Before I get into this month’s article, I wanted to set the stage, as they say, by letting everyone know that the city of Farmington, Michigan is getting ready to launch the first “Intellistreets” concept in the United States. They are using federal grant money to become the first city in the world to test “intelligent streets” technology. This will comprise of a light pole system that combines energy conservation, audio, traffic control, homeland security features and more.
“Intellistreets” amounts to an intelligent wireless network, completely concealed in the street light pole. But it’s far more than a simple street light. Its lighting is variable for energy conservation, reacting to natural light, the environment and wireless commands. It has sensors to monitor foot traffic and vehicle traffic. It will be able to transmit information for emergency alerts, indicate evacuation routes, Amber Alert warnings, or hazardous environmental alerts and more.
What concerns me is the “and more” part. With red light automated ticketing and the ability of license plate readers, where do we draw the line on what cities can do? I can see it now – you are driving down the street and suddenly the light post lights up and says, “Your license plates have expired.” Frightening! Maybe I am just being paranoid, but I predict that you are now looking at the last two or three generations of over-the-road truck drivers. It would not surprise me one bit that in the next 100 years OTR truck drivers will be obsolete – replaced by sophisticated computer-driven vehicles programmed by computer programming experts.
To further my point, I have already told you about Google’s driverless car. Well, now it has come to light that the Department of Motor Vehicles in Nevada has issued Google the nation’s first license to test self-driving cars on public streets. After conducting some demonstrations on the Las Vegas Strip and in Carson City, Nevada, they have shown that a driverless car is as safe – or perhaps safer – than a car piloted by a human.
Self-driving technology works like an autopilot to guide the car with little or no intervention from a human being. Laser radar mounted on the roof and in the grill detects pedestrians and other vehicles, creating a virtual buffer zone around obstacles to be avoided. Concept cars rarely reflect the vehicles that end up on the road, but they do show us what cars “could be” one day.
The car of the future may look like a floating doughnut, according to Volkswagen. The VW Hover Car is one of three concepts to come out of the People’s Car Project that the German company has launched in China. The Hover Car is a two-seater zero emission vehicle that hovers above the ground and travels along electromagnetic road networks. It can detect other vehicles on the road while navigating congested streets. Because of the lack of friction (no wheels), the Hover Car could be very energy efficient.
All of this might seem far-fetched, but maybe not as much as you’d think. Stanford University researchers may have solved the problems of range by developing wireless charging technology that could one day create an electric highway. Wireless charging technology is already being used by some electric vehicle charging stations to fill up batteries without cords or plugging into an outlet. MIT helped pioneer this technology, but Stanford researchers improved on this concept and devised a way to transmit 10 kilowatts of electric power across a 6.5 foot distance with minimal energy loss. By overcoming transmitting electricity across a significant distance, researchers will make it possible to pave a highway with wireless conduits that can provide power to electric vehicles and let them operate indefinitely.
Theoretically, coils bent at a 90-degree angle can be embedded in an asphalt road and then attached to the electrical grid. Cars would be outfitted with identical coils, attached to their undercarriage, to create a magnetic field with the electric highway, which would wirelessly transmit electricity to keep the cars running. This charging strategy has only been proven in Stanford’s computer models, but the results are very promising. Computer simulations show a power transfer efficiency of 97 percent, even at more than the six foot range. Magnetic fields created by wireless charging could also be used to control steering and ensure that vehicles stay in the proper lane.
The idea of electromagnetic strips being embedded in the road is already a reality. The Shanghai Maglev train is a magnetic levitation train that operates in Shanghai, China. It is the first commercially-operated high-speed magnetic levitation line in the world. The top speed of this train is about 268 mph, making it the world’s fastest train. It was completed in 2004. So, in actuality, we are about eight years behind China in this field.
Last May, FedEx put into operation the first of nine electric trucks out of a distribution center in Silicon Valley. By year’s end, 34 of the battery-powered vehicles will be dispatched throughout the San Francisco Bay area, joining 53 other electric trucks in cities across the U.S. FedEx is also rolling out electric trucks in London, Paris, Hong Kong, Berlin and Florence, Italy.
Ford made the first gasoline truck in 1900, about 112 years ago. In the next 100 years, I can see where a “local driver” will take the unit down to the nearest electric highway, get the unit setup and on track, program its destination, and then go home, sending the loaded driverless truck on its way. The unit will travel by itself to its destination, where another local driver will take it to the terminal or its final destination. Can you not imagine this scenario, because I sure can!
Right now, everything you have comes by truck, one way or another. The future technology will surely change the way we do business, and surely change the way we get products to market. It only makes sense (like it or not). If they can accomplish all of this now, how long do you think it will be before truck drivers become obsolete? It might take a while, but I can see it happening. We all might want to head back to school and get some computer-programming training, as it seems like that will be the only “real” job for us humans at some point in the future!