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.

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