Sunday, November 30, 2008

Traffic Simulation as an Enabler

On an IBM website, there is a June, 2008 announcement about a software simulation program for traffic congestion:

Kyoto University and IBM's Tokyo Research Laboratory have developed a system that can simulate urban transport situations encompassing millions of individual vehicles in complex traffic interactions. A simulation can predict, for example, what will happen if a new office building, sports arena or other major facility is built and lead to improved planning of roads and public transportation.

"Imagine having the ability to ease congestion while curtailing pollution and accidents," said Prof. Toru Ishida, Department of Social Informatics, Kyoto University. "IBM and Kyoto University have found a way to do this before expensive and disruptive construction and other changes impact Kyoto's economy and its citizens. This is an example of how technology can aid smarter decision-making."

One such use for this predictive software is to help cities design congestive pricing schemes, as reported in the NY Times in an article by Ken Belson called "Importing a Decongestant for Midtown Streets"

In a taste of the future, Singapore, which has dabbled in congestion pricing perhaps longer than any city, is working with I.B.M. and others to develop technology that will predict traffic up to an hour in advance. The system fuses congestion fee data with information from video cameras, G.P.S. devices in taxis and sensors embedded in streets.

I laud the achievements of all involved in developing this very sophisticated software. I don't feel, however, that it will ever allow transportation based on wheeled vehicles to be much better than it is now. Better predictions of traffic flow will help traffic management specialists, for sure, and will let them make wiser choices about adding capacity, or restricting traffic with congestion pricing. But, no amount of predicting will ever allow automobiles and trucks to function smoothly in ice, snow, driving rain or fog. And no simulation will truly expand capacity as required to handle the extensive slowdowns that all metropolitan areas - suburbs as well as inner cities - experience. These periods of peak congestion often called "rush hour", but more appropriately "rush hours", having stretched out in many cases to three or four hour periods twice each work day.

As for congestion pricing, it can work in some ways where there is an alternative to driving a car in the restricted zone. Inner cities with mass transit, like London, have reduced car usage to somewhat because the mass transit of subways and buses does allow an alternative for those who don't want to pay the congestion surcharge. But, this will not work where the automobile is the only means to commute, and for the USA, at least, that is the case for the majority of people needing to travel. And even inner cities, by increasing demand on the mass transit, are still relying on either exceptionally costly to expand subway systems, or buses and perhaps light rail, which are at the mercy of the weather, just like all wheel based vehicles.

The only real answer to congestion is a transportation system where capacity is easily expanded, and works in all communities. The Aeroduct System that I have developed, and which I have discussed in numerous other blog posts, is transportation as it should be. Of course, it will still be important to predict in advance peak transportation periods, but in conjunction with the Aeroduct System, such simulation software can truly be of use. With its lightweight, easily elevated and stackable guideways, lower cost vehicles, inherent automation, weather immunity and numerous other advantages over wheel based systems, no community will ever experience long, frustrating periods of congestion. No community's transportation will be completely shut down due to the vagaries of weather. Traffic management will become an enabler on a scale magnitudes better than would ever be possible with cars and trucks.

I invite all those who are trying to make today's transportation better to investigate the Aeroduct System. They will find that their goals can finally be achieved.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Automation Yes, Automobiles No

Ryan D. Lamm writes about the latest developments for automating automobiles in his article "Driven to It", published in the November/December, 2008 edition of Thinking Highways North America. He summarizes his perspective with the sentences "A self-chauffeured vehicle is crossing over from the sphere of science fiction into the realm of reality in the foreseeable future.", and "Removing the driver from control of the vehicle has the potential to revolutionize what surface transportation might look like".

I completely agree with Mr. Lamm that self-chauffeured vehicles are exactly what ground transportation needs. But, in spite of the interesting and innovative technologies that are being developed to allow automobiles to be more and more guided automatically, I feel that relying on wheeled vehicles will greatly limit the possibility and the benefits of complete automation. In earlier posts on this blog, I've pointed out the disadvantages of the basic premise of wheeled vehicles:
  1. their susceptibility to weather (no matter how completely automated),
  2. their need for miles of paved over green space in the form of roadways and parking lots
  3. the great expense of their required infrastructure of roads and bridges,
  4. the impossibility of accommodating peak demand with just the ground level surface, and the impossibly high costs of elevating roads
  5. the dangerous interaction of automobiles, even automated, with pedestrians, bicyclists, and animals, who also must use the ground level
  6. the cost of the vehicles themselves, which will become more expensive with the additional automation accessories.
Mr. Lamm's goals of "rush hour, without traffic jams", "trauma centers without motor vehicle accidents", "reducing, or even eliminating, motor vehicle fatalities altogether" are laudable indeed. But, only a new type of vehicle and a new type of infrastructure can ever yield truly ideal automated transportation. That is why I've worked on a technology that uses lightweight, inexpensive air cushion vehicles of any size in lightweight, inexpensive, elevated guideways. I call this the Aeroduct System, and I've talked about it in previous blog entries and on the Aeromobile website. The automation of such a system will be considerably easier than implementing all the technologies - described quite well in Mr. Lamm's article - that will be necessary to automate cars and trucks. And, for each of the disadvantages of wheeled vehicles on paved roads that I enumerated above, I now list the corresponding advantages of the Aeroduct System:
  1. The Aeroduct System is not influenced by snow, ice, rain or fog.
  2. No paving is required for the guideways or for temporarily "parked" vehicles.
  3. The lightweight guideways of the Aeroduct System will cost far less to build and maintain than the many miles of asphalt and concrete needed for automobiles.
  4. The capacity of the Aeroduct System can be easily increased, with guideways stacked horizontally and vertically.
  5. Pedestrians, bicyclists and animals will rule the ground surface, with the transparent/translucent Aeroduct guideways a safe distance overhead.
  6. The air cushion vehicles in the guideways are mechanically far simpler than cars or trucks, more efficient in their use of fuel, and more easily automated.
We will all benefit from the research that is developing the new sensing, communication and control technologies Mr. Lamm discusses quite well. But if we really want to have transportation system that achieves the goals he sets forth in his article, we have to travel away from the age of automobiles towards the age of air cushion vehicles in guideways.