Coming Convergence of Three Technologies: A Post-2030 Developmental Attractor
tunnel boring systems
automated highway systems
zero emission gas-electric vehicles
What will urban transportation look like after 2030? Which major new
features of our future transportation infrastructure are highly likely
to emerge in coming decades? Developmental futurists, including several
of us at the Acceleration Studies Foundation
enjoy confronting such important and multifaceted questions.
Will we primarily see, as technology scholar James Burke calls
it, more "Business As Usual," e.g., simply more of what exists
today? Will there be a profusion of double- and triple-decker freeways?
Will we have more stylish and efficient mass transit? What will be the
disruptive new advances? Which particular emergences point the way to
our next great metropolitan transportation paradigm, and why?
It doesn't look like it will be Personal
Rapid Transit (PRT) that beautiful but utopian top-down designed system
of fixed-track "taxi cars" that has failed everywhere it has
been attempted. PRT involves too many compromises of movement freedom
by comparison to our present bottom-up evolved, out of control amorphous
network of cars and roadways that that make it easy for us to drive exactly
anywhere we want in physical space. Furthermore, our Moore's Law-aided
cars of tomorrow will be doubling their navigational intelligence every
year forward over our existing road infrastructure, making today's roads
incrementally safer every year forward. Thus Moore's law applied to navigation
will make it exponentially easier for tomorrow's smart cars to compete
against any fixed-track alternative proposal. At the same time, new tracks
themselves have become too expensive to construct over the roadways of
our most desirable cities, even if we could ignore their visual blight,
which increasingly we cannot.
So what will be the shape of tomorrow's dominant urban transportation
system? Post-2030 it seems likely we'll see the beginnings of an underground
automated highway (UAH) network emerge, one that may extensively undergrid
many of our major cities by the late 21st century. The degree of emergence
of this new system may depend on the way a number of important local contingencies
play out, including our own insight (early or late) into the unique advantages
of this system, and the strength of our political resolve to set up test
systems (again, early or late, the choice is ours).
To make our case, let's look briefly at recent and coming developments
in three important technologies: tunnel boring systems, automated highway
systems, and zero emission fossil fuel and fuel cell vehicles. The convergence
of capacities in these three technologies may create a transportation
option that looks much more resource and capacity optimized than any other
21st century solution that has been proposed.
1. Tunnel Boring Systems. Digging connector tubes between dense
urban cores underneath cities, if we can complete several such pilot projects
some time after 2020 (earlier would not be practical, for reasons explained
below) would show how easy it is to create major improvements in our space,
time, energy, and matter efficiencies (STEM efficiency) of social
interaction in our largest, most population dense cities. Compressing
social interaction time is what cities do best, and it why they
will continue to outcompete rural areas in living choice for most first
world citizens, even as rural homes become ever more affordable as getaway
spots for city dwellers.
|As Fred Hapgood has noted ("Sub-Urban
Renewal," Wired, April 2003), our tunnel boring technologies
have dramatically improved since 1994's completion of the Chunnel,
the 31-mile rail tube that connects France and Britain. These technologies
were impressive then, and they've become increasingly intelligent
since. If you recall, laser-guided borers (reflected back to the surface
with mirrors) kept the Chunnel's digging teams to within an error
margin of only a few feet when they finally made their connection
under the ocean floor. He notes that in only nine years since, several
components of the digging process have become highly or fully automated,
with teleoperated machines laying reinforcements, and with
many of the human operators remaining above ground, away from the
dangerous rock face. Costs for these digs are dropping dramatically
Mike Smith at Tunnelbuilder.com,
the leading portal for the tunnelling industry, notes that the recently
completed seven-mile Flam-Gudvangen tunnel in Norway, working in ideal
geology, cost only $1.50 per cubic foot, for both excavation and construction.
If this was like similar projects, the majority of construction cost came
in excavating the tailings. But once we have one surface-level lane available
to automated trucking systems (see below), that cost will fall to a fraction
of its present value. As our technologies and automation continue to improve
seems likely therefore that prices will eventually fall below the current
cost of many of our present above-the-ground highway projects, particularly
once we factor in the high social cost of losing highway access during
the extensive and the permanently ongoing road construction that occurs
in any growing city.
Certainly we've had this vision for a long time. Consider this Newsday
article from 1999, "Tunnel
Vision Looking Dim," on the failed dreams of suburban tunnels
in the 20th century. While all of this is true, it doesn't deny that the
dreamers are always seeking ways to create compelling realities, as with
Boston's "Big Dig." Albert Appleton's quote seems particularly
prescient: "There's going to be a real revival of urban tunneling.
[On one hand,] we need roads and we need subways, and on the other hand,
neighborhoods are not willing to be torn up the way they were in the '50s
Where will we put all the dirt (tailings) from these excavations? That
is an excellent question, and it reveals one of many hidden constraints
on this highly optimistic vision. Large scale underground tunnels would
only be economically feasible to construct once we have at least one automated
highway (AH) lane running in a network on our surface highways, giving
us the ability to automatically truck the tonnage out to distant landfills.
This appears to fix the date for the first such system sometime after
2020, which is the earliest that realistic observers expect to see any
deployed and working above-ground AH systems.
In the Wired article, Hapgood suggests that
we'll see quite a lot of our present construction dive underground:
roads, parking lots, downtown hotels, warehouses, even residential
artists' lofts. But before any of that could happen we need to realize
that transportation would have to be built first in the above set
of possibilities. Otherwise, zoning laws will very effectively shut
down new construction in any instance where it might further load
our already stressed transportation infrastructure in major urban
cities like Los Angeles, a living space that stays self-organized
at the edge of chaos.
In other words, transportation is the bottleneck to building in
the third dimension, and reaching the kinds of STEM efficiencies
Hapgood envisions will happen or not based on our ability to build
the network described here.
Let's see what we are up against.
2. Automated Highway (AH) Systems. Some time
post 2020, possibly as late as 2040-2050 in a more pessimistic analysis,
we shall begin to see special, above-ground lanes with markings
that allow our increasingly intelligent cars to self-pilot over
long distances. The first automated highway networks will be built
when our car's onboard computer, sensor, and actuator systems can
solve the "2D" problem of autorouting moving vehicles
within special pre-mapped (and realtime updated) virtual spaces.
It is reasonable to expect that this problem will be solved many
years, perhaps even decades before we have the ability to create
autonomous, agent-based air traffic control systems in 3D space
for tomorrows airplanes, as this latter is a significantly more
difficult computational problem. Furthermore, the vastly increased
numbers of humans traveling on (and dying on) today's roads vs.
in today's skies makes the former a much higher social engineering
At first, there will only be a few of these special AH lanes, probably
taking over the inner HOV lanes on our freeways (first for intercontinental
trucking) and later, larger boulevards. For at least the first decade
or two, we should also expect that humans will be required to remain
behind the wheel, at least theoretically being able to take over
this "cruise control" at a moment's notice.
These systems will certainly be built out slowly due to very high
initial coast, beginning some time after 2020, between and within
our more sprawling and high-density metropoli, like Los Angeles
and New York, and at significant road real estate expense. These
smart small trucks and vehicles will be carefully-watched curiosities
for several years, and automatic collision-avoidance systems
will be the interim technology, likely appearing in every new car
before we see the first full scale automated vehicle (AV) models
(Toyota? GM? Xeon? We wait with anticipation...). When hooked into
an AV/AH system, 21st century multitaskers can simply do a lot more
living than they can when their hands, feet, and eyes are constantly
chained to the road. Being allowed to view video (or the interactive
internet of 2030) while driving in an AV may be a killer app for
productivity and free time, one that by definition causes many of
us to purchase such systems.
The future of an idealized transportation network would include
fully automated routing to our destination, allowing us great nap,
entertainment, or private time in the increasingly comfortable mobile
offices and entertainment spaces that we've been busily building
toward since the birth of the automobile. Our early luxury furnishings
gave rise to station wagons, minivans, and SUVs.
All roads lead us toward the increasingly magical "swiss-army
cars" of tomorrow, able to increasingly dynamically
reconfigure themselves to fit the changing needs of the occupant.
3. Fuel Cell, Electric, and Zero
Emission Fossil Fuel (ZEFF)Vehicles. Sometime circa 2030, by
many accounts, we'll see the first mass-market affordable fuel cell
vehicles. GM's Autonomy
frame, perhaps the most provocative design to date, is pictured
to the right. As today's high school students will tell you, these
beauties produce only water in their exhaust and are really cool.
At the same time, we'll see more electrics, more clean burning
natural gas vehicles, and the takeover of the gas burning market
by hybrids, which are today almost as efficient as idealized hydrogen
cars but without all the problems of conversion, as Dominic Cera
But at the same time, it presently seems highly likely that the majority
of our vehicles in 2050 will still be burning gasoline.
The more things change, the more some things stay the same.
Despite what some futurists will tell you, gasoline (whether
made by oil extraction, oil shale, coal gasification, coal liquefaction,
natural gas conversion, or some other source) probably has a long
future lifespan. Fuel cells are nice, but there's every reason
to expect that as they are improved, they'll simply be coopted
for use in second generation gas-electric hybrids, not lead us
to a hydrogen economy, as alluring as that sounds.
Expect to see increasing numbers of Zero Emission Fossil Fuel
(ZEFF) vehicles on the market in coming decades. Unfortunately
CO2 is not part of this equation, but as we move a more efficient
fossil fuel (natural gas-driven and coal gas-driven) electric
grid, CO2 sequestration at the power plant will make increasing
sense in coming decades, delivering the eco-friendly machines
we all seek. Big Oil is not going away, but will continue to innovate
heavily in coming years.
Self-driving cars for everyone on the planet who wants them,
operating on some future evolutionary, not revolutionary generation
of today's power systems seems to be in the cards for at least
the first half of the 21st century.
Convergence Vision: Robust Underground Automated Highways (UAH)
Because of the steadily decreasing price/performance ratios of our tunneling
technologies, the increasing intelligence and cleanliness of our automobiles,
and the ever increasing social value of our spare time, some overcrowded
city (Shanghai? Osaka? LA?) will eventually decide to put a nice, long
AH express tube underground, creating a fast connection between two important
and yet informationally different urban cores, at the same time
bypassing the most gridlocked sections of the city. Only certified,
ZEFF, electric or fuel cell automated vehicles will be allowed into these
underground connector tubes. Want Speed? Get Intelligent and Go Green.
The first tunnels will likely prove so popular with busy consumers that
they'll be sure to upgrade to cars that can operate in them, and in the
space of a decade following, leading cities will rapidly turn it into
a network. Given the time frames discussed above, I'd expect the first
AH "test tube" to arrive some time between 2020 (most optimistically)
and 2050 (most pessimistically), in some enterprising city around the
world. The choice is ours to accelerate or delay, but not to prevent,
as far as I can tell. Combining intra-city AH, ZEFF/fuel cell vehicles,
and semi-automated tunneling systems seems like an inevitable developmental
attractor for convergence of these three revolutionary technologies.
One of the hidden benefits of eventually putting
most of our automotive transport underground is that AH "riders"
don't care that there's no scenery. They won't looking around at
their surroundings, so they don't need to be above ground. As soon
as the cruise control is engaged, if legal, they will retreat to
the cozy environs of their cars, buses, and mini-trains, getting
on with the business of their lives.
Those Cisco routers under their hoods will handle the merges and
interchanges, while serving up the latest information feeds to the
passenger compartments. Imagine that: data and physical packets,
automatically flowing along on one convergent protocol. Tomorrow's
urbanites, if the most fully realized AH networks emerge, will be
thus able to "teleport" themselves wherever they want throughout
the megacity, with little disruption of the flow of their lives
in the process.
Typical AH networks will involve some "fan" of exits
to handle the outflow volume, and the more popular underground AH
becomes, the more underground parking lots will be built. The strongest
surface traffic reduction would emerge when all the city's major
above-ground parking structures are directly linked to the tunnel
network. Drivers will still have to come back to their seats to
drive that pesky "last mile" on the surface by hand. If they don't
do that, they will be auto-routed to some expensive city-owned underground
storage lot, you can be sure.
Only a very robust A.I. could take over an open-course, surface
street driving function, and that eventuality, as we will discuss,
changes the nature of the game. But within the first AH network,
wherever it emerges, 21st century Jetsons will be zipping along
in their vibration-stabilized wombs at seventy to ninety miles per
hour, nonstop, nearly as straight as the crow flies. That would
make the pleasures and possiblities of the entire New York Metropolitan
Area as accessible as the corner store, any time of day.
Want to drive the whole way manually instead? There's always the
There are lots of other details to confront, of course. Earthquake-proofing
of the underground network will have to be done in an economical manner.
In the same way that modern skyscrapers are often built on a "fluidized
bed" of rock that acts like a stabilizing lake in case of underground
movement, we'll have to build something equivalent into our AH around
the fault zones, and this will increase the cost, perhaps delaying its
emergence another few years. But in the Kobe earthquake in Japan, underground
buildings were the least damaged, as the structures moved with the land
rather than whiplashing. It's all quite doable.
As no petrochemicals are being belched from these vehicles, underground
air quality and ventilation challenges will be far easier engineeering
issues than in our present tunnels. Such vehicles may also be required
to contain their own independent and emergency air systems, fit into very
small spaces by clever auto designers. Rather than escape exits at regular
intervals, it seems more likely that automated successors to today's tow
trucks would become the "immune system" that AH networks would
rely on in case of mechanical failures by cars within the tunnels. Again,
these are worthy challenges for our future engineers.
Lot Arboretums and Trailway Takebacks: Growth of Urban Greenbelts
One of the more successful features
of Boston's Central Artery Project (the "Big
Dig"), is the 40 acres of new park emerging in the
Charles River Basin. The parkland is perhaps the greatest
consolation to Bostonians for its ridiculous cost overruns
and shoddy construction (it's contracts, awarded on a cost
plus basis, were a corrupt fiasco by comparison to the efficient
megatunneling projects we have seen in Europe and Asia during
the same time).
Take out a freeway, and add strips of new park land in
its place. That's a powerful combination.
Moving many of our present parking lots and even some of our current
multi-level parking structures underground would be another very
valuable addition to the AH system. If construction of underground
parking became as cheap as underground tunneling, cities would jump
to build underground lots for AH-equipped cars. Some residents might
choose to store their cars permanently underground at their local
lot, paying rent, and freeing up their residential garage space
for extra living rooms. Some of these individuals would also loan
their stored cars to car "co-ops," sharing multiple individuals
per car. Of course some descendant of today's leading rental car
companies would offer clever new ideas in this regard as well.
Now we dare consider that if our AH networks can become particularly
successful prior to the singularity, much of today's above-ground
parking infrastructure, and even some small fraction (10%? Perhaps
more?) of our denser city's current roads and highways, are very
likely to dive underground as well. Of course, if that occurred,
many of today's cities would rezone some of those reclaimed areas
as greenbelt, bringing beauty back to some of our most blighted
urban environments. I'd certainly love to see a few of our 12-level
parking lots disappear, with the ground below them transformed into
arboretums. If the economics allowed it, that could be an irresistible
image to a 21st century urban voter: the city's less strategic,
low-traffic pavement giving way to parkland and new running, biking,
and riding trails, while our average urban drive-times substantially
Such foresighted "takeback" (a wonderful eco-term that more of
us should be aware of) could occur in a significant manner only
after we'd first solved our current rush hour transportation gridlock
via a cleverly routed, redundant UAH system. We'll have to do this
while accomodating a steadily increasing future city density at
the same time, of course. While working through thorny labor issues,
and fighting all those famous cost overruns and political logrolls.
In other words, there's a whole lot of hard work ahead before an
effective and affordable first-generation underground AH network
will be realized.
Post 2020, 60% of the world's populace is expected to live in the
confines of a city. These magnificent environments are the final
destination for human beings prior to the singularity. With robust
UAH networks, the transportation times within our great cities could
be made better than ever, in a way most residents would find appealing.
While we're on the subject of
visions, what can we expect to happen with monorails, that
elevated skyway image that 1950's futurists were so excited
As much as I like Disneyland and Las Vegas, I think monorails
are going to be as rare as double- and triple-decker freeways,
double-wide highways, and any of the other visual irritations
that our conventional wisdom has offered up for the future
of urban transportation. Tomorrow's zoning boards and the
increasingly better organized foes of urban blight will very
effectively keep such projects from becoming further affronts
to our already polluted urban visual landscapes.
It's time to clean up our technology, and, as Mark Wieser
says, start making it invisible.
This said, I do believe monorails can be beautiful, and will gain
increasing acceptance in a growing number of cities as one element
in a plurality of transportation options, as they become increasingly
quiet, energy efficient, and to some extent at least, aesthetically
appealing. Both high speed elevated rail and mag-lev installations
are making steady advances, and both now offer peak operating speeds
around 250 mph (likely to be the approximate maximum for many years
to come, due to high velocity turbulence).
Such systems remain mass rather than personal transit however,
removing both travel environment customization and door-to-door
convenience. They will likely only be used in a few high density
corridors, and unless they are to become a visual blight, are not
likely to even double a city’s current traffic capacity, much
less improve it by an order of magnitude. Nevertheless, monorails
seem particularly attractive as city showpieces, traveling over
the most beautiful areas of each city, as extensions for existing
mass transit networks, and as adjuncts to high density tourist attractions.
But for the bulk of human urban transport then, instead of monorails,
I think we're headed for mole holes, and later, nature trails. If
we decide to repurpose some of our surface roads intelligently enough,
we may even see some functional trail networks emerge for that increasing
fraction of urbanites who would like the option to use human-powered
bicycles, electric bikes, and other low-speed electrics, such as
Segways, for some of their local transportation.
Cruising through the shrubberies at a computer governed 15-30 mph,
getting a workout if one wants, and enjoying the view all the way
to our destination. Actively toiling toward a coming era of human-surpassing
machine intelligence, but in the meantime making the best, most
humanizing use of the present technology and ingenuity at our disposal.
Sounds like a sufficiently green future to me.
The first links of a coming underground automated highway system,
likely appearing circa 2030 in our largest cities, appear to me
to be statistically highly probable event, even given the rapid
growth of digitization, e-commerce, and virtual reality technologies
as increasingly effective surrogates for physical transportation
in coming years.
Transportation planners, I'd start asking how we might accelerate
the arrival of such productivity and quality of life enhancing networks
in our largest cities.
And once we have effective UAH in any city,
perhaps the greatest dividend, after the increased social
computation and convenience, would be a functional new greenbelt
built on the skeleton of some of the surface roads we could
now afford to repurpose.
That latter emergence would require particular foresight
on the part of the communities instituting these networks.
We at the Acceleration Studies Foundation
hope that we will realize such visions in many of our biggest cities,
in a balanced and cost-effective manner, sooner rather than later.
Will we see the very first link of a successful underground automated
highway project completed in 2030, in 2040, or in 2060? Just
as importantly, which country will lead the way? The shape of this
future is ours to choose. Safe travels to you!
Feedback? Send us an email at mail(at)accelerating.org.