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Speculating Cars, Cities

4 May 2011 No Comment

As the editor of a motoring journal it pays to be ahead of the curve a little bit, or at least to be sat on it. And keeping up to date with what’s happening in motoring circles sometimes takes you out and into the abstract, into the realms of the theoretical and away from the everyday world or petrol costs and traffic jams.

The publication and its partner BMW envisage a future dominated by cities and city transport. As such they are looking at how they design both cars and cities to make the living environment better for us all.

And as preposterous as much of the language these agencies use to describe the future undoubtedly is, the current state of our transport networks does suggest a solution is required. In London you might be able to average a steady 7mph, but in Sao Paulo or Buenos Aires? Beijing? These cities are extremely stressful places to drive.

Technology inevitably has a role to play in improving our commuter experience, and a new raft of initiatives from companies such as IBM promise to push us further along this road. The increasing prevalence of powerful mobile phone technologies only makes this more likely. In much the same way that our customer loyalty cards provide consumer information to service providers and companies, the theory is that by picking up on our driving habits organizations will be well placed to advise us on when and where to drive.

With our driving habits mapped and set against traffic data and weather conditions, in theory we will have a dynamic satellite navigation system which will get us out of jams before they even happen.

There’s a danger of course that all this technology will amount to precisely nothing; that the collection of data becomes an end in itself, providing accurate analysis of our habits but guiding. I for one am stubbornly reluctant to give myself up to technology’s advice completely after some bad experiences with a Sat-Nav around Paris, in Belgium, around Utrecht etc. But I also recognize that it has got me out of trouble on a number of occasions.

Apart from being stung by the moral of Terminator as a young child my fear of technology is also grounded in a modern sense that my will is being usurped. There is something, paradoxically, very human about being stuck in a traffic jam – the frustrations and the waiting are after all just an extension of our collective will to be in the same sort of place at the same sort of time. We crash our cars because we are irresponsible with them sometimes, because they fail at inopportune moments. Again some very human happenings.

The alternative may be talking cars, i kid you not. Cars which swerve accidents because they know where one another are, cars which ‘know’ when another car is speeding across a junction and which modify our own progress accordingly.

The question is whether we forgo our responsibilities by allowing technology in in this way. And whether a simpler solution might be to just to get out of transport, period. And this is where the joined up thinking of the Wallpaper* student groups and mobile phone App providers is useful. One of the App people even suggested that a useful role for a multi-dimensional transport App might be to recommend that the driver take the bus, or walk. This again sounds faintly preposterous.But the solution for now seems to be to throw increasing amounts of technology at the problem: sensors in bridges, toll booths, predictive analytics tools, personalized traffic forecasts…

But does the cart lead the horse?