Friday, May 28, 2004

Could This Work?
Recently a friend emailed me one of those articles that provokes a really negative initial reaction but later percolates into your thoughts and triggers unexpected changes. The article in question proposes a radical solution to the urban problems of increasing traffic congestion and hazardous intersections. Rather than indicating a need for greater regulation of speed, lanes, and turns, it proposes creating a kind of traffic free market, in which cars and pedestrians must rely on seeing each other to navigate through the chaos. Thus traffic control would be an emergent phenomenon, not a result of laws and lights.

My first reaction was total rejection. Are they crazy? Have they driven in New York, with half the drivers distracted by cellphones and the other half trying to jam as many fares into each hour as humanly possible? When it comes to driving, I'm definitely a "stay within the lines" kind of guy, paying more attention to posted speed limits than apparently any other driver in the Northeast, so this kind of suggestion was guaranteed to raise my hackles.

Later, as I was driving back from a meeting I gave it more thought and concluded that this notion just might be bizarre and counter-intuitive enough to work. Clearly it has some serious research behind it; no one would suggest something like this without doing a lot of homework, because my first reaction would be the norm.

So why is it relevant to the theme of this blog? Well, consider the amount of fuel wasted by cars idling at traffic signals, or stuck in stop-and-go traffic, with endless cycles of acceleration and braking. I don't have good figures on it, but it is probably not trivial. In fact, it is one of the main reasons that hybrid cars are more efficient than conventional autos. By turning off the engine at stoplights and recycling some of the energy lost in braking, hybrids use less fuel than other cars and typically get better fuel economy in city driving than on the highway, where these effects are less important.

Even the so-called "mild hybrids" that will soon appear in the market, lacking the battery storage of conventional hybrids but also starting and stopping the engine seamlessly at intersections, rely on the fundamental assumption that traffic will look like it always has. But what if it doesn't?

If, as the article suggests, the new traffic pattern is one of somewhat slower progress between intersections, but less impeded flow through them and minimal complete stops, the whole idea of a hybrid or mild hybrid car would have to be reexamined. Clearly these reforms face an uphill battle in developed countries with established traffic patterns, but their major impact could be in the developing world. What if China continues on this path and others follow? A lot of assumptions about the shape of the future automobile might have to change as a result. Food for thought on a long weekend.

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