Sep 13, 2006

The future of: highways

Wired 14.09 carries a short-feature where they asked a few experts 'what will highways be like in 2026?'

Most of the answers run the gamut of the expected - autonomous lanes, getting more capacity out of current systems and even personal aircraft. And I do agree that these are likely to happen - especially in 20 years time.

But I wonder about the other simpler but lasting changes that are more likely to happen than not.

The issue of raising capacity along with decreasing congestion and accidents comes up quite a bit when we talk of highways in the future. And one of the ways to do it is to imagine a horizontal escalator that people hop onto and out of at designated stops. The escalator has a fixed bandwidth and consumes a certain amount of power but the advantage is that there will be practically no congestion or accident related delays.

Of course, building such escalators to replace our highways will probably take eternity. But the same principle is more likely to be put to use in micro dosages. For eg. imagine a trailer truck that's carrying half-a-dozen cars. It's a far cry from the mass transit escalator we imagined but in moving as a unit, it is doing its tiny bit to address some of the problems we currently face on our highways.

Now imagine 100 trucks carrying 6 cars each. That's 100 units of traffic replacing 600 units. And cutting down exponentially the potential for traffic snarl-ups.

These ferry trucks will build the escalator highways of the future, bottom-up. Cars will be able to hop on and off at predestined stops - from where they will move on on their own steam.

There are two other trends that point to such a future. One is the increased environmental awareness and conscientiousness. The equation of 100 units moving at a constant pace as against 600 individual units huffing and puffing all on their own loads the equation in favour of the former.

And secondly, while we wait for hydrogen/fuel-celled powered cars with a wide range, we're likely to settle for electric cars designed for city/short-distance driving . These cars in combination with the truck ferries will give both reach and last mile drivability.

I do admit that the idea isn't original - ferry boats and trains have been doing it for ages. But I believe that the system will be imported to road highways and revolutionise our own understanding of highways. Highways will go from being passive patches of asphalt to dynamic systems that "ferry" your transport systems to your desired location faster, cheaper and while you catch a nap.

This "new" technology has one final advantage on its side. It's plug-and-playability with the existing infrastructure. We can start now.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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