December 24, 2013

The Car of the Future

Fans of Star Trek have delighted in the Audi ad that pits old Spock (Leonard Nimoy in a Mercedes CLS 550C) against young Spock (Zachary Quinto in an Audi S7 hatchback). The CLS is portrayed as old-school luxury, while the S7 is presented as a 23rd century starship. In the end, though, both are trumped by the self-driving Audi TTS (developed at Stanford).

"The Challenge"

Speculation abounds, as it has always, about what the car of the future looks like. "The car of the future will be electric. Powered by fuel cells. By hydrogen. By a small on-board nuclear reactor. It will look all curvy. It will look like a Lamborghini, only more 'space age'. It will be self-driving. It can fly."

Personally, I have no truck with the looks of the future car. I don't care if it looks like a box car. Or rather, perhaps I would prefer it to look like a box car (more on that below). Here is CelloMom's vision of our future transportation - or perhaps more appropriately called wishful thinking.

In the not-too-distant future, we will need a serious re-think of our energy flow. And since so much of that energy flows on behalf of our transportation needs, we will have to look out of the box when it comes to our cars.

In my ideal future, there are still cars on the road. Fewer than now. And none of them are mine. I have given up the burden of car ownership - the monthly payments, the insurance, the annual inspections, the oil changes, the hoisting at the fan belt, even the endless cleaning cycle - and traded all that for à la carte transportation.

In large cities, I can have a choice of public transportation options like the subway and the bus, paid for by a card much like the SmarTrip card used in Washington DC or the Oyster card for the London transit system. Lower-density suburbs still exist - there are too many of them to be abandoned or dismantled overnight - and there transportation are still provided by cars, but with a twist.

Cars are owned and operated by transportation providers that maintain a fleet of self-driving units. I use my phone to request a car, specifying the To and From locations and the time I want to depart or arrive, plus any large luggage, such as a cello. The system messages me with an estimate of the time I can expect the car, and a price for the ride, which depends on the distance and the time of day (deep discounts for off-peak travel).

Self-driving cars are already here, and the software required to optimise the travel routes of a large number of vehicles has been developed by companies like UPS.

Because I get charged per ride I have become very mindful of efficiency measures such as bundling my errands, or perhaps asking my neighbour who is going grocery shopping to fetch me the dozen eggs which are my only need for the day.

I get a two-minute warning by phone before the car pulls up in front of my house (I don't have a driveway any more, it's all garden, as glorious as I can manage to make it). I get in, perhaps joining other people who are in the car already. I could specify privacy in the car, which would cost more, but the default is that you share the car with other passengers; rides are optimised for optimal total efficiency in real time, so the size of the car that comes to pick you up depends on how many other people in your neighbourhood happen to need a ride at the same time.

Rides to schools have priority over everything else. Rides to work are timed to occur a little later in the morning so that the same vehicles can be used for that commute; but most of the workforce telecommutes at least part of the time anyway.

I get total flexibility in the kind of vehicle that moves me and my stuff around: If I specify that I'm hauling a cache of eight-foot two by fours for a home project, I get sent a different type of vehicle than when it's my four-person family going out together. If I want to organise a trip with twelve people, we can all fit in one vehicle, just for that one time, but none of us need to actually own an extended Econo-line van.

For longer distances, the cars would clump into small highway caravans of self-driving units, maintaining the same speed, bumpers separated by a few feet. This kind of hypermiling, impossibly dangerous in human-operated cars, would boost the overall fuel efficiency significantly, since only the caboose car would be hampered by serious turbulence instead of each car. My guesstimate is that optimal fuel efficiency requires that each car be quite boxy, which incidentally also gives best headroom throughout the car, so that even sitting at the rear of the car you don't have to feel like the ceiling is bearing down on you.

Even in town, cars can drive much closer together than they need now. This frees up space on streets; perhaps middle lanes can be turned into median parks that accomodate festivals and pop-up stores. You don't need in-town parking spaces any more, which anyway mess up the streetscape: when not in use the cars are tucked away in the multistory garages where the maintenance is also done. So on-street parking lanes can be converted to bike paths. We won't need three parking spaces per car any more, and since we share the ride, we need a much smaller total number of cars, another energy saving.

And sure, the cars are electric, and get their juice from renewables like wind and solar, their batteries forming a vast storage reservoir of energy that smooth out the vagaries of the highly variable availability of sun and wind. But as much savings in carbon emissions come more from the way we use the cars, as from what powers them.

Disney will eventually build a theme park where you can drive an old-style car with a steering wheel, after going through their training session. They set up a mock village in which you can drive around (not too fast), complete with shops, antique parking meters, and - o marvel! - traffic lights.



You may also like:
1. Boys with (Electric) Toys
2. Ten Ways to Calm Car Traffic


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