Flying cars

When I was young, probably in my pre-teens, I had an old Zenith “tombstone” radio next to my bed (probably a Zenith 5S-228).   I’d listen to comics late at night and news early in the morning.   At some point, probably in the late 50’s Dad bought Becky and me new Motorola portable radios (probably the 5P32R; mine was bright yellow).   This deco-style portable radio used vacuum tubes, and would run off of AC or off of 90-volt and 7.5 volt batteries.  (Remember, although the transistor was developed in 1948, the very first transistor radio was not produced until 1954.  It sold then for $49.95, equivalent to $440 in 2015 dollars.)

By the time I was in high school I was listening a lot to KIMN, the top-40 station in Denver, but in those earlier years I listened almost all the time to KBOL at 1490 kc on your dial.   KBOL was owned and operated by Russ and Ann Shaffer.  (Their son, Rusty, who was a year behind me at Boulder High School, took over the station upon his father’s death.  The KBOL license finally found it’s way to Colorado Public Radio under the current call sign KCFC.)

Anyway, the important thing is that Russ Shaffer would offer an editorial every Friday morning, and one of those has stuck in my mind.  Russ envisioned a day when we would commute around town in our personal helicopters.   Even at that age I’d begun to develop a certain realism (that has since evolved into cynicism) and I remember vividly that I snorted out loud at the thought:  People can’t even handle driving, where they are constrained to two dimensions, how could they handle flying in three?  In bad weather personal helicopters would be falling out of the clouds at the points where popular routes intersected.   Looking before “backing out of your driveway” would take on a life-or-death importance.

I didn’t fault Russ for being a dreamer, however.

Which brings me to today and Sean Mayer.  Mayer is the CEO of the local business development organization, and he offers a column in the local pull-out business section each Friday.  It’s fair to say that I don’t usually think much of Mayer’s columns, since they usually focus on, well, parochial positions favoring business development.   But, today, I found myself in almost-full agreement with him (A Big Idea for Boulder in 2016.)   He sees the future of electrified and automated vehicles, and appreciates the impact that will have on transportation.  And, he advocates that Boulder offer itself to Uber, Google and others as a site for testing developing these emerging technologies.  (You know, sort of a “living lab”.)

I love this idea.  Let’s do it.

But, where Mayer comes off the rails, so to speak, is at the end:

2015 was a divisive year in Boulder as we argued about traffic, transit, bikes and the general difficulty in getting around town. These are 20th Century challenges which could be largely solved by the 21st Century technology of autonomous cars. Let’s think big in 2016 and bring the future to Boulder by embracing this next great technology disruption.

It’s the “largely solved” part that I disagree with.

Electrified transportation will reduce emissions and computer-operated cars will be safer (probably much safer) than those operated by humans (this is realism), but traffic is traffic, whether it consists of electric vehicles or not.  So, let’s dial back that enthusiasm a bit.

Just overlaying the new technology on our existing behavior won’t do the entire job.   For example, applying the Uber model to driver-less cars could make traffic worse–each round trip from my house, for example, would require four vehicle trips.

But, if we are able to change our behavior (a big if), we could end up far better off.   Putting on my dream cap (and dialing back the realism), I could envision a time when a family (at least middle-class families) would have one recreational vehicle, and routine, around-town transportation would happen through an integrated system of mass-transit and Uber-like autonomous vehicles.   The autonomous vehicles would serve as the “last-mile” link to mass transit (itself probably autonomous), and for trips that don’t conform well to the mass-transit system.   Autonomous vehicles would be staged around the community in optimal positions that vary with time of day and predicted demand.  A reservation system could make transportation highly predictable and even more efficient.

Providing the capability for ride sharing for the hoi polloi  would be big efficiency multiplier. (You could program your profile to pass up that sullen and scary woman or that chatty man, or have them pass you up, no matter where they were encountered.  Did I mention privacy concerns?)  And, because these vehicles could be designed to take up less space, both when stored and on the roadway (due to smaller size and the ability to tailgate safely) space currently devoted to the automobile could be re-purposed to other uses.

It is important to recognize if we were to adopt the Uber model using autonomous vehicles we would really be talking about  “supervised autonomous vehicles”.  This model leads to one more operational advantage.  Have you ever been sitting at the departure gate on a flight when the captain comes on the PA and says “Folks, things are bit congested out there in Denver, so ATC has given us a fifteen minute traffic hold.  Sorry about that; we’ll try to make up the lost time.”   The purpose of these traffic holds is to have you sit safely on the ground at your departure airport instead of flying in circles near your arrival airport, in bad weather and in proximity to a lot of other airplanes.   In other words, it reduces congestion thus improving safety.   The Ubermind could do the same thing for local transport, thus reducing traffic delays.  Perhaps you could get a discount for accepting the “traffic hold” or pay a premium to ignore it.

This model, or something like it, could change other aspects of our lives.  Because automated vehicles would “go home” at night to otherwise unused parking facilities, the problem of “too many parked cars” would become less of an obstacle to allowing high-occupancy residences.  Perhaps this would allow us to open up the potential for auxiliary dwelling units that would 1) improve the jobs/housing balance in Boulder and 2) give middle-income couples, singles and small families some income to offset high home prices.

But perhaps more culturally significant, the relegation of the fancy car to the status of a recreational vehicle would make routine transportation a commodity instead of a statement of style, self-worth and independence, and separating speed and noise from the accelerator pedal, in fact eliminating the accelerator pedal entirely, would decouple transportation from illusions of power and control.  That is, this big idea could change our entire relationship with the automobile.

With that relationship healed then perhaps, sometime in the 21st century, Boulder will pry the car out of the cold dead hands (heh, heh) of drivers and follow hundreds of examples in many dozens of  truly innovative cities that will have put their streets on a four-lane-to-three-lane “road diet”, aka “right-sizing”.   Perhaps sometime in his career, Mayer will be able to advocate this as an example of how Boulder can embrace the trailing edge of innovation.