Even with all the new technology in materials, computers & electronics, the idea of the American car hasn't changed much in way too many decades. We've built up so much infrastructure around what we've got that "innovations" either fit the current system, or they aren't considered seriously for long. Even though every American out there knows that driving their car is using up a fuel that can't be replaced and pollutes the air, we can't seem to change our habits.
So it's time to take a look at those habits, and at that infrastructure, and make a drastic change that honors all of these factors but doesn't accept them as limitations. It's time for a new-style, public-spirited personal vehicle. Every geneticist knows that sometimes it takes hybridization to restore vigor to a crop, and our crop of transportation innovations needs some new vigor. The new strain: a vehicle that blurs the lines between car, taxi, rental cars, busses, and trains all in one go. A vehicle that aspires to the mobility of a motorcycle, the environmentally-mindedness of public transit, without the drawbacks of either.
I don't have a name for this vehicle yet, but I can imagine it quite effectively. It's a one-person pod, with room for a briefcase and coat; it's comfortable to sit in, and has plenty of room to read the paper. It's sleek & sporty, or square & practical, depending on it's owner's taste. There's a steering wheel, gas pedal & brake, because when there aren't many other vehicles around, this baby can hit the open road...it's part of the promise of personal vehicles that Americans will not let die easily, so let's build it in.
How about when there's lots of traffic around? Or for when you'd love to take public transit, but then for your second errand, the bus doesn't go to that part of town. Well then, doesn't this baby shine! Because instead of pushing pedal after pedal to get the right balance of stop & go, you just sit back, read your book or watch the scenery, and enjoy the ride. Your vehicle has become your personal car on the commuter train. Communicating wirelessly with all the cars around you to adjust the speeds just so, everyone whizzes along at a steady speed, keeping a safe distance from all neighbors, and automatically negotiating any lane changes to get you where you're going as smoothly as possible.
It's not that crazy. Have you ever paid for monthly parking in a garage, and used a plastic card to gain entry? Waving that card near the electromagnetic field around the sensing post creates just enough disturbance in the little circuit in the card that it can broadcast an ID number, and the computer knows if you're going in or out. Why not have a little circuit like that in the road, and let your car do the sensing? Feed that on-the-ground data right into your onboard GPS and your stored regular-route maps, and you're set to go.
How about wireless internet surfing? Using that type of technology, the cars would talk to each other & negotiate optimal speeds and routes. And instead of only being able to tell what's happening several yards ahead, your car would know several miles ahead. The whole stretch of vehicles can choose an optimal speed, or optimize who takes a detour to avoid bottlenecks ahead.
What about on the weekend, when you want to go camping? In your garage, just twist & click! to add on the Sweetheart module. Now you've got a two-seater, and then add the Trunk module to provide room for the tent. Maybe there's even a sleek, aerodynamic compartment you can attach to either side for your bike when you get to the other end. Hey, if they can make camera bodies and camera lenses light-tight and with electrical controls, they can make an extension module for your vehicle. That way you don't have to carry all that weight around all the time, paying the fuel charges for it when you really only need to use it a few times a week, a month, a year. Sure, you love the fact that your pick-up truck can bring stuff back from Home Depot, and carry the Christmas tree easily, but do you need to drive around all that capability all year? Not only that, but vehicles will be more affordable. You can buy functionality as you need it, much like disk drives, printers, and software upgrades on computers today.
There will have to remain a certain infrastructure for heavy trucks and ambulances, but the rest of the lanes on the highway are suddenly doubled. New to town? Pick up a public vehicle at the airport to get you where you're going. There might be some fellow travelers with you in a multi-pod, or you pay a bit more to get a private one. Getting around without your own vehicle? Catch one pulling up at an old bus stop...there are lots of them every few minutes now that bus drivers don't need to drive each pod. Or call for one on your cell phone...it'll come pick you up, take you where you're going, and dash off to the next one, optimizing the here and there to the best ability of the latest network analysis algorithms.
Without the need to defend yourself against 40-car pile-ups in heavy traffic, your vehicle won't need half a ton of steel to keep you safe, and lighter cars will get better fuel mileage. Car insurance rates will go down, because there won't be as many accidents. The same parking lots that are used now will provide almost twice the space. There's always a train leaving when you get there, you don't have to give up your personal space to someone you've never met before, and you'll always have a seat. You don't have to pay twice as much to bring your family along...you just pay the extra fuel. Each person will outfit themselves with the type of pod they can afford, making choices about what type of fuel the vehicle uses, how powerful the engine is on the open road, how many sport stripes it has - all those little factors that we do today. You will still be able to use your car to show off status - I don't forsee any revolution suceeding in divorcing American culture from that one.
Here's the benefit to top them all: there won't be a tug of war for public dollars & people's hearts between roads & public transit - because it will ALL be hybrid transit. In most new American cities, and even out in the middle of nowhere USA, the places we want to go are best served by the roads. We'll never be able to make trains that go all the places we need them to, or busses either, for that matter. So right now Americans have to choose, and the choice is pretty easy - in order to be able to go ALL the places I want to go, I go for a car. Once I've set out in my car, or accepted those monthly payments, public transit becomes costly in terms of time, or fares, or simply infeasible. But if I'm operating one of these versatile vehicles, if the roads become the public transit infrastructure when I'm in a crowd and set me free to drive when there's no one else going my way, there's nothing to stop every American car driver from making an environmentally friendly choice. Our nation can revolutionize the environmental costs of private transport, while revving up the public transit offerings...because they'll be indistinguishable. With all the features to win Americans' hearts.
A whole new playing field for innovations. GM, hear me roar...there ain't no reason to make those gas-guzzlers no more!