Preserving (Spoiled) North American Attitudes about Personal Transportation


An esteemed colleague and friend, John Herbst, suggested to me the application of electromagnets for saving fuel on the freeway.  John and I both commute about 35 miles to work each day, each driving a car that gets over 30 mpg, but feeling a longing to be much less wasteful.  We have discussed the impracticality of taking a train, especially with regard to how we would get from the train station to where we work.  I was describing a favorite part of one of my all-time favorite science fiction novels, Snow Crash, in which the pizza delivery guy travels on a future-tech skateboard using a magnetic lariat to get pulled down the street by passing cars.  John immediately said that he’s always wanted to have a big magnet on the front of his car so that, once he was on the highway, he could stick his car to the back of a passing truck, shut off the engine, and be pulled to near work, at which point he could disconnect from the truck and drive his car the rest of the way. 

John’s idea is a good one, especially for North American’s, who are characteristically so enamored of our freedom of mobility, which is best attained with a car.  The car provides complete freedom as to when and where you can go, protects you from the environment and other vehicles, and delivers you where you wish to go in complete and speedy comfort.  Few in North America have experienced a good public transportation system outside of a few big cities (San Francisco has long been my favorite), and almost nobody I have met wants to give up the incredible freedom of owning a car.  This, however, is undoubtedly, sooner or later, going to have to change, as our personal transportation has cost a larger and larger proportion of our income over the past few decades.  Also, during that period the building and rebuilding of infrastructure has done little to support alternative means of transportation.  Including urban sprawl and the freeways that made it possible, travel by other means is nearly impossible, or at least can be quite dangerous.  I have no doubt that North Americans will pay an inordinately heavy price for our intense love affair with personal transportation.

Hearing John’s idea, I immediately imagined a special truck pulling a dozen or more cars down the freeway.  They would pull in behind the string of vehicles, turn on their electromagnet, and latch onto the end of the line, permitted by an RFID system that allows the truck to identify them, turn on a supporting electromagnet system, and wirelessly charge their bank account for the ride.  When one vehicle in the string needs to leave the highway the driver pushes a button and the car disconnects from those ahead of and behind it and pulls away.  The truck slows slightly and the vehicles left behind, under automatic control, engage their engines and smoothly catch up to reattach to the truck.  That should be a cinch with today’s radar and ultrasonic parking aids and similar sensors.  With a little wireless networking added, the computers in the cars could all be in electronic contact with each other to make managing the system easy.

A system like this would preserve complete freedom of mobility while saving fuel and preserving safety on the highway.  I don’t know at what fuel price this will be invented, but when I see that we are predicted to have $4 per gallon gas by fall of 2008, and that prices will eventually go much higher after that, it seems a likely development.   But … there are many more interesting ideas about the future out there, and I intend to keep seeking them, as some of them will surely become real.  (There’s always money to be made on the future …)

As always, I welcome your comments.

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