The Future of Transportation

I have long contemplated the future of human transport. It is clear that our current transportation needs are failing in several areas notably safety, efficiency, difficulty and environmental impact. In North America we face some of the most difficult transportation challenges because of the great distances often associated with travel in this region as opposed to areas of more dense population such as Western Europe or the Pacific Rim. But I believe that there is a solution on the horizon that could, over the next several decades, provide a significant impact to each of these problem areas while increasing convenience and improving metropolitan life in the dense city centers.

Before looking at a proposed solution we should examine the problem domain closely. In many markets but most significantly in the United States and Canada there is a significant need for “personal” transportation meaning cars, vans, motorcycles, etc. This is because a large portion of the population lives very far from urban centers making public transportation largely impossible. Even in highly populated states like New York and California there are millions of people who live in areas too sparsely populated to be able to have efficient public transport. This issue is exacerbated by the cultural inclination, especially prevalent in the US, for “independence” which results in many people driving cars when public transportation is readily available. This has created a stigma around public transportation and in many cities buses are sometimes even rail modes can be seen as reserved for poorer travelers.

In addition to traditional concerns more recent changes in security for air flight have shifted the balance of travel away from flying and back towards ground travel. Because of the increase in time and difficulty associated with air travel it has become more time and effort efficient to use fuel-inefficient private cars for longer distances than ever before. In a personal study I have found that the total amount of “transport time” necessary for a person to fly versus drive from Anderson, South Carolina to a location outside of Rochester, New York – a highway trip of some 860 miles or 1384 kilometers – took only marginally less time by plane once the drive time of the travel to and from the airports as well as the travel time of the people transporting the passenger was factored into the equation. And even with that marginal time savings the air flight required planning, careful scheduling and two additional people beyond the person actually traveling to be involved for the process to work as there was no available public transportation on either side of the air flight.

Modern cars, trucks and other personal transportation devices are highly inefficient from a fuel perspective. Personal vehicles also require a high ratio of operators to passengers. This means that a larger proportion of the population is spending time driving instead of working, relaxing, etc. This is not a useful use of time and is a detriment to the economy.

Modern transportation systems are necessarily complex. As a vehicle operators must learn a large set of driving rules which is difficult for many drivers and then must manage to operate a vehicle without catastrophic failure for tens of thousands of hours throughout their lifetimes. Driving is highly monotonous and requires constant vigilance and often travel is done most efficiently at times when drivers are unlikely to be highly alert such as early in the morning or in the afternoon after a long day at work. It is unreasonable to expect people to be able to consistently drive safely under these conditions. Driving is a highly dangerous task performed by an enormous number of people with very little, if any, training done over long periods of time in many weather, traffic, health and other conditions. Trains, which are much safer than cars, are operated by trained professionals. Airplanes are flown by highly specialized pilots. But everyone drives cars and almost everyone has been in an accident at some time.

Driving represents a waste of the driver’s time. In today’s increasingly hectic and high pressure world people have little time to spend driving. Almost everyone has something better that they could be doing with their time. There is no panacea for solving the issues involved with time lost to travel but we can address issues that arrive from needing a large percentage of the population to be actively involved in driving. Passengers, whether in private vehicles or on mass transit, can safely spend their time working on a laptop, reading a book, making a phone call, sleeping, etc. By reducing driving stress and providing more time for more important aspects of life we could find additional value in society that is currently being lost to commuting. Obviously other social initiatives such as telecommuting will have a greater impact than any improvements that we will ever be able to make to the transportation infrastructure but there are many people who will always need to travel and many people who will simply want to travel whether for commuting or other reasons so telecommuting only serves to address a small segment of a larger problem.

Efficiency is a more difficult issue to tackle as it cannot be as clearly defined. Current traffic control mechanisms are not designed for efficiency but for safety. Because of the way in which cars are driven it is necessary to use traffic control devices such as speed limits, stop and yield signs, traffic circles, traffic lights, traffic priority, etc. All of these things cause both time delays and increase the difficulty involved with driving. If traffic could be managed more fluidly there is a real potential for route optimization inherent in the system.

Any solution attempting to deal with these myriad issues is likely to be complex. But I believe that there is a viable solution on the horizon that can serve to free society from many of the current constraints of modern transportation. I believe that the best solution, in the near term, to deal with a nearly global transportation issue (outside of the third world) is a complex series of transportation integration and automation techniques that can transform our current quagmire of non-standardized transportation modes into a single system capable of moving people quickly, safely and efficiently.

The most difficult of my proposals, both from an implementation standpoint as well as from a perspective of social acceptance, is to eliminate the human element as much as possible from every day driving by switching to computer driven private vehicles. We do not yet, as of this writing, have the ability to build vehicles that can drive themselves but we are constantly approaching this elusive target. It will not be long before the technology is widely available that will allow us to have completely automated vehicles.

At first it will undoubtedly be very unpopular in the social collective to propose self-driving cars. People will feel that their freedoms are being reduced and clearly there are many ways in which this technological change will provide not only detailed information about driving history but also, to some degree, intended driving habits for the very near future. This information’s safety and privacy will have to be very carefully regulated and protected or the citizenry will be very unlikely to be willing to adopt this important change. In most regions where cars are affordable and common it is seen as a right of adulthood to drive anywhere at anytime. Being in control of a motor vehicle is often seen as a symbol of status and age. But this will rapidly fade and will only prove to be a barrier for the first few years of adoption.

The benefits to automated vehicles are so many that it is difficult to comprehend the significance of this change. The dangers are obvious: it is possible that computer controlled vehicles will have a higher accident rate than human driven vehicles or, at the very least, it will shift the dispersion of accidents from affecting primarily bad, incompetent or careless drivers into affecting everyone equally. At first it will be a challenge to make computer controlled vehicles as safe and human driven ones but as the technology begins to be used we can make faster and more capable driving systems and systematically reduce accidents and dangerous situations in ways that we cannot do with human drivers. Humans have a threshold of safety that, at reasonable speeds, cannot be broken and all human driven vehicles have a certain inherent level of danger. Computer controlled vehicles can, in time, break this barrier and eventually save many lives.

Perhaps of greater importance is the fact that without drivers there is no longer a need to hold car owners responsible for accidents. Reasonable liability could be removed from the car owner (as there is no driver) and the cost of driving can further be reduced by a reduction in the bureaucratic overhead eliminated in no longer needed to insure every driver individually. Instead insurance for all participants in this automated transportation “experiment” could be handled through a single proxy such as the manufacturers or via the government.

Moving to automated vehicles has many hidden benefits. One of the most significant benefit is that it makes transportation more accessible. Suddenly we no longer need to limit driving only to those sixteen years of age. Younger vehicle operators could safely use the vehicles for travel. In many rural areas fourteen and fifteen year old who wish to work are unable to do so because they are unable to travel to locations with jobs. Old drivers who have lost the ability to drive safely can continue to travel as they always have. People with handicaps or injuries will have more opportunity to travel without assistance than previously available to them. Even individuals who are intoxicated can safely travel in a vehicle that they do not have to pilot. Many people are simply too dangerous to drive and many are simply afraid. Given our ability to free our society from the limitations of the economy be driven solely by people able to drive it seems obvious that we should do so. Automated vehicle technology could expand the working population by millions in the US alone. Reducing the idle workforce is not a benefit just to a single national economy but is a benefit to the world expanding the total global economy.

Automation is not nearly as simple as just making cars that can drive themselves. That would be an attempt to displace drivers without re-engineering the entire driving system. The computers controlling the cars would have little benefit over human drivers – at least for a very long time. To truly take advantage of this type of system I propose that a complex web of inter-vehicular communication be established that will allow computer control systems in vehicles to communicate with each other.

Inter-vehicular communication is a backbone of improving driving conditions. This communication system is so critical that I believe that it is important that vehicles maintain direct line of site as well as radio frequency communications with vehicles sensed to be within close proximity, communications through the cellular network or its data carrier equivalent as well as satellite based systems for a safety mechanism. These systems will allow vehicles to communicate directly with each other relaying speed, direction, intention and other important driving information that can be used to compute paths to be used for maximum safety and efficiency. Additionally communications back to a centralized, most likely regionally based at first, transportation grid network will be used for centralized traffic coordination. Each vehicle will report its current location, direction, speed, intentions and priority (for time critical traffic such as ambulance, fire and police) and the central traffic planning system can determine the optimum routes and speeds for all of the traffic taken as a whole.

By incorporating centralized traffic planning we can gain incredible efficiency within the traffic system automatically rerouting traffic to correct for accidents, congestion, hazardous conditions, etc. With a central traffic control system vehicles can have small speed alterations made, far in advance, that barely affect travel time but that can automatically allow for full speed flow through former traffic light and stop sign situations. Traffic will be timed so that they no longer have to start and stop unnecessarily. Not only does this create the ability to travel between destinations much faster and in a more comfortable manner but it also increases fuel efficiency as the processes of starting and stopping the vehicle is extremely inefficient. This system has the ability to so dramatically improve highway utilization that it may be possible to almost completely eliminate traffic congestion even in the busiest cities simply by making the traffic system cooperative in nature rather than competitive.

There is more to making a complete traffic system than simply altering the way in which the automobile behaves. Currently the safest and the most efficient form of transportation for large loads over long distance is the rail system and I believe that this mode should be utilized to its maximum possible extent to achieve the greatest possible gains. I believe that trains should be utilized, as much as possible, to move people from densely populated areas to important urban locations much as they are used now with some amount of logical expansion.

I believe that the rail system will play an expanded role in the future of transportation. As trains continue to become faster and faster – both conventional rail based trains and more modern systems such as mag-lev – trains will become a better and better option for long distance transport. If trains continue to push speeds above 300mph (480kph) they will continue to become a simple, fast and safe alternative to air travel. As the rail system grows it will become easier and easier to fund research into increasing the speed and safety of the system.

In addition to playing an ever-expanding role as a transport for humans I believe that rail will begin to play a critical role in the transport of personal transportation vehicles. By utilizing the rail system as a means of moving vehicles along with people the rail system can be integrated into the everyday travel system allowing for faster, safer and more efficient long distance travel. While this is unlikely to displace vehicle rental for situations of extremely long distance it could serve to simplify travel between local metro areas.

An ideal location for this type of hybrid rail and personal vehicle transport can be seen along the “Maple Leaf Line” running from Toronto to New York City and including the Hamilton, St. Catherines, Niagara Falls, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Albany and Hudson Valley metro areas as well as the infamous Boston to DC corridor including New York City, Philadelphia, Hartford, Newark, Baltimore, etc. It is unlikely that transporting a personal vehicle from Atlanta to San Francisco would be economically advantageous but moving it a few score to a few hundred miles might be a reasonable range. By moving some amount of overland vehicle traffic onto the rail system we could both bolster the rail economy while reducing highway congestion and saving the roads from unnecessary wear and tear.

With all of these changes comes another opportunity. Because we have managed to increase vehicle efficiency and increase safety and have provided a mechanism for much of the long distance travel that is necessary we can now look at options to redesign personal vehicles themselves. We can introduce groundbreaking new safety and comfort features. For many people we can improve safety simply by having them face the back of the vehicle instead of the front because they no longer need to watch the road. Even small cars could be equipped more similarly to a limo rather than a traditional car – even in a very small car. A bed or beds could be made available for long distance trips. No reason not to sleep while riding in the car. It is a perfect use of the time.

Personal vehicles could also be redesigned to take advantage of control mechanisms which are not feasible for humans to operate such as all wheel steering. A computer can easily control all four wheels and use this additional control to allow cars to avoid accidents or to park in tighter situations than ever before. In theory cars could parallel park themselves with only a centimeter or less between the bumper of the vehicle in front and the vehicle behind.

Another obvious advantage of an automated car is its ability to travel without any passengers at all. This would instantly add the equivalent of valet parking for everyone, all of the time – which is extremely advantageous in settings like the grocery store or the mall. But even more significant is the ability to have a car take itself to the shop for regular repairs and maintenance while you are at work. You don’t need to schedule time out of your busy day and have someone pick you up and drop you back off at the shop. This not only makes humans more efficient but reduces miles driven. If the kids need to be picked up from school, assuming they are old enough to travel safely on their own, the family vehicle could just arrive at school to get them. No adult needs to spend their time driving out there to get them. Often families could reduce their reliance on multiple vehicles as well since one person could drive to work and the car could automatically return for the second person to go to work. While only a small number of people could reduce from two vehicles to one many families could reduce from three or four vehicles to two or three.

It is not uncommon that errands require the participation of a driver only as an incidental requirement. Many businesses would begin to offer services targeted driverless errands. Grocery stores would offer a shop online and free delivery to the parking lot where they fill your trunk for you.

As we have seen in many regions of the United States already automated toll collection systems are becoming common and highly effective. People who have used them are seldom willing to give them up. They save time and fuel as drivers need to slow down less or not at all at toll booths and they make travel much easier. In some markets the automated toll collection mechanisms are beginning to be used by restaurants and other businesses as an easy system of fast payment in driver-thru lanes. But this is only the logical beginning of this system. The application of this in a computer driven automobile are enormous.

Obviously the use of such a system to allow a computerized vehicle to pay its own tolls is important. But soon we could have the vehicle paying for its own services in many places such as fueling stations. As a passenger in the vehicle you might sleep overnight on a several hundred mile journey and find that the vehicle automatically refueled itself two or three times during the night without disturbing you. And since it was programmed to get you breakfast fifteen minutes before your alarm went off it had already stopped at a restaurant, placed your standing breakfast order or the closing thing available to it and had you breakfast sandwich, hash browns and hot coffee ready to go for you when your alarm went off. All of this without any intervention from you. If the car was to be loaded onto a train for long distance travel the vehicle could do this automatically as well both from a physical embarkment standpoint and from a payment perspective.

With a fully computer controlled vehicle connected to a central computer controlled traffic system we gain the advantage of having exceptionally good scheduling capabilities. No matter how well we design a transportation system we can never prevent every accident or foresee every traffic affecting event but we can predict travel times, in general, with extreme accuracy. And this schedule can and would be constantly updated during a journey so that unexpected adjustments could be dealt with as quickly as possible with as much foreknowledge as is possible. The vehicle could automatically attach to your corporate and personal calendar systems and update your travel itinerary so that meetings or other scheduled activities could be rescheduled or people meeting you would know when to expect you, etc. If you published your travel data to a secure web site family, friends or coworkers could track your progress to know where you are or when to expect you.

With the increasing easy of payment and measurements possible with this system there is another important opportunity presenting itself. We now have the ability to eliminate taxes related to roads as well as a differentiation between toll roads and non-toll roads and instead more to a “penny per mile” system of payment. As the traffic control system and the vehicle itself knows the exact location of the vehicle at all times and since the vehicle can make automatic toll-like payments we can now charge a nominal fee for actual road use based on the number of miles that the car travels. People who almost never drive would pay very little and those who are actually responsible for highway wear and tear would pay more. This more closely ties the costs of road creation, maintenance and repair to the usage making a more capitalistic system instead of allowing a government bureaucracy collect road fees via taxes and distribute those funds through politic posturing. This system encourages reduced road use and more economical thinking.

In addition to traditional concepts of road costs this system offers the ability to have different roads have varying costs at different times of day. Heavily congested commuter lanes might be more expensive during busy times. Vehicles could be instructed to choose routes based on lowest time to destination or lowest cost. Often lowest cost would be the shortest and fastest route but during high traffic congestion times it may not be and cost conscious or time insensitive passengers might choose “the scenic route” even if they lose a few minutes to bypass an area of congestion. Travel cost algorithms in the vehicle could automatically determine if switching from highway to railway along a route would be cost or time effective and do so automatically. Rail may be chosen based on departure time or other factors. By having the vehicle always calculate the most efficient combination of routes and modes we can further reduce time, congestion and cost involved in travel.

As we have already seen, we have made travel take less time and less fuel than every before. This has a direct and significant environmental impact. Even without making any modifications to the power production in vehicles of today we can reduce environmental impact by reducing total miles driven, reducing “stop and go” traffic so that vehicles can spend more time traveling at efficient speeds and by reducing the total number of vehicles which needs to be manufactured. Each of these factor is significant in its own right. But we can do far more than we are currently doing from a power production perspective as well. Current research sees us moving towards alternative means of powering cars that are cleaner and more efficient. This is critical in any transportation needs of the future.

With centralized traffic management we are able to reduce congestion and significantly raise the average speed at which a vehicle travels, especially in urban and heavily populated areas. While current speed limits are often in the 65mph range few people are able to maintain such speeds over a large portion of their actual travels. Most driving is done on lower speed roads, in traffic or under “traffic control” conditions where much time is spent stopped at lights and stop signs waiting for traffic to clear. With these issues widely eliminated and at least reduced we do longer need vehicles capable of the incredible speeds currently available from production automobiles. Most cars can easily travel above 100mph but this is unnecessary. Often petrol and diesel fueled vehicles are overpowered to provide a comfortable range of power for starting the vehicle. But alternative fuel methods such as electric do not need this as they provide maximum torque at idle. A new proposed alternative fuel, compressed air, also is expected to have positive “at idle” torque signature.

By altering our fuel systems we can make cars that travel more efficiently in real world scenarios. These vehicles will be designed more appropriately around how computers will pilot the vehicles and not on how people fantasize that they would like to drive if no one was watching. While eventually highway speeds could likely be increased once the system surpasses the current level of safety true high speed long distance travel would utilize the modal change to rail in order to achieve extremely high speed terrestrial travel.

Smaller, lighter vehicles such as the GEM car or the proposed compressed air vehicles have additional advantages when we begin to discuss intermodal options. Small vehicles can be carried in higher density by train and would further reduce the cost of travel.

In conclusion, I believe that an integrated, computer controlled, centrally managed, intermodal, alternatively fueled transportation system offers society an opportunity for massive reform. This change can dramatically impact quality of life for a very large segment of the population as well as have positive impacts on the economy and the environment. There are, of course, those who would oppose these changes such as incumbent automobile manufacturers, oil companies and the Teamsters union who will see this as a loss of jobs in their sectors. This is true, these sectors will be negatively impacted but as a whole the economy is being held back artificially by these sectors being unable or unwilling to innovate. Much as manual scribes would once have opposed the printing press we cannot deny that innovation has bolstered the economy not just in any one nation but globally increasing the lot of mankind. The highway and railway systems are part of the national infrastructure and are not for the private use of large corporations or unions. The purpose of the roadways is to serve the public good and I believe that this is the best way, in the foreseeable future, to serve that good.

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