This evening in New York, NPR broadcast a live press conference on the commuter train crash that killed four people in the Bronx. The crash has been on the news constantly, it's occupied page one of the New York Times website every day for the past three days.
Meanwhile, in the same period of time, I'm sure dozens of people have been killed in automobile traffic accidents in the New York metro area and there's been virtually no news about them.
This happens all the time and it points to one of they key problems that driverless cars will have to overcome: people's reaction to transit death is much more extreme when the driver wasn't one of us—i.e. an unpaid amateur, driving themselves.
It's not just the quantity of people who die in public transit crashes that make them news. It's the fact that none of the victims had control over their fate. It also doesn't matter how statistically better a bus or a train or a plane is. Traveling on a major airline is far safer than virtually any other mode of transit, including walking. But when people die on one everybody freaks out.
Now imagine what will happen when no one is the driver. A driverless car can be ten million times better than a human-driven one at avoiding accidents. It will get in an accident, though, and someone will die. And when that happens, the repercussions—especially those for the law and insurance—will be tremendous. Let's hope that doesn't slow their arrival down too much, though. We've been waiting for them for a long, long time—the picture above, an unfulfilled promise from 1957.
We spent today tasting 19 batches of tuna and—bonus!—6 batches of sardines. The first question, "Will we be able to taste a distinction?" was answered as soon as we tried the second batch. It was a quite a bit different. They all were. We were able to pretty much agree on what we liked most and selected a batch caught in mid summer for the bonito oval tins and another batch for belly cut ventresca and loins in a jar (something new for us). Then we went to a restaurant to eat some fish. More to come.
When I visited Spain last fall I had lunch with the brothers who own Ortiz, the source for our amazing tuna. They represent the fifth generation of the family running the company and they both grew up in the business. We ate at a seafood restaurant (naturally) and I remember the hake cheeks (!) we're really good, cooked in olive oil, scattered on a wide platter. The restaurant edged up to a walled, brackish tidal inlet that snakes through the town of Ondarroa, along the Bay of Biscay. Fishing boats were parallel parked along it. Across the water we could see the back side of the plant we'd just visited. It's Ortiz's oldest fish factory (they now have seven) and it's still downtown, right in the village, squeezed on main street between cell phone shops and cafes and hanging laundry. The family still maintains an apartment on the top floor.
Lunch was a bit rushed because we had to get to La Mancha that evening. We were going to see the cheese making at Finca La Solana, the farm that Essex Street Cheese Co. gets its Manchego. We were also going to taste batches of cheese to select for export. Batch selection is a process that was pioneered in its modern form by Neal's Yard Dairy in England. The idea is that, since cheese is made every day, every day is like a different vintage of cheese. Every vintage tastes different so you want to pick the best days. There differences result from different weather conditions, different food for the animals, a different starter and so on. With farmhouse cheese that's made naturally, all the variations add up to enough of an impact on flavor so that anyone can taste the difference between batches. I'm not exaggerating; I could bring you two different days of Manchego and no matter how much experience you've had tasting cheese I guarantee you would be able to taste a big difference between them. Companies like Neal's Yard Diary and Essex taste many batches of cheese and select certain days (called "makes") for their customers. In doing so they catch the high peaks of flavor when they come once in a while and avoid the off-flavor wheels. The results are cheeses that are more consistently better tasting.
When I described the cheese selection we were going to do one of the brothers lifted an eyebrow. He spoke some Basque to his brother (totally incomprehensible) and then told me that what we were doing sounded a lot like what chefs used to do with their tuna. When he was a young man he remembered them visiting the Ortiz factory to taste with his father and select a particular batch of tinned tuna they liked most. All the following year, whenever the restaurant ordered, only tins from that batch of tuna were delivered.
I asked them, "Does anyone do this any longer?" "No." "Could we do it?" "Sure."
I said, "See you next year!" as we bolted for the car. I've been excited about the trip ever since. Tomorrow I fly to Spain to taste this summer's and fall's tuna batches. More to come.
For one, it appears they've woken up to the fact that they can't save their way out of a revenue problem. It's a concept I claim no credit for inventing, but I will take a moment to tactfully clear my throat and point to a 2009 post titled "Why doesn't the post office deliver on Sundays?" Maybe someone at the USPS was reading?
Probably not. I'm sure something far more powerful happened: Amazon.com came calling. Right now Sunday deliveries are only for Amazon packages (sorry every other business in the country). It's also limited to LA and NYC for now, but if it works for those two cities that will surely change.
(Despite the recent holiday we've all had razzing the federal government for its roll-outs it's worth noting the USPS announced this on a Monday and that weekend I got two boxes
delivered on Sunday. Delivering things—that's one roll-out the USPS does really well. )
So what's in it for Amazon? So far people have focused on how Amazon is giving customers a service that no one else competes on. That's true, and in the century-old business of mail order where there are very few new tricks for us old dogs, it's a big one. Amazon will get more orders. It also earns Amazon some good will since they look like they're helping out a grand old American institution that's been having a hard time.
Few have written how it benefits Amazon logistically, though, and that's where I think the more interesting story lies. Without USPS, Amazon is limited to just two suppliers for what is one of its most critical business needs: delivering the stuff it sells. It's UPS or FedEx or go home. Between the two, UPS is a much stronger competitor and does the lion's share of Amazon's deliveries. In my experience UPS and FedEx work as a tacitly cooperating duopoly, though, which is to say they don't really compete with each other. Their rates are nearly identical and, strangely, seem to go up 5% each year in lock step. Neither offers services the other doesn't. Think about Sunday delivery. FedEx could have started that at any time to steal business from UPS, but it didn't.
The USPS can be a real competitor to this two member cartel. Presumably, if Sunday delivery goes nationwide, it could take one seventh (14%) of Amazon's business by doing nothing more than opening its doors one more day a week than its competitors do. It's got all the infrastructure: people, trucks, plains, trains, offices. All it needs is the will to make it happen. Speaking for a business that spends 25% of our revenue on a UPS that only works five days a week, I welcome a competitive USPS into the mix. Now let the rest of us get in on the Sunday action, please.