May 19 2012

Forced to Drive

I am going down to the underground garage to get my car. A large, gray, rusty ’92 Mercury station wagon is parked nose-first next to my Fusion, in diagonal, its huge trunk hanging over the yellow line. Did that old dude, owner of the Mercury, realize he’s blocking me? Maybe. Did he care? No.

I am squeezing out and rolling towards the garage door. Before I can get my wheels on the cable unlocking it, the door opens itself – another car stands face to face against me, an SUV with a girl wearing sunglasses even in the darkness of the underground garage ramp. She just stands there and waits. I wave my hand, roll back and let her in. Wait for the door to close, and then finally exit. Did she know she could back off as easily? Yes she did. Did she even think to give it a try? Not at all.

I am on the street now, the traffic fun begins. Three lines stand still at the lights – middle one is the longest, leftmost is twice shorter, on the right there’s barely two cars. The light turns on and suddenly the whole bunch of cars start hitting the brakes and turning right – there is one out of five shopping entrances there, and all at once everybdy realized they need to use the first one, right now! Could those people plan their movement a bit in advance? Sure. Did they want to? Apparently not.

Past the shopping, splitting to the gas pumps. Taxi stands next to the vacuum cleaner, blocking the air hoses. Cabbie is cleaning his car – I’m wondering if that’s his company policy? Another car is parked right after the cab, no one inside. Did these people realize they have denied the air pump usage for all the rest of us? Probably. Did they care? Not a dime.

I am on the leftmost line, approaching the traffic lights. A big-foot Chevy truck pushes on my side without turning the lights – I notice him last moment and squeeze out of the lateral smack. The truck roars past me and swings into the turning line. He’s big and beaten; one more bump in the side won’t make it prettier. Bunch of rednecks stares blindly from the cabin – smoking, laughing, enjoying themselves.

Passing under the bridge with a small pack of cars, speed increasing. An old, long, dark-red Buick emerges from the left, cutting at the speed way below us. Tiny old lady is barely visible behind the steering wheel – I’m wondering if she could see us or at least realize there are other cars on the road? Probably not, she just wants to crawl home and have this driving nightmare to be over. If she closes her eyes or looks the other side it may feel like no one else is there, and hey, we are all younger and should take care of ourselves!

Highway, speed limit 100, left line is going about 105. White Fusion pulls into the left line and keeps the speed up… for a time being. Than slows down to about a hundred. Than 95… 90… and keeps it there. I slow down; the cars behind me slow down, the whole line starts compressing itself rather tightly – the most impatient jump out into the second line to roar past us. Does the driver realize that he have just created a lot of opportunities for the rear-end and sideways crashes? Maybe. Does he know he’s above the speed limit anyway? For sure! Yet, he wants to have things his way. When I get too close for his comfort, he immediately smack the breaks and shows me a finger. Nice guy, glad I kept the distance safe.

The point is – all these flocks of people driving around are only that dangerous because they weight about a ton and a half each, and carry about 200 horse power under the belt. Meet any of them on a sidewalk, and there won’t be even a shoulder check, probably a smile and polite “sorry” instead of a close call.

Each of these people in their real life are plain and usual – some smarter than others, some not as bright, but overall we are reasonably good at keeping the sidewalk traffic safe. We just fail to do that on a highway, operating relatively forgiving vehicles in a fairly complex environment, with a very limited time to make the right decisions fast. Besides, most people just hate to make decisions, and hate even more to be held responsible for them.

But we are forced to drive. We have to demonstrate split-second reactions, be efficient, think in advance, and if we fail – resulting crash would be very damaging to our ego and pocket. Many, if not most of us, would rather not be engaged in such a demanding game, but…

Most of the Western cities have a rather inefficient public transportation system. It is always ad-hoc, always reacting with significant delay to the fact that a large number of people must travel from home to work, and back. As that’s an enforced commute, people have no option but to pay, and public transportation companies want to make money, so buses are hitting the road.

In many cases, public transit is managed by the city governments or municipalities, which makes things even worse – their planning and estimations sucks, they work letargically slow, and tend to use an expensive “heavy artillery” of public transportation, such as light trains, streetcars and so on. Unless the whole city is static, built once and forever following a general plan – such as Soviet industrial megapolises – there is no way light rail transit to be efficient. Dynamic, fast changing Western cities demand the automotive means of transportation.

Buses are more agile, but they invariably block the traffic and get stuck in it themselves. They could also be very expensive compared to trains – even without added cost of the fixed tracks maintenance. Many cities use the more agile, privately operated public minivans to squeeze the remaining passenger flows into something that looks like an organized transportation structure, but they still suffer from the same problems, scaled down.

Unfortunately, thougt-through strategy is never there – only reaction to the more or less long-term needs of more or less significant groups of the travellers. All the rest of us have to move on our own – the cheapest way being a bicycle or a small motorcycle, or a combination of public transit and long walks. Riding a scooter or a bike in a major city is as close to the daily death wish as it gets, so for most of the reasonable cases we’re stuck with public transportation, long waiting and walk combo.

Or we can drive.

In the modern developed society, personal cars are reasonably affordable and road infrastructure is reasonably efficient in reaching every possible destination. There is a major market oriented to the people who use their vehicle as a mean of pleasing personal ego and proving superiority over the neighbors. Traffic rules and drivers training and certification are adjusted so that accidents never completely cease, so the whole surrounding insurance and wreck maintenance industry remain strong and healthy.

Many common transportation tasks are resolved seemingly easier with a personally owned and operated vehicle. Bringing a bunch of kids to school, ladies to a shopping mall, driving friends to the movies, plumbers to their clients, etc., etc., etc…

Looks like the mankind is doomed to lose millions of lives yearly in the road accidents.

But let’s imagine some futuristic city where public transit is converted from inefficient light rail and buses with millions of self-propelled small vehicles, into something that looks like a network of computer-controlled cars, using common routes.

You choose your destination on a mobile device, press a button – and a robotized “cab” immediately pops up on your driveway. You put your stuff and kids inside, hop on a front seat and close the door. Done! Next thing you’ll have to do is spend some time, enjoying the show displayed on the inner windows of your vehicle, chatting with your family, etc. The car will merge into a network of other drones, get through the city using the fastest route possible, maintaining the speed required and carefully slowing down to self-park on arrival.

Businesses would use service drones to deliver goods and personnel to the site. Police, firefighters and paramedics will bypass the robotized traffic so fast it’s hard to believe, as there will be no one blocking their way unnecessarily. Road maintenance would be so much more predictable and easier to plan and execute, the whole road structure unified, light rails and bicycle lines becoming a thing of the past. Swift ride – and you are in the park, enjoying some fresh air. Zoom – and you are back in the office. All tired, want to go home? Press the button, sit, relax, and here you are…

There’d be no accidents – drone cars will not attempt to race each other or break the rules. Transportation speed would be impressive – as computerized network will know the state of each route and use smart algorithms to guarantee the most efficient path finding. Drone car could come in two or three standard sizes – so everything from grocery packs to baby sits would plug in seamlessly, and there will be no problem with too big or too small a vehicle – you’d only pay for the size you need. And no drunk drivers – just drunk passengers maybe.

Even the enormous parking lots will disappear – robotized cars should not sit idling and waiting for the riders, rather they will attend as much clients as possible! That alone will change the landscape of our cities to much better.

Oh yes, there shall be a charge to maintain the roads, computerized guides and drone fleet – and that would be flexible, fairly corresponding to the travel length and complexity. Joyride over the desert to Las Vegas would be cheaper than twisty squeeze through the New York avenues, but that’s just logical.

How does that sound? Good?

Many, many people will lose their jobs and businesses if we’ll kill the car as we know it. There will be no need to advertise more and more impressive personal vehicles – they’d all be the same. Parts market will shrink to the few fanatics desiring to tweak their toy cars and ride them in a designated places (transporting their toys between locations on a drone truck platforms). Insurance companies would feel bored and dying. No need to keep  armies of traffic cops, no crazy races to catch an idiot escaping by narrow streets or highways, no way for the robbers to smash into the bank doors and jump out with the guns…

Oh yes, those drones will always know who’s in, where and from where it’s going. By that beautiful future time every person will have an ID chip implanted, and there would be no chance for an “anonymous” ride. Transportation will become not only efficient and safe, but also criminally transparent.

Fuel efficiency will soar, maintenance of the standardized vehicles would be a bliss, our cities will become clean, easy to move through, and much safer than today – simply by removing the sacred symbol of Western culture, a privately owned and operated motor vehicle.

I’m wondering if that’d ever happen. I’m wondering if humanity can survive the madness of all-prevailing personal transportation. Meanwhile, be prepared – an old lady in her Buick cruiser is as lethal as a sixteen years old boy in his “need for speed” tuned Civic. And you can’t remove either of them from the road without providing a feasible transportation alternative.

Though even now there are some folks who really care about driving as part of the lifestyle and self-respect. You can easily distinguish them from those forced to drive by the way they park – rear end first. Not many of those are there on the streets, but as one beggar stated, “anything is better than nothing”. At least for now.

Which one cares?

Which one cares?

May 6 2012


Либерализм головного мозга лечится только выстрелами в череп.

(с) vyatsky