GELFAND’S WORLD--Last Friday, the South Bay Cities Council of Governments (sbccog) held its 18th Annual General Assembly. The assembly is a chance for city managers, elected officials, and the general public to hear some new ideas and chew over old problems. This year, the SBCCOG chose to take up an optimistic topic, the promise of innovative technologies in making the region both more livable and more wealthy.
Techno-fixes for transportation
This being the Los Angeles area, one topic was obvious: What's new in transportation? The subject the organizers chose for discussion was driverless cars. There are numerous advantages to the idea, along with a substantial hurdle. Actually, the advantages and the hurdle to be surmounted go together. You can't have one without the other.
Here they are:
The hurdle is that you really need to have every car on the road (and pretty much every other object that can move) under constant centralized control. The buzz word is totally managed systems. Maybe it's a buzz phrase instead of a buzz word, but it carries a heavy load of futuristic thinking. We'll get back to what some of that load entails a little later, but it's worth considering the advantages.
Engineers who think about getting the most use out of driverless cars like to think of a substantial group of the m all moving together, going in the same direction, all at the same time. The buzz word for this grouping of cars is a platoon. There are several advantages to platooning our cars, if we could do it safely. For one, cars can move at high speed without a lot of separation. Instead of separations in the dozens or hundreds of feet, a platoon of electronically controlled driverless cars could be separated from each other by a few inches. Even if you give them a foot or two, that's putting a lot more cars on the same section of pavement.
There is one more advantage that didn't come up at the meeting, but it's obvious if you think about it. Imagine sitting in a long line of cars at a traffic light. When the light turns green, do you start forward immediately? Not if you don't want to run into the car in front of you, you don't. You have to wait for the first car to move, then the second car to get moving, and so on. It would be a lot quicker if we could all start moving at the same time, the way that train cars all move together. But that would involve every driver in the line starting to move forward at exactly the same time. It would also require that we increase our speed in exactly the same increments. If I go two miles per hour too fast, I'll run into the car in front of me.
Computerized control systems have it over us humans in terms of this level of control. Electronic signals move faster than our nerve impulses, and electronic computers calculate faster than our brains can.
By the way, the sbccog program didn't seem to notice that when we imagine platoons of driverless vehicles all moving in tandem, able to execute speed-ups and slow-downs with precision, we are probably imagining that the vehicles are propelled by some electrical means rather than gasoline engines. For gasoline powered cars, there is a distinct lag in getting a car moving forward upon pushing down on the accelerator pedal, and every car is a little different. The way to solve this problem is to have speed sensors that control the movement of the cars with exquisite precision, which could be accomplished using electric motors. In this way, a platoon of fifty cars could move together as if they were all cars on the same train.
There are also distinct advantages in terms of parking and storing driverless cars. You can drop your car at the garage, and it can be stored alongside other such cars, all of them parked only inches apart. You don't need to leave room to open the car door. The garage space can also be built with lower ceilings. All in all, we might imagine a doubling or tripling of the parking capacity for every square foot of ground. One speaker joked about not needing to park your car (and pay for parking) at all. Just send it by itself on a trip down the freeway so that it returns when you are ready to go. After all, it doesn't need a driver.
Long-time readers of this column may notice that the concept of the driverless car is similar in a lot of ways to the concept of personal rapid transit (PRT). The idea behind PRT is that individual passenger pods travel along elevated guide rails. Both concepts involve a system in which a computerized system controls every aspect of moving, changing directions, and stopping. The PRT system has the advantage that you don't have to take over streets and highways. It's hard to imagine us driving our old gas-burners on the same road with a platoon of driverless vehicles moving like the proverbial bat out of Hell. For any roadway, it's the one or the other, not both.
The disadvantage of the PRT network is that you have to build the elevated structures and supply the passenger pods. That is costly, although projected to be considerably cheaper than light rail.
The disadvantage of the driverless vehicle concept is that the vehicles themselves will be costly (although not necessarily a lot more costly than a new car) and the roadway itself will be costly. The PRT system might turn out to be a lot cheaper, although it would be less versatile in terms of covering an entire city in dense detail.
Municipal Fiber Optic Broadband
Another topic at the sbccog was the idea of cities putting in their own digital broadband capability. That means that you can get high speed internet and all that this entails, including full speed, full sized movie downloads or high throughput data transmission for your business. The buzz word is fiber optic. It's a method of carrying information that has been around a long time, but has only recently started to be adopted in the U.S. as a way of connecting the internet to the end user.
The term fiber optic sounds more complicated than it really is. A beam of light can carry information in the same way that a radio wave or television signal carries information. But the ray of light can carry a lot more information. Thousands of times more. Instead of copper wire or radio waves, fiber optics carry light down strands of glass. When the light reaches its destination, it can be decoded into electrical signals and sent to your computer or television set.
We've come to refer to the ability to carry digital information as bandwidth. The ability to carry a lot of information is therefore called broadband. The thing is, current methods of internet service are mostly using outmoded systems. The same coaxial cable that carries your cable tv signal can also carry a modest amount of internet information, but even cable systems are becoming inadequate pretty quickly. That's because the need for bandwidth is increasing. High definition video and lots of other applications use up bandwidth. Also, when you are hooked up to a cable system, you are sharing bandwidth with all the other houses and apartments and businesses that are connected to the cable.
The problem with relying on local cable and telephone companies for broadband is that they have been slow in upgrading, when they do it at all. They have a stranglehold on their own part of the market, and they don't think they have to improve a lot. Where I live, the telephone company is already a couple of generations behind in technology. The cable tv company is . . . a cable tv company, with all that this implies.
What we learned at SBCCOG is that some cities have developed their own fiber optic broadband systems. We don't typically think of Chattanooga, Tennessee as a leader in high tech growth, but in terms of providing broadband to its residents, Chattanooga is way ahead of Los Angeles. Likewise for Ammon, Idaho.
Another place that is working on getting fiber optic broadband installed is Santa Monica. City Manager Rick Cole (previously Deputy Mayor in charge of budgeting for the city of Los Angeles) spoke about it in detail. Cole spoke of Santa Monica's ambition to be Silicon Beach. Broadband internet is part of that process.
The city of Los Angeles is way behind. It's worth thinking about municipal fiber optics for the entire region. We can expect the cable companies to resist mightily, with all that implies in the Los Angeles political environment, but the fight with their lobbyists to get us up to par with other areas would be worth it.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)