Our post about a revolutionary approach to redesigning transportation drew a bit of discussion, much of it very informative. One of the commenters pointed us to this article at EE Times about the current state of the art in "autonomous vehicles," and just what it would take to get us to a world of self-driving cars. It's a fairly technical piece -- it is a journal for engineering professionals, after all -- but if you don't mind a bit of tech jargon, it's fascinating reading.
Short version: augmented assistance cars are here and will only get better, but fully autonomous cars remain a ways away.
People may think that I'm insane for what I'm about to suggest, but I'm going to offer it up anyway. I have read all the posts about future transportation issues and, while they are interesting, none of them seem able to offer a genuinely attractive transpostation system for the future. I don't care what anybody says - no-one is going to voluntarily ditch their cars for anything less convenient until the air is burning due to global warming and oil costs $500 a barrel. I hate to say it, but most people just like their independence and even (though no-one seems prepared to admit it) like driving! At least sometimes.
I had an idea about six months ago which I looked up on the internet and discovered had already been had before - at www.halfbakery.com. about covering roads with solar cells to produce electricity for the grid. It seemed like a good idea in the long term and I just left it till then. But the other day I realised that the biggest barriers to the electric car were the recharging time and the range. Combining this problem with the solar cell road idea seemed like a revelation - why not have cars that charge themselves as they are parked, or even as they move along?! And excess energy can be diverted to buildings, which all have roads by them anyway. Lithium battery technology is near the point where power and range are no longer an issue (check out the latest couple of postings at Ken Novak's blog and the Alternative energy blog for proof) and in the longer term cars with almost no battery would be neccessary anyway as all their power would be generated by the road they're on.
It's far too expensive of course. Everyone knows that solar cells wont compare with oil and gas prices far at least ten years.
Except that ten years isn't very long away, and the increase in efficiency in using electric vehicles is astounding! Electric vehicles are something like 80% efficient and could be even better, comparing well to the inefficient monsters we now use.
There are obviously technical issues, too. Can a solar cell (even organic thin film) be built to withstand the weight of trucks? Is it possible for electricity to be transferred from road to car unobtrusively and while in motion?
I'm posting this because I don't really know what to do with it. Is it feasible or crazy? How would I work out the costs involved (I'm not really very technical)? It may be impossible but please tell me why, it just feels too elegant to be completely wrong!