Tag Archives: transport

Will urbanization continue or will we soon reach peak city?

For a long time, people have been moving from countryside into cities. The conventional futurist assumption is that this trend will continue, with many mega-cities, some with mega-buildings. I’ve consulted occasionally on future buildings and future cities from a technological angle, but I’ve never really challenged the assumption that urbanization will continue. It’s always good  to challenge our assumptions occasionally, as things can change quite rapidly.

There are forces in both directions. Let’s list those that support urbanisation first.

People are gregarious. They enjoy being with other people. They enjoy eating out and having coffees with friends. They like to go shopping. They enjoy cinemas and theatre and art galleries and museums. They still have workplaces. Many people want to live close to these facilities, where public transport is available or driving times are relatively short. There are exceptions of course, but these still generally apply.

Even though many people can and do work from home sometimes, most of them still go to work, where they actually meet colleagues, and this provides much-valued social contact, and in spite of recent social trends, still provides opportunities to meet new friends and partners. Similarly, they can and do talk to friends via social media or video calls, but still enjoy getting together for real.

Increasing population produces extra pressure on the environment, and governments often try to minimize it by restricting building on green field land. Developers are strongly encouraged to build on brown field sites as far as possible.

Now the case against.

Truly Immersive Interaction

Talking on the phone, even to a tiny video image, is less emotionally rich than being there with someone. It’s fine for chats in between physical meetings of course, but the need for richer interaction still requires ‘being there’. Augmented reality will soon bring headsets that provide high quality 3D life-sized images of the person, and some virtual reality kit will even allow analogs of physical interaction via smart gloves or body suits, making social comms a bit better. Further down the road, active skin will enable direct interaction with the peripheral nervous system to produce exactly the same nerve signals as an actual hug or handshake or kiss, while active contact lenses will provide the same resolution as your retina wherever you gaze. The long term is therefore communication which has the other person effectively right there with you, fully 3D, fully rendered to the capability of your eyes, so you won’t be able to tell they aren’t. If you shake hands or hug or kiss, you’ll feel it just the same as if they were there too. You will still know they are not actually there, so it will never be quite as emotionally rich as if they were, but it can get pretty close. Close enough perhaps that it won’t really matter to most people most of the time that it’s virtual.

In the same long term, many AIs will have highly convincing personalities, some will even have genuine emotions and be fully conscious. I blogged recently on how that might happen if you don’t believe it’s possible:


None of the technology required for this is far away, and I believe a large IT company could produce conscious machines with almost human-level AI within a couple of years of starting the project. It won’t happen until they do, but when one starts trying seriously to do it, it really won’t be long. That means that as well as getting rich emotional interaction from other humans via networks, we’ll also get lots from AI, either in our homes, or on the cloud, and some will be in robots in our homes too.

This adds up to a strong reduction in the need to live in a city for social reasons.

Going to cinemas, theatre, shopping etc will also all benefit from this truly immersive interaction. As well as that, activities that already take place in the home, such as gaming will also advance greatly into more emotionally and sensory intensive experiences, along with much enhanced virtual tourism and virtual world tourism, virtual clubbing & pubbing, which barely even exist yet but could become major activities in the future.

Socially inclusive self-driving cars

Some people have very little social interaction because they can’t drive and don’t live close to public transport stops. In some rural areas, buses may only pass a stop once a week. Our primitive 20th century public transport systems thus unforgivably exclude a great many people from social inclusion, even though the technology needed to solve that has existed for many years.  Leftist value systems that much prefer people who live in towns or close to frequent public transport over everyone else must take a lot of the blame for the current epidemic of loneliness. It is unreasonable to expect those value systems to be replaced by more humane and equitable ones any time soon, but thankfully self-driving cars will bypass politicians and bureaucrats and provide transport for everyone. The ‘little old lady’ who can’t walk half a mile to wait 20 minutes in freezing rain for an uncomfortable bus can instead just ask her AI to order a car and it will pick her up at her front door and take her to exactly where she wants to go, then do the same for her return home whenever she wants. Once private sector firms like Uber provide cheap self-driving cars, they will be quickly followed by other companies, and later by public transport providers. Redundant buses may finally become extinct, replaced by better socially inclusive transport, large fleets of self-driving or driverless vehicles. People will be able to live anywhere and still be involved in society. As attendance at social events improves, so they will become feasible even in small communities, so there will be less need to go into a town to find one. Even political involvement might increase. Loneliness will decline as social involvement increases, and we’ll see many other social problems decline too.

Distribution drones

We hear a lot about upcoming redundancy caused by AI, but far less about the upside. AI might mean someone is no longer needed in an office, but it also makes it easier to set up a company and run it, taking what used to be just a hobby and making it into a small business. Much of the everyday admin and logistics can be automated Many who would never describe themselves as entrepreneurs might soon be making things and selling them from home and this AI-enabled home commerce will bring in the craft society. One of the big problems is getting a product to the customer. Postal services and couriers are usually expensive and very likely to lose or damage items. Protecting objects from such damage may require much time and expense packing it. Even if objects are delivered, there may be potential fraud with no-payers. Instead of this antiquated inefficient and expensive system, drone delivery could collect an object and take it to a local customer with minimal hassle and expense. Block-chain enables smart contracts that can be created and managed by AI and can directly link delivery to payment, with fully verified interaction video if necessary. If one happens, the other happens. A customer might return a damaged object, but at least can’t keep it and deny receipt. Longer distance delivery can still use cheap drone pickup to take packages to local logistics centers in smart crates with fully block-chained g-force and location detectors that can prove exactly who damaged it and where. Drones could be of any size, and of course self-driving cars or pods can easily fill the role too if smaller autonomous drones are inappropriate.

Better 3D printing technology will help to accelerate the craft economy, making it easier to do crafts by upskilling people and filling in some of their skill gaps. Someone with visual creativity but low manual skill might benefit greatly from AI model creation and 3D printer manufacture, followed by further AI assistance in marketing, selling and distribution. 3D printing might also reduce the need to go to town to buy some things.

Less shopping in high street

This is already obvious. Online shopping will continue to become a more personalized and satisfying experience, smarter, with faster delivery and easier returns, while high street decline accelerates. Every new wave of technology makes online better, and high street stores seem unable or unwilling to compete, in spite of my wonderful ‘6s guide’:


Those that are more agile still suffer decline of shopper numbers as the big stores fail to attract them so even smart stores will find it harder to survive.

Improving agriculture

Farming technology has doubled the amount of food production per hectare in the last few decades. That may happen again by mid-century. Meanwhile, the trend is towards higher vegetable and lower meat consumption. Even with an increased population, less land will be needed to grow our food. As well as reducing the need to protect green belts, that will also allow some of our countryside to be put under better environmental stewardship programs, returning much of it to managed nature. What countryside we have will be healthier and prettier, and people will be drawn to it more.

Improving social engineering

Some objections to green-field building can be reduced by making better use of available land. Large numbers of new homes are needed and they will certainly need some green field to be used, but given the factors already listed above, a larger number of smaller communities might be better approach. Amazingly, in spite of decades of dating technology proving that people can be matched up easily using AI, there is still no obvious use of similar technology to establish new communities by blending together people who are likely to form effective communities. Surely it must be feasible to advertise a new community building program that wants certain kinds of people in it – even an Australian style points system might work sometimes. Unless sociologists have done nothing for the past decades, they must surely know what types of people work well together by now? If the right people live close to each other, social involvement will be high, loneliness low, health improved, care costs minimized, the need for longer distance travel reduced and environmental impact minimized. How hard can it be?

Improving building technology such as 3D printing and robotics will allow more rapid construction, so that when people are ready and willing to move, property suited to them can be available soon.

Lifestyle changes also mean that homes don’t need to be as big. A phone today does what used to need half a living room of technology and space. With wall-hung displays and augmented reality, decor can be partly virtual, and even a 450 sq ft apartment is fine as a starter place, half as big as was needed a few decades ago, and that could be 3D printed and kitted out in a few days.

Even demographic changes favor smaller communities. As wealth increases, people have smaller families, i.e fewer kids. That means fewer years doing the school run, so less travel, less need to be in a town. Smaller schools in smaller communities can still access specialist lessons via the net.

Increasing wealth also encourages and enables people to a higher quality of life. People who used to live in a crowded city street might prefer a more peaceful and spacious existence in a more rural setting and will increasingly be able to afford to move. Short term millennial frustrations with property prices won’t last, as typical 2.5% annual growth more than doubles wealth by 2050 (though automation and its assorted consequences will impact on the distribution of that wealth).

Off-grid technology

Whereas one of the main reasons to live in urban areas was easy access to telecomms, energy and water supply and sewerage infrastructure, all of these can now be achieved off-grid. Mobile networks provide even broadband access to networks. Solar or wind provide easy energy supply. Water can be harvested out of the air even in arid areas (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5840997/The-solar-powered-humidity-harvester-suck-drinkable-water-AIR.html) and human and pet waste can be used as biomass for energy supply too, leaving fertilizer as residue.

There are also huge reasons that people won’t want to live in cities, and they will also cause deurbansisation.

The biggest by far in the problem of epidemics. As antibiotic resistance increases, disease will be a bigger problem. We may find good antibiotics alternatives but we may not. If not, then we may see some large cities where disease runs rampant and kills hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even millions. Many scientists have listed pandemics among their top ten threats facing humanity. Obviously, being in a large city will incur a higher risk of becoming a victim, so once one or two incidents have occurred, many people will look for options to leave cities everywhere. Linked to this is bioterrorism, where the disease is deliberate, perhaps created in a garden shed by someone who learned the craft in one of today’s bio-hacking clubs. Disease might be aimed at a particular race, gender or lifestyle group or it may simply be designed to be as contagious and lethal as possible to everyone.

I’m still not saying we won’t have lots of people living in cities. I am saying that more people will feel less need to live in cities and will instead be able to find a small community where they can be happier in the countryside. Consequently, many will move out of cities, back to more rural living in smaller, friendlier communities that improving technology makes even more effective.

Urbanization will slow down, and may well go into reverse. We may reach peak city soon.




High speed transatlantic submarine train

In 1863, Jules Verne wrote about the idea of suspended transatlantic tunnels through which trains could be sent using air pressure. Pneumatic tube delivery was a fashionable idea then, and small scale pneumatic delivery systems were commonplace until the late 20th century – I remember a few shops using them to transport change around. In 1935, the film ‘The tunnel’ featured another high speed transatlantic tunnel, as did another film in 1972, ‘Tunnel through the deeps’. Futurists have often discussed high speed mass transit systems, often featuring maglev and vacuums (no, Elon Musk didn’t invent the idea, his Hyperloop is justifiably famous for resurfacing and developing this very old idea and is likely to see its final implementation).

Anyway, I have read quite a bit about supercavitation over the last years. First developed in 1960 as a military idea to send torpedoes at high speed, it was successfully implemented in 1972 and has since developed somewhat. Cavitation happens when a surface, such as a propeller blade, moves through water so fast that a cavity is left until the water has a chance to close back in. As it does, the resultant shock wave can damage the propeller surface and cause wear. In supercavitation, the cavity is deliberate, and the system designed so that the cavity encloses the entire projectile. In 2005, the first proposal for people transport emerged, DARPA’s Underwater Express Program, designed to transport small groups of Navy personnel at speeds of up to 100 knots. Around that time, a German supercavitating torpedo was reaching 250mph speeds.

More promising articles suggest that supersonic speeds are achievable under water, with less friction than going via air. Achieving the initial high speed and maintaining currently requires sophisticated propulsion mechanisms, but not for much longer. I believe the propulsion problem can be engineered away by pulling capsules with a strong tether. That would be utterly useless for a torpedo of course, but for a transport system would be absolutely fine.

Transatlantic traffic is quite high, and if a cheaper and more environmentally friendly system than air travel were available, it would undoubtedly increase. My idea is to use a long string of capsules attached to a long graphene cable, pulled in a continuous loop at very high speed. Capsules would be filled at stations, accelerated to speed and attached to the cable for their transaltlantic journey, then detached, decelerated and their passengers or freight unloaded. Graphene cable would be 200 times stronger than steel so making such a cable is feasible.

The big benefit of such a system is that no evacuated tube is needed. The cable and capsules would travel through the water directly. Avoiding the need for an expensive and complex  tube containing a vacuum, electromagnetic propulsion system and power supply would greatly reduce cost. All of the pulling force for a cable based system would be applied at the ends.

Graphene cable doesn’t yet exist, but it will one day. I doubt if current supercavitation research is up to the job either, but that’s quite normal for any novel engineering project. Engineers face new problems and solve them every day. By the time the cable is feasible, we will doubtless be more knowledgeable about supercavitation too. So while it’s a bit early to say it will definitely become reality, it is certainly not too early to start thinking about it. Some future Musk might well be able to pull it off.

Future materials: Variable grip

variable grip


Another simple idea for the future. Variable grip under electronic control.

Shape changing materials are springing up regularly now. There are shape memory metal alloys, proteins, polymer gel muscle fibers and even string (changes shape when it gets wet or dries again). It occurred to me that if you make a triangle out of carbon fibre or indeed anything hard, with a polymer gel base, and pull the base together, either the base moves down or the tip will move up. If tiny components this shape are embedded throughout a 3D structure such as a tire (tyre is the English spelling, the rest of this text just uses tire because most of the blog readers are Americans), then tiny spikes could be made to poke through the surface by contracting the polymer gel that forms the base. All you have to do is apply an electric field across it, and that makes the tire surface just another part of the car electronics along with the engine management system and suspension.

Tires that can vary their grip and wear according to road surface conditions might be attractive, especially in car racing, but also on the street. Emergency braking improvement would save lives, as would reduce skidding in rain or ice, and allowing the components to retract when not in use would greatly reduce their rate of wear. In racing, grip could be optimized for cornering and braking and wear could be optimized for the straights.


Although I haven’t bothered yet to draw pretty pictures to illustrate, clothes could use variable grip too. Shoes and gloves would both benefit. Since both can have easy contact with skin (shoes can use socks as a relay), the active components could pick up electrical signals associated with muscle control or even thinking. Even stress is detectable via skin resistance measurement. Having gloves or shoes that change grip just by you thinking it would be like a cat with claws that push out when it wants to climb a fence or attack something. You could even be a micro-scale version of Wolverine. Climbers might want to vary the grip for different kinds of rock, extruding different spikes for different conditions.

Other clothes could use different materials for the components and still use the same basic techniques to push them out, creating a wide variety of electronically controllable fabric textures. Anything from smooth and shiny through to soft and fluffy could be made with a single adaptable fabric garment. Shoes, hosiery, underwear and outerwear can all benefit. Fun!

Hydrogen cars are the wrong solution

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/ingear/cars/article1209612.ece says that the UK government has produced a report saying that 1.5 million hydrogen cars will be on UK roads by 2030.

Hydrogen cars are part of the future that falls firmly in the category of ‘can do but shouldn’t do’.

I don’t doubt that hydrogen could be manufactured and sold from special filling stations to be used as fuel for fuel cells to make electricity to drive cars, or maybe even used in a modified internal combustion engine, or directly burned to make steam for a steam engine. It can. I don’t even doubt that the government is entirely capable of legislating subsidies for ridiculously expensive and inappropriate solutions just to appease lunatic fringe pressure groups. They are already doing so for wind turbine farms and rooftop solar panels, so why not hydrogen cars. It would just be another shovelful of idiocy on what is already a huge pile. What I do doubt, because I am a futurologist and an engineer, is that it makes any sense.

Hydrogen was once seen in futurist circles as the fuel of the future, for a year or so anyway before anyone did the analysis properly. When they did, they noticed:

Burning hydrogen (even in a fuel cell) produces water as the main product. Water is a greenhouse gas, a much more powerful forcing agent than CO2. It may be condensed by the car, but even then, at least in dry weather,  the water will evaporate from the road surface and enter the water cycle. It acts as a greenhouse gas until it becomes rain again. If it is raining already, the water produced will probably be a harmless addition. Hydrogen cars will therefore have a small but possibly significant effect on the water cycle, weather and climate, just as regular cars do, and probably not that much different. They certainly can’t be assumed to be in any sense environmentally neutral.

Hydrogen needs special containment systems to make it safe, and these are likely to add significantly to the cost of a car.

Fuel cells are still very much more expensive than competing power sources and there is little sign of any imminent major progress.

Making hydrogen generally requires electricity, and it is really just a proxy for the electricity used in its manufacture. It would be just as easy, as cheap, and much safer to just deliver this electricity direct to the cars without going through the hydrogen stage. Electric cars will have batteries and some potential synergy using them as storage for intermittent renewable energy manufacturing such as wind farms. If we are going to have to put up with wind farms anyway, then the economics shift in favour of this approach.

Also, development of new materials and supercapacitors, together with new directed induction technology (that allows large distances between the inductive components), allow for a Scalextric approach to car powering. It is hard to see the point in using an intermediary like hydrogen when this would be a better solution.

I don’t know where the pressure has come for government to think down this path. But it is the wrong path and they should change direction before they waste yet more money on inappropriate, expensive and inefficient infrastructure.

Could graphene foam be a future Helium substitute?

I just did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to work out what size of sphere containing a vacuum would give the same average density as helium at room temperature, if the sphere is made of graphene, the new one-size-does-everthing-you-can-imagine wonder material.

Why? Well, the Yanks have just prototyped a big airship and it uses helium for buoyancy. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2257201/The-astonishing-Aeroscraft–new-type-rigid-airship-thats-set-revolutionise-haulage-tourism–warfare.html

Helium weighs 0.164kg per cubic metre. Graphene sheet weighs only 0.77mg per square metre. Mind you, the data source was Wikipedia so don’t start a business based on this without checking! If you could make a sphere out of a single layer of graphene, and have a vacuum inside (graphene is allegedly impervious to gas) it would become less dense than helium at sizes above 0.014mm. Wow! That’s very small. I expected ping pong ball sizes when I started and knew that would never work because large thin spheres would be likely to collapse. 14 micron spheres are too small to see with the naked eye, not much bigger than skin cells, maybe they would work OK.

Confession time now. I have no idea whether a single layer of graphene is absolutely impervious to gas, it says so on some websites but it says a lot of things on some websites that are total nonsense.

The obvious downside even if it could work is that graphene is still very expensive, but everything is when is starts off. Imagine how much you could sell a plastic cup for to an Egyptian Pharaoh.

Helium is an endangered resource. We use it for party balloons and then it goes into the atmosphere and from there leaks into space. It is hard to replace, at least for the next few decades. If we could use common elements like carbon as a substitute that would be good news. Getting the cost of production down is just engineering and people are good at that when there is an incentive.

So in the future, maybe we could fill party balloons and blimps with graphene foam. You could make huge airships happily with it, that don’t need helium of hydrogen. 

Tiny particles that size readily behave as a fluid and can easily be pumped. You could make lighter-than-air building materials for ultra-tall skyscrapers, launch platforms, floating Avatar-style sky islands and so on.

You could also make small clusters of them to carry tiny payloads for espionage or terrorism. Floating invisibly tiny particles of clever electronics around has good and bad uses. You could distribute explosives with floating particles that congeal into whatever shape you want on whatever target you want using self-organisation and liberal use of EM fields. I don’t even have that sort of stuff on Halo. I’d better stop now before I start laughing evilly and muttering about taking over the world.

Future of bicycles

Recycled blog from http://nvireuk.com/

Bicycles occupy the peak of the moral high ground as far as environmentalism is concerned because once they are built and delivered, ongoing emissions come almost entirely from the human riding them. While they are certainly good for the environment overall, the picture isn’t quite as clear as is sometimes portrayed and there are some places where the use of bicycles may not be environmentally sensible.

On proper cycle paths, they are certainly a good solution from both a fitness and environmental point of view (hopefully even once the environmental costs of making the cycle paths and the bicycles are factored in). But when mixed with car traffic, they can be very dangerous, with bicycle riders suffering many times more casualties per mile than car drivers. They also force other vehicles to slow down to pass them, and then to accelerate again. On busy narrow roads, this can often cause significant traffic jams. The bicycle may not be directly the cause of the extra consequent emissions from the cars, but from a system wide view, the overall CO2 produced would likely have been less had the cyclist driven a car instead, so this must certainly be taken into account when calculating the impact. The carbon costs of the extra accidents, with the resultant traffic jams and so on, should also be factored in. Accidents have a very high carbon cost as well as a human one.

It won’t take long until almost all cars are driven by computer. By the mid 2020s, we will have a lot of automatically driven cars and substitution will accelerate quickly. These cars will be able to travel much closer together, freeing road space both length and width-wise. This means that more car lanes or wider cycle lanes could be provided. With computers driving the cars, far fewer bicycles would be hit, if any. It is therefore likely that bicycles could be much safer to ride in the future, and because they can be more readily separated from car flow, will be more environmentally friendly, although this advantage is greatly diminished for electric cars. Improving the technology for car transport therefore makes cycling even more environmentally friendly too.

A decent cyclist can ride at 7.5m/s on the flat, less uphill and a bit faster downhill. Suppose that on the tough sections, there was a conveyor belt moving at 7.5m’s. This would reduce overall journey time and the problem of arriving very sweaty at the other end. It would also reduce the speed differential between cyclist and passing traffic, making it safer to ride. With a conventional conveyor belt, this looks a ridiculous idea, because the first falling leaf would clog the system up, rain would cause havoc, cars encroaching onto the path would cause mechanical stress because of the speed differential between a conveyor and the road surface, and pedestrians would also try to step onto it and cause yet more havoc. The idea is a non-starter.

Linear induction motors though can propel metal without using moving parts (apart from the metal being propelled of course). Suppose we add a metal plate to the bike, close to the road surface, and put linear induction motors in the cycle lane.  With no moving parts in the conveyor, there would be no problem with clogging, rain, cars or pedestrians.

Many roads have good electrical supplies along them in ducting or even more accessibly in street lighting. If it can be developed cost effectively, this would be a good way of encouraging cycling as a viable transport solution, and reducing carbon production, with beneficial effects on health too.

The cycle lane itself could comprise a heavy duty rubber mat that could be simply rolled out overnight along a roadside and plugged in to the electric supply. This would be easier than having to paint a new path. It can be rolled out piecemeal according to demand. On the bike, there would be a cheap metal plate attached to the front forks so that the bike could be pulled along. It can easily be designed to deflect easily if it hits debris on the surface, so that the cyclist isn’t threatened.

The amount of extra force given to the cyclist could be variable. Bicycles could be given RFID chips to identify them and the personal tastes of that cyclist indulged alongside billing. Some people might want lots of assistance or to go very fast, other want less assistance or to go slower. Since induction plates can be individually controlled, and the bicycle plates can also be tweaked for height or inductance, it is easily customisable in real time.

Mechanical energy is very cheap, whereas the effort required to cycle long distances or up hills is a strong deterrent to many potential cyclists – they are not all super fit! Given the human body’s poor efficiency in converting food into mechanical energy, it is likely to be very competitive in emissions terms even for cycling, let alone compared to using cars.