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The future of personal transport

Transport is a big problem, at the personal (how will I get to work?), economic (How much is it costing to move all these people around) and environmental levels (What damage is all this movement causing?). A few interesting links:

New suburbanism is a new way of solving the environmental crisis, an alternative to ‘new urbanism’ (which basically means creating more dense urban areas). The problem with the concept is that the underlying principles (which are really assumptions) are mainly wrong. You cannot support a global population of ten billion people on this planet if they are all spread all over the place, have an attachment to their living places, are not subsistence farmers and have to travel to congregate at work or school on a regular basis.

However, there is one thing we can learn from new suburbanism.  According to the author,

Personal transportation devices are tantalizingly close to becoming ultra safe conveyances that can drive on full autopilot and have zero environmental footprint, and we are within a few decades at most of having abundant clean energy. The age of the personal driving machine has just begun.

It is true to say that driving technology has only begun. But it is just not true that autopilot cars are ‘tantalizingly close’ or even close at all. There is simply not a lot of practical research going on in the area of self-driving cars. But the new suburbanists are right, there should be. Road transport is here to stay and we need to work hard on making it comfortable and efficient.

A company that is doing something practical to provide cars with a smaller environmental footprint is Better Place. These guys are gearing up to roll out the infrastructure to make electric cars a reality. We should be doing this in Ireland. There are only a thousand or so petrol stations in Ireland and it would be relatively cheap to make our road network run on electricity.

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  1. I think it’s incorrect to say there’s not a lot of practical research going on.

    DARPA does the automated desert drive contest annually.

    Nissan has done research in the past year on cruise control that is aware of cars in front, behind and to the sides and can adjust speed or steer to avoid other vehicles.

    Is it as ready to implement as Shai Agassi’s Better Place stuff? No.

    But then, neither are all of his grand plans ready to go – he’s going to start by a network of charging posts, but his later schemes involve a robotic car-wash type battery changing station, similar to a petrol station – drive through, robots remove old battery, install fresh. Difficulties? Battery standardization, or robots that recognize the different models properly, simple things such as torque calibration so that you don’t break a battery terminal out of the side of the thing by overtightening…

    There’s a lot of work to be sorted out.

  2. And there’s a project in California to autosteer a second bus to run in convoy behind a first, steered bus. And there’s another crowd who have a self-steering minibus in the Netherlands. But so what? Who really cares? None of this technology will produce any end result worth talking about unless it is stacked together with a lot of other technologies to manage journeys and congesion, and is also put in a business context – the way our infrastructure is owned will not work for an autodrive personal transport system -. None of this work has even been thought of.

  3. There are massive problems with the whole Concept of Personal Transport Systems. The main thing is that they fundamentally don’t scale well. When you have everyone in a separate vehicle, you get congestion. This is a fundamental problem that you can bend, but never truly solve. Public Mass Transport, will always scale much much better.

    There’s a really interesting book called ‘Suburban to Super Rural’ that was published by a collection of Irish Architects which you might be interested in.

  4. Kevin, it will scale ok, if you don’t let the density get too high and if you have the technology to fully manage the road space. Obviously, motorized personal transport isn’t the solution in the densest areas. However, improved management of road space would still make a big difference to congestion levels.

    One of the problems with the current technology is that most of the road space is wasted.

    Imagine if the distance between vehicles could be better managed to maximise use of junctions. You could immediately fit far greater numbers of vehicles through the same junctions.