When I was a young boy, I became a big fan (and still am) of Syd Mead and his vision of the 21st century as viewed from the 1960s. I remember my mom buying me a book for my birthday on the history of the automobile. Not only did it include the invention and history, but wonderful depictions of future automobiles that were hydrogen powered and could jack up their wheels and take flight like an aircraft using lift jets - obviously Syd’s work. There were visions of computerized highways in the sky where your flying car would simply join others in route and travel at speeds over 300 MPH.
Looking back, it’s very sad to me that the wonderful artwork of Mr. Mead was never realized... however, that didn’t stop some people from trying. There have been many references to the Moller flying car which uses multiple propeller engines to lift the entire vehicle and push it through the air at high speeds. Moller’s vision was the same as Mead’s - a computerized highway in the sky taking control of the vehicle and getting you to your final destination in the most efficient way.
So what happened to that wonderful future of flying vehicles? The most likely problem was a little thing called gravity and the power needed to overcome it. Another is the need (or lack thereof) to remove traffic from its terrestrial bounds. However, many other innovations have been made in the automotive sector. A few of these advances include computerized engine controls, electronic fuel injection, air bags (a personal favorite of mine), GPS navigation, computerized vehicle management, back-up sonar and cameras plus many more. A great deal of these would be considered science fiction in the 1960s, but are realities today.
With the pressures of our new energy crisis temporarily clipping our wings, attention has been focused on making the entire system more efficient. Many of you are already driving first and second generation gas-electric hybrids. There are more of those on the way. But the next big step will be fully electric cars (see my previous blogs on electric cars). Technology to quickly charge electric vehicles is coming and solutions to extend battery life or replace batteries altogether are on the horizon.
Still, there are a great number of improvements that can be made to our current production lineup hitting the roads as well as the roads themselves. Efficiency improvements are not restricted to a single function. Large gains are often found by re-architecting the way something operates. That is, simply improving the efficiency of a car’s engine may not be the best solution if you are stuck in traffic most of the time. One solution to traffic is turning the engine off while stopped (a problem if - like me - you live in Florida and the air conditioner runs off the engine). This is one of many improvements that help the car’s fuel efficiency, but not the infrastructure. Electronics, sensors and computerized traffic management can make roads far more efficient by routing traffic around congestion (like packets on the Internet). People are the other problem - they need to use the information provided by the highway wisely while driving. Ignoring (or not believing) information interferes with the solution.
Like many things that influence humans, there must be an incentive. For instance, buying a gas-hybrid at a premium is influenced by a high price for fuel. A solution that might work to improve road efficiency is toll roads that dynamically change the fee to influence usage. That is, at peak times (6:00 AM to 9:00 AM and 3:00 PM to 6:00 PM), rates go up sharply. At low utilization or off-peak times (e.g. 1:00 AM to 4:00 AM), tolls could be free or very inexpensive. Trucking companies may choose to move freight during these times leaving the cars to use roads during higher peak times. If your car’s navigation system knew the cost of these tolls as well as real-time traffic conditions, you could either elect to go the cheapest route or the fastest route. Giving people these choices (and showing them the total cost on the dash board including the fuel they will consume) will have a bigger influence on the efficiency of the system than simply using computerized road-side signs to inform of impending traffic.
This is not unlike what the power companies are proposing to control loading on their power plants and networks. Smart Grid technology would update meters during peak times to increase the price of a kilowatt-hour. The consumer’s home systems could monitor the metered rate and adjust usage accordingly. For instance, a washing machine could "pause" a cycle while waiting for the rates to go down (so you soak your cloths a bit longer...). This prevents brown-outs or other more serious side effects while keeping loads on the plants constant improving overall efficiency. See my prior blog, "Will Energy Costs Revive Home Automation".
Until we figure out the relationship between gravity and the forces we can control, we’ll probably be stuck to our terrestrial roots. But not to worry... I guess I’m somewhat comfortable with the thought that running out of fuel (or stored energy) will not cause me to plunge to my death. I’m somewhat attached to the thought of simply "pulling over" to the side of the road - for now anyway. Till next time...