Watch Out. Here Comes The A-MoD

Car numbers are rising; fuel supplies are dwindling, but the solution to our transportation problems may already be found. Guest writer, ...

Car numbers are rising; fuel supplies are dwindling, but the solution to our transportation problems may already be found. Guest writer, MAC, reports on the technological 'saviour' that will alter the way we get around.

Experts around the world have had their crystal balls polished and are looking into our collective future to try and predict what form of transport we will favour in the years to come. Some of those experts based in Singapore are betting that Autonomous Mobility-on-Demand or A-MoD will be the answer.

Cities are already stretched to breaking point by the shear mass of humanity that attempts to struggle to work through the urban sprawl. The OECD believes that at the current rate of increase, by the year 2050 there could well be some 2.5 billion cars roaming the planet, most of them concentrated in the urban environment.

Just pause to think of the implications of that number. Where are we going to park them and how will we breathe with all of that carbon dioxide being pumped out of them? If that is not bad enough, if Chinese ownership reaches the 840 cars per 1000 people level currently ‘enjoyed’ in the US of Americaland, then the demand for oil from China alone will exceed current world’s production levels, and let us not forget that the oil is running out.

A recent report in the New York Times commented on the Chinese government’s plans to move 250 million farmers into the cities in the next 15 years, in a major shift from an agrarian society to an urban one. The shift has been on-going for many years and in the already choked and choking Chinese cities, daily commutes are routinely in excess of two hours each way. You only have to watch the daily weather reports in this part of the world to realise that the effects of climate change due to all of the emissions is already with us; it just isn’t particularly well distributed.

In Chengdu, China, former farmers work on a park built over former farmland
while urban development takes place around them.
To try and avoid future chaos, car companies and governments alike are striving to reduce the carbon footprint by making cars more efficient, replacing the fossil fuel with electricity or combining both. This solution is obviously a car-centric approach, merely substituting the combustion engine with an electric one. There are still gains to be made in terms of power and energy density with lithium-ion batteries and, of course, most future thinkers believe that there will soon be a time when cars will be designed around a completely new style of EV drivetrain, such as in-wheel electric hubs. With EV’s, emissions and fuel economy will be improved dramatically but we will still have the congestion and the storage problems.

Increased use of low energy transportation methods is on the rise as well. China alone will be building about 2,500 kilometres of railway lines in the next five years and there are projects across Asia, particularly in Malaysia and Philippines. Providing cities with cheap mass transit via buses and subways is also on the rise and many cities now have bicycle sharing schemes to augment these systems.

Google's autonomous vehicle
Autonomous vehicles such as those that are being developed by the likes of Google will radically change the shape of future transportation. The Google Car so far has managed 300,000 miles of incident-free driving and, after much lobbying by the company and its supporters, California, Nevada and Florida now allow driverless cars. Because the cars will be intrinsically safer, as we are led to believe, they will be made from lighter materials and thus increase their efficiency further. The safety aspect alone may convince many that autonomous is the way of the future. There are other benefits as well if the vehicles can communicate with each other and their surroundings so they can follow each other more closely and improve synchronising with traffic lights, etc, to avoid stop-start delays. Google believe that this will make the traffic flow better by as much as 50%.

It is unlikely though that the simple replacement of fossil fuel with electric fuel or a massive improvement in the public transportation system will stop the average citizen from wanting to have the option to go where they want, when they want - the freedom of choice. Devise-sharing systems, such as that developed by Zipcar with which members can rent a car for as little as an hour, giving the user the benefit of mobility when they need it without the burden of ownership, have mushroomed around the world with an estimated 1.7 million users. Even the big manufacturers think this is big news and companies such as Ford actually has their own service now. Zipcar estimates that every shared vehicle replaces about 20 private cars.

Again it is highly unlikely that shared ownership of this nature will be the long term solution. One of the big problems experienced with the London bicycle-sharing scheme has been that the bikes tend to collect into a few places and there is a constant need to redistribute them on a periodic basis.

NUS' version of the self-driving car
Cities of the future need to rethink radically the concept of personal vehicle and develop a shared ownership model with which residents would have access to a fleet of lightweight electric vehicles stationed at recharging stations; users simply swipe their membership card to access the autonomous vehicles that could be used for short distance, relatively slow speed trips, such as the journey to the rail station where they would link up with more traditional mass rapid systems. Utilising Autonomous Mobility-on-Demand (A-MoD) with shared vehicles would also have an added advantage; at the end of the trip, the vehicle would return to the appropriate place and enhance the efficiency of the system.

A-MoD systems are already operating at the experimental level at the National University of Singapore and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and both have proven that the technology could be scaled up to become a real world solution. This is not just crystal ball gazing anymore. This is no longer science fiction. This is science-fact. If you are still a sceptic and don’t believe that we need to rethink how we view the ownership of vehicles, then why don’t you go to grid-locked Beijing in the smog season to get a glimpse of the future:


images: nytimes.com, informationdropbox.blogspot.com, techinasia.com, scmp.com,  Google

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