Thursday, September 8, 2011

The end of Buses?

Andrew D Atkin

Automated technology status:

Google has been successfully developing a fully automated car. Meaning total automation - no drivers. With their modified Toyota Prius they have clocked-up about 250,000 km to date, operating their car in urban areas. The only accident they have thus far had has been from another car driving into the back of them.

The key (current) challenge with developing a full-automation car is getting the computational requirements down, which as it happens are still very intensive. However, Google is meeting this challenge in an ongoing development effort whereby they are learning to compress otherwise unnecessary data. The latter is a somewhat tedious process, but it's inevitable that major refinements in software will be made. Certainly with their early computer programmes there will be much "crunching" that is not ultimately required. Of course, as computers become ever more efficient in themselves hardware will reduce this problem as well.

Here is a clip relating to Google's development:

A first application:

Even with a hefty computer in the boot we can see a first 'killer' application: Automated shuttle-buses.

The only reason why buses are so big is because we must cover the cost against the drivers. This concern is mostly eliminated with an automated system. A more ideal (and much more energy-efficient) vehicle size would be for about 10 people - not 40. It would mean more frequent and more direct services, faster and also much cheaper.

With improved popularity (compared to buses) is should cut significantly into car demand as well. This would be heavily reinforced if congestion charging were to be employed.

Suggested design:

I think a plug-in series-type hybrid would be ideal, using a small diesel-electric generator. It would be mostly silent in operation, have good handling with the lower centre of weight (due to battery ballast), and would be smooth running.

I would also suggest minor rear-wheel as well as front-wheel steering for convenient flexibility, as an automated system can exploit this to the full. It can make it much easier to negotiate a relatively wide vehicle.

A vehicle of this type would be very efficient and well suited to stop-and-go operation.

The following image is a best-guess ideal for an automated shuttle-bus. Three rows of three seats, with relatively generous spacing between the seats for a wide(ish) vehicle. You can do away with an aisle by having a door for each row, like a conventional car. The pay-off for doing this is generous seating space, faster off and on loading, and more immediate privacy for passengers.

Operating characteristics:

I would imagine that you could operate the system in the style of both a bus and a shuttle-bus. You can offer people a reduced fare in exchange for conforming more to the system (which basically means accepting walking to and from a bus stop, or another designated area), and a considerably more expensive fare can be paid for if you wish to have the vehicle come to you directly.

It should be easy to organise your trip from the internet, which provides us with a medium for highly flexible pricing systems.

Fares can be paid automatically with a pre-paid card like what is used in Wellington (New Zealand) buses today. Audio-intercom can be used if a human operator is required for anything, and surveillance cameras can be installed for security.


Fully automated vehicles can platoon. They can safety follow another vehicle from only a few centimeters behind, which increases capacity. Also of course, the shuttle-buses should operate with about 8 people at peak time, so should improve road capacity significantly alround.


How can buses and trains compete with this technology which could be deployed in maybe just a few years time (politics withstanding)? The answer is they can't - not on any level. And remember I am talking about the application of technology which has now been demonstrated. The truth is we can and will go much further than just automated shuttle-buses, in time.

Yet rail and [conventional] bus advocates are willfully deaf, dumb and blind to the motion of modern transport technology, and Auckland council in investing billions into a rail system that will be (and largely already is) a massive white elephant.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Do we need a Georgia Guidestone?

Andrew D Atkin

We need to set boundaries - Not tell people what kind of light bulbs they can use.

Someone with lots of cash put up a Stonehenge style monument in Georgia, USA, which looks like a constitutional wish-list for humanity's relationship to nature, and itself.

Here is the list inscribed on the stone:


1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
2. Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.
3. Unite humanity with a living new language.
4. Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.
5. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
6. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
7. Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
8. Balance personal rights with social duties.
9. Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.
10. Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.


What I like about the Georgia guidestones is the principle of forming a functional constitution to definitively establish humanity's relationship with the natural world. I believe there is room for this. If humanity does not specify its relationship to the natural world then there's nothing concrete to stop our species from potentially over-running it.

Worst case scenario would be reducing the entire planet to a global farm resulting from uncontrolled population growth and/or irresponsible government, or massive toxic contamination from irresponsible commercial risk-taking, etc. [And this is our latest morbid example. How many more can we withstand?].

However, if we're going to form an 'ultimate' ecologically-focused constitution then it needs to be "hard" and not "soft". What I mean by this is that it needs to be like any proper contract: Strictly specific with no or only minimal room for subjective interpretation. On this level the Georgia guidestones are a poor example. Although some of its assertions are clear, statements like "Avoid petty laws and useless officials" can mean anything to anyone, all depending on your perspective.

Poorly specified laws are dangerous because that which is open to interpretation is open to abuse. Not only can vague definitions make laws fail to enforce what they are [apparently] intended to enforce, they can also be abused so as to enforce that which they should not be enforcing.

Humanity does need to clearly define its relationship to the natural world, I believe. We need to define the 'acceptable' human footprint and the boundaries of that footprint. And it needs to be intelligently and comprehensively considered. Over simplistic Georgia guidestone type statements will never do.

For example, declaring that we should have no more than 500,000,000 people living on this earth, as though that should be an absolute goal, is nonsense because the human footprint does not need to be toxic. We can develop an abundant, healthy and sustainable biosphere with billions of people alive and kicking. And by using advancing technologies we could probably get our population to the tens of billions in time. Hence, it would be better not to define population absolutes but simply to define limits in terms of the human footprint. We should define basic limits on toxic spill-off into water, land and air, and acceptable deforestation levels, etc. If we can comfortably put ever more people into that given specified boundary then that should be fine.


Again, you want to keep the eco-constitution highly specific to environmental fundamentals, otherwise it will be used and abused to drive political ends which may have no sincere grounding in positive environmental practice. A classic example of the latter is with what is termed Smart Growth. Smart Growth claims to be about the positive environmentalism, but with objective analysis we can see that it quite blatantly is not. It is deep social and/or economic engineering, abusing the public's environmental concern to justify the forced changes. "Smart growth" is the kind of thing that can, does and will happen when you don't develop an eco-constitution that links directly to the fundamental status of the natural world.

So yes, let's develop some kind of Georgia guidestone, but do it PROPERLY. We should clearly define our environmental boundaries, but in a way that does not allow our environmental concern to be used as a tool for rouge political and financial interests. Indeed, a well developed eco-constitution should protect us from the latter, making environmentalism a practice - not a weapon.