Charlie Stross ponders the future of cars

Paul Raven @ 10-11-2010

If you’re bored of my bootstrap amateur futurism (I suppose one can have too much of a good thing, AMIRITES?), pop over to Charlie Stross’ blog and watch a professional at work as he considers the future of personal transport:

While the basic automobile is a mature technology, autonomous vehicles — specifically, self-driving cars — are not. However, they’re clearly coming along by leaps and bounds. And unlike human drivers, computers don’t generally suffer from lapses of attention, have heart attacks at the wheel, drive home from the pub after a couple of pints too many, or plough into cyclists while texting their girlfriends.

Shortly after (not if, but when) we see autopilots become standard equipment in cars, we can expect to see insurance premiums start to rise sharply for people who insist on driving themselves around on the public highways — especially for third-party insurance.

(Remember, it’s not about you: it’s about the guy in the pick-up behind you who’s had six pints of beer, or the gal in the SUV bearing down on the pedestrian crossing who’s paying more attention to the friend she’s chatting to than the kids crossing the road. You could be that guy or that gal; or you could be scrupulously attentive the whole time. Your insurance company’s computer can’t tell until you have an accident … that’s the problem with Baye’s Theorem.)

Longer term (I suspect a generation after that point) we’ll begin to see pressure to ban humans from driving on the public roads. By this point, the cost of electronics required to upgrade a vehicle to self-driving capability will have fallen so much that it’s ubiquitous, even in the developing world.

The mark of good futurism, for me at least, is when you read or hear it and think “well, yeah, of course; obvious, isn’t it?” The cynical rejoinder to that would be to say that repeating the obvious is easy work… to which I’d respond that either a) I’m an idiot or b) it’s not as easy as the experts make it look. (I’m rooting for option B there, obviously.)

That said, the gaping hole in Charlie’s piece is the absence of public transport as an influential factor; maybe I’m just being too idealist (or naive), but I find it hard to envisage a future a century hence where private ownership of long-distance vehicles is anywhere near as ubiquitous as it is now. Shared pools thereof, perhaps… but I figure that a radical rethink of transport infrastructure – not to mention the necessity of long-distance personal travel – is pretty inevitable, whether caused by rational politics (not looking likely) or the rocks and hard places of post-Peak Oil economics (looking pretty inevitable).

After all, the Greatest Nation in the World™ can’t afford to maintain its roads and highways at the moment; cars will be little use with nothing to drive ’em on. Unless the highways seceded, of course…


Scaled-elextric: slot cars for transport

Tom James @ 11-08-2009

slot-carToday’s dose of technocratic mass-transport conceptual design is brought to you by German designer Christian Förg. His Speedway Transport System is inspired by slot cars of his youth:

Förg’s Speedway Transport System concept uses a network of linear electric motors to propel cars along the highway.

He sees us driving around in futuristic dual-mode electric cars with small motors for city driving. When we’re ready to leave town, a contact-free linear motor would propel the car over long distances with a drifting magnetic field. Förg says linear motors would work under our existing roadways, complementing – not replacing – existing automotive technology.

“This means that you can use the roads with normal cars and also at the same time for the Speedway system,”

If this ever gets taken up it’ll be interesting to see what alternative uses the street finds for this technology.

A slight non-sequitur: Will Hutton writes in the Guardian on the dire state of the UK rail network, and how in order to remain economically competitive, Britain must invest in the kind of high-speed rail they have in Europe.

[via Wired][image from Wired]


This is why my brother never travels without headphones

Sarah Ennals @ 31-05-2009

This is why my brother never travels wihout headphones - Does Not Equal

Does Not Equal is a webcomic by Sarah Ennalscheck out the pre-Futurismic archives, and the strips that have been published here previously.

[ Be sure to check out the Does Not Equal Cafepress store for webcomic merchandise featuring Canadians with geometrically-shaped heads! ]


The paradoxical nature of traffic jams

Paul Raven @ 30-12-2008

Following on from the ULTra transit post, here’s a question about urban transport: what’s the best way to solve sluggish traffic flow around a busy street? Well, you could try shutting the street down entirely

To mathematicians, this may be a real-world example of Braess’s paradox, a statistical theorem that holds that when a network of streets is already jammed with vehicles, adding a new street can make traffic flow even more slowly.

The reason is that in crowded conditions, drivers will pile into a new street, clogging both it and the streets that provide access to it. By the same token, removing a major thoroughfare may actually ease congestion on the streets that normally provide access to it. And because other major streets are already overcrowded, diverting still more traffic to them may not make much difference.

There are links to some research papers and reports on traffic flow studies over at MetaFilter, but you might want to start with the more accessible Wikipedia article on Braess’s paradox. I don’t know about anyone else, but I find it strangely comforting to realise that the world doesn’t always work the way we expect it to… though that could be because I don’t drive.


ULTra – Urban Light Transit concept

Paul Raven @ 29-12-2008

Having spent a little time this holiday scurrying around on the UK’s woeful excuse for a public transport system, I’m very receptive to a technological revamp of the ways we get around. The ULTra – Urban Light Transit – system looks like just the ticket if the video below is anything to go by, though it has the launch date for the Heathrow Airport installation wrong – ULTra themselves have it pegged for operation in spring 2009.

More than a hint of the Jetsons about it, isn’t there? I wonder if it could genuinely scale up to coping with the sort of traffic the London or New York subway systems handle? [via Tomorrow’s Trends]