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Monday, December 31, 2007
 

The New Mass Transit: People Pod Pool of On Demand Self Driving Robotic Cars who Automatically Refuel from Cheap Solar

Our traffic in the San Francisco Bay area is like Dolly Parton, 10 pounds in a 5 pound sack. Mass transit has been our unseen traffic woe savior for a while now. But the ring of political fire circling the bay has prevented any meaningful region wide transportation solution. As everyone scrambles to live anywhere they can afford, we really need a region wide solution rather than the local fixes that can never go quite far enough.

Commuters are Satisfied Not Carpooling

You might think we would car pool more. But people of the bay don't like carpools and they don't much like mass transit either. In the Metro, a local weekly, they publsihed a wonderful article Fueling the Fire, on how we need to cure our car addiction using the same marginalization techniques used to "stop" smoking.

A telling quote shows how difficult going cold turkey off our cars will be:

Mitch Baer, a public policy and environment graduate student at George Mason University in Virginia, recently surveyed more than 2,000 commuters in the Washington, D.C., area. He found that people who drove to work alone were more emotionally satisfied with their commute than those who rode public transportation or carpooled with others.

Even stuck in traffic jams, those commuters said they felt they had more control over their arrival and departure times as well as commuting route, radio stations and air conditioning levels.

Commuters said that driving alone was both quicker and more affordable, according to the study.

"They will have a tougher time moving people out of their cars," Baer said. "It's easier for most people to drive than take mass transit."

The key phrase to me is: people who drove to work alone were more emotionally satisfied. How can people jostled in the great pinball machine that are our roadways be emotionally satisfied? That's crazy talk. Shouldn't we feel less satisfied?

In Our Cars We Feel Good Because We Are in Control

Solving the mystery of why we feel satisfied while stuck in traffic turns on an important psychological clue: the more we perceive ourselves in control of a situation the less stress we feel. Robert Sapolsky talks about this surprising insight into human nature in Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers.

Notice we simply need more "perceived" control. Take control of a situation in your mind and stress goes down. You don't actually need to be in more control of a situation to feel less stress. If you have diabetes, facing your possibly bleak future can be less stressful if you try to control your blood sugars. If you are a speed demon, buying a radar detector can make you feel more in control and less stressed as you zoom along the seldom empty highways. If you are bullied, figuring out ways to avoid your torturer puts you more in control and therefor less stressed.

Figure out a way to control and an out of control situation and you'll feel happier. That's what I think we are accomplishing by driving alone in cars. In our car we have complete control. Cars our are castles with a 2 inch air moat cushion. Most cars are plusher than any room in your average house. Fine leather, a rad sound system, perfect temperature control, and a nice beverage of choice within easy reaching distance. In our cars we've created a second womb. The result is we feel more control, less stress, and more satisfaction, even when outside, across the moat, a tempestuous sea of stressors awaits.

Our Mass Transit System Must Supply Perceived Control

Given the warm inner glow we feel from being wrapped in the cold steel of our cars, if you want people to get out of their cars and onto mass transit you must provide the same level of perceived control. None of our mass transit options do that now. Buses are on fixed schedules that don't go where I want to go when I want to go. Neither do trains, BART, or light rail. So the car it is.
Unless a system could be devised that provided the benefits of mass transit plus the pleasing characteristics of control our cars give us.

With Recent Technological Advances We Can Create a New Type of Mass Transit System

New technologies are being developed the will allow us to create a mass transit system that matches our psychological and physical needs. Just berating people and telling them they should take mass transit to save the planet won't work. The pain is too near and the benefits are too far for the mental cost -benefit calculation to go the way of mass transit.

The technologies I am talking about are:
Mix these all together and you get a completely different type of mass transit system.

Create a People Pod Pool of On Demand Autonomous Self Driving Robotic Cars that Automatically Refuel from Cheap Solar

Many company campuses offer a pool of bicycles so workers can ride between buildings and make short trips. Some cities even make bikes available to their citizens. The idea is to do the same for cars, but with a twist or two.

The cars (people pods) can be stored close to demand points and you can call for one anytime you wish. The cars are self driving. You don't actually drive them and are free to work or play during transit. Different kinds would be available depending on your purpose. Just one person on a shopping trip would receive a different car than a family. The pods would autonomously search out and find energy sources as needed to recharge.There's no reason to assume a centralized charging and storage facility. When repair was needed they could drive themselves to a repair depot or wait for transportation.

The advantages of such a system are:
  1. Perceived control. You have your own person car that you control the destination for, the interior environment, and your own actions. This gets over the biggest hurdle with current mass transit options.
  2. Better regional traffic flow. The autonomous cars could drive cooperatively to smooth out traffic jams.
  3. Go where you want to go. It would be used because people can go to exactly where they need to go and be picked up exactly where they need to leave from at exactly the time they wish. None of these are characteristic of current systems.
  4. Leverage existing road ways. Creating light rail and trains is expensive and wasteful (except for the high speed point-point variety). They don't extend to where people live and they don't go where people go. So it creates a multi-hop mess out of every trip. We already have an expansive road system that goes where everyone wants to go. Using the road infrastructure more efficiently makes a lot more sense than creating hugely expensive partial solutions. And since these cars would be eco-friendly, most arguments against using cars fall away.
  5. Cheaper delivery. One force keeping truly distributed manufacturing from blossoming is high delivery costs. A $2 item is simply to expensive to buy remotely and ship because the shipping costs more than the product. An automated transportation system would make this model more affordable.
  6. Live where you want to live. Most mass transit systems are based on trying to socially reengineer our current suburbian and exurbian living pattern into a high density live-work pattern. While this should be an option, most mass transit proposals assume this pattern as a given and can't deal with current realities. For the foreseeable future people will not give up their houses or their lifestyles. The People Pod approach solves the mass transit problem and the "difficulties" of having to change a whole populace to behave in a completely different way for less than compelling reasons.
  7. Still can own your own car. This isn't a replacement for the current car culture. It's leveraging the car culture. You can still own and drive your own car. Nobody is trying to steal your car away from you.
  8. Cleaner and safer. Mass transit is disliked by many because it is perceived as dirty and unsafe. The pods would be safe and clean.
  9. Road safety. Our robot overloads will make our lives safer. Hopefully...
Funding:
  1. Current transportation budgets. There's lots of money that could be redeployed from existing less than successful approaches.
  2. Advertising. The outside of vehicles could contain advertising as could the inside, especially from the internal search system. Imagine wanting a new place to eat and asking the pod to suggest one. That's prime targeted marketing. Social networks and massive multi-player games could also be created between pods.
  3. Efficiencies. The plug-in cars are electric and efficient and low maintenance. That will save a lot of money.
  4. Up sells. Individuals could buy their own pods and trick them out. Also, people could pay for a higher class of pod from the pod pool.
  5. Licensing. Technology used in making the pods could be sold to other manufacturers. Create a standardized market so competition and cooperation can erupt.
  6. Sponsorship. Companies could buy rights to play music, stock the food locker, use their equipment, etc.
  7. Naming rights. The rights to name parts of the system could be sold.
Implementation:
  1. Challenge prize. Maybe someone with a vision and a dream can put up a $50 million prize to get it going. Something like the Xprize.
  2. Government funding. Don't laugh, it might happen.
  3. Startup. I'm available if interested :-) With a large enough challenge prize this is a viable model.
After a lot of reading on the topic and a lot of self-examination on why I am such a horrible person that I don't use mass transit more, this is the type of system I could really see myself using. It doesn't try to change the world, it uses what we got, and gives people what they want. It just might work.



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