If I Were King Part III. Personal Transportation

It is 2016 and the concept of personal / personnel transportation in the world, let alone the developed world, is ridiculously outdated and wrong on so many fronts.

After spending some time thinking pretty hard about this, I’ve realized that what started as a rant about how cars on the market today are completely terrible at actually giving us what we want (we think they give us what we want, but that’s only because of industry inertia), has now morphed into an entire manuscript on the future of the personal / personnel transportation system. And it swirled and grew from just bitching about carpet on the floors of cars into an entire global vision of transportation in the future because cars and transportation are complex topics. The road rules are complex. The systems are complex. And the issues are interlinked, concern public and private stakeholders, and rely on public policy at local, state and federal levels. So it’s super complicated. I don’t have all the answers yet for The System, but as King, I would have some Trusted Advisors working on That Shit. (I’ve made a couple shorter posts “If I were King” before, but the basic premise is I get to dictate how things should be, because I’m the king. This was a decent idea a year ago, but is less fantastic (literally: a thing of fantasy) now that Trump is the GOP nominee.)

I’ve divided this into three phases. Phase 1 is design and manufacturing changes that for the most part can happen today. Phase 2 is moving out into the future a bit. The focus here is on shifting our concept of a Transportation Appliance (TA) from the same basic platform that hasn’t changed in 100 years to something that REALLY solves what we’re looking for to move people around with the best possible experience. I’ll talk a little about autonomous cars here, but that bleeds a little into…. Phase 3, which solves the whole Transportation Problem. There’s no clear distinction between the phases — they gradually bleed into one another, hence why I stated that the problem is actually really big and messy, and why this rant went from being about carpet to autonomous road trains.

Phase 1: Make cars people actually want, not just what they think they want.

When cars first became popular, they were expensive to build, and so only the rich could afford them. But the rich like nice things, so cars were nice, too. They were comfortable motorized travel coaches. Something between a horse-drawn carriage coach and a first class train car. The ‘customer’ rode in the back. The focus was on the appointments and comfort in the back. It was an extension of a rich person’s living (sitting / salon / parlor / whatever) room.

That Honda Accord you are driving is not an extension of your salon. Nor is that what you’re using it as, nor was it intended to be. You’re using it as a personal TA. So let’s re-think the TA.

  • Get rid of the fucking carpet. Why on earth do cars have carpet? Are you serious with the carpet? This makes negative sense and makes me want to light myself on fire. Cars are out in the dirty, dirty world and should be appointed as such. Plastic or vinyl. Hose it down. And leather is usually more expensive and ‘fancier’ than cloth, but leather actually makes sense in a car as it’s easier to clean. Cloth, like the carpet, has no business in a car. Hose it down. Seriously. This woman has the right idea:
This woman is right. Car manufacturers are wrong.
  • WHAT IS A SEDAN ANYWAY? Why are you driving a sedan? I am serious. I want you to give me one reason why you bought a sedan. What do you do with the back seat exactly? Set stuff on it? How about the rear deck behind the seat? Tissue box holder? Awesome. But, boy is that trunk useful, huh? It would be twice as useful if your car were a wagon or utility vehicle (sidenote: ‘SUV’ is pretty outdated as a moniker as the crossover has shown that people want a cheap, raised up wagon. The ‘S’ in SUV is pretty hilarious these days, considering all but about 3 SUVs on the market are based on a car chassis, not a truck’s.) Plus you could keep your dog in it (it being the trunk, not the chassis. We’re back to the trunk /wagon argument here.) But your dog rides on your lap while you drive, because you are a sedan owner and didn’t think for 3 seconds about your car purchase. You just walked onto the lot, saw a generic silver (of course) ‘car’ and bought it because that’s what cars have been for 100 years. Because rich people rode around in the back seat of the first cars while their chauffeurs drove them, YOU OWN A SEDAN. Seriously. Do you know how much engineering and safety testing went into the back seats of all the sedans ever made? And what percent of all driving time ever do think there has ever been someone sitting in the back seat? I bet 2% is high. When was the last time you had FIVE people in your sedan? I bet [literally] more than 50% would respond: never. Maybe even 75%. Instead, everyone just sets their briefcase or their box of crap on the rear seat because that’s what’s been done for 40 years and no one ever pauses to think that that makes absolutely NO sense. ENOUGH WITH THE SEDANS. A sedan is the worst format for a personal TA possible.
  • “Infotainment”. First, they are only informative if you consider 1994-era technology cutting edge. Secondly, they shouldn’t be entertaining the driver, because, uh, the driver should be concentrating on driving. So what are these systems for exactly? They are all horrible, immediately obsolesced, un-updatable and ugly. Get rid of them. You can have a sound system, an input jack and maybe an FM/AM receiver. I have a phone. I have a computer. Your job, automakers, is to make a car. Not a car….. And a phone. And a computer. And a Sony PS4. The output is your job, auto maker, the input is Apple’s / Google’s / Samsungs / Lenovo.
  • Electronics: simple is better. Any new ‘feature’ that some company advertises as the next great tech advancement in cars (rain sensing wind shields?) to me just sounds like a broken part future-me is going have to deal with in 3 years. (Now, my opinion of electronics changes in Phase 2 and 3, but importantly, in those worlds, yes, the car will be fitted with lots of technology — sensors and safety equipment, but I still argue that the technology in the cabin should be kept to a minimum. Or at least should be much more optionable, modularized and replaceable. I honestly have no idea how to even change the headlight blub in modern cars. Too much.) Partnerships will be increasingly important, as the TA is just that — just the appliance — but its heart and soul will be powered by your phone. We’re blending into Phase 2 here (told you it would happen), but this is doable today: no infotainment system, but rather a Ford App that runs the infotainment in my car of my phone.
  • Cars need a place for purses. Why do no cars have this? You know what AREN’T good places for a purse? The passenger seat. The passenger footwell. Those are the places for my tuchus and my feet. My wife doesn’t even have that big of a purse, but it is still annoying that the only place for it to go is at my feet while she’s driving.
  • Paint. Why are cars painted? Oh, because they are made out of metal, and metal will rust if left open to the elements. Ok. Why are cars made out of metal? Because metal was cheap back when cars got popular. Metal is heavy, dents fairly easily and has to be painted (oh, and paint adds weight too). It has to be cleaned regularly or else it looks bad and can rust (salt on winter roads) and if the paint scratches, which isn’t too terribly hard to do, the metal rusts anyway. Great. We can do better. No more paint (cars are all silver nowadays anyway). No more metal. We used to make fun of Saturn, but they were right. Cars should be made of plastics, aluminum, alloys and now, carbon fiber. The future of cars is light light light light (the future of everything is actually lightness… eg Boeing 787). Removing weight adds to fuel economy (the reason the giant space shuttle fuel tanks were orange is because that’s the color of the bare metal — painting them added too much weight. External fuel tanks from first two shuttle missions:
Space Shuttle Columbia — source: Wikipedia

then left unpainted thereafter, cause… uh.. why paint it duh:

Space Shuttle Atlantis launching — Source: Wikipedia

No more paint!) Removing weight lowers the M in F = MV^2, so collision forces are lower — lighter is safer. No more metal, no more paint. Again, the idea of a car being an extension of your fancy life went away the first time someone drove with a Big Gulp in the cup holder. It’s not fancy and does not need a 4 coat pearlesence metallic effect paint job. That’s for the exterior of an automobile. A TA exterior needs to be lightweight, safe, weatherproof, very durable and resistant to scratching, bumping and breakage (headlight and taillight lenses too!), denting and theft/vandalism. And generally not too ugly. Something along the lines of the Adobe would be fine:

Also, paint is generally not good for our Mother Earth. Enough paint. (Side note: I CANNOT BELIEVE that Sherwin Williams’ logo still, in 2016, is a picture of a can of paint dumped over the earth with the words: COVER THE EARTH. Seriously.

The original Audi Allroad was on the right track here, with lots of unpainted plastic trim pieces, and it was a luxury car.

Original Audi Allroad. Plastic, unpainted bumpers FTW!
  • We’re bleeding over into Phase 2 here (I told you it would happen!), but this BMW concept car (from 8 years ago!) is right on the money:
  • It’s a little too fancy-fance (“a tailored suit”?), but the ideas are solid. The shell with a lightweight fabric skin. Cars that can be customized. More on this later…

Phase 2: Future cars and moving towards GOOD TAs. Revolution, not evolution.

The GINA BMW concept car (I have a hard time pronouncing that with a short ‘i’ sound after watching the hood open the way it does) in the above video with the skin-over-cage is a good segue way to a little bit further into the future. Something beyond what we can pretty easily change immediately today (no more carpet!!!!) towards stuff that’s going to take some R&D. But that’s where things get more complicated, because now we’re going to introduce the US Department of Transportation.

Safety is a HUGE concern in the auto industry. Obvi! And I don’t know details, but I’d guess that the DOT’s safety standards (and those of other countries) are significant reasons for why cars have stayed the same for so long. It’s very expensive to certify new designs, and brand new cars still have to conform to existing regulations. It’s like telling an artist to paint whatever they want, so long as it has amber indicator lights on the front and sides, white reverse lights, three point seat belts, and certified brake hoses. Here’s the whole list of standards in case you’re ever super bored. So this is where I say: I don’t have all the answers as King, because things start to get pretty complicated with the DOT. But, as this is my day dream, I’m going to ignore those standards for now. But like I stated at the onset, in the real world it’s all interrelated, and public policy will have to change to Get What We Want.

So moving on to how things in my kingdom would be — no more metal and no more paint. Light, light, light bodies that are more suited for the demolition derby that is “life on the streets” (but interestingly, this may become less and less important as autonomous cars become increasingly ubiquitous — if there are no more accidents, we don’t need to make cars as bumper cars-proof.)

Regarding design of the TA, we do not currently have nearly enough choice. Oh, your silver sedan comes in 3 trim levels and each one has 3 option packages? SE, LE and LX! To the dungeon with you. As King, we will all have near infinite choice of configuration in our TAs. What I’m talking about is the LEGO of cars. I should be able to build, customize and outfit my TA however I want.

Everything about a TA should be selectable or optionable. For example, I want ALL of the following possible at the same time:

  • Third row of seating. Fourth row of seating. Fifth row of seating. No seats at all.
  • Roof rails / roof rack
  • New wheel / tire tech — like tweels!

· Or this crazy awesome idea:

  • Tow hitch
  • Option to have / not have sound system
  • Manual windows / electric windows / no windows. A system of glass (think a globe or bubble) that can be completely opened (convertible) or completely closed.
  • FWD / AWD / RWD.
  • Seats that can lie down flat (for sleeping)
  • Seats that can swivel and face backward (all seats)
  • Built in table tops for all passengers
  • Attach a pick up bed, or convert the back of the vehicle into one.
  • Cab-over layout:
  • Increase the ride height, lower the ride height.
  • Semi-autonomous and/or autonomous

I basically want far more choice than we’re allotted now. Completely blow up the current idea of what a ‘car’ is and really get creative on anything you might want in your Transportation Device.

Cars are fundamentally a compromise — most people only own one, maybe 2 per household, and we ALL compromise based on that math….

Maybe a minivan for the kid hauler and pick up truck or an SUV for the parent that doesn’t do the kid hauling. The minivan is great 98% of the time for its assigned job, but absolutely horrible the other 2% of the time, whereas the second vehicle is pretty crap at its main function (transporting 1 person to work and back) 98% of the time, but it exists to solve the 2% problem of the other car. The 2% of the time when the family needs to make a dump run, or pick up a yard of compost, or go skiing or camping.

I want to be able to customize and modularize in the show room for exactly the situations I’m going to use the car, but also during its ownership — — if I don’t need the roof rails right now, I want them to disappear. Comfortable, safe transport whether I have kids or co-workers in the car.

I want cars to not have to compromise.

I want them to be able to solve the current need perfectly then ‘transform’ to solve whatever the next need is.

There’s been some nice incremental features included in cars over the years, but no real leap forward in TA layout or options. A couple examples of the nice new features include:

  • Ford foot activated lift gate
  • Subaru roof rails
  • Panoramic roof
  • VW Vanagon, as the most progressive “optionality”
  • Volvo has shared some interesting concepts recently, and as far as I know is the only manufacturer that offers convertible child seats currently:
Built-in Child booster seats

And here’s an example of how the NHTSA regulations impact progress (no judgment against the NHTSA, it has a hard job, but just pointing out that it’s a massive force in the development (and pace of development) of the TA): Volvo developed some innovative child seats, but they are illegal since they only fit Volvos — child seats must fit every vehicle, so we get lowest common denominator on fit and function… awesome.

More on seats. Seat innovation seems lacking to me. If some one could come up with a seat that was actually comfortable for everyone they would get all of the dollars. My wife drives with the seat back lowered too far back, but with the lumbar support maxed out — she’s only 5’2”, so the lumbar support is actually the part of the seat that most of her back sits against and she doesn’t really touch the upper part of the seat. She essentially has the seat configured so that the seat back is just the lumbar. I’m 5’11” and 170 lbs — about as average as they get, and car (and airplane) seats, which are designed for the median person, aren’t even comfortable for me. FIX THE SEAT PROBLEM.

Anyway — generally, customization, and modularization is the way forward. Phase 2 is all about improving the TA itself. Making it truly a TA and not just another iteration on an ancient format.

Electrification — as King, all TAs will be electric-powered. You can, of course, at least initially, get a special permit for internal combustion vehicles, but these permits will essentially be a tax to own a loud, outdated, smelly and polluting car. But if you want to pay for it, go ahead. The thinking here is there are special cases where an IC is better, such as very long distance driving, enthusiast driving (track / racing), collector cars, and specialty applications, like construction or agriculture [really big trucks] and commercial vehicles. I would argue that the performance of an electric drive train is on par or superior to an IC, even a high-torque turbo diesel, however, it may be some time before battery and charging tech allow for successful application to rural or very high output situations. Eventually just collectors and enthusiasts will own IC-based cars, and that’s fine.

Small rant: this is all cultural and institutionalized inertia. Every single person alive has lived their entire life with gasoline powered cars. I think in 50 years we will all think it is absolutely insane that we used to drive around with thousands of EXPLOSIONS happening two feet in front our faces. Our kids faces! All the while sitting on top of 15 gallons of liquid fire. The internal combustion engine will be looked backed on as primitive, inefficient and disgusting. They’re loud, smelly, messy, leaky, inefficient and dangerous. But currently we’re so worked up in our own TA inertia that we drive silver fire-powered sedans.

A four-wheel drive electric vehicle can have 4 small(ish) electric motors, each powering its own wheel. So a) all cars now have the equivalent of a fully locked differential 4WD and b) because power is routed via wires and not axles and driveshafts, there is no large space taken up under the car for those pieces — — no long driveshaft tunnel down the middle of the car! This allows all cars to have 4WD and really efficient interior layouts with all the amazing options and features listed above. Hurry for our benevolent king!

Ok, in phase 2 we’re going to need to sort out another issue, and I’ll admit to not having an answer at this point. Cars are getting increasingly sophisticated, and increasingly run by wire, as opposed to metal (more electronics and servos in place of push rods and pneumatics). The concept of what you actually own when you buy a car is changing — car makers are trying to claim that their cars, even after you buy them are ‘property’. Now, the good news is, car makers lost their initial salvo at trying to use DMCA to protect their “code”, but this is only going to get fuzzier and fuzzier. More reading on this topic here. I’ll admit this topic doesn’t fit very well into the broader conversation of this post, but I did want to share the news about the DMCA lawsuit as most people probably haven’t heard about it. But this topic does bring up the concept of ownership, which may be changing:

  • We’re bleeding over into Phase 3 a bit here, but perhaps the idea of owning your own car has started to shift? There’s some pretty cool companies out there called Clutch and Joule, and then the Maven program out of GM whereby you essentially own “access” to a vehicle, and most of the time you just keep the same one, but on weekends you can “swap it” for an SUV or truck or a convertible.

This article, which rumors that the car that Google is using to develop it’s autonomous technology is a minivan, supports my entire thesis for the future of personal / personnel transportation:

  • The best format for a people carrier is minivan / bubble pod (NOT a sedan)
  • No one likes driving a minivan because they suck to drive. But if you’re not driving it, they’re awesome to be in.
  • People own cars, because they want to drive what they want. But if no one is driving, then the entire buying decision process shifts focus from driver-centric features to passenger-centric features. Driving a corvette is cool. Riding in one is much less cool. Driving a minivan is pretty lame, but reading / sleeping / watching tv in one of the 4 captain’s chairs is pretty awesome.
  • And if we aren’t viscerally connected to our cars anymore, because we aren’t driving them, are we still going to feel so strongly about owning them?
  • These points and questions frame Phase 3: The Future of Transportation

PHASE 3: The Future Transportation System

Solving transportation is incredibly hard and expensive. Big transportation projects take a very long time to plan and build, and then have lasting effects on regions for decades. Many cities, counties and states have invested billions of dollars in transportation projects including roads, bus systems, subways and the current popular one, lightrail. And the nation as a whole has obviously invested billions in the interstate highway system.

Roads are a transportation network that a) exists today and b) goes to every single address in the country.

We have, right now, a railway network that has been invested in and evolved steadily over the last 60 years. It has large arteries for popular routes and thin little capillaries that extend down to every driveway.

So let’s use it. But let’s be much, much smarter about using it.

I’ll reiterate a couple critical institutionalized concepts for above on what personal transportation IS in this country today. It is:
- Fossil fuel powered
- Driven by “me”
- Privately owned
- Driven on publicly owned highways and roads

When we get past the first three institutionalized definitions of personnel transport and integrate them with the last, we can really open the concept up to its full potential.

First, we’ll make TAs according the guidelines I’ve set out above — they will be comfortable and customizable, electric and autonomous. And now we’ll add a sharing service to solve the 2% problem we have now.

So what do we have? An all electric, autonomous shared fleet of bubble pods. There are big bubble pods for big families or groups, there are smaller ones for couples and there’s even a narrow one for singles — having narrow, single vehicles allows for the twice the capacity on the roads as you could drive side-by-side in existing lanes, so these would be key for commuting.

Ok, you’re not so excited about jumping into a shared pod with your family that was just used by — and here I was trying to come up with something really gross, but funny and politically correct to set the stage for gross car sharing, and you know what I came up with? a pretty depressing reguls — any other human.

I get it, and I kind of agree. I like my stuff and my space ( I do not like myspace). So what if we all owned the pods, and it was the chassis (plural; interestingly chassis is both the singular and plural form of the noun) that were shared. So you have your family pod and your commuting pod and then you just order the appropriate chassis. There could be winter-mode chassis for skiing, or aero-dynamic / low profile chassis for long road trips. Either on the chassis themselves or perhaps on the curb of your house is a crane that loads and unloads the pods.

Tesla needs to stop making silly cars immediately and just start selling the ‘skateboard’…. the chassis for people and companies to build on top of. I’m not the only one with this idea:

A couple final comments about the future System:

1. Storage is a problem, as you have to store your pods somewhere in front of your house, in your apartment building, or in your office building somehow. Perhaps existing parking garages can work as “pod racks” for tenants’ and office building workers. Or maybe there truly is a fully public system and you don’t have to own a pod (but then there’s still the “other humans” problem).

3. Or perhaps over time as the institutional inertia continues to fade, everyone just gets comfortable with sharing transportation appliances and we move to a fully shared / public model. Or maybe it goes completely the other way and everyone owns their own mini pod / chair that they never leave like in Wall-e, and when you’re with your family you just link up and travel in a line.

4. Driving. Especially at first until all non-autonomous cars are obsolete, but even far in the future, I think driving a wheeled vehicle of some sort will continue to be a very popular hobby or activity. I’m all for that. I’m an auto-enthusiast and like driving my car. I don’t like driving my car on I-5 at 5:30pm. So, point is: I see a place for driving far into the future. I think it would mostly be on separate roadways, or off road trails and tracks, but who knows. It will almost all be for fun, therefore not overlap with grocery-getting and commuting.

Lastly, this didn’t fit anywhere into the rest of the post, but it’s interesting research on the dichotomy of the public / privateness of cars and roadways. The research shows that road rage happens because people feel anonymous in their private vehicles — able to swear, gesture, throw things, even get in fights because they feel their private space is being impinged on , despite being in, and engaging in the very social activity of driving amongst the public on public roadways. http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/Anger-Tears-Road-Rage-Shame-1649

So in closing, be nice to everyone else out there on the road, until, well, we can completely ignore that anyone else exists out there with us.