Saturday, January 23, 2016

Resiliency - Sustainable Transportation and Driverless Vehicles


Sustainability is usually associated with manageable problems - how to make our everyday activities less of a burden on the environment, and on each other.

But there are other problems. Big ones. Each time we watch a city (or region) respond to an uncommon but inevitable events like the East Coast's snowmageddon we wonder about tomorrow and, here in the Northwest,  the Big One.


What to expect? Well, the script is usually pretty much the same;
  1. Encourage people to prepare before the event takes place. This often involves sheltering in place as road net will inevitably jam as large numbers of people attempt to use it.
  2. Shut down the system as the event begins (the events of #1 may have already taken care of this)
  3. Wait
  4. Use emergency vehicles to get to those in desperate need.
  5. Bring in the heavy equipment to clear the road of the vehicles left behind during phase one.

On a side note; The above process also describes pretty well what happens when it snows in Seattle.

Like a well oiled machine



So the existing system sets a pretty low bar for effectiveness, but it does have some advantages
  • simplicity: each vehicle is dependent only on gas and a driver to be mobile
  • resiliency: the roads are wide and tough and there are a lot of them (about 20% of most urban landscapes are paved), even sidewalks will do in a pinch.
  • flexibility: just about any sized vehicle can use any road

What would driverless cars add to the mix? A a substantial number of autonomous (or auto-capable) cars on a road that is largely unchanged from todays infrastructure. The second is a fully autonomous system with an infrastructure largely optimized for smaller, more numerous vehicles and embedding a intelligent element in the road itself.

The first option would likely respond to natural disaster in the same way as the present system with a few limited exceptions. Driverless vehicles would be able (to the extent the roads haven't already been jammed) to move about during the event and develop a fuller, real time picture of road conditions etc. 
This would help during the rescue phase and even allow some non-drivers to escape if conditions allow. During the rescue phase some people could be moved in driverless vehicles freeing up manpower for other tasks. In the aftermath, depending on the efficiency of driverless technology, mobility might be restored more quickly by allowing only driverless vehicles into the area thereby avoiding bottlenecks etc. Otherwise, not much change from the present system....bring in the helicopters.

The second option would likely look much different. Most important would be the potential for a well designed system to move large numbers of people very quickly. Ideally this would mean more numerous small evacuations at critical points rather than general evacuations over large areas. If the system were well designed and had an extensive network it would be possible to route resources around almost any disruption ( a bit like the internet).

Of course, if it is not well designed it runs the risk of a total system failure, possibly at the disastrous moment when thousands are on the move and far from shelter. Bring in the helicopters.

On balance it appears to provide at least the potential for improving our response to natural disasters. At present the bar is set pretty low, too low, and new tools should be welcomed.