Saturday, November 27, 2010
First this note; I have recently been informed that this blog has twice triggered a virus alert for one reader. Has anyone other than this one reader had any malware alerts when visiting this site? I take this matter very seriously and have not been able to identify any malicious code. I have removed the “recent comments” feature from the sidebar, (again) since, in the Blogger forums, it has been suggested that such third-party “widgets” could be to blame, although no mention has been made of this (most popular) one specifically. Anyway, if you have received any alerts, please tell me about it, via email or the comments section. I am hoping it is a false alarm.
While I was out of touch last month, up at the cabin, an extraordinary thing happened that I just found out about. Apparently Google unveiled small fleet of driverless cars that had secretly logged 140 thousand miles of varied California driving with essentially no human assistance. It seems that the age of the Robocar is really here – at least as far as the science goes.
I am an unsuccessful contestant in a recent Google contest, which was about world-changing ideas. I can’t believe they picked the “Shweeb” concept over open-source, standards-based PRT. Now they have invested in Robocars. These people are no strangers to PRT, I just wish they would jump in with both feet.
It seems to me that Google has “out-ULTra-ed” ULTra. After all, couldn’t Google’s modified Toyotas make the runs around Heathrow with ease? For that matter, it seems like they could just take you the rest of the way to your door. Back a few posts, I speculated that the real value proposition for a four-wheeled, pavement-driving designs like ULTra is really dualmode. Now it seems pretty clear that Google could clean their clock in that, and their present business too, if they wanted to.
In a way, my worst fears have come to pass. I believe that much (if not most) of the promise of PRT lies in the establishment of an alternative to roads, rather than making vehicles automatic. Regular roads are designed to carry huge loads, making them very expensive to elevate. Yet it is wildly inefficient to remain on the ground, where there are constant conflicts between people and cargo going different directions. There is also limited space. In most cities, well over 30% of the land is devoted to vehicles, either for roads or parking. This huge, paved landmass is an environmental nightmare, atmospherically, climatically, and hydrologically, not to mention a giant waste of very valuable real estate.
Because of the public’s resistance to having substantial overhead structures in front of their houses or businesses, it is essential for PRT track to have a minimalistic profile. This suggests something in the shape of a simple beam, and certainly not a wide, flat running surface, which would form an umbrella over the real estate below. (particularly at junctions) Robocar makers may pay lip service to raised track, but practical realities say otherwise. Additionally, the removal of any way to “hook” into the track automatically makes travel in icy conditions something that just can’t be done at reasonable speeds.
With PRT being broadly defined to include four wheeled, steerable vehicles, advocates, (such as myself) are faced with the assumption, by many, that PRT is simply robocars on a designated roadway. This is defining PRT away from its original premise. Under the broadest definition the vehicles could even be gasoline powered. This is very, very far from the promise of PRT as envisioned by the early developers of such systems. No wonder people consider driverless cars as being an equally viable alternative to PRT. The PRT that they are familiar with has been stripped of most of its advantages.
I just hope the good people at Google understand the unintended consequences that are inherent in their technology. Private driverless cars will encourage greater fuel consumption, because being free from driving will encourage other ways to pass the time, such as eating and drinking, watching TV, doing office work, etc. The resultant mobile office/living room will mean bigger, not smaller, vehicles. The comfortable and productive ride will encourage longer, not shorter commutes. It will encourage more pavement, not less.
Having robotic cars, especially with special lanes, may seem tantamount to a true PRT system to many, and this fact endangers PRT adoption. You can’t morph private cars on roads into PRT. PRT is meant to replace the need for more cars and roads. It is, at its core, efficient public transportation, which, in turn, encourages the building of truly efficient communities, leading to reduced environmental impact and greater prosperity.
Robocars will only help alleviate traffic, without cutting down on driving. It will make private car ownership even more desirable in emerging countries like India and China. This will eventually encourage even MORE driving and consequently MORE sprawl, just as faster highways have ended up doing across the U.S. And mark my words, if they are privately owned, they will be BIG, powerful and very comfortable. I’ll take the camper!