July 23, 2012
Nothing like a hot, sticky July day to make you think that driving would have been one of the circles of Hell had Dante had a bad commute. These are the days when the grind can seen eternal, when it feels that life has become an endless trail of brake lights leading to the horizon, and that it shall always be so.
But take heart, my friends. To keep hope alive, I’ve compiled a sampling of some of the freshest thinking about changing the experience of getting around, and not just in cars. Some are imminent, others may never reach fruition. Yet most are focused on making this slice of our lives a little more bearable.
1) The flowing rate: If the highways near you are jammed every day, meet what may be your future. Xerox is working with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority on a pilot program based on the idea that drivers pay a higher toll if traffic is heavier. Starting this November on notoriously crammed I-110, solo drivers will be able to pay to enter what used to be HOV lanes. The toll will start at 25 cents a mile, but can rise to as high as $1.40 a mile. The plan is to guarantee a consistent speed of at least 45 miles an hour. And they hope to do that by using algorithms Xerox is developing to control traffic flow by raising and lowering the toll as needed.
2) Rain, rain, go away: Know how headlights can sometimes seem pointless in a bad rainstorm? Well, scientists at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh noticed that too, and now have invented a model that can see through rain and snow. It works like this: A digital projector illuminates raindrops for several milliseconds while a camera mounted on the side of the projector captures each raindrop’s location; software predicts where those drops will come down within the driver’s field of view. Then light rays that would normally hit the raindrops are automatically switched off. That reduces glare and leaves only beams of lights that travel between the drops showing what’s up ahead. This is so much cooler than pulling over.
3) That’ll teach ya: Talk about getting tough on texting drivers. Researchers at India’s Anna University of Technology have developed a device that not only jams the phone signal of the person in the driver’s seat, but also sounds a tone to let people in nearby vehicles and passengers in his or her own car know that the driver’s distracted. But it wouldn’t stop there. The Cellphone Accident Preventer also has the capability to send your license number to the local police. That’s harsh.
4) Parting is such sweet sorrow: Or you could take the approach devised by Florida inventor Ronald Pothul. He calls it a “Dock-n-Lock” and it requires the driver to place his or her phone in a locker compartment. Otherwise the car won’t start, due to a non-removable ID chip on the phone. Only after the ignition is shut off will the locker open.
5) The road to power: Some day it will seem silly that we had to plug in electric vehicles to juice them up. A team of Japanese engineering students has taken the first steps in what could be our EV future by designing a way for the road itself to provide the power. They call it EVER–Electric Vehicle on Electrified Roadway–and it involves transmitting an electrical current through concrete and up through the vehicle’s tires.The group at Toyohashi University was able to transmit between 50 to 60 watts of power through a 4-inch block of concrete and produce enough of a current to light a bulb. Right, that’s a long way from juicing up cars on the interstate, plus the cost of building electrified highways would be enormous. But maybe, just maybe it will gain traction. (Forgive me.)
6) Bring on the peanuts: Later this year Qantas Airlines will start putting free digital tablets in the pockets of all seats on its 767 flights–and not just those in first class. Everyone will get access to 200 hours of free video and audio. And the airline ultimately saves money by no longer needing the in-flight entertainment systems that add weight to each plane.
7) But will there be iPads?: No one less than NASA is taking a run at reinventing the helicopter. Its Large Civil Tilt Rotor (LCTR) looks like a plane, but with two huge rotors at the end of each wing instead of small propellers. At take-off and landing those rotors spin parallel to the ground just as in a helicopter. For flight they swivel into position to act like propellers. The LCTR would be able to carry up to 90 passengers and make trips as long as 1,000 miles.
8) Don’t you hate being so predictable?: Here’s an innovation that’s not so much about how you get somewhere, but about where you’re going to be. Scientists at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. have developed an algorithm that uses, in part, the movements of your social group to predict where you’ll be 24 hours from now. The predictions proved to be far less precise if the “mobility patterns” of friends–defined as contacts on a person’s cellphone–weren’t factored in.
9) Park it anywhere: The idea’s been around since 2010, but now SoBi Social Bicycles programs are about to roll out in Buffalo and two still unnamed West Coast cities. Bike-sharing is starting to take off in some American cities, but SoBi takes the idea to the next level by combining it with GPS. Each bike has its own on-board computer which can be accessed through a SoBi mobile app. It tells you where a SoBi bike is nearby and then you have 15 minutes to get there and unlock it, using its keyboard and a confirmation code you’ve been given. When you’re done, you can leave the bike anywhere, instead of needing to return it to a share station. A combination of pedal power and a small solar panel helps charge the system.
10) Video bonus: Park it anywhere II: Check out this video of the Hiriko, the electric urban share car designed at the MIT Media Lab. It’s tiny to begin with, then folds up so you can fit three of them in the parking space one ordinary car would need.
More from Smithsonian.com
June 26, 2012
The planet probably won’t become dramatically more sustainable as a result of what happened last week at the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. Yes, lofty speeches were delivered and hundreds of billions of dollars of pledges were made, but the chance of a meaningful climate change treaty coming out of one of these events is now none and noner.
Yet one thing that has become painfully clearer with each passing U.N. climate summit is that the key to sustaining life on Earth is to get smarter about how we develop and reshape cities. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas; by mid-century it will be closer to three out of four people.
The need to find more space, along with the desire to develop cleaner and more efficient ways to keep cities running, is spurring urban planners to look for unconventional solutions. And they’re finding that more of the answers may be beneath their feet. It’s a big shift. As Leon Neyfakh wrote recently in the Boston Globe: “In a world where most people are accustomed to thinking of progress as pointing toward the heavens, it can be hard to retrain the imagination to aim downward.”
But cities around the world are adjusting their aim; the underground is becoming the next urban frontier.
Here are a handful of projects pushing the possibilities:
1) When there’s no place to go but down: The showpiece of all the potential underground projects is a 65-story inverted pyramid known as the “Earthscraper.” Instead of reaching for the sky, it would burrow 1,000 feet into the ground beneath Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo. Taking an elevator 40 floors down into the Earth may not sound like anyone’s idea of an awesome way to start the day, but it can be much better than it might seem, insists architect Esteban Suarez, of BNKR Arquitectura, who imagined this plan.
As he sees it, the Zocalo plaza would be covered with glass that would serve as the building’s ceiling. The Earthscraper’s center would be left as open space to allow natural light and ventilation to flow through each floor. And every 10 floors, there’d be an “Earth Lobby” of plant beds and vertical gardens to help filter the air down there. Suarez envisions the first 10 floors nearest the surface as a museum, with the next 10 down reserved for condos and shops and the next 35 floors designed as office space. The Earthscraper faces a lot of challenges, including an estimated cost of $800 million, and plenty of skeptics think it will be true its vision and never see the light of day. But urban designers are keeping an eye on this one to see if it’s the project that moves cities in a whole new direction.
2) When progress means going back into caves: The hands-down leader in plumbing the possibilities of subterranean life is Helsinki, the only city in the world that actually has a master plan for underground development. The Finnish capital sits above bedrock close to the surface, which has allowed it to start building out another city beneath itself. It’s carved through the rock to create an underground pool, a hockey rink, a church, shopping mall, water treatment plant and what are known as “parking caverns.”
But the most innovative feature of this netherworld is, believe it or not, a data center. Usually, data centers are energy hogs, burning up massive amounts of power to keep machines from overheating. Not under Helsinki. There the computers are kept cool with sea water, and the heat they do generate is used to warm homes on the surface. Both Singapore and Hong Kong are looking to follow Helsinki’s lead in moving the unsightly parts of urban life–treatment plants, garbage transfer centers, fuel storage depots, data centers–into underground caverns.
3) When cities suck, but in a good way: The small, but fast-growing city of Almere in the Netherlands has become a model for cities dealing with the mountains of garbage they generate every day. For years Almere has whisked away its trash through a network of underground suction tubes, but more recently it has added litter cans to the system. The bins automatically drop their trash into the vacuum tubes once sensors indicate that they’re full. So the litter never overflows or ends up in piles that make only the rats happy.
A similar underground trash suction system, also designed by the Swedish firm Envac, has been handling garbage from New York’s Roosevelt Island for years and now feasibility studies are underway to see if it can be extended to serve the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan and Coney Island’s boardwalk.
4) When a walk in the park gets really deep: Among the many things most people couldn’t imagine doing underground, having a picnic likely would be high on the list. But that hasn’t deterred two innovative thinkers, Dan Barasch and James Ramsey, from pushing for the creation of New York’s first underground park. Their idea is to take a dank, subterranean trolley terminal that’s been abandoned since 1948 and turn it into a place where people can stroll under Delancey Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The key to making this work, says Barasch, is using the latest fiber-optic technology to direct natural sunlight into the space–enough sunlight, he insists, to grow grass and plants. To spark the public’s imagination, they’ve been calling it the “LowLine,” an echo of the celebrated elevated High Line park on the city’s West Side. And while the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns the property, would have to buy into the plan, it got a nice little boost in April. Barasch and Ramsey pitched their idea on Kickstarter, hoping to raise $100,000 to start the design work. Instead, they’ve raised $150,000 in pledges from 3,300 people.
In the land down under
More notes from underground:
- I love the smell of mocha blend in the morning: Researchers at the City College of New York say they’ve found a way to take the stink out of sewers. Their remedy? Coffee grounds cooked to about 800 degrees Celsius.
- A fungus among us: A pair of “horitcultural artists” have created some truly authentic underground art in an abandoned London railway station. It’s been designed so that mold, fungi and even edible mushrooms will sprout from and spread across the surface over the summer.
- And such a tasteful way to hide the unsightly tourists: You know that going underground is coming into fashion when you hear the Paris city council is considering building a welcome center and ticket counter underneath the Eiffel Tower. It would be designed to reduce the crowds in the plaza around the tower and allow tourists to line up in dry, air-conditioned comfort.
- A nice little place from which to rule the world: And here’s a bit more evidence that going beneath the surface is trending glamorous. Apple’s new spaceship-esque research center to be built in Cupertino, California will include a huge underground auditorium. And it is there where Apple will unveil its latest products to the universe.
Video bonus: For a closer look at how Helsinki is setting the pace for tapping underground potential, this CNN report takes you down below.
April 27, 2012
The United States and China are different in so many ways. We borrow, they lend. We like to fly solo, they value their roles in larger groups. We follow the exploits of people named Snooki, they do not know the depths of Snookiness.
Then there are electric bikes. China loves them, America, not so much. Actually, hardly at all.
Let’s run the numbers: Last year, about 25 million e-bikes were sold in China; in the U.S. the number was under 100,000. According to Pike Research, U.S. sales might climb over 100,000 this year and could reach as high as 350,000 in 2018. But that would still be a sliver of projected global sales in 2018, just under 50 million. And it would not only be dwarfed by the market in China–which will still account for almost 90 percent of worldwide sales–but also will fall well below e-bike purchases in India, Europe and Japan.
So why have e-bikes been in such tepid demand here? After all, they run on a battery inside the frame, which has a range of roughly 30 miles on a full charge. They’re very clean–no gas combusted–amazingly efficient, and can go almost as fast as a moped, up to 20 miles per hour. And they can flatten hills that make grown men weep. Or as Steve Roseman, founder of the San Francisco—based Electric Bike Network, told Outside magazine, it’s like “a fairy godmother tapped you on the shoulder and made you twice as strong.”
Okay, there is the price. A good electric bike can start at $1,000, about three times the cost of a quality bicycle; some models, such as the ones now being used by the Los Angeles Police Department, can cost as much as $5,000.
But it’s more than that. A bigger problem is that the people most likely to use electric bikes in the U.S. don’t much like them. In fact, ask most cyclists what they think of e-bikes and they’ll tell you they consider them just one notch above Segways on the sloth meter. A bike with a battery? Isn’t that cheating? Isn’t the whole point to pedal?
Plug and play
Well, yes and no. In China, particularly, electric bikes are a cheap way to get to work. Fitness is not a big part of the equation. You can pedal, but most Chinese don’t. The sensation has been described as something like gliding on a moving walkway at the airport.
Even outside China, e-bikes are coasting closer to the mainstream. Last fall Hertz started renting e-bikes in London. Also in the U.K., the first Electric Bike World Championship–appropriately an uphill race–will be held in Bristol this June. In Amsterdam, where pedaling to work is as routine as morning coffee, almost one out of every five bikes sold last year were battery-powered.
There are trends that could turn things around in the U.S. The obvious one is rising gas prices. Every time they flirt with $4 a gallon, electric bike sales in the U.S. bump up. If they hit $5, the bump could become a boom. There’s also the matter of aging Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who like to ride bikes, but no longer yearn to feel the burn. For them, it’s glide time. In fact, that’s a big part of the e-bike business in Europe.
While fewer than 2 percent of Americans bicycle daily, there’s no question that the number of people biking to work in U.S. cities increases every year. And as the packs of bikers grow in places like San Francisco and Seattle, where the hills are beyond brutal, expect a lot more of them to avoid the heavy pedaling and go electric.
An update: Since posting this piece, among the responses I’ve received was an email from
Boris Mordkovich, a greentech entrepreneur from New York who’s in the middle of a cross-country odyssey to promote e-bikes in the U.S. He emailed from Milwaukee a note including the following comment:
“You’ve mentioned that a big problem in the U.S. is that most of the people who are likely to use them don’t like them. It’s actually not entirely the case. Most of the people in the U.S. either aren’t familiar with electric bikes or have misconceptions about them, confusing them with scooters, motorcycles and everything in between. As long as that’s the case, they fail to see the benefits in them. However, as soon as they are explained what an electric bike is and how it actually works, or better yet, take their first ride on it, the perception changes drastically.”
Batteries not included
Of course, a lot of cool things are still happening with non-electric bikes. Here are a few of the latest innovations:
- A light touch: There’s no shortage of ideas for making bikers visible at night, but one of the more ingenious ones is GLOBARS, in which plastic tubing containing LED lights is wrapped into the handlebars.
- Glow with the flow: A bike called The Pulse provides an even more stylish way to keep urban bikers safe. The middle of the frame is coated with photo-luminescent powder to make it glow in the dark.
- Can a bike ever be too thin?: The aptly named ThinBike is designed for the urban biker with zero storage space. It features collapsible pedals and handlebars that can be twisted without moving the front tire, allowing the bike to shrink from 21 inches to six inches wide.
- I’m pickin’ up wood vibrations: Okay, this isn’t for everyone, but it sure looks like one sweet ride. It’s a bike handcrafted from ash wood in Spain that demands that you don’t dare wear sweat pants when you climb aboard. Or if your taste in wood runs more tropical, check out the creation of designer Craig Calfee, who has built a bike of bamboo, right down to the spokes.
Video bonus: How could electric bikes not be mainstream if Jay Leno has one? Watch him take it out for a spin.
April 23, 2012
A strange thing happened in Washington last week. This normally is a pretty jaded place, but when the space shuttle Discovery did its victory lap over the city atop a 747 Tuesday morning, people poured out of government buildings or raced to office windows to take one long, last look. Most fired away on their cell phone cameras, knowing that they weren’t likely to get a great shot, but equally sure they had to try.
It was a moment that revived awe, if only for fleeting minutes, one that screamed “Turning point!” in a way that history rarely does. Some, such as the Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, saw it as a sad funeral procession, a “symbol of willed American decline.” Others, including America’s reigning celebrity scientist, astrophyicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, viewed it as motivation to double NASA’s budget.
Truth is, the next chapter in American space exploration may be more likely to unfold in Seattle tomorrow when a startup called Planetary Resources has its coming-out news conference. Last week it sent out a cryptic press release, announcing that the company “will overlay two critical sectors–space exploration and natural resources–to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP.” Analysts offered an instant translation: It plans to mine asteroids.
Not a big leap to draw that conclusion, especially since one of the principals of Planetary Resources is Peter Diamandis, the space entreperneur behind the X-Prize competition, and a man who recently told an interviewer, “Ever since childhood, I wanted to do one thing–be an asteroid miner.” (The rich apparently are different from you and me.)
What makes this undertaking much more than one man tilting at asteroids, however, is the band of billionaires behind it. Drum roll, please: Film director and ocean explorer James Cameron, Google co-founder Larry Page, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, Google board member Ram Shriram, former Microsoft exec and two-time space tourist Charles Simonyi and Ross Perot, Jr., the suitably wealthy son of the former presidential candidate.
Obviously, it’s a group with loads of money to burn, but also one that knows something about smart investments. While mining asteroids is clearly a high-risk enterprise with enormous challenges, it has the potential to be hugely lucrative. Diamandis has estimated that the platinum alone in one relatively small asteroid could be valued as much as $20 trillion.
Still, Planetary Resources’ mission appears to be driven, at least in part, by the young-boy fantasies of very rich men. Diamandis talks of others like himself who grew up when NASA was golden and “Star Trek” aired weekly and now have the means to be space frontiersmen–people like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, both of whom are investing heavily in developing vehicles that can launch satellites or carry people into space.
Says Diamandis: “They’re able now to take the money they’ve made and hopefully fulfill the vision they had as a child. In our heart of hearts, many of us have given up on NASA as the mechanism to get us there.”
A rocky road
How plausible is asteroid mining? It turns out that earlier this month NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, along with the Keck Institute for Space Studies and the California Institute of Technology, released a study concluding that asteroids could be retreived, then mined. The scientists agreed that by 2025, it will be possible to have a robot spacecraft capture a 500-ton asteroid and move it into a high lunar orbit. The cost? About $2.6 billion.
But that would be for an asteroid only 22 feet or so in diameter–a big expense for a not such a big rock. And it doesn’t include the cost of actually extracting minerals. The other option would be robotic missions to asteroids where mining operations would be set up. But humans have yet to land a spacecraft on a body as small as an asteroid and take off again with minerals from the surface. The closest attempt came in 2005 when the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency landed a probe on an asteroid. It returned to Earth five years later with about only 100 microscopic particles.
Can’t wait to see what Planetary Resources has in mind.
Meanwhile, back at NASA
No, they haven’t turned off the lights at NASA. Here’s some of its more recent news:
- Private business: The space agency has been working closely with Space Exploration Technologies, better known as Space X, in preparation for the first flight of a private spacecraft to the International Space Station at the end of April. The unmanned capsule, named Dragon, will deliver cargo after it’s grabbed with a robotic arm operated by astronauts in the space station.
- Moons over Saturn: Now 15 years into its mission, the Cassini spacecraft continues to send back images of Saturn and its moons. The most recent photos are of Enceladus and Tethys.
- Can’t get enough…of that Martian stuff: The latest rover headed to Mars, an SUV-sized vehicle named Curiosity, is now more than halfway to its destination. After it lands in early August, it will start exploring the large Gale Crater and a three-mile-high mountain inside it for signs of microbial life.
- The hunt goes on: Earlier this month NASA extended the mission of the planet-finding Kepler space telescope until 2016. It has discovered 2,300 potential alien planets since its launch three years ago.
- “Recalculating…”: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California is developing an atomic clock that will serve as a kind of GPS for spacecraft in deep space.
- Where stars are the stars: And we definitely can’t forget the Hubble Space Telescope, which turns 22 tomorrow. It just keeps delivering remarkable images from deep space, including this latest one of the Tarantula Nebula 170,000 light years away.
Video bonus: Here’s one for old time’s sake, a flashback to one of NASA’s signature moments. Using data from its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA has recreated what three Apollo astronauts saw on Christmas Eve, 1968 as they watched a bright blue Earth rise over the moon’s horizon.
March 29, 2012
In his new book, “Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking,” MIT professor Eran Ben-Joseph asks a simple question: “Have you seen a great parking lot lately?” which is kind of like asking if you’ve enjoyed a plate of runny eggs lately.
Not that parking lots have ever been a testament to innovative thinking. I mean, we’re talking about paving over dirt. This has never been a big brain-drainer.
But Ben-Joseph says it’s time to give these big, drab open spaces their moment to shine, beyond their oil spots glistening in the sun–particularly now the the world’s population is pouring into cities. And his vision is not just about making better use of all the dead space. It’s also about minimizing their impact on the urban and suburban neighborhoods around them. Parking lots are notorious heat islands that toast whatever surrounds them. And they gunk up runoff water from heavy rains with oil, anti-freeze and other nasty stuff.
By Ben-Joseph’s estimate, in fact, all of the parking lots in the U.S., if connected, would be able to cover Puerto Rico. That’s a whole lotta lot. As he pointed out in a piece that ran in the New York Times earlier this week, “In some cities, like Orlando and Los Angeles, parking lots are estimated to cover at least one-third of the land area, making them one of the most salient landscape features of the built world.”
So what does Ben-Joseph have in mind? He’s a big fan of the solar canopies popping up in parking lots around the planet. They provide both shade and solar energy, in some cases to charge electric vehicles. He also thinks it only makes sense to use more porous asphalt that would reduce flooding and polluted run-off. And he believes that parking lots should become a much bigger part of our social lives, not just for farmer’s markets, but also for movie nights and programs like the “Shakespeare in the Parking Lot” festival that happens every summer in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
As for aesthetics, well, Ben-Joseph seems enchanted by the lot outside the Fiat Lingotto factory in Turin, Italy, a design about which he waxes almost rhapsodically. He describes “rows of trees in a dense grid, creating an open, level space under a soft canopy of foliage that welcomes pedestrians as naturally as it does cars.”
It would somehow seem wrong to fight over a space while under a soft canopy of foliage.
The magic of garage weddings
But what about the parking lot’s bulky, boxy cousin, the garage? Clearly, it’s done its part to ugly up the landscape. Ben-Joseph doesn’t go there, but some cities have started to, particularly Miami Beach, where parking garages have become architectural showpieces. Seriously.
It started in the ’90s with the unveiling of a five-story garage built atop a block of historic buildings on Collins Avenue. Its official name is Ballet Valet, but most locals know it as the “Chia pet” garage because that’s what it looks like, with its exterior walls seeming to sprout plants–in three different shades of green, no less–hiding the concrete bunker within.
That was only the beginning. Last year celeb architect Frank Gehry unveiled the New World Center concert hall, adorned with a parking garage covered in steel mesh and lit by a dazzling display of programmable, multi-colored LED lights. But wait, there’s more. A seven-story garage designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, is so sleek and stylish that weddings and bar mitzvahs are held on its top floor.
And construction will begin this year on a structure that looks more suited for space pods than anything on wheels. The brainchild of London architect Zaha Hadid, it’s the anti-box, a swirl of mismatched, looping ramps with nary a right angle in sight.
I’d hate to get lost in there. Then again, maybe not.
It’s an asphalt jungle out there
Here’s more innovative thinking about city living:
- Feel the surge: Qualcomm, the wireless tech giant recently announced that it will run a trial in London later this year of a technology that will allow electric vehicles to be charged wirelessly through a transmitter pad embedded in a parking lot.
- Towers of power: A team of MIT researchers have developed 3-D solar towers that can produce significantly more power than conventional solar panels. The towers could be installed in parking lots to charge electric cars.
- Time is on your side: A new gadget called EasyPark is an in-your-vehicle parking meter that allows you to pay only for the time you’re actually parked.
- I’ve grown accustomed to your space: A mobile app called iSpotSwap lets you know when a parking space you want becomes available.
Video bonus: If there’s such a thing as an anti-parking lot anthem, Joni Mitchell sang it more than 40 years ago.