Still Looking for That Magic Highway

Today on the Streetsblog Network, we’re thinking about the reinvention of cars. At his blog The Bellows, Ryan Avent has written a two-part piece about how best to enable innovation in car design. His starting point is a review in The American Prospect of a new book called Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century, which takes a gung-ho approach to futuristic, nimble, hyperconnected vehicles that will essentially drive themselves. It’s a dream that goes back generations, and it’s still quite robust.

In his first post on the topic, Avent framed the problem this way:

Every weekday, tens of millions of Americans get into vehicles that are
full of passenger space which won’t be used, with engines capable of
horsepower and speeds that won’t be attained, holding fuel tanks that
could power the car for distances that won’t be traveled. The result of
all this over-engineering is that cars cost way more than a vehicle for
daily commuting need cost, and they consume way more energy than a
vehicle for daily commuting need consume. This all adds up to a
remarkable waste of resources, even before you begin talking about
things like congestion. Why are we stuck in this wasteful equilibrium?

Avent goes on to suggest that because there is no road space in which to use radically redesigned cars, innovation is stifled. He writes that one solution would be to create "open roads" — city streets where more experimental vehicles could be used, allowing entrepreneurial manufacturers to try out more efficient, lightweight and intelligent designs without having to meet the current requirements for roadworthiness. He also argues that waiting for a top-down reconfiguration of streets and highways to accommodate the hypothetically smarter cars of the future is not a workable option.

In his second post, Avent addresses commenters who take issue with his premise:

What you want to do is create a space where firms can experiment
with new designs and compete for customers. That’s hard to do, when the
rules of the road have been determined and institutionally reinforced
over the course of a century. But I think it needs to be done. The
reason we’re all stuck with the car is that there’s no road space
available in which alternatives can operate and potentially thrive.
Apple can’t sell millions of little iCars, because there’s no place for
buyers to use them. They’d have to sell plain old cars, which is an old
and tired business, gradual shift in propulsion notwithstanding. Create
space for innovative new designs, and you’ll get innovative new designs.

The question is, of course, where is that space going to come from? It seems unlikely that drivers of conventional vehicles will give it up easily. Taking a lane, or a sidewalk, from bikes or pedestrians seems a lot more probable politically. That was what the folks at GM suggested doing with the PUMA, their most recent prototype for a reconsidered "personal mobility device." (One of the authors of "Reinventing the Automobile," Christopher Borroni-Bird, is also not-so-coincidentally one of the GM execs behind the PUMA.)

And the scenario of lots of little experimental cars zooming around at speeds of 30 miles an hour or so in an urban or suburban environment is rather terrifying, even if they’re all quite beautifully designed. Because while the dream of removing the human element from the piloting of a car remains, the attainment of that dream seems still very far away. Drivers are drivers. Drivers are human. And far too many are like the ones Sustainable Savannah discusses in a post today — people who say things like this:

"People can do what they want while they drive. The state
representatives cannot stop anyone from reading and responding to text
messages. It is neither their phone nor their car, so they should back
off."

That’s an attitude that technology is never going to solve — unless humans are entirely removed from the driving equation.

We’re interested in hearing what you have to say about this question, and about Avent’s thoughts on the subject. Let us know in the comments.

  • Electric bikes & trikes are currently banned on NYC streets and yet they could be the low-carbon vehicle of choice for people who don’t want to sweat as much when riding a bike (or need a little power assist on hills). Thinking of that example and then thinking of things like the PUMA or the slow speed golf-cart like vehicles show that our streets are over-regulated.

    The laissez-faire urban streets of the late 19th & early 20th Century were re-engineered to look more like mini-highways for higher speeds & capacity of one type of vehicle: 2-4 door Passenger vehicles that have safety ratings for high speed crashes with heavy vehicles.

    We already have certain streets in NYC designated for trucks. Let’s extend that to also include anything that weighs more than 2-3 tons, like the modern SUV. Then on the other streets, let’s allow all manner of small vehicles. The speed limits should be lowered as well.

  • (copied comment from bellows)

    Small Vehicle Transit Concept

    Small vehicle transit fits the bill. Optimally, it might be a modular system. The basic module might be a recumbent or semi recumbent light-weight seat that may be attached to other modules which could be bicycle or tricycle wheels for traveling on traditional roads or sleeve-like pallet adapters that travel on elevated monorails. Other modules would be used for additional freight or passengers.

    Ideally, one could attach the seat to the wheels and travel to and get on the elevated monorail. Traveling on the monorail using the adapter sleeve, the system provides for simple mechanical collision avoidance and hands free travel.

    Hybrid human-electric powering is ideal.

    Weather conditions can be addressed with clothing and on-demand faired enclosures as desired.

    This is a very simple conceptual treatment.

  • Things that struck me watching this video:
    (1) No one ever seemed to do anything but travel in a car
    (2) No one ever moved their legs to get from one place to the next (how did they stay so thin?)–even window-shopping in a mall was done on conveyor belts
    (3) No one was ever shown outdoors–they seemed to pass their entire lives in hermetically sealed environments
    (4) No one ever interacted with anyone outside their nuclear family units (except video conference calls with coworkers)
    (5) The countryside was littered with enormous roads
    (6) Urban sprawl and longer commutes were touted as virtues
    (7) It seemed like an awfully lonely and sterile existence

  • “with engines capable of horsepower and speeds that won’t be attained,”

    Apparantly he is unaware of the horsepower needs for speed versus that for acceleration. If auto engines had only the power needed to drive say 80 mph, the accerlation would be terribly slow.

    Best would be eletric autos as their propulsion sysmes have way fewer moving parts then internal combustion engines with transmissions etc.

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