Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Urban Transportation; The Shape of Things to Come. Part 2

The streetcar, in addition to its visible charm, was an engine of significant change in urban transportation. Over the space of a few years it enabled a substantial geographic expansion of most American cities and continues to provide the backbone for numerous European municipal transport systems. All this from the simple replacement of horsepower with electricity.  The basic form which electric trolleys built upon was network of horse drawn people movers called omni-buses, and the transition to electric power took less than 5 years in most places.

My family and I recently spent some time riding trolley cars around San Francisco.  I was surprised that what I assumed  a tourist attraction actually a functions as an important part of the Bay Area Municipal transit system. And the smile on my daughters face speaks volumes about the fun it is to ride.
Sustainable Smile!

It got me thinking again about the range of forms public and private transport developed over the past hundred years, and just which of them a driverless world will adopt. In an earlier post I took a look at that broad category of human powered vehicles described as "work bikes" and what attributes they might lend to autonomous vehicles.  Here the focus is on one of the most popular forms mass transit of an earlier age - the streetcar.

 Reliable, non-polluting and solid, both vehicles and track provided a sense of permanence largely missing in a rapidly changing world. Their narrow gauge rails create a footprint that is substantially  narrower than an automobile lane and allow for a long, slim vehicle that is somehow more visually appealing than a bus. And the sound! Cinematic.

But back to my daughter's smile. The cable car in SF is unique in the access it provides and the proximity between rider and traffic . It's too exposed for long trips or harsh weather, but one could imagine a scaled down version operating pretty well in the safe road environment driverless traffic would provide. In any case it's another example of the wide range of  forms driverless vehicles might borrow from, largely because there's reason to expect a greater flexibility in design without the structural requirements inherent in today's vehicles.

The romantic in me hopes that the cable car, having survived the age of automobiles, will flourish in an driverless age.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Sustainability and the Promise of Driverless Cars

Bottom line. Sustainability is why I'm interested in driverless cars.

And It's why we should all be interested.

We  are, after all, facing existential challenges .  Central to them all is the fact that 5 billion people (give or take) are shortly to join us in the developed world. While a wonderful thing in general, with countless fringe benefits and unseen potentials, it is almost certainly unsustainable with the transportation tools at hand.

And as much as I'd like to sleep at the wheel, or no longer have to look for parking, I wouldn't care about driverless cars if they didn't have the potential to tackle real-world problems.  If this technology doesn't increase our ability to deal with the very real challenges facing us today then I have no  interest in it at all.

Can driverless vehicles, and the driverless system they enable, make a difference? Not just an incremental one, not just a marginal improvement,  but change fundamentally the way we move ourselves, and our things, across the face of the earth?

Here's why I think they can.

To a greater extent than trains, or horses, perhaps more than every form of transportation since walking, every aspect of modern life is accessible to the automobile. Because of this a fundamental change in this one piece of technology has the potential to change society significantly and at every level. and what more fundamental change could be made than to replace the guidance, communication, and control system with the most powerful modern technology, the computer?

One of the things that astonishes me about the conversation centered on driverless cars is how limited is in scope. Especially as this appears to be a potentially significant change to a system which is integral to almost every human endeavor.  The title of this blog was chosen to reflect the narrow scope of the conversation surrounding a technological change in an earlier era, one that saw the internal combustion engine as merely the replacement of one method of propulsion with another, somewhat less reliable one. This is the effect that the replacement of horses with the internal combustion engine had. And hardly is the ink dry on the change this minor adjustment has wrought than another change is upon us.

It is, however, a question that will likely be in the minds of those individuals that attempt to adapt this tool to deal with the very real problems we will face in the coming years. Those that focus exclusively on the technological, legal, and social challenges should not lose sight of the larger goal: a sustainable, perhaps even sustaining, transportation system.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Cost of Driving

The true cost and impact of our modern transportation system is hidden in plain sight, obscured by its sheer size and central role in our daily lives. So entangling is the relationship between society and its means of transport that we often lose sight of the distinction between them. Looking around at our environment, especially if we live in the city, there is little that we can point to that is not largely defined by the needs of the automotive systems. 

The human cost alone of our automobile based system is truly shocking. Worldwide the roads consume lives at the same rate –roughly one million every year -as did the concentration camps of World War II. The wounded number tens of millions more. In addition there are the large numbers of people debilitated by air pollution and associated impacts of the internal combustion engine.  And yet these costs, as vast as they are, are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the human resources committed to the system. Each one of us is required - on a daily basis - to operate the vehicles that support the infrastructure. Simply put, there is no other single economic activity that requires so much human labor to accomplish.

Environmental impacts are at least as troubling, especially the challenge CO2 emissions may pose for humanity in general, and for developing countries in particular. The entire ecosystem of the planet is put under pressure by the enormous weight of carbon emissions. Wildlife habitat is degraded in direct proportion to the enormous size of our transportation infrastructure. 

One quarter of the developed world’s urban landscape, a third of its energy resources, and countless human lifetimes are spent keeping the system in motion. It is a system so pervasive that it forms a backdrop for most of the dilemmas of the modern word. From the spiraling inflation of urban housing prices to the increasingly fractured urban and suburban landscapes, the car is implicated in much of what is troubling about contemporary American society. Additionally , the enormous demand for fossil fuels is at the root of many today's most challenging geo-political dilemmas. By any measure the financial costs associated our transportation system exceed those of almost any other national endeavor such as health care, defense, or education.

Establishing the true cost of the present system is more than an exercise in accounting. The cost, when fully recognized, creates urgency in our search for solutions and alternatives. If we avoid examining these impacts it is largely because they appear to be the price of living in a modern world dependent on the availability of a flexible and reliable  personal transportation network. 

As viable alternatives develop these costs should be more closely assessed. Both as a reminder of the problems we are trying to solve, and to help avoid repetitions of older patterns.