Sunday, September 30, 2012

The future of technology (Part 2)

To follow up my previous post about the future of transportation technology, mass transit and car ownership becomes part of the equation.  While a bus can be more energy efficient, if self-driving cars powered by renewable technology at charging stations becomes an economical way to transport people, at what point do mass transit and personal ownership of an automobile become obsolete?

Some people will want to drive, at least for the next few decades.  Eventually who is to say it won't become the equivalent of enjoying riding a horse as time passes?  What practical need is there for wanting to drive instead of be driven?

Obviously the transition will take some time, but what might things be in a few decades if the self-driving car in combination with improved battery technology mixed with improved engine efficiency?

The carshare model and artificial intelligence mixed with a need to recharge, in addition to improved charging technologies could easily be leading to a situation where you request a car by internet, phone, or some currently unknown technology, and a car pilots itself from the charging location to you, picks you up, and takes you to your destination.  Take it as a mix of a cab, a carshare, and a carpool all into one.

With improved AI it would be possible for such a system to respond to peak demands and have cars near employment centers at the end of a shift, outside schools at the end of the school day, near major events after a big game finishes, or stationed outside a mall during a busy shopping season.

The ways this would change the American lifestyle would be quite profound.  Parking lots would be changed forever, high speed rail, mass transit, and even many flights would be obsolete.

Maybe autonomous cars won't be going 100+ mph in the next twenty years, but eventually on grade separated roads like the Interstate Highway System it could be reasonable to ban human driven vehicles in order to increase the throughput of the roads in addition to increase the speed to rates that are unthinkable with a human driver.

Nobody can predict the future, but some parts of the future are here today.  Maybe we should plan for them.

A cat toilet

I don't know why, but I clicked on this ad:

Never Touch Litter Again
Self-Flushing, Self-Washing Cat Box As Clean as Your Cat

If you have a cat, and don't really like it too much, you should probably look at investing in a CatGenie.  It's a toilet, for your cat.  I wish I was joking.

There's a video explaining how it all works on their web site, but I have to wonder what kind of freak would buy this thing starting at $249.00.  Maybe you can fit it with a Brawndo connector.

The future of technology

It's an interesting time that we live in.  With the opening of the new East Side Loop of the Portland Streetcar, I've been thinking about how transportation technology has changed the American landscape over the years.  Transportation alone has so many up and coming technologies that when you look back to a hundred years ago, it's difficult to imagine how much might change in the next hundred years.

The streetcar era of the late 1800s and early 1900s built cities.  It helped shape the core of most of the American west, and helped create suburbs all over the country.  Portland's suburbs were built around the interurban trains of the era, starting with horse drawn streetcars, through the electrification era, and eventually replaced them with buses.  It's a common story from San Diego to Seattle.

But Portland has brought the streetcar back to America.  With cities like Tucson, Washington DC, LA and more looking at building new systems Portland has put ourselves in a unique place with Oregon Iron Works subsidiary United Streetcar being in our own backyard.

But is the pro-train, anti-freeway plan for Portland the best long term option?  Is the situation Portland has created of hoping people will use mass transit really the best option with the technology that it seems could be commonplace in the future?

Google is working on the autonomous car which currently has 480,000 accident free miles under its belt.  Between that and improved battery technologies, at what point will a self-driving plug in hybrid that gets 200+ mpg hit the market?  There are hurdles to overcome to achieve that, but if that happens, and it seems possible, what will that mean for the market of high speed rail, mass transit, or even cab drivers?

It seems that we're about to face a change in the way transportation is handled in multiple ways in a short period of time.  Will cities that have favored investments in mass transit as opposed to highway capacity regret their decisions as these changes occur?

There is the possibility that because of increased efficiency of roadways with self-driving vehicles you can fit more vehicles on the roadway, but you have to wait until there are enough self-driving vehicles that you can ban human driven vehicles from the freeway.  At that point if the systems are advanced enough, why not get rid of speed limits and just let anyone with a self driving car go as fast as the car decides it can safely go?

If the car can go 130 mph, that also raises questions about the need for high speed rail.  With station stops how much demand will their be?

It will also destroy the cab driving industry, the rental car industry, and drastically reshape the insurance industry.  If automated vehicles become popular enough why would someone even buy their own car?  Just pay a fee for miles traveled and take a cab/rental (same business once you remove the driver) and pay as you go.

Given that a hundred years ago the idea of taking a vacation on a long weekend to the opposite coast was considered crazy, maybe we should start trying to pay better attention to the technologies that are going to be sneaking up on is in the coming decades.  While many people enjoy driving a car, we should be also planning for how we accommodate cars of the future.