blunt essays with sharp points

Intelligent Transportation Systems (revisited)

by Scrvpvlvs
Jun 14, 2010 7:24 AM–Responding to a call on the Freakonomics blog for suggestions to improve urban mobility, I have updated my 2008 article on the subject and posted a shorter version at

Intelligent Transportation Systems, as envisioned by Joseph Sussman, a senior civil engineer and professor at MIT.

A couple of years ago, our science museum hosted an exhibit titled “Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination”. In one of the exhibit videos, Dr. Sussman gave a talk.

He said the automobile had a profound impact on the design of cities, and on the practicality of mass transit. Before the automobile, homes and other destinations were concentrated in clusters and connected by arteries. These were easily served by bus and train lines. After the automobile, we sprawled in all directions. Serving a sprawl with bus and train lines is impractical. Look, for example, at Fort Worth/Dallas. It has been very difficult for them to provide useful bus or train service to most of the population because of the sprawl.

Dr. Sussman also showed that we have designed in to our current transportation system a certain rate of crashes. This design is why the current safety system wraps large amounts of metal and safety gear around the motorists. Traffic is inevitably delayed when a crash occurs, and sometimes people will be injured or killed despite the safety system—literally by design.

Significantly for our petroleum consumption, most of the fuel burned by personal vehicles turns out to be moving the safety system, not the passengers. And the safety system is also a substantial amount of the cost of building the vehicle.

Dr. Sussman argues for an intelligent transportation system, which he defines as a marriage of high technology with conventional roadways. Automating our personal transit system, he said, would lead to enormous savings measured in lives, injuries, property, fuel, and travel time.

The difficulty is that developing such a system is analogous to the development of rail or the interstate highways. It would be revolutionary, and also require a sea change in attitudes about piloting one’s own vehicle.

In summarizing Dr. Sussman’s ideas, I have no doubt oversimplified or failed to make his points. I recommend reading his published books and articles for a real understanding of what he proposes.

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Will coal, oil, and gas destroy us?

by Scrvpvlvs
Jun 8, 2010 12:34 AM–A friend has posed the question, are we in the End Times? Surely not the event predicted by believers of bronze age myths. But I am slower to reject the idea in the form of an economic argument.

Today our population is huge, and growing exponentially. Despite this, in some parts of the world, poverty has become rare.

This is new for humanity, and caused by a temporary windfall. Like an ant colony living off a honey spill, or a starving person living off stored fat, we have begun to live off fossil hydrocarbons. They are not merely our power source. Much of what we call “fossil fuels” we literally eat (ammonia based agriculture) or make stuff out of (plastics, cleaning compounds, etc.).

Nature finds a balance. But she does not do it kindly. If this trend continues, then once we consume her stored fat, many of us will starve, and maybe our remaining grandchildren will learn what it was like to live before the Industrial Revolution.

We imagine we can replace fossil hydrocarbons with alternatives. But, at our current and future population level, we do not know how to build the number of solar panels, wind farms, cellulose farms, etc., we actually need and still leave room for living space; to build and maintain them indefinitely we would still need plenty of fossil hydrocarbons.

There are only two technologies that I know of with the potential to stave off enormous human misery. Population control would reduce the demand for fossil hydrocarbons. Nuclear power, especially fusion power, would provide an adequate supply. But we face political barriers to both, and we may need another hundred years to make fusion power practical.

The smart money may not be on the happy ending.

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