Sure, cars seem as inextricable from American culture as fast food and the Super Bowl. But if you zoom out and look at the bigger picture, automobiles make for a terribly reckless mode of transportation. Picture the millions of people swerving around on winding roads in their own individually-piloted, rubber-wheeled, steel-caged pods. So many things can and do go wrong — human misjudgments, mechanical failures, tire ruptures, and pure rotten chance mean that vehicles are colliding with people, other cars, guardrails, and buildings literally every day, leaving tens of thousands dead annually. Each year, there are an estimated six million car crashes.
In that light, cars seem like a pretty awful pick for our primary means of transportation. Wouldn’t a mode of transportation that moved safely and steadily ahead in a tracked direction, and eliminated concerns of colliding with pedestrians or incoming traffic make for a much better option? Doesn’t something like that sound better, more efficient? It only took us 100 years, but it looks like we’re starting to realize that it does.
Except we’re not exactly ditching the car — we’re just slowly turning them into trains. Witness the latest technology from Volvo: Automatic braking to prevent collisions. New Volvos will be outfitted with computerized sensors that detect when pedestrian or other obstacles draw near, and automatically hit the brakes for you. Volvo’s new Vision Statement is that “By 2020, nobody shall be seriously injured or killed in a new Volvo.”
The early tests show that it’s working pretty well — and many other automakers are testing out similar auto-braking systems. Which means that as technology improves, we’ll probably see even more fully realized automated braking to prevent collisions of every sort. Sensors that read the road more intricately and keep you safely in your lane aren’t far off, and there’s been talk of installing a computer sensor underneath especially congested highways to better regulate traffic flow during rush hours. In other words, the experience of driving your car is slowly but surely beginning to mimic the experience of being a passenger on a train.
And then, there’s this; another experiment by Volvo is aiming to create, quite literally, road trains. Of cars. The idea, which has caused a stir among transportation junkies, is to have cars outfitted with sensors that allow them to hook up with passing ‘road trains’ on major highways. Drivers would then be able to relinquish control entirely and follow a string of other cars headed in the same direction before detaching for their exit.
Here’s a peek at how it works:
And yes, they’re actually a few years into testing this technology, and it seems to work. I don’t even need to iterate how closely this resembles train travel, albeit in a personalized compartment that still guzzles gas.
The problem with all this, of course, is that it’s horribly inefficient. We’re spending heaps of money researching computers that make cars act more like trains while, at least here in the US, we’re neglecting trains themselves entirely. ‘Road trains’ sound neat and futuristic until you realize that they’re simply less efficient, more dangerous, and arguably, less convenient versions of real trains. High speed rail only has support in certain corners of the country, and elsewhere it’s been flat out rejected for political reasons. China, meanwhile, is currently outspending the US by a ration of 30 to 1 to connect its fast-growing mega-cities with new rail. Rail is safe, sustainable, low-polluting, and efficient.
But such is the power of automotive ideology in America — we’re more comfortable with the idea of cars that act like trains, so as long as they look like cars, than we are with trains. And of course the auto industry has a stake in preserving that ideology, and will continue to try to sell us on the notion that cars make us ‘freer’ — yet slowly evolving their product into trains all the while.
Now, the Utopianist move would be to bypass the slow, resource-draining and needlessly polluting evolution altogether, and to start betting on high speed rail right now.