Green Guilt

Yesterday was Father’s Day. I got a great gift from my wife. A TerraPass.

Since time immemorial, man has paid for his sins, quite literally, by slipping a little something to God. At the temple, the church and the mosque the pundits, priests and mullahs will always make it easy for you to leave a little behind in the collection box, in case it makes you feel better. With TerraPass, I just put something into the collection box of the temple of the future, and I must confess, it does feel better.

In a weaker moment last year, I bought myself a sports car (a BMW 645Ci for those in the know). Its looks, the ride, they awaken the senses. Unfortunately, it gives just 17 miles to the gallon. Energy efficiency and such green thinking happens to matter to us. So my passion for the car was contaminated by this guilt – Greenhouse Gas Guilt. The guilt of adding to the world’s CO2 was gnawing at me well before Mr. Gore’s well reviewed documentary An Inconvenient Truth. But it was still not enough to get me to trade in my car for a Prius.

Enter TerraPass. For $50 per year or so, my car is now ‘carbon neutral’. I pay TeraPass and they in turn invest that money into clean energy projects which are ‘carbon negative’ thus neutralizing my gas-guzzler. TerraPass became my Ganga Jal. Instant moksha.

I think TerraPass is a terrific idea. The company is for-profit and so it keeps a portion of your fees for operational costs and profits, but the rest is invested in projects that may not have happened were it not for TerraPass. I can see carbon-neutrality become a hip thing among businesses too.

While we’re on the subject I’m glad that finally some real marketing minds are working for the Green camp. Till a couple of years back we were calling it Global Warming. Most of the developed world happens to live in temperate climates. If you live in Chicago, Global Warming doesn’t sound all that ominous. I can see some people in Minneapolis not being scared at all of the warm toasty images that Global Warming created. The term then changed to Climate Change (still weak) to now Climate Crisis, which I like the best. Fear and Greed – that’s what makes people move. Mix well and add a little Guilt to taste.

Zero touch traffic enforcement

One of my co-founders at Gridstone Research was driving us back from lunch in San Mateo a month or so back. As he approaches a red light where he is supposed to make a right, he doesn’t come to a full stop. He just ‘rolls’ through the right turn. Flash, flash from the wierd looking gadget across the intersection and a month later he’s got a ticket for $371! He had been caught commiting a traffic violation by technology.

My colleague was none too happy, but I was laughing my head off. Not just  because the guy hates to lose money to such things, but mainly because I had just paid off an identical ticket for an identical violation near my home in Fremont. And my wife had contributed to the same cause a month before me. It was thoroughly enjoyable to see someone else bear the same pain.

I tried to piece together how this technology works. There is a sensor in the road that senses the speed at which you are approaching the intersection when the light is red. If it is above a maximum speed it sets off the camera which takes a frontal picture of you and the car. As soon as you turn right there is another sensor that times how long you took to get from the first sensor to the second sensor and if that time is less than some minimum, it assumes (correctly) that you did not stop at the red light. The camera then flashes again, getting the back side of your car. A couple of weeks later you get a ticket in the mail with all the time-stamped pictures clearly establishing your violation.

When this happened to me (just a few weeks after I had finished making fun of my wife and her ‘rash’ driving), I was upset, but also fascinated. I thought this was just so cool that traffic could be enforced without a police officer. The technology being used is pretty reliable. It does not make mistakes (far fewer than people at any rate). It uses no discretion. Unlike a police officer, it does not let off blondes in convertibles. It is always on. And best of all, it costs far less than the police officer. This, I thought, was great for traffic enforcement. The Fremont Police Department thinks the same way.

But then I thought there’s got to be more to this. I’ve often heard anecdotally that the Highway Patrol gets very strict in its enforcement a couple of weeks before the end of their budget period ends. Why? Because they have revenue targets to meet! You might say that’s not the purpose of the traffic ticket. But in the real world local governments need money to run. I am quite sure that the Red-light Cameras are being sold to the local government by justifying them on an RoI basis. If you invest so much in the camera system, the increased revenue will return your investment so many percent a year. etc. etc.

But wait, it can get better than that. If I was the Red-light camera system company, I wouldn’t even sell it to the city. I’d install it free and take a cut of the revenues. This way everyone wins. The city makes no investment and gets revenue from where it had none. The company gets an annuity, high margin stream of revenue from an unsuspecting public. The Fremont Police Department may proclaim that they are doing this for red-light enforcement. But we know better. Not that I hold it against them. Fremont city underfunds many civic services and I’m happy if they can enforce traffic rules and raise revenues.

That leaves the question – what is this company that makes these camera systems? It turns out that the company that does these red-light camera systems is an Australian company called Redflex Group. Which is unfortunate since my broker doesn’t let me buy Australian stocks. I think they are on to something. Redflex Group has a Traffic Systems business and a Communications business. The holding company’s stock has been doing rather poorly, I don’t know why but the Traffic system business has got to be smoking hot.

And guess what else is available from Redflex? Photo speed enforcement on highways! For those of you who have forgotten what 65 miles an hour feels like, there’s a traffic ticket coming your way.