This Is How You'll Get There

Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century by William J. Mitchell, Christopher E. Borroni-Bird, and Lawrence D. Burns, The MIT Press, 227 pages, $21.95

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt, Knopf, 416 pages, $24.95

Ask about the future of information technology and many people will tell you something out of The Matrix or, as we call it now, Google. Ask about the future of transportation technology and you'll generally hear about ... cars. Cars that go faster, cars that use less or different fuel, but cars, doing basically what cars do today.

This paucity of imagination reflects a shift in our thinking. In the industrial age, people thought about the future in terms of mechanical inventions. Today, when information technology is central, the hardware is a mere window into a limitless digital "cloud." The automobile, in contrast, remains pure hardware, resolutely machine, thus difficult to project onto a digital future.

Now three engineers have taken a crack at it, with the meticulously detailed, punishingly dry, but sneakily radical Reinventing the Automobile. Written by a trio including the head of the Smart Cities program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (William J. Mitchell), the recent vice president of research and development at General Motors (Lawrence D. Burns), and GM's current director of advanced vehicle-technology concepts (Christopher E. Borroni-Bird), the book is filled with a kind of pocket-protector prose that can be off-putting to the casual reader in search of Gladwell-esque infotainment. There are lots of "synergistic efficiency benefits" and "unified delivery mechanisms," not to mention charts. And graphs. And more charts. But the book richly rewards persistence. Like an onion being peeled, its core insight is unveiled slowly: Reinventing automobiles means reinventing cities.

This is heady stuff. Before jumping in, readers are advised to ground themselves with a quick read of journalist Tom Vanderbilt's recent bestseller Traffic, which makes clear that the main barrier to a smoothly functioning future on the roads is not technology but the hominids behind the wheel, picking their noses and forgetting their turn signals.

Unlike a smart phone (note the name), the only intelligence in a car is what its operator brings to it. Therein lies the rub: Human beings aren't all that suited to the job. The biggest problem is sheer speed. For 99.9 percent of their time on Earth, people rarely traveled above 30 miles per hour; even today, in crowded social spaces, a comfortable driving speed is more like 10 miles per hour. Now we're hurtling around at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour, taking in a constant stream of information and making dozens of fine-grained decisions every minute, each based on complex, ambiguous assessments of risk and reward, each subject to perceptual quirks and illusions (yes, everyone thinks the other lane is moving faster).

What's worse, we make these assessments in circumstances that deny us almost all familiar social cues, including the most basic of all, eye contact. Since we have no visual contact with the vast majority of the people with whom we share the road, their ability to communicate their intentions is highly abridged and subject to frequent misinterpretation. No conscious tribal or family ties link us to other drivers, whom most likely we will never encounter again, so there can be no alliances or expectation of reciprocity. Every tool that humans have evolved to deal with other members of their species is blocked or complicated while driving, which may explain why they act like such jerks.

Because it is so often a solitary activity, the little habits, routines, and frustrations of driving can seem oddly intimate. Reading Traffic sparks one moment after another of recognition, even embarrassment, like reading a detailed account of one's morning ablutions. "Hey, I trim my ear hair just like that!" When the lane is closing ahead, do you merge early or wait until the last minute? At a four-way stop, do you make eye contact with the other drivers before proceeding? When parking do you pick a row or cruise around seeking the optimal spot? The answers to these questions vary from person to person, in ways that drive traffic planners nuts.

While the accretion of names, studies, and statistics in Traffic can get a bit much, for the most part the book is a lively, eye-opening demonstration that there's a limit to how efficient traffic can get with humans in charge of it.

Reinventing the Automobile aims to rethink the system from the ground up, in response to three key facts. First, we are an increasingly urban species. As of 2007, more people in the world live in cities than in rural areas, a trend expected to accelerate over the coming century, particularly in developing countries. Urban mobility is now the central problem.

Second, today's automobiles are wildly overbuilt for the purpose of getting around cities. Most are capable of speeds over 100 miles per hour and distances of more than 300 miles without refueling. Yet average speeds in cities range from 10 miles to 25 miles per hour, and 80 percent of Americans drive fewer than 50 miles a day. We need go-karts, but we're driving tanks.

Third, today's cities are increasingly degraded by their accommodation of cars. An enormous amount of land is devoted to pavement, which exacerbates the urban heat-island effect, leads to toxic runoff, and is generally ugly to look at. In many downtowns, more than half the land is set aside for parking, enough to accommodate peak traffic hours, which means most of it lies vacant most of the time. Roads and parking spaces limit the possibility of dense, walkable development.

What's needed is a reimagined urban transportation system that increases quality of life while reducing pollution, noise, and lost productivity. Reinventing the Automobile proposes such a system, step by meticulously described step.

It begins with the Urban Small Vehicle (USV), which can best be described as a computer with wheels. Because it will be electric -- run, like laptop computers, on lithium ion batteries -- it will be simpler and more modular than cars with internal combustion engines: "A traditional car requires elaborate systems of reservoirs, tubes, valves, and pumps to distribute the gasoline, oil, water, air, and exhaust gases, but a battery-electric automobile replaces most of these complicated distribution systems with wires connecting the batteries to the wheels."

The motors that power the car will be in individual wheels, attached to a "skateboard" that carries the batteries. Wheels can be attached in virtually any configuration -- traditional four-wheel rectangle, four-wheel diamond, six-wheel, even two-wheel (balanced, like the Segway, by a gyroscope). Similarly, the skateboard design allows for virtually any shape or design of chassis, enabling any kind of seating posture and any driving interface. The hegemony of steering-wheel-and-two-pedals will end at last.

USVs will be equipped with an array of sensors and controllers that enable them to maintain steady distances from other cars, avoid crashes, and even pilot themselves. (Yes, pilot themselves. The authors drop this notion into the mix rather casually, but it's the first real signal that things are going to get Jetsons--style crazy here.) Far more than any advanced engine or materials ever could, this situational awareness will allow the vehicles to be smaller, lighter, less armored, and more energy efficient. At least initially, they'll need to travel in dedicated lanes so as not to wind up smeared on the bumpers of SUVs.

Where the vision tips over from cool-for-car-nerds into mind-blowing is not in the car itself but in how it's connected to the power grid, other cars, and the city around it. Most cars are parked about 95 percent of the time. All those idle batteries add up to considerable energy-storage capacity. Having a place to store electricity is important because America's power system, like its cars and parking infrastructure, is overbuilt, scaled to meet peak demand. With a place to store surplus electricity when it's made and release it when it's needed, system engineers can "shave the peak."

The authors envision USVs converging with other technologies -- rooftop solar panels, small wind turbines, geothermal heat pumps, cogeneration systems, large-scale batteries, smart grids -- to create a new kind of power system in which cities are generating, managing, and distributing all or most of their own electricity. This kind of local, distributed power system will eliminate the high cost of transmission lines bringing power from a distance, reduce smog and other particulate pollution, eliminate dependence on foreign energy, and, at the limit, make possible carbon-neutral cities.

Moreover, all USVs will be GPS? and Internet-connected. Think of the location--specific services an iPhone offers, from maps and directions to restaurant suggestions to hyper-local news. Now imagine a similar range of apps for a vehicle that's receiving real-time information about road congestion, parking availability, and the latest box scores. Imagine the benefit to traffic planners of having information about the location and trajectory of every vehicle (encrypted, say the authors, but their discussion of privacy issues is cursory at best).

This "Mobility Internet" could lead to the same kind of innovation unleashed by the Internet itself. Among other things, it could enable a revolution in civic management of road, parking, and power services. Currently the large majority of roads and a great deal of parking is free, and as any economist will tell you, an unpriced resource will be overused. Sure enough, road and parking demand frequently exceed supply, leading to congestion, a good chunk of which, Traffic reminds us, is created by people driving around looking for parking ("parking foreplay" also causes one in five urban collisions). Although power isn't free, it's generally sold at a flat rate, leaving consumers no way of knowing when it's most valuable.

Toll roads and congestion charges are crude attempts to change the situation. Once the devices that consume road, parking, and power services are connected to the Internet, however, cities can institute variable, real-time, citywide pricing for those resources, based on the balance of supply and demand moment to moment. This could radically increase the productivity of resource use, compensating at least in part for the expense of building these systems. Cities would become more like organisms, their subsystems controlled and coordinated by a unified nervous system. (Water and sewage systems could be integrated to the digital grid as well and even used as backup energy storage -- but that's another story.)

For years greens have pleaded with people to do "10 small things" for the environment, futile and symbolic as they may be. Residents of smart cities will actually be able to answer that call in a substantial way: They will be able to closely control their resource consumption based on their own needs, values, and priorities.

If it all sounds somewhat utopian, the authors of Reinventing the Automobile rush to assure you that the technologies required either exist or are foreseeable in the near future. What's more difficult to envision, however, are the necessary social and institutional transitions. So much of the new infrastructure the authors envision is interdependent. Which comes first, electric cars or electric-car charging stations? Getting them as a package deal would require a kind of big thinking and spending for which Americans evince little appetite these days. There's a chapter at the end of the book about implementing the vision, but it contains little of the detail and precision of the preceding technology chapters.

Perhaps some day in the not-too--distant future, those of us who grew up using muscle power and small mirrors to pilot quasi-military vehicles around treacherous, loud, smelly urban highways will be shouting at the kids to get off our lawns with their damn iCars. After they help us program this infernal new-fangled power meter, that is.

But it's tough to see how to get there from here. Just as human idiosyncrasy and willfulness have stymied traffic engineers for years, so too may they prove difficult obstacles for the engineers of a sustainable future.