People are addicted to small computers in the palms of their hands. Electric vehicles are about to be everywhere, with the electricity hopefully coming from renewable sources. Autonomous cars will be better than sliced bread.
Meanwhile, urban sprawl, public health and good old feet, bicycles, and buses draw fewer headlines.
It’s like the media and big-tech players have decided on a few future realities, and that everyone has decided to play along and get really excited about them. These visions seem to bolster the bottom line of the tech companies and the car companies, as well as the car companies that are morphing into tech companies and vice versa.
Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I do think that driverless vehicles are being held out as the cure-all for the problems affecting our cities and transportation systems. I don’t buy it. Which leads to a story.
In December 2016, I pitched my sustainable transportation app to Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs only to learn they were politely not very interested – possibly too few references to autonomous cars. Mired in contemplative failure and operating on rocket-fuel coffee, on my walk home I envisioned the streets of New York clogged with robot cars running over small furry animals and getting stuck in alleyways while hapless pedestrians crossed their fingers.
Thinking this dumb, I then imagined a different version of the future. The roads and paths lit up in a grid of multicolored tiles wired to sense and communicate with travelers while chattering away to each other, controlling vehicle speeds, monitoring pedestrians and bicyclists, and routing commuters happily around each other.
In other words, an aware network driving the robots and guiding the humans to create a safe and efficient transportation system.
Currently, our roads and paths do not pull their weight, just lying there as inert slabs. Being a technology entrepreneur, I wonder if a portion of the fortunes being spent on mapping and sensor technologies for self-driving cars could be allocated towards our humble pavements – so they can participate in processing the information necessary to prevent crashes and congestion.
Also, does each vehicle need to be its own entity? Rather than pouring all of our resources into making each vehicle a stand-alone technological hub, why don’t we just make a clever network? For the record, I believe that most transport issues could be solved by getting people walking, cycling, and using public transit more. However, given that the world’s juggernauts are determined to make driverless cars, let’s guide them in the right direction.
To use a nature analogy, we could build an advanced transportation network that operates like a beehive, where the hive mind controls the constituents in an intelligent, optimized manner. Let’s fuse vehicles with roads and paths such that they are one intelligent digital organism. The system controls vehicles that are powered by the pavement.
Remember the light cycles in the 1982 movie Tron? Picture those, but as safe and moderately paced robot pods on the cool neon roads.
To put some flesh on my fantastical New York City daydream:
- Construct the roads and paths out of smart panels that power and control the driverless vehicles and sense and communicate with pedestrians and cyclists.
- Connect the smart panels in a network that shares real-time information on vehicles, pedestrians, and bicycles while triple-checking information to avoid errors.
- Design the smart panels to do double duty as solar panels that deliver electricity to vehicles and storage batteries.
- Engineer each panel and connected vehicle to cooperatively follow and refine protocols and algorithms as a fully functional hive mind.
- Set the smart panels to change color to create dynamic multimodal travel lanes, narrowing, widening and rerouting as necessary. For instance, a blue pedestrian path next to a green cycle path could turn red when vehicle traffic picked up and no walkers were present.
- Deploy some pods the size of buses and trains to accommodate like-minded groups and ensure the continued existence of mass transit serving common destinations. In the downtime between mass transit pods the smart panels could accommodate other modes.
- Program the smart panels to halt traffic when a pedestrian gets distracted by checking their self-worth on social media and strays into a vehicle lane. Given the network would be aware of all vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians, it would be well placed to recognize risky situations and plan accordingly.
A compelling benefit of the smart-panel approach is that cities would retain ownership of the roads, the transport network mastermind, and the resulting big data. This platform would make it easy for cities to coordinate and monetize their transport infrastructure. They would then be in a powerful position to achieve healthy, active, sustainable and livable urban functionality, as well as hassle-free transport.
On reflection, implementing this idea would be hideously expensive, but it might work. Or we could just build some good bicycle paths and try not to crash our bikes.