May 16, 2013
Visions of driverless cars zipping around on the highways of the future are nothing new. Visions of automated highways date back to at least the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and the push-button driverless car was a common dream depicted in such midcentury utopian artifacts as 1958′s Disneyland TV episode “Magic Highway, U.S.A.” But here in the 21st century there’s a growing sense that the driverless car might actually (fingers crossed, hope to die) be closer than we think. And thanks to the progress being made by companies like Google (not to mention just about every major car company), some even believe that driverless vehicles could become a mainstream reality within just five years.
Despite all the well-known sci-fi predictions of the 20th century (not to mention those of the 21st, like in the movies Minority Report and iRobot) many people forget the very earnest and expensive investment in this vision of the future from recent history. That investment was the multi-million dollar push by the U.S. Congress to build an automated highway system in the 1990s.
In 1991 Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which authorized $650 million to be spent over the course of the next six years on developing the technology that would be needed for driverless cars running on an automated highway. The vision was admittedly bold, seeing as how primitive all of the components needed for such a system were at that time. Even consumer GPS technology — which today we take for granted in our phones and vehicles — wasn’t a reality in the early 1990s.
The real-world benefits of automated highways were thought to be improving safety by removing human error from the equation, as well as improved travel times and better fuel economy.
The National Automated Highway System Consortium was formed in late 1994 and were comprised of nine core organizations, both public and private: General Motors, Bechtel Corporation, The California Department of Transportation, Carnegie Mellon University, Delco Electronics, Hughes Electronics, Lockheed Martin, Parsons Brinckerhoff, and the University of California-Berkeley.
The goal was eventually to allow for fully automated operation of an automobile — what a Congressional report described as “hands-off, feet-off” driving.
The program was not without its detractors. In December of 1993 Marcia D. Lowe at the Worldwatch Institute wrote a scathing op-ed in the Washington Post. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lowe mentions “The Jetsons.”
Computer-equipped cars driving themselves on automated highways. A scene out of “The Jetsons?” Not exactly.
Smart cars and highways have quietly emerged as the latest and most-expensive proposal to solve the nation’s traffic problems. Government spending on the little known Intelligent Vehicle and Highway Systems program is expected to exceed $40 billion over the next 20 years. (By comparison, in the first 10 years of the Strategic Defense Initiative, Washington spent $30 billion.)
Even more astonishing is the total lack of organized opposition to the idea, despite evidence that smart cars and highways may well exacerbate the very problems they are supposed to solve.
By 1997 the program had to show its technical feasibility in a demonstration in San Diego, California. On July 22 of that year the demonstration test vehicles rode down 7.6 miles of the HOV lane on Interstate 15. The Associated Press even reported that the prototype highway should be running by 2002.
During the lead up to the San Diego demonstration in 1997, the NAHSC produced a video called “Where The Research Meets The Road.” You can watch the video below.
Needless to say, the program didn’t deliver driverless cars and automated highways to Americans. So what was the problem? The legislation didn’t really give the Department of Transportation any direction on how they should go about the research—only that they needed to demonstrate it by 1997. But perhaps the biggest problem was that the legislation never clearly defined what was meant by “fully automated highway system.”
April 26, 2013
“Who needs a car in L.A.? We got the best public transportation system in the world!” says private detective Eddie Valiant in the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Set in 1947, Eddie is a car-less Angeleno and the movie tells the tale of a an evil corporation buying up the city’s streetcars in its greedy quest to force people out of public transit and into private automobiles. Eddie Valiant’s line was a wink at audiences in 1988 who knew quite well that public transportation was now little more than a punchline.
Aside from Detroit there’s no American city more identified with the automobile than Los Angeles. In the 20th century, the Motor City rose to prominence as the home of the Big Three automakers, but the City of Angels is known to outsiders and locals alike for its confusing mess of freeways and cars that crisscross the city — or perhaps as writer Dorothy Parker put it, crisscross the “72 suburbs in search of a city.”
Los Angeles is notorious for being hostile to pedestrians. I know plenty of Angelenos who couldn’t in their wildest dreams imagine navigating America’s second largest city without a car. But I’ve spent the past year doing just that.
About a year and a half ago I went down to the parking garage underneath my apartment building and found that my car wouldn’t start. One thing I learned when I moved to Los Angeles in 2010 was that a one-bedroom apartment doesn’t come with a refrigerator, but it does come with a parking space. “We only provide the essentials,” my apartment’s building manager explained to me when I asked about this regional quirk of the apartment rental market. Essentials, indeed.
My car (a silver 1998 Honda Accord with tiny pockets of rust from the years it survived harsh Minnesota winters) probably just had a problem with its battery, but I really don’t know. A strange mixture of laziness, inertia, curiosity and dwindling funds led me to wonder how I might get around the city without wheels. A similar non-ideological adventure began when I was 18 and thought “I wonder how long I can go without eating meat?” (The answer was apparently two years.)
Living in L.A. without a car has been an interesting experiment; one where I no longer worry about fluctuations in the price of gas but sometimes shirk social functions because getting on the bus or train doesn’t appeal to me on a given day. It’s been an experiment where I wonder how best to stock up on earthquake disaster supplies (I just ordered them online) and how to get to Pasadena to interview scientists at JPL (I just broke down and rented a car for the day). The car — my car — has been sitting in that parking spot for over a year now, and for the most part it’s worked out pretty well.
But how did Los Angeles become so automobile-centric? How did Angeleno culture evolve (or is it devolve?) to the point where not having a car is seen as such a strange thing?
Los Angeles owes its existence as a modern metropolis to the railroad. When California became a state in 1850, Los Angeles was just a small frontier town of about 4,000 people dwarfed by the much larger Californian cities of San Francisco and Sacramento. Plagued by crime, some accounts claimed that L.A. suffered a murder a day in 1854. But this tiny violent town, referred to as Los Diablos (the devils) by some people in the 1850s would become a boomtown ready for a growth explosion by the 1870s.
From the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1876 until the late 1920s, the City of Angels experienced incredibly rapid population growth. And this growth was no accident. The L.A. Chamber of Commerce, along with the railroad companies, aggressively marketed the city as one of paradise — a place where all your hopes and dreams could come true. In the late 19th century Los Angeles was thought to be the land of the “accessible dream” as Tom Zimmerman explains in his book Paradise Promoted.
Los Angeles was advertised as the luxurious city of the future; a land of both snow-capped mountains and beautiful orange groves — where the air was clean, the food was plentiful and the lifestyle was civilized. In the 1880s, the methods of attracting new people to the city involved elaborate and colorful ad campaigns by the railroads. And people arrived in trains stuffed to capacity.
With the arrival of the automobile in the late 1890s the City of Angels began experimenting with the machine that would dramatically influence the city’s landscape. The first practical electric streetcars were started in the late 1880s, replacing the rather primitive horse-drawn railways of the 1870s. The mass transit system was actually borne of real estate developers who built lines to not only provide long term access to their land, but also in the very immediate sense to sell that land to prospective buyers.
By the 1910s there were two major transit players left: The Los Angeles Streetway streetcar company (LARY and often known as the Yellow Cars) and the Pacific Electric Railway (PE and often known simply as the Red Cars).
No one would mistake Who Framed Roger Rabbit? for a documentary, but the film has done a lot to cement a particular piece of L.A. mythology into the popular imagination. Namely, that it was the major car companies who would directly put the public transit companies out of business when they “purchased” them in the 1940s and shut them down. In reality, the death of L.A.’s privately-owned mass transit would be foreshadowed in the 1910s and would be all but certain by the end of the 1920s.
By the 1910s the streetcars were already suffering from widespread public dissatisfaction. The lines were seen as increasingly undependable and riders complained about crowded trains. Some of the streetcar’s problems were a result of the automobile crowding them out in the 1910s, congesting the roads and often causing accidents that made service unreliable. Separating the traffic of the autos, pedestrians and streetcars were seen as a priority that would not be realized until the late 20th century. As Scott L. Bottles notes in his book Los Angeles and the Automobile, “As early as 1915, [the L.A. Public Board of Utilities] called for plans to separate these trains from regular street traffic with elevated or subway lines.”
The recession-plagued year 1914 saw the explosive rise of the “jitney,” an unlicensed taxi that took passengers for just a nickel. The private streetcar companies refused to improve their service in a time of recession and as a result drove more and more people to alternatives like the jitney and buying their own vehicle.
The Federal Road Act of 1916 would jumpstart the nation’s funding of road construction and maintenance, providing matching funding to states. But it was the Roaring Twenties that would set Los Angeles on an irreversible path as a city dominated by the automobile. L.A.’s population of about 600,000 at the start of the 1920s more than doubled during the decade. The city’s cars would see an even greater increase, from 161,846 cars registered in L.A. County in 1920 to 806,264 registered in 1930. In 1920 Los Angeles had about 170 gas stations. By 1930 there were over 1,500.
This early and rapid adoption of the automobile in the region is the reason that L.A. was such a pioneer in the area of automotive-centric retailing. The car of the 1920s changed the way that people interacted with the city and how it purchased goods, for better and for worse. As Richard Longstreth notes in his 2000 book, The Drive-In, The Supermarket, and the Transformation of Commercials Space in Los Angeles, the fact that Southern California was the “primary spawning ground for the super service station, the drive-in market, and the supermarket” was no coincidence. Continuing the trend of the preceding decades, the population of Los Angeles swelled tremendously in the 1910s and ’20s, with people arriving by the thousands.
“This burgeoning middle class created one of the highest incidences of automobile ownership in the nation, and both the diffuse nature of the settlement and a mild climate year-round yielded an equally high rate of automobile use,” Longstreth explains. The city, unencumbered by the geographic restrictions of places like San Francisco and Manhattan quickly grew outward rather than upward; fueled by the car and quite literally fueled by the many oil fields right in the city’s backyard. Just over the hills that I can see from my apartment building lie oil derricks. Strange metal robots in the middle of L.A. dotting the landscape, bobbing for that black gold to which we’ve grown so addicted.
Los Angeles would see and turn down many proposals for expanded public transit during the first half of the 20th century. In 1926 the Pacific Electric built a short-running subway in the city but it did little to fix the congestion problems that were happening above ground.
In 1926 there was a big push to build over 50 miles of elevated railway in Los Angeles. The city’s low density made many skeptical that Los Angeles could ever support public transit solutions to its transportation woes in the 20th century. The local newspapers campaigned heavily against elevated railways downtown, even going so far as to send reporters to Chicago and Boston to get quotes critical of those cities’ elevated railways. L.A.’s low density was a direct result of the city’s most drastic growth occurring in the 1910s and ‘20s when automobiles were allowing people to spread out and build homes in far flung suburbs and not be tied to public transit to reach the commercial and retail hub of downtown.
As strange as it may seem today, the automobile was seen by many as the progressive solution to the transportation problems of Los Angeles in the 1920s. The privately owned rail companies were inflating their costs and making it impossible for the city to buy them out. Angelenos were reluctant to to subsidize private rail, despite their gripes with service. Meanwhile, both the city and the state continued to invest heavily in freeways. In 1936 Fortune magazine reported on what they called rail’s obsolescence.
Though the city’s growth stalled somewhat during the Great Depression it picked right back up again during World War II. People were again moving to the city in droves looking for work in this artificial port town that was fueling the war effort on the west coast. But at the end of the war the prospects for mass transit in L.A. were looking as grim as ever.
In 1951 the California assembly passed an act that established the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority. The Metro Transit Authority proposed a monorail between the San Fernando Valley and downtown Los Angeles. A 1954 report issued to the Transit Authority acknowledged the unique challenges of the region, citing its low density, high degree of car ownership and current lack of any non-bus mass rapid transit in the area as major hurdles.
The July 1954 issue of Fortune magazine saw postwar expansion brought on by the car as an almost insurmountable challenge for the urban planner of the future:
As a generation of city and regional planners can attest, it is no simple matter to draw up a transit system that will meet modern needs. In fact, some transportation experts are almost ready to concede that the decentralization of urban life, brought about by the automobile, has progressed so far that it may be impossible for any U.S. city to build a self-supporting rapid-transit system. At the same time, it is easy to show that highways are highly inefficient for moving masses of people into and out of existing business and industrial centers.
Somewhat interestingly, that 1954 proposal to the L.A. Metro Transit Authority called their monorail prescription “a proper beginning of mass rapid transit throughout Los Angeles County.” It was as if the past five decades had been forgotten.
Longtime Los Angeles resident Ray Bradbury never drove a car. Not even once. When I asked him why, he said that he thought he’d “be a maniac” behind the wheel. A year ago this month I walked to his house which was about a mile north of my apartment (uphill) and arrived dripping in sweat. Bradbury was a big proponent of establishing monorail lines in Los Angeles. But as Bradbury wrote in a 2006 opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, he believed the Metro line from downtown to Santa Monica (which now stretches to Culver City and is currently being built to reach Santa Monica) was a bad idea. He believed that his 1960s effort to promote monorails in Los Angeles made a lot more sense financially.
Bradbury said of his 1963 campaign, “During the following 12 months I lectured in almost every major area of L.A., at open forums and libraries, to tell people about the promise of the monorail. But at the end of that year nothing was done.” Bradbury’s argument was that the taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for transportation in their city.
With the continued investment in highways and the public repeatedly voting down funding for subways and elevated railways at almost every turn (including our most recent ballot’s Measure J which would have extended a sales tax increase in Los Angeles County to be earmarked for public transportation construction) it’s hard to argue that anyone but the state of California, the city of Los Angeles, and the voting public are responsible for the automobile-centric state of the city.
But admittedly the new Metro stop in Culver City has changed my life. Opened in June of last year, it has completely transformed the way that I interact with my environment. While I still may walk as far as Hollywood on occasion (about 8 miles), I’m able to get downtown in about 25 minutes. And from Downtown to Hollywood in about the same amount of time.
Today, the streetcars may be returning to downtown L.A. with construction starting as early as 2014 pending quite a few more hurdles. Funding has nearly been secured for the project which would again put streetcars downtown by 2016.
But even with all of L.A.’s progress in mass transit, my car-less experiment will probably come to a close this year. Life is just easier with a car in a city that still has a long way to go in order to make places like Santa Monica, Venice, the Valley and (perhaps most crucially for major cities trying to attract businesses and promote tourism) the airport accessible by train.
But until then my car will remain parked downstairs. I’ll continue to walk almost everywhere, and you can be sure I’ll dream of the L.A. monorails that never were.
March 22, 2013
During World War II, many Americans had high hopes for what life would be like in the future. Sometimes this was fueled by advertisers who promised that great things were just around the corner. Sacrifice for your country now they said, and all of your wildest high-tech dreams would come true after the war. As we’ve seen before, this attitude was sometimes tempered by skeptics who warned that while there may indeed be great things ahead, Americans should keep their shirts on.
Once the war ended in 1945 inventors, corporations and advertisers kicked into high gear, scrambling to perhaps make good on some of the promises they’d made during the war. But that also didn’t stop the unrelenting torrent of predictions about the leisurely society of tomorrow.
One popular area of prognostication was about how people would be traveling in the near future. The average American would soon be taking to the skies, in hyper-futuristic airplanes with all the luxuries of a swanky dinner club. One of these skyward-gazing predictions appeared in a 1948 short film called The Northrop Flying Wing, produced for the Popular Science series of films. Designed by Jack Northrop, Northrop’s sleek design screamed “airplane of the future.”
The film explained that this airplane of the future would seat 80 people and provide gorgeous views of the countryside below through large plexiglass windows:
Now a preview of the flying wing transport of tomorrow. The mid-section provides ample room for 80 passengers. Spaciousness keynotes the luxurious main lounge, extending 53 feet inside the wing. And future air travelers will really see something. Through the plexiglass windows of the front wing edge, passengers have an unimpaired view of the earth unrolling thousands of feet below. Coast-to-coast flights in four hours may not be far away.
This high-tech flyer had its roots in the military, the film tells viewers, but much like other advancements of WWII, the Northrop-built planes held tremendous promise for peacetime uses:
Wing controls are like those of a conventional plane, except for elevons, combining functions of elevator and aileron. Today a potent defense weapon, it may revolutionize commercial flying. The dorsal tip of the plane provides an excellent vantage point to see the world go by. Snug as bugs in their magic carpet, air travelers can look down on mere earthlings as the double-quartet of mighty turbo jets whistle them through space.
This flying wing bomber is the twelfth type to be designed by John K. Northrop since 1939 — the latest edition to a family of planes that may some day may rule the air.
The world of air travel in the future will be one of luxury and efficiency, with plenty of booze for good measure:
Surprisingly enough, the luxurious wing is simpler to build than other planes. Being a single unit with a structure extending from tip to tip. The sleek air leviathan carries more cargo farther, faster with less fuel than any comparable plane.
And the bar will raise the spirits who don’t feel high enough in the stratosphere. The flying wing has the stability of a fine club and refreshments can safely be wheeled in. This new device is an electromagnetic table holder.
By the end of the short film the narrator has adopted a strangely paternalistic tone about technology. We’re told that the American public “quickly accepts” the fantastic miracles bestowed upon them by science:
The public quickly accepts all the miracles that science provides. Even skyliners like this will become commonplace. But the giant flying wing is more than a super-streamlined airplane. It is the fulfillment of scientific vision, and symbolizes the practical dreams of science for our world of tomorrow.
Viewers of the late 1940s are told that thanks to science, the world of tomorrow will be the fulfillment of a glorious vision — whether they like it or not.
February 25, 2013
This is the 20th in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
“We may take it for granted that every well-equipped business office will be in direct communication, by means of large-calibred pneumatic tubes, with the nearest post-office. And however rapidly and however frequently the trains or airships of the period may travel, the process of making up van loads of mail matter for despatch to remote centres, and redistribution there, is far too clumsy for what commerce will demand a hundred years hence. No doubt the soil of every civilised country will be permeated by vast networks of pneumatic tubes: and all letters and parcels will be thus distributed at a speed hardly credible to-day.”
-T. Baron Russell, A Hundred Years Hence: The Expectations of an Optimist (1905)
In the 20th episode of “The Jetsons” viewers are treated to a diverse mix of the most Jetsonian of technological wonders. The episode, titled “Miss Solar System,” first aired on February 10, 1963 ,and featured a little bit of everything: videophones, 3D-TV, autonomous cleaning robots, moving sidewalks and pneumatic tubes. But unlike the vertical-lift pneumatic tubes we’ve seen in almost every episode of the series thus far, this episode shows a horizontal pneumatic tube system with multiple points of entry and exit.
In the late 19th century pneumatic tubes were starting to be widely used in department stores, banks and stock exchanges, where small packages and notes could be sent over relatively short distances at a rapid pace. This development was reflected in the futurist fiction of the time, like Edward Bellamy’s influential 1888 novel Looking Backward.
The technology even evolved to sometimes include home mail service and on a much larger scale, pneumatic train transportation. But needless to say, unlike the world of “The Jetsons,” the pneumatic tube doesn’t work so well in the real world as a transportation device for a human unprotected from the dangers of the tube itself.
In the Jetsons universe, the pneumatic tube is a high-speed substitute for the elevator, where stepping into the tube instantly transports someone to another floor. But on occasion the movement is lateral, like in the sequence below.
Like virtually every technology we see in The Jetsons, this futuristic idea had origins elsewhere. By the early 1960s, some organizations were touting this idea of sending people through pneumatic tubes. In 1960, the American Petroleum Institute gazed into its crystal ball and made some predictions on “Petroleum’s 2nd Century.” From the February 7, 1960 Hammond Times in Indiana: “The [American Petroleum Institute] cited, as a long-range possibility, the movement of such diverse items as turpentine, fruit juices and milk through pipelines the way petroleum travels today. Even people might be transported the way sales slips and payments are delivered by pneumatic tube in department stores.”
Of course, this human projectile pneumatic tube system has yet to become a reality here in the 21st century.
This episode may be the most Jetsonian of the entire series: while it’s ostensibly about the relationship between Jane and George — the give and take of marriage and how we treat family — each of the dozen or so technologies that viewers are promised are sprinkled about; the future tech masquerading as scenery while they’re in fact the star of the show.
February 15, 2013
There’s nothing hotter right now than starting your own libertarian-minded community from scratch. Or at least threatening to do so.
Glenn Beck imagines building a community/theme park somewhere in the United States called Independence Park which would celebrate entrepreneurship and sustainable living. Others envision Idaho as the perfect spot to build a fortress-like libertarian utopia called The Citadel, where “Marxists, Socialists, Liberals, and Establishment Republicans” need not apply. Still others — like PayPal founder Peter Thiel – are drawn to the idea of floating cities in the ocean, a libertarian dream of the future called seasteading.
But all of these dreams pale in comparison to the grand utopian vision of a 1978 film called Libra. Produced and distributed by a free-market group based in San Diego called World Research, Inc., the 40-minute film is set in the year 2003 and gives viewers a look at two vastly different worlds. On Earth, a world government has formed and everything is micromanaged to death, killing private enterprise. But in space, there’s true hope for freedom.
The film explains that way back in 1978 a space colony community was formed using $50 billion of private funds. Back then, government regulations were just loose enough to allow them to form. But here in the year 2003, government regulators are trying to figure out a way to bring them back under their oppressive thumb through taxes and tariffs on the goods they ship back to Earth.
The video starts with a rather ominous voice-over as the camera pushes in on a picture of the earth:
Let’s face it. Your world is falling apart. Politicians engaging nations in wars against the will of the people. Increasing worldwide poverty and starvation. Inflation, high unemployment, staggering crime rates. Skyrocketing costs of nationalized health care. Overpopulation. Inability to meet your energy needs. Bankrupt cities, bankrupt states, bankrupt nations and morally bankrupt people.
We then see that this is New York City in the year 2003.
Needless to say, the film’s vision for 2003 isn’t very pleasant — at least for those left on Earth. The Earth has an International Planning Commission, which naturally feels threatened by the idea of “uncontrolled energy” being harnessed by the people who work on Libra. The people of Libra seem happy, while those on Earth cope with the world government’s dystopian top-down management of resources.
The film follows an investment banker and a world government official who both travel to Libra on a fact-finding mission. The investment bankers are looking to invest in solar power and space manufacturing industries at Libra, while the world government senator is trying to figure out how he can rein in the renegade capitalists of Libra.
On their journey to Libra in a space shuttle, the characters watch a film which explains how the space colony works. Here in space, the film explains, residents are free to “work, raise families and enjoy living.”
The illustration on your screen shows the exterior design of Libra. Residents live in the central sphere. A rotation rate of approximately two revolutions per minute provides a gravity-like force which varies from zero gravity at the poles to full earth-like gravity at the equator. Inside the sphere, the land forms a big curving valley rising from the equator to 45 degrees on each side. The land area is mainly in the form of low-rise terraced apartments, shopping walkways and small parks with grass and trees. A small river flows gently along the line of the equator. You will notice the small scale of things. But for the 10,000 population there is more than adequate population.
Later in the film viewers get an interesting peek into what daily life is like when a resident shows the investment banker her Abacus computer.
The Abacus is a bit like Siri – if Siri only knew how to read you a copy of Consumer Reports. As the resident explains, “Abacus is one of the most popular consumer-information computers on Libra. These computing systems will give and receive information when you want it, where you want it and in the style you want it.”
The Libra resident explains, “Now if you have any questions about products or services — anything from toothbrushes to a doctor’s qualifications, it can probably react to you better than I can, in any one of four languages!”
On second thought, Abacus is actually less useful than Consumer Reports given the fact that it doesn’t make a recommendation for what it thinks is the best product or service.
When the investment banker asks which wristwatch he should’ve purchased, the computer begins chanting, “freecision… freecision… freecision…”
The woman explains that on Libra the computer won’t make any of your decisions for you, lest you become one of the mindless drones back on Earth: “Abacus won’t make it for you! It can’t decide what’s best for you! That’s your freesponsibility!”
“Freesponsibility…” the investment banker says mulling over the concept. “That’s not a bad word.”
“I know,” the woman replies. “It’s what’s been attracting more and more regulation refugees from Earth.”
Ultimately, the biggest concern of the corrupt world government revolves around cheap energy being produced which competes with their stranglehold on regulating the world’s energy supply.
The senator goes on international TV to debate Dr. Baker from the Libra space colony. Dr. Baker is a sort of uber-Galt who preaches the gospel of free enterprise and makes a fool of the senator during their debate. By the end of the film we’re left to wonder if the senator is a believer in world government anymore. With a long gaze into his eyes, viewers can imagine that he will soon join the others as a “regulation refugee.”
You can watch the entire film over at AV Geeks.