about conserving cash of course. Employees are pricier than contractors and fiscal relief for workers (employees or not) makes sense as long as someone else picks up the tab. The court ruling will stunt the profitability aspirations of the ride-hailing companies. Uber chief Dara Khrowsrashahi had expected his company losses to not only taper in the near future but be vanquished altogether. That’s unlikely if Uber has to pony up to cover driver costs. Yet the real issue is that even before yesterday’s ruling, ride-hailing fares were heftier than personal car ownership. And that’s a big problem.

  • Self-driving industry takes to the highway after robotaxi failure

    July 21, 2020

    When Sebastian Thrun was starting Google’s self-driving car project in 2009, commercialising the technology was not on anyone’s mind...Back then, it made sense that autonomous driving was just a research project. Eleven years on, however, the industry still has little idea what to do with the technology, despite some big advances over the past decade. As the much-hyped, seven-year quest to develop a driverless Uber service has suffered several setbacks, the appetite is now switching beyond robotaxis in search of more profitable avenues...Investors are still interested in autonomy but the focus has shifted towards practical services such as grocery delivery, automated warehouse robots, and autonomous functions restricted to highways...Waymo is the only service to have removed safety drivers from the equation, in 2017, but only for the sunny, wide roads near Phoenix, Arizona. Just before the coronavirus outbreak, its ride-hailing service Waymo One was offering customers between 1,000 and 2,000 rides a week, with 5-10 per cent being driverless. Impressive as this may be, it underscores that an Uber-like conquering of cities has not been a plausible model. That does not mean robotaxis are dead per se, but the idea is now on life-support. Aside from fringe efforts, the robotaxi dream is now confined to those with the major financial firepower of a tech company or car giant that can spend many more years on the effort. Ashley Nunes, a Harvard researcher, says: “Bringing the tech to market will require fundamentally rethinking the concept by scaling back where and how the tech can be deployed and the types of returns investors can expect.”

  • How Covid-19 will change air travel as we know it

    July 10, 2020

    An article by Ashley NunesIn the heart of Australian outback lies Alice Springs. The town – colloquially known as Alice – is the site of indigenous human presence dating back nearly 30,000 years. More recently, however, a new (and admittedly very different) type of settler has descended upon Alice. Since April, four Airbus A380s have made their way to the small town. The 500-plus-tonne behemoths belong to Singapore Airlines which, like many other carriers, has grounded almost its entire fleet. The reason is Covid-19. The spread of the novel coronavirus has caused passenger demand to collapse, forcing airlines to park, rather than fly, their planes. Alice offers conditions ideal to do just that. The local airport has a runway long enough to land commercial airplanes and the climate is dry, which means aircraft parts corrode far slower than in the sweltering heat and humidity of South East Asia. Slumps in travel demand aren’t new. Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, passenger enthusiasm towards flying also waned amid security fears. This forced airlines – then, like now – to cancel flights and puts planes into storage. The industry did recover. Passenger numbers for 2002 were 1.63 billion, only slightly lower than the 1.66 billion who flew in 2001. But passenger numbers don’t tell the whole story. The 9/11 attacks also forced airlines to trim costs through furloughs, layoffs, and most notably, consolidation. Prior to the attacks, the US airline market – the world’s most lucrative – was largely controlled by eight carriers. Today, its four. Following the attacks, airlines also became more cautious and shelved plans for aggressive expansion. This led to fewer flights overall and for passengers, less space as planes got fuller. Whether Covid-19 has a similar impact on the industry and how passengers fare in the aftermath will depend on a few things.

  • Airlines are stuck in the middle on distanced seating – but they’re right to remove it

    July 9, 2020

    An article by Ashley NunesThe pandemic isn’t even over, but the fight for more space is already on. As of July 1, both Air Canada and WestJet have stopped blocking access to adjacent seats on their planes. Previously, these carriers had embraced “seat distancing” policies, allowing passengers to sit farther away from one other because of potential COVID-19 transmission. Not any more. Instead, Canadians can now expect the usual tight squeeze onboard. Predictably, the move isn’t going over well. One couple, expecting an empty adjacent seat, likened the new policy to having “the rug pulled out from underneath” them. “I just thought that (the airlines) would want to take our safety more seriously,” the couple lamented to the CBC. Manitoba MP Niki Ashton shared their sentiment, calling for Ottawa to apply the same physical distancing rules that apply on land, in the air. According to Ms. Ashton, that airlines want to revert to the old ways of doing business “really speaks to (their) profit-driven agenda.” All of this criticism misses the mark. Let’s start with an airline’s “contract of carriage.” This document defines the rights of passengers and the responsibilities of the airline. It lays out in painstaking detail what happens if your flight is cancelled, your luggage is misplaced or you are denied boarding. What the contract of carriage doesn’t address are passenger rights when it comes to adjacent seats. The reason? You have none. In what should surprise few flyers, paying for one seat on a plane entitles you to, well, just one seat. To limit the spread of COVID-19, carriers like Air Canada offered passengers more space by limiting seating in adjacent seats. But the move only ever applied to cases “whenever possible.” In other words, it’s courtesy, not compulsory. If an airplane can seat 100 passengers and 100 passengers show up, the airline is well within its rights to accommodate them all. There’s a lesson here for flyers: it pays to read the fine print (or at the very least, the airline’s tweets) before buying a ticket.

  • Ride-sharing’s electric delusion

    June 22, 2020

    An article by Ashley NunesLyft’s all-electric pledge comes amid mounting concerns over auto emissions. Fossil fuel powered vehicles produce dangerous toxins, exposure to which can damage lungs, worsen pre-existing medical conditions and contribute to climate change. Ride-sharing companies have drawn particular ire in this regard. Research suggests they disproportionally contribute to air pollution compared to private car rides. Going electric is one way to temper these criticisms. Standing in the way, however, is cost. Electric cars remain pricier than their gasoline-powered counterparts. That’s a problem, particularly for ride-hailing drivers who must cover their own expenses. Lyft’s solution? To make electric vehicle economics more compelling, so compelling in fact that, according to the company’s sustainability chief Sam Aarons, drivers will be “basically jumping out of their chair at the opportunity to drive an EV.” Lyft’s formula for success relies in large measure on two things: first, the use of government incentives to spur electric car purchases by Lyft drivers. And second, a fervent expectation that manufacturing costs will fall. I wouldn’t bet on either. For one thing, using taxpayer cash to boost electric car sales is a questionable practice at best. Studies consistently show these programs mostly benefit the wealthy. The Congressional Research Service — a US government think-tank — found electric car subsidies mostly benefit high-income taxpayers; specifically, those making more than $100,000 annually. The problem? Drivers for companies like Lyft earn far less. Exactly how much these drivers earn is anyone’s guess. Ride-sharing companies frequently resort to numerical gymnastics when asked about it.

  • Airline customers have no right to complain about not getting refunds

    May 29, 2020

    An article by Ashley NunesWhere's my money? That's the question air travellers want answered. As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages economies worldwide, thousands of Canadians are stuck with tickets in hand and no place to go, and they want their airfares refunded. Predictably, airlines are having none of it. The likes of Air Canada and WestJet - which dominate the Canadian air travel market - are instead offering fliers credit that can be used toward future travel. According to WestJet, "...airline tariffs do not always provide for cash refunds especially in cases beyond our  control. WestJet believes refunding with travel credits is an appropriate and responsible approach in extraordinary circumstances such as the COVID-19 crisis." Put another way, good luck getting your cash back. If there's one thing airlines hate, it's issuing refunds. The reason comes down to pure economics. Running an airline is pricey. Commercial jets cost tens of millions of dollars. Add to that maintenance, insurance, and taxes - all of which must be paid regardless of whether or not an airplane flies - and you're talking about serious money.

  • An airline bailout should come with conditions

    May 12, 2020

    An article by Ashley NunesCommercial aviation is seeing its darkest period ever. That’s according to Air Canada chief executive officer Calin Rovinescu. Mr. Rovinescu, who has led the airline since 2009, is grappling with a simple yet thorny question. How do you balance the books when no one wants what you’re selling? Airline executives around the world are facing the same challenge as COVID-19 brings air travel to historic lows. So far, the response has been to ground airplanes and furlough workers – that, and tap into taxpayer funds. Yes, in a move that will surprise few, C-suite executives now want government to help. For Air Canada, it’s hardly the first time. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the carrier received $100-million from Ottawa. In 2009, Air Canada pushed for – and secured – a government commitment for financial relief in the form of lower obligatory payments to its underfunded pension plan. What concessions the carrier extracts this time around are anyone’s guess. One thing is certain: With losses topping $1-billion in the latest quarter, the carrier needs help, and fast. Airlines have already tapped into Ottawa’s emergency wage subsidy, and they could be eligible for a new bridge-financing program for large employers. But make no mistake, more help is coming.

  • Regulate the skies

    April 21, 2020

    An article by Ashley NunesTo say US airlines are struggling is putting it mildly. Coronavirus has crushed air travel demand, threatening both balance sheets and jobs. It’s true we’ve been here before. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, public enthusiasm towards flying waned which culminated in heavy losses for the airlines. Back then, however, US airlines received just $15 billion in government aid to stay afloat. In a sign of how serious the current situation is, Washington has upped the ante to the tune of $50 billion. Bailing out airlines is risky. Do nothing and the knock-on effects might drag down the economy. America’s economic might depends in large measure on having a vibrant aviation industry. But propping up private carriers at taxpayers’ expense naturally invites public ire. Americans may love to fly but we also love to complain about flying. Which explains why Washington wants consumer-friendly strings attached to any bailout package. The most relevant of these (for passengers at least) include the waiving of change fees, bag fees, and fees for really anything airline execs can think of (bland meals, flat pillows and more legroom come to mind). Bailing out airlines is risky. Do nothing and the knock-on effects might drag down the economy. America’s economic might depends in large measure on having a vibrant aviation industry. But propping up private carriers at taxpayers’ expense naturally invites public ire.

  • Coronavirus bailout: Airlines should be required to have emergency cash just like banks

    March 27, 2020

    An article by Ashley NunesThe numbers are staggering. Delta Air Lines is parking at least 50% of its entire fleet. United Airlines reports passenger bookings are down 70%. And 75% of American Airlines’ international flights are to be cut. Across the pond, Virgin Atlantic is offering staff eight weeks of unpaid leave, Norwegian Air is furloughing 90% of its workforce, and Austrian Airlines has suspended flights altogether. The culprit for all this is COVID-19. The rapid spread of the virus — coupled with government-imposed flying restrictions — has caused travel demand to plummet. Airline execs liken the situation to the 9/11 attacks. The comparison has some merit. In the aftermath of those attacks, bookings dropped, and airlines were left reeling. In their desperation, free market loving airline execs turned to governments for help. Governments obliged, forking out billions in taxpayer cash to keep airlines afloat. With COVID-19, expect more of the same.

  • Air safety should never be politicized – but it is

    January 9, 2020

    An article by Ashley Nunes: Crash investigations are a complex affair. When a plane goes down, investigators normally spring into action. Some of these individuals work for the company that built the jet, some for the country where the jet was registered and others for the airline itself. All, however, are looking for clues about what caused the crash and what must be done to prevent another one. They do this with rigour and with attention to detail, because what we can learn from an aviation disaster should make the skies safer. That, however, is not what will happen with the tragic plane crash on Wednesday that killed 176 people, including 63 Canadians. The jet – operated by Ukraine International Airlines – had left Tehran for what should have been a four-hour flight to Kyiv. It ended up only taking a few minutes. Air traffic controllers lost contact with the jet shortly after takeoff, and the plane’s wreckage was later found on the outskirts of Tehran.

  • If we know distracted driving kills, why are we still doing it?

    November 19, 2019

    An article by Ashley NunesCanadians worry about distracted driving and rightly so. Studies show that taking your eyes off the road – even for a few seconds – dramatically raises the odds of a crash. In 2016, distracted driving was implicated in some 21 per cent of fatal accidents and 27 per cent of serious injury collisions (instances where the car’s occupants were hurt but not killed). The growing ubiquity of this phenomenon has alarmed legislators, law enforcement organizations and safety advocacy groups who – keen to save lives – are asking Canadians to stay focused on the road...It turns out that while we agree distracted driving is dangerous, we aren’t willing to give it up. Nearly 50 per cent of Canadians admit to using cell phones while driving while 30 per cent report taking their eyes off the road to do things such as rummaging through personal belongings, smoking and eating. Texting while driving has increased by 50 per cent since 2010. During the same time period, support for banning cellphone use while driving has fallen by 50 per cent.