Futurecast

It’s my turn with the crystal ball this week, so I thought a little light prognostication about coming developments in moving people around would be in order. This is about getting around in cars and things, but in the long run we must find ways to get around less, which means completely reorganizing our world, which we’re not doing. (See Casey Mulligan in the NYT.) Meantime…

Sorry, no flying cars, but I do think transportation in general is due for some serious modernization. All this stuff is pretty much available now, but we are slow to change, and stubborn. We like tradition. Tourists love San Francisco’s old cable cars and antique streetcar collection. There was a huge uproar when Buenos Aires decided to get rid of their old wooden streetcars recently.

Sorry, no flying cars.

Consider the “trolley”. We call them “light rail” these days, but they are anything but light. There is no reason that most of the parts of a modern subway or street car could not be made from lighter and stronger materials. The stuff of tennis rackets and airplanes. Developers are working on that. Putting every single part on a diet will save big bucks. When these cars are lighter overall, it will not be necessary to have massive undercarriage and wheels. When cars are light, the business part of the wheel could be made of some miracle nylon-like material, which could be easily replaced. We’ll all appreciate the quiet. We’re already used to automatic announcements and information about the next arrival, but there are still lots of electronic and communications improvements ahead.

Modern light rail should be made
from far lighter and stronger materials.

Several subway deaths have been in the news lately. Subway cars should have devices that detect an obstruction on the tracks and trigger an automatic stop. Suicide by subway is not uncommon either. Most of these could be thwarted in the case of high speed trains by barriers at the station, which are already common in Beijing and a number of other cities, others by auto-stop devices.

Busses too can be further modernized, along the same lines. I like the development you see all over the Americas these days, of dedicated bus paths in the middle of a wide boulevard, with an elevated passenger platform in the middle serving busses in both directions. Passengers have already paid, so busses have but to open their doors and they walk in. Huge numbers of people are moved quickly, with little waiting. But here is something more modern sounding we will see pretty soon: autonomous vehicles. (Yes, I know, jobs, but it’s inevitable.)

In a few years: autonomous taxis,
busses, shuttles, and streetcars.

In many cities and smaller towns it is relatively easy to have main transportation lines that carry large numbers of people, which will need human operators for some time. It’s harder to bring public transit to less populated neighborhoods. But suppose you could summon a small vehicle with your smartphone, designating where and when you want to be picked up and where you want to go. A small, driverless car arrives at the assigned time, you enter and confirm your reservation using your phone, and it takes you to a major transportation line a few blocks away, or directly to your destination. Payment is made for the whole trip, and is handled electronically, much like the electronic cards common everywhere.

Cars are not likely to vanish any time soon, but they could and should have markedly new abilities. All of these have been in the works for some time now, and await only for the world to catch up.

The steering wheel and brake pedal are
anachronisms we tolerate for nostalgia’s sake.

Driverless cars are already in development. The three things that make them increasingly practical are GPS, sensing devices on the car, and various types of sensors imbedded in roadways. Google has been working on this for some time, as have virtually all car makers. Remember that big car in the TV ad that parked itself between stacks of wine glasses? Cool. But it had to be positioned exactly right to do it. There’s no reason all cars cannot do the job with much less fuss and more accuracy. Carbon dioxide is the main contributor to global warming. How about a device that is part of a car’s cooling system that takes air in and removes carbon dioxide. Easy enough to do with particulate emissions, but can it be done with carbon dioxide?

Personal driving is overdue for some changes too. The steering wheel and pedals are anachronisms we tolerate mostly for nostalgia’s sake. There is no reason that driver controls cannot immediately be replaced by a joystick device, making the driver’s seat more commodious and comfortable. Oh, and mirrors should go away in favor of cameras that project a wide-angle image at the top of the windshield. Some cabs in NYC already have these.

Your driverless car will go where you tell it,
drop you off, and go park itself
at an electronically reserved spot.
Later it will come get you.

Likewise, even such futuristic things as summoning your car to pick you up after you finish your shopping, or even to tell your car to go find a parking place, are within reach. We can already find where parking places are. It’s only an additional step to putting “dibs” on one and sending your car off to park there.

No practical flying cars, I’m afraid, but I have a suggestion for a small plane for short flights, taking off and landing on designated strips not much larger than a driveway. It is very light, with broad wings, and can be airborne in a very short distance at low speed. It would move passengers between runways less than 100 miles apart. There is no pilot, of course. It would be great for people who live some distance from a big airport. [Later: check this out.]

Trucks aren’t going away either. One improvement might be computerized rear end steering. When the rear wheels can be steered, a long vehicle can turn into a much more narrow street. Like the fire department’s long hook-n-ladder, only no one has to sit back there to do it.

Let’s not forget bicycles, which are becoming increasingly important and popular, not long after the swarms of them in China vanished in favor of millions of polluting cars. But safety and comfort can and should be improved in dozens of ways, primary among them mandatory lights and helmets. How about sensors that warn of impending danger, or even of a car in a blind spot? Some such devices could be in the helmet, and sound a warning or even project an image on a “windshield”. How about built-in theft-proofing devices which lock both wheels and anchor the frame to a bike rack.

(If you want to ride without a helmet, I suggest twenty-to-forty million in mandatory insurance coverage. That way the rest of us won’t have to pay for the continual care you will require for the rest of your life after a bad brain injury.)

CVT would revolutionize bicycling.

Continuously variable transmission would revolutionize biking. CVTs are part of the Prius and several other cars. There are no discrete gears. Rather, the transmission smoothly adjusts to the pressure needed to move the car forward. On bikes, the rider would always pedal with the same pedal pressure, and of course that pressure would be adjustable to the rider’s preference. Going up hills is slower, because more total energy is required, but pedal pressure remains the same. When starting from a stop, the bike goes slowly at first, with constant pedal pressure, but soon the wheels are turning at normal speed.

For several decades into the computer age I expected that things would come to a sort of stasis, that development would settle into something that would last for a while. What has happened instead is that new developments have actually accelerated, and are still accelerating, and not just in computers. We have no idea what the future will bring. All we know is that it will be astonishing.

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