Public transport I can believe in

The other day I wrote about the ubiquitous car and how the advances in technology  will free us from congestion rather than 19th century static technology.

When ever you ask people about public transport usualy their eyes glaze over as they dream of some expensive pipe dream for ¬†“other people” to take. I am yet to find an advocate for public transport that actually uses it as their primary mode of transport.

Len Brown needs to be showing the way too. He has pledged to almost $5 billion of other peoples money funding rail as the solution to all our ills. Getting ratepayers of Auckland to subsidise¬†international¬†travelers¬†for their trips to and from the airport and the city. If Len Brown is a serious rail advocate he should use the train to get to work in his new mayoral office. If it is good enough for “other people” it should be good enough for Len Brown.

Advancing the digital economy is a far better way of growing this city that spending nearly $5 billion on 19th century technology rail projects. Technology can deliver where socialists and green freaks have failed with the expansion of rail.

My ideal for public transport, shamelessly stolen from Peter Cresswell over a beer at Blogger’s Drinks, is for there to be a system of public transportation “pods”. You stand on the street and one arrives in front of you, you get in it and command the “pod” to travel to your destination and you get there get out. You repeat this as often as you desire to get around the city.

We have a version of this already, the “pods” are called cars, there are even ones you can command, they are called taxis. A logical extension of this though would be to remove the driver altogether and control the cars remotely using technology. Fanciful stuff you say, but wait, its already being done.

Big carmakers say they’re developing driverless cars, but only the search engine company has taken to California’s highways with one. If driverless cars can pick up people at their home or office, the need to buy one at all may soon be gone.

By Doron Levin, contributor

Google’s (GOOG) dramatic experiments on California roads with driverless-vehicle technology, publicized with mild fanfare within the past week, could legitimize a once far-fetched concept for personal transportation.

The general public hasn’t closely followed breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and digital control systems as they apply to so-called autonomous vehicles. But the military’s drone aircraft, which can take off, land and carry out military missions by remote control may provide some hints as to how far driverless cars can go. Achievements in the automotive realm have been made partly by university scientists who receiving funding from the U.S. Department of Defense’s research and development arm, DARPA, as well as by automakers.

Thanks to the the financial resources and creativity of Google, driverless technology is moving toward mass-market application sooner than anyone predicted, in the same manner that Internet technology migrated from university laboratories to personal computers once it was embraced by companies like Aol (AOL).

Well, lookee there, exactly as I (and Peter Cresswell) have wished. This is public transport I can believe in. useful, convenient and takes me where I want to go not where some green freak thinks I want to go.

The increases in safety on the roads from such a system would be enormous.

What Google brings to the table is an outsider’s perspective and an understanding of tech-savvy consumers.¬† Automakers have long known that cars could be built to drive themselves, but have been cautious about overselling the idea to the public or predicting their imminent arrival.¬† In the meantime, automakers have developed a raft of features to mitigate driver distraction, which ultimately could be used to take driving out of human hands.

“The industry knows the long road that has to be traveled to make driverless technology successful,” said Tom Kowaleski, a spokesman for BMW’s U.S. operations.

Safety and litigation worries by the industry have previously slowed the introduction of features now considered basic, such as airbags. Conventional wisdom has held that no machine could process as much information as a driver or react as well ‚Äď but the time may have finally come where perhaps the opposite is true.¬†“Every new piece of technology we introduce takes three to five years of gestation before it can be introduced. I have no crystal ball,” Kowaleski said.

While Google’s latest experimental vehicle uses sensors to see its surroundings and respond appropriately, BMW, Toyota and other automakers have been experimenting with a different kind of technology: Their experiments revolve around communication systems that allow cars to exchange wireless signals.¬† A car that encounters a slippery road, for example, could inform others approaching the area, Kowaleski said.¬† In an early stage of the technology, the driver could respond to a warning; eventually cars could be taught to respond on their own by slowing down or engaging all wheel drive or some other feature.

Toyota was the first automaker to offer a feature that allowed a driver to overcome the difficulty of parallel parking by letting the car do so on its own.¬† John Hanson, a Toyota spokesman, said in an emailed message that the automaker has been working on autonomous vehicles and related technologies and “will be a leader” when such vehicles are introduced.

Imagine if we were so bold as to remove the trains, lay asphalt instead and now create rapid transit lanes for use by autonomous vehicles. Wow that would be spectacular, and as more autonomous vehicles became available we could then start dedicating lane on the motorway to them too. The future for public transport as convenient, ubiquitous and available seems to be not far away.

Beyond the technological hurdles, which seem less difficult to surmount as companies like Google weigh in, automakers may have to consider a different model for personal transportation once a human driver is no longer essential. Here’s where the technology might both empower consumers and startle car makers.

Cars that don’t need drivers also may not need private owners ‚Äď since they could be summoned remotely and returned once their journey is complete. Why take on a lease if you can purchase a subscription to a car instead? Netflix (NFLX) has already soundly proven that consumers will change their habits if enough of an incentive is provided. Car owners who never want to spend a Saturday under the hood or in the waiting room of a mechanic’s shop again might quickly adapt to a car subscription model.

With Google’s driverless leap forward, both in terms of technology and in presentation to an increasingly tech-savvy and tech-obsessed¬†world, the joys of car driving and car ownership may give way to the convenience of forgoing the gasoline pump — or the charging station — for good.

I think Len Brown would be better off in talking to Google and Toyota about such a system for Auckland and investing in this rather than his dream (nightmare) of spending nearly $5 billion on outmoded, static, hopeless transport systems.

Humans are creative and adaptable creatures, we can solve our transport crisis with technology, and it isn’t by building rail networks.

  • kram

    Why do motor vehicles using green technology all look so boring. Give me a gas guzzling V10 Dodge anyday.

    Kram

  • probligo

    “…use¬≠ful, con¬≠ve¬≠nient and takes me where I want to go not where some green freak thinks I want to go.”

    Huh? Since when was the Greens ever in charge of Auckland public transport?

    Seems like you have forgot that probably 90% of the present Auckland Pubic Transport system has been established under the aegis of C&R, with the odd bit added by Labour. Certainly that parentage would explain why it takes a (one service a day) bus over 90 minutes to get from Howick to Penrose compared with 40 minutes from Howick to the CBD.

    The last visionary that Auckland had was Robbie. Can Brown compare? I think he would have a better show than Banks, but still only a 4-1 at best.

    BTW I am NOT a Green supporter. Never have been, probably (because I can’t think of a good enough reason) will not be in future.

  • probligo

    Oh, BTW, congratulations on your success in the elections!

  • orange

    Instead of trains at 4.5 billion dollars, how much would it cost to speed up fibre to the door in all of Auckland. ie, instead of giving a very few people a train to ride, giving everybody the ultimate in modern data transport. No real economic boost (roads will always be full) vs. a huge economic boost which would also allow more to e-commute.

    How much fibre would, say, 1 billion dollars get you?

  • strykerman1

    Interesting video of Google’s self-driving Toyota Prius.
    http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/video/test-driving-google-car-11857670

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