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  • Writer's pictureMarma

Practical Spirituality — 4 — Cells’ Transportation

Updated: Mar 17, 2021

The following installment of the “practical spirituality” series will focus on transportation. As you may know, the “practical spirituality” series tries to implement in practice the teachings you find in esoteric circles like the idea that we are all one, or put more simply, that each human is like one cell inside a larger global organism.

Our cells move around all the time in our bodies, but the biological equivalent of traffic jams is much more serious in the case of our bodies then what we experience every morning on the highway going to work. If one of your arteries is clogged, that can have disastrous consequences for your health and can be potentially life threatening. So it is an absolute necessity to ensure that cells move around smoothly and unimpeded inside your body.

Applying the same principle to transportation, urban planners have been breaking their teeth on how to make traffic more fluid in cities and in the suburbs for decades. As the number of personalized vehicles skyrocketed and keeps edging upward slowly as the population grows, policy makers and various other stakeholders are trying to find solutions: encouraging people to bike to work, boosting public transportation, rethinking parking spaces and access to various parts of big cities. But progress is slow, and all too often, end with two opposing camps:

- the “hippie ecologist radicals” who advocate for getting rid of cars altogether and “reclaiming” the public spaces (roads) to transform them according to a “human centric” approach (putting trees, urban activities, slides, sand pits, benches…)

- the “cozy conservative selfish capitalists” living in villas in the suburbs with two or more cars (SUVs), far from any public transportation (train station, bus line) and commuting to work into the cities every day, spending hours in traffic jams and complaining about parking spaces and wasted time spent in the car.

Each camp claims the other is stupid, utopian, idealist, selfish, radical, etc, and instead of finding some form of middle ground, simply duke it out in politics where political parties representing each faction yell at each other and pass schizophrenic policies in favor of one or the other camp depending on who has the upper hand.

In the following article, I will expose the road (no pun intended) to the future, which is balanced and takes into account the perspectives and needs of both camps.

As a preamble, before addressing the problem of transportation head on, let me insist on one key point: the best policy to manage transportation is to get rid of all unnecessary trips. Instead of figuring out first how to move people around, we should first prioritize policies which reduce the need for people to move around in the first place. In this regard, solutions like telework or working from home and reducing working time to 4 days a week can already do wonders.

Lets now move on to describe, briefly, what the future of transportation for the next few decades will look like: a fleet of self driving cars, integrated with public transports and all other alternative means of transportation like bikes, electric scooters and just plain old walking.

The main problem nobody wants to discuss is the transition from the current situation where you have a huge fleet of privately owned vehicles which just sit around doing nothing, parked 95% of the time, to the “ideal” scenario that the “hippie ecologist radicals” aspire to. So far, their strategy was to recapture roads and parking spaces, boost public transportation and biking in their city, and let the suburban SUV lovers adapt to the “new reality”. Sure, part of the answer will be to boost public transportation reaching out to more “remote” suburban areas, but covering the entire territory with public transportation (trains/buses) is not feasible or would require a crazy level of investment (especially for trains).

So here are my ideas for a successful transition:

- All states should coordinate and fund the development of an open source self-driving algorithm. This is a key priority and should be a public good rather than a private initiative. A safe and functional self-driving algorithm is in the public interest as it deals with the safety of not only passengers but also pedestrians. Furthermore, the data used to train these algorithms belongs to each and every citizen which contributed to generate that data and should thus be considered as a public good and processed as such also.

- Publicly funded research will also go into finding solutions to equip existing cars with self-driving technology. This is already possible and costs around 1000$! Of course, this is just the beginning. The current algorithms are nothing more than sophisticated driving assistants helping humans but not replacing them. In 5–10 years, however, that could change, given the rapid pace at which technology and algorithms (deep learning, machine learning) evolve. Citizens will then be encouraged, either via tax rebates or other incentives to form cooperatives with other private car owners to rent out their cars to the public.

Alternatively, these car owners can also either sell their car to a company/start-up which will manage a fleet of cars or rent it to such a company which would keep part of the profit for exploiting the car and maintaining it (clean up, maintenance, insurance, fuel etc).

- As this algorithm becomes effective, public platforms will be set up by public authorities and will be the only way to access the service of summoning a self-driving vehicle. This is to avoid an absurd situation where competition actually increases the number of cars on the road because of the necessity to ensure that consumers subscribing to one service or another have sufficient coverage to have a car ready to pick them up in a reasonable time frame. By setting up one single platform, people will be able to configure their preferences and an internal algorithm will choose between all available cars from all the different start-ups, companies, cooperatives, the one which is most relevant to the person’s choice, and also personalize the price. For instance, let us imagine a rich selfish capitalist living in a McMansion in the suburbs. Chances are he won’t be too much in favor of stepping into just any car. So he can subscribe to having only cars of a certain type to come and pick him up. Also, he doesn’t want to mingle with the commoners so he wants to be alone in that car. The algorithm of that public platform will simply assign a price and choose, among the multiple companies offering those types of cars, the one which is closest to where he is and take him to wherever he wants to go. On the other hand, you can have a regular person which doesn’t care which car he uses or if it’s shared with other people, he just wants to get from point A to point B at the lowest price. The algorithm will cater for that preference and assign a car to that person also. Companies could also specialize in renting out a fleet of specific vehicles like mini-vans for moving large items or for large groups of people. Car manufacturers would therefore still sell their vehicles, but to companies/cooperatives in bulk, rather than individual sales. This is why the solution above is so important: if you have only a few oligopolies running these services, it could further concentrate the automotive industry which would be extremely detrimental to competition. It is better to have hundreds of smaller companies managing smaller self-driving car fleets, deciding which cars to buy, and consumers voting with their money/preferences to select which companies provide the best service.

- Ultimately, the platform will be open with a certain set of standards (insurance, maintenance requirements, cleanliness, etc) for anyone to create a company and share their vehicle to make money, and free market mechanisms of offer and demand will ensure that an optimal number of cars are on the road.

- People would retain the right and freedom to own a personal vehicle, but they will pay taxes for using the public space only for themselves (the public roads, public parking etc), the extra “congestion”/traffic created because of their choice, and the environmental impact of owning a personal vehicle. Even though it may sound contradictory with the aim of reducing car ownership, it is important to maintain a certain level of freedom or else risk facing a severe backlash from a great part of the population. If the service described above is set up and works well, ultimately, people will naturally abandon their privately owned vehicle and opt for a this shared service.

- All companies would be obliged to share the data they collect from the self driving experience, in order to improve the algorithm. In the beginning, each company should hire professional human drivers which could take over at a distance a self-driving car which is stuck or has problems maneuvering in certain situations. The data collected from their intervention could thus further help improve the self-driving algorithm to make it safer and handle more diverse situations.

- A specific body would be created where all companies/cooperatives/start-ups which own and operate a self-driving fleet of cars can discuss, with public authorities, any problems, and decide how to improve the service for the future.

- The fleet of self-driving cars would be fully integrated with all other forms of transportation like trains, tram/bus/metro, shared bikes or electric scooters, in order to improve the global flow of traffic and movement of humans/goods. For instance, during exceptional events like new years eve, self-driving cars would drop people off in train stations which can bring a lot of people closer to home more efficiently and rapidly then driving out of the city in all directions into various suburban areas.

What would be the actual impact of such a service/solution?

- It would solve all parking problems. A fleet of autonomous vehicles doesn’t need to park, or only for a very brief time before it finds another passenger to take from point A to point B. At night, these cars can all be parked in huge several story high parkings like at airports or train stations, and would be equipped with charging stations or fueling stations. Each company would either set up their own several story parking lot or pay a certain fee for the use of shared existing parking lots.

- The companies in charge of maintenance and cleaning would also set up specific shops where their fleet would automatically stop by for periodic maintenance/cleaning. Passengers would be able to flag any problems via their smartphones and that specific car could either be fetched or drive itself to be cleaned.

- Algorithms would be used extensively to predict and optimize where the cars should go by studying the data of people’s commutes and uses (especially during “special” events like sports events, new years eve etc). This is already done by Uber for instance. Algorithms could also be used to identify irresponsible use and behaviour of these shared vehicles. If passengers report a problem with cleanliness with their vehicle, by crossing several such reports in a row, it is easy to zero in on a specific passenger who systematically trashes these vehicles, and apply a fine.

- People will save a heap of money. If you really do the Math, a new car costs about 20.000€. Add about 200€ of fuel per month (as a low estimate), 600€ of insurance (also a low estimate), yearly maintenance costs and taxes; using that car for about 10 years amounts to way over 50.000€! If you divide that per month, over 10 years, it’s over 400€ per month! I am ready to bet my life that a fleet of self driving as a service, including maintenance, cleaning, fuel, insurance etc, would cost half the price per month for a reasonable user (someone willing to share the car with other commuters picked up on the way, which doesn’t care for any premium service etc).

- The number of cars on the road would be slashed by at least 60% and pollution and carbon emissions would be cut by more than 50%. Since you can optimize traffic flow using self-driving cars, especially by picking people up along the way, you would stop having this situation where you have a single passenger per vehicle.

- You could extend this self-driving service to delivery of goods. Think about it. What is more efficient? Say you have 10 people in the same neighbourhood who want to go shopping. They each take their private vehicle and go to the shop, buy their stuff, and drive back. Or, they each order the stuff they need online, and the fleet of self-driving vehicles picks up the goods, and delivers it to those people, while also taking passengers along the way. Instead of having huge centralized warehouses like Amazon, with a fleet of self driving cars, products can remain in small shops and the cars can pick up the goods wherever they are. These self driving cars could even be used to deliver food or groceries!

- Freeing up public spaces, removing parkings in urban areas and redesigning roads will lead to new exploitation of those spaces. You can imagine the return of open market places where local businesses can showcase their goods/services, and a redesign of supermarkets which would be optimized for shipping goods via this self-driving car fleet.

- Ultimately, this solution will also hit its limits or be super-seeded by a newer form of technology. And that is perfectly fine. All this article is trying to explore, is to find the next incremental progress heading towards improved and more efficient transportation in an infinite evolutionary journey. Just like we moved from the horse cart to cars, so too we will move from self-driving cars to something else. Once we have mastered gravity and zero point energy, we will indeed not even need roads and move on to flying cars.

I hope you found this article interesting. Ultimately, I believe that we don’t have a choice. Companies like Tesla or Uber already know this is the future. The only difference is that we will either head into a world where two or three mega-corporate oligopolies control the entire fleet of self-driving cars using opaque and copyright protected technology, dictating and imposing their conditions on the market, or a semi-private/public service, where there is a healthy mix between competition, interoperability and public governance/oversight. The Ubers and Teslas will be welcome to join the system I have described above, but they will have to abide by the conditions that I have listed, notably, to open up their services to all users in an interoperable way, and resign to have control over the algorithm deciding who to pick up and where, or the data gathered by their car fleets.

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