Six Nontechnical Questions on Self-Driving Cars

Six Nontechnical Questions on Self-Driving Cars

In his recent article “Self-Driving Cars Will Mean More Traffic”, Joshua Brustein refers to a major downside of autonomous cars. He points out that people tend to travel more whenever traveling gets easier. “Hanging out on a moving couch” would make commuting more convenient and increase the attractiveness of living in suburbs. The result: More traffic! In contrast, he asserts that it will be easier to share cars and thus to reduce the number of privately owned vehicles – this argument is often used by technology enabled transportation companies.

These contradictory scenarios and the controversial discussion about how the future of self-driving cars will look like illustrates that the discussion on autonomous cars has reached a new level. We’ve reached a point where autonomous driving is much more than just a matter of technical feasibility. 

Helsinki's ambitious plan to make car ownership pointless in 10 years

The Guardian reports on Helsinki's new mobility action plan. It's good to see research on Mobility-on-Demand Systems finally getting traction in early pilots and cities taking serious strategic measures. Here's a bit of the text below. 


The Finnish capital has announced plans to transform its existing public transport network into a comprehensive, point-to-point "mobility on demand" system by 2025 – one that, in theory, would be so good nobody would have any reason to own a car.

Sorry, You Can’t Sell Me on Pay-For-Public-Parking Apps

This article from the Boston Globe:

Make no mistake. At least one app is launching in Boston that will allow users to sell public parking spaces to other users.

The folks behind apps like Haystack say that’s not true. They don’t exist to let users sell parking spaces. Users are just buying and selling information on upcoming parking vacancies. A question arises: How, exactly, do you pronounce tomato?

Haystack, which is slated to launch in Boston soon, allows users to log in and put their parking spot out to bid. Other users who are looking for a spot can agree to come fill it for a fee, paid to the driver, of which Haystack takes a bite. (An app similar to Haystack, called Organic Parking out of Cambridge, is also expected to launch locally at some point this summer.)

A new app would allow users to sell access to public parking spaces.Credit: Jim Davis/Boston Globe

Banning the Private Ownership of Autonomous Vehicles

The Biggest Public Policy Opportunity of Our Lifetimes

This article written by Steve Tiell in the Meeting of the Minds Blog found here.

Over the next decade, driverless vehicles will disrupt transportation systems, causing ripple effects across numerous billion-dollar industries. Through the innovative use of public policy, advanced societies can use this mobility transformation as a keystone event to radically improve public safety and security, greatly increase cohesion among communities, and foster economic prosperity. To be clear, autonomous vehicles will become legal and ubiquitous; the public policy opportunity is about ownership.

Las Vegas Gambles on a Future With Car Sharing for Everyone

This article just out in Smithsonian Magazine. I'm quoted several times in this piece:

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is investing $350 million in an ambitious redevelopment plan that includes a new model for getting around Sin City

By: Amy Westervelt

Give people free shipping and a yearlong window for returns, as the retailer Zappos did, and suddenly buying shoes online is a lot more appealing. Give them access to manifold transportation options in a place where good jobs, homes and entertainment are within walking distance, and going car-free just might take on new allure.

That’s the experiment under way in Las Vegas, Nevada, where Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is investing $350 million over five years in an attempt to re-energize the city’s 1.5-square-mile downtown area. This for-profit investment plan, called Downtown Project, is focused on attracting technologists and artists to a part of town that has long had more empty lots, seedy bars and vacant buildings than hopeful startups or hip boutiques. The hope is that these creative types will “serendipitously” collide with one another in cafes, parks and co-working spaces, exchange ideas, and build great companies as well as a tight-knit community.

New Twist on Vehicle Lighting and other accessories

This CNN article showcases several inventions for bicycle lighting, but it can be applied to other types of vehicles:

The laser projected head light concept is interesting.  Vehicle lighting has not changed much in the past 100 years.  It is interesting to consider how new lighting concepts could be applied to other types of vehicles.

Lighting also applies to surfaces of cars and helmets:

Health Impact of Transportation and Air Quality

MIT's Lab for Aviation and Environment has compiled data and published a paper showing that air pollution in the US (not to mention other countries where it is worse) causes 200,000 premature deaths per year.

Not surprisingly, the largest source of air pollution was fossil-fuel vehicles.

However, a surprising finding is that the second largest cause of premature deaths due to air pollution, is actually electric power plants, which are still largely coal-fired.  In terms of particle emission causes of death, electric power plants are tied with vehicles, and are the number one source of sulfur dioxide, which is toxic.  Other countries such as China and Russia are far worse.


So while electric vehicles are a great step forward in reducing air pollution and health impact, it is imperative that we move to cleaner sources of electricity generation as well.  This is beyond the scope of transportation.  Certainly, people in cities benefit from electric vehicles, but the people in the rural areas who live downwind of the power plants are being negatively impacted.  The world's appetite for electricity (e.g. computers, servers) is only increasing.

BTW, although not mentioned in this study, MIT's Lab for Aviation and Environment has published many reports on air transportation effects on pollution, and have shown that air transportation -- particularly in Asia -- are a significant source of pollution.  Interestingly, they have also shown that using alternative biofuels doesn't necessarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Air transportation pollution in Asia and effect on health:


Modular apartment building rises in 19 days

This from Crain's New York Business:

All the pieces of The Stack, the appropriately-named, 28-unit, six-story apartment building in the Inwood section of Manhattan, have been assembled. “It almost makes your head spin.”

Nineteen days. That is all the time it took to put up a 28-unit, six-story apartment building in the Inwood section of Manhattan this summer. The secret? Modular construction.

Working Monday through Friday from June 20 to July 18, a crew of just eight iron workers, a crane operator, and half-a-dozen helpers installed the 56 modules that make up the apartment building at 4857 Broadway. In a bow to the property's innovative construction technique, the building is to be known as The Stack. It was created by a partnership of developer/builder Jeffrey M. Brown Associates and Gluck+ architects.

"We're now done stacking," said Peter Gluck, principal at Gluck+. "Building any building is a nightmare, but this was not a nightmare. Given that this is the first one we've ever done, this went amazingly smoothly."


Solving transport headaches in the cities of 2050

Here's an article I wrote for the BBC:

With global cities swelling and car use soaring, how will our existing transport systems cope? Ryan Chin at the MIT Media Lab looks at sustainable alternatives that we could see on the streets by 2050.

What is the future of urban mobility? By 2050 there could be 2.5bn cars roaming the planet and most of them will be concentrated in cities, the OECD has reported. Saudi Arabia, one of the world's top oil exporters, expects domestic consumption to exceed exports by that year purely to feed its internal needs for automotive fuel. Meanwhile, if Chinese levels of automobile ownership reach US levels (840 cars per 1,000 people), demand for oil in China alone will surpass present-day global oil production, management consultants McKinsey have reported. And climate scientists predict irreversible environmental damage with continued carbon emissions if we follow this "business as usual" attitude. But, we no longer need to rely on predictions to understand the magnitude of this future, we can simply need to visit Beijing to realise that, as science fiction author William Gibson said, "the future is already here – it's just not very evenly distributed".

MIT Media Lab CityCar (Image: William Lark, Jr.)