Overcomplicating things

We’ve looked at jetpacks, hoverboards, tracked hovertrains, and self-driving cars: here is what I’ve learned from all these absurd concepts.

In the 1960s, people were convinced that there was a huge and growing problem with transport.  The then Ministry of Transport commissioned engineers and economists to look at those problems and suggest solutions.  The Beeching Report recommended closing all except the very core main lines of the railway network.  The Buchanan Report recommended razing cities and building neat modern concrete one-piece tower-block-and-motorway towns.  These were huge problems that called for radical solutions never before heard of.

That was the future of transport then, and every day since we’ve been treated to another great future of transport, from politicians, engineers, design students and photoshop fiddlers.

From the politicians we get grand projects: something that will leave a conspicuous legacy.  Boris spends millions on a distinctive new not-a-routemaster bus because the new bus (if it’s not ridiculed by Londoners) will be a conspicuous media-friendly achievement where fixing the distributed millions of little everyday problems with uncomfortable unreliable overpriced and overcrowded bus journeys would not.  Philip Hammond loves to play with High Speed Intercity Rail and motorways, but lets councils fight over the pennies that will determine the future of people’s everyday local journeys, because big billion-pound national construction projects give the impression of getting things done where the boring work to enable commuter journeys on the existing little lines in Conwy, Cornwall, Camberwell or Caithness doesn’t.

Perhaps the most perfect example in this category is the news that while the existing Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels fall apart (and the Clippers are cut back, and the road tunnels are closed at night, and the Woolwich ferry rusts), Boris thinks it’s a brilliant idea to build a massive cable car river crossing between Greenwich Peninsula and the Royal Docks.

Meanwhile the engineers are left alone to tinker with what we already have, attempting to keep the status quo viable by “managing” the problems, designing ever more complicated traffic management schemes, and attempting to fix fundamentally flawed designs and devices.  Things like 155mph superbuses and, of course, electric cars.  Things that will at best merely delay the day when a problem becomes a crisis.  This reaches its absurd conclusion with “shared space“, when engineers conclude that the best way to manage our problems is to rip out all of the myriad expensive engineering that we have spent eighty years installing to manage our problems, and just let the problems free to magically manage themselves.

And then there are the design students and photoshop fiddlers, playing at engineer.  People who come up with ideas like the hourglass traffic light.  Ideas that are all media-friendly pretty picture and no relevance to real world problems.  This gushing moron is so enchanted by the shiny computer mockups that he’s willing to put his name next to prose that earnestly declares the segway, the backpack helicopter, the moving pavement, and the zeppelin to be the future of transport.  When small children draw these pictures and tell us they’ve invented something brilliant we think it’s cute.

These politicians, engineers, and amateur inventors recognise that there is a problem.  (Most frequently they cite carbon emissions as the problem; sometimes it’s congestion; rarely the many other problems that afflict car addicted societies.)  And they all think that a solution is in need of invention — a shiny and expensive and conspicuous and media-friendly solution.  Fifty years ago it was jetpacks and hovertrains.  Today it’s segways and maglevs.

And all the while a handful of little European counties have been looking on in amusement, happily getting to where they need to be with a bicycle or a pair of boots and the occasional old fashioned railway train, wondering whether the rest of us aren’t overcomplicating things…

Where’s my self-driving car?

In 1967, Popular Science magazine declared that cars would be self-driving by, at the latest, 1985.  Their vision was of cars that were driven manually for the final mile at either end of a journey, but which were guided by electric railways for the bulk of the trip:

“You gulp the last of your coffee, wipe the egg off your chin, and dash for the door. In the driveway sits a vehicle about the size and shape of a Volkswagen. Beside the door on the driver’s side is a handleless hatch. Beneath the car, unseen, are four flanged wheels of smaller diameter than the car’s tires.

As you slide away from the curb, the sound of the electric drive motor hardly rises above a whisper. A few blocks from home, you steer the car into a special lane, and pull a lever under the dash. The front wheels lock in straight-ahead position. Simultaneously the side-hatch door slides back and an electric third-rail folds out. It makes contact with a power rail, the flanged wheels roll onto the rails of a track, and your car accelerates at a controlled rate of 0.3g. You twirls a dial until you see “5th Street” appear in a small window. Seconds later, as your car enters a main guideway at exactly 60 m.p.h., you open the paper and scan the news. (via Boing Boing)

This was the 1960s, when you could put a man on the moon within a decade.  You’d think that the Americans could manage a simple extensive network of national, regional and local automated road/railways.

Turns out, this system had not quite been completed by 1985.  It’s not at all clear why this dream failed to come true.  But whatever the reason, the engineers at Google have been left wondering, “where’s my self-driving car?”  So they’ve built some of their own.  These cars are far more fascinating than the rail-cars of the 1960s.  These cars drive themselves on normal streets and motorways.  In amongst lots of manually-driven cars.  And pedestrians.  And San Francisco’s stoned cycle couriers.

All the news coverage of the Google Car fawns over its radar and cameras and obvious physical equipment, but far more interesting must be its software.  You can’t program a car with simple rules to accommodate unpredictable human hazards any more than you can create a driver by giving an idiot a car manual and a copy of the highway code.  How do you program a car to know that it needs to be more careful around pedestrians who are young and who are running and when the pavement is next to the carriageway and not segregated with railings and when there is another pavement opposite and there’s a playground nearby and there are parked cars and…?  There are a mere 306 rules in the highway code, but there are an immeasurable number of scenarios that one might encounter on a road.  So the Google Car must surely have used some very clever “machine learning”, and the 14,000 miles on the clock are presumably human-driven, with the car watching and sensing and learning how to drive — how a driver adjusts to other cars and other people, to the weather and the sound and feel of the road, in millions of situations and combinations.

It must be some of the most advanced computer science ever, with some of the most brilliant minds in the world working on it.  Google say that it could be available to consumers in eight years.  And there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be.  It’s a brilliant piece of work.  Just like the self-driving rail-car before it.

Tracked hovercrafts and straddling buses

The Ministry of Transport’s 1963 Buchanan Report on the future of traffic in towns may have thought of jetpacks and hoverboards as a potentially real future for individual private travel, but it didn’t ignore public transport entirely.  Obviously, in 1963 the railways were obsolete, but the report suggested there was some scope for “multi-passenger units”, particularly ultra high speed devices on long journeys between dense population centres.

The most delightful is this fabulous art-deco “tracked hovercraft”.  Happy 1960s families, where the women all wear skirts and sit cross-legged and the men all read big important newspapers, drive their car into the bottom deck and sit in airline-style comfort on the upper deck.  It’s not clear whether “tracks” in this solution refer to rail tracks or to caterpillar tracks — the diagram appears to show elements that could be interpreted as either.  Perhaps it has both, for ultimate flexibility.

The report says:

It is possible, of course, if serious technological studies were undertaken, that a whole range of new ideas for moving people and goods in cities would be produced.  It is indeed to be hoped that we are not at the end of our ingenuity in the matter.  The bus, for example, for all its convenience, does not appear to be the last word in comfort.  The travelator seems to offer much scope for development.  Continuously operating chair-lifts might be used in a highly attractive way between points of pedestrian concentration to augment existing means of travel.  Conveyor belts, pneumatic tubes, and pipelines might well be developed for the conveyance of goods, perhaps even justifying rearrangement of commercial processes to facilitate their use.

Monorails and moving pavements were the future of public transport in the 1960s — at least while we were waiting for our moon bases and space elevators.

Just some things to bear in mind when you consider the Shenzhen Huashi Future Parking Equipment Company’s (!) dream of the straddling bus:

Once upon a time, highly educated and expensive civil engineers were required to invent absurd transport solutions. Now all you need is an idiot who knows how to open photoshop.

For those unfamiliar with the city, Shenzhen neighbours Hong Kong; it was a fishing village right into the late 1970s when China created a “special economic zone” encouraging market capitalism here.  The city now has a population estimated to be 14 million squeezed into the limits of the SEZ, and is one of the fastest growing cities in the world.  It’s an entirely new city, conceived late in the motorcar era, and full of the wide boulevards you would expect in modern car dependent Chinese cities.

Shenzhen is the future.  At least, it must feel that way to the people who live there.  The Chinese are in the middle of great change: social progress, economic development, and technological revolution.  This is their 1960s, and more.  They’re putting men into space to prepare the way for the space elevators.

They’re also struggling with the sort of problems that European cities were struggling with the the 1960s.  In the picture above you can see how this little city street is too narrow to accommodate conventional buses.  Conventional buses keep stopping and starting, and this causes congestion as Important People in cars have to slow down and move over into one of the other four lanes available to them.  Therefore there is a need to invent the straddling bus, which will not impair Important Motor Traffic — those SUVs and executive saloon cars can happily drive under it (albeit, only having been considerably shrunk in photoshop).

It’s a genuinely clever idea.  You might wonder whether they’ve considered safety, and turning cars, and height clearance.  Of course they have.  The engineers have thought of everything and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work in Shenzhen.  Just as there was no reason why hovertrains and moving pavements shouldn’t work…

Where’s my jetpack?

From page 24 of Traffic In Towns, the 1963 Buchanan Report to the Minister of Transport:

The future of the motor vehicle

[…] it would be foolish to embark upon drastic and expensive alterations to towns to accommodate motor traffic if there were any serious doubt as to its continuance as a means of transport.

The possibility most usually canvassed is that within a measurable time some kind of individual jet-propulsion unit will be developed, of which a rudimentary form has already been tried out in the U.S.A. for military use.  This may well come about, but the problems of weather, navigation, air-space and traffic control appear so formidable that it may be questioned whether such a device would ever be practical for mass use, for either freight or passengers, in the crowded conditions of the modern city.  One only has to think of the rush-hour conditions in any large city to realise what would be involved.

The history of transport is a history of revolutions — cart horses on tracks, narrow boats on canals, steam engines on rails, and cars on roads.  I guess in the 1960s, era of progress, revolution, and invention, it was obvious that this periodic replacement of one technology by another would go on forever.