As I’m currently without internet connection, I can’t help think more about the technology we take for granted rather than less. The entire concept of “back to nature” is completely alien to me, so forcibly being made to exist without everyday necessities is beyond contemplation – a fact which is made evident by my continued (and nevertheless futile) attempts to reestablish some sort of stable internet connection here. So, given the way that my mind works, I’m currently obsessing over technology. All of it. I started out a ways back with all my concerns about how little progress had been made with e-books – a situation which, sadly, remains true – and it seems right that I cast my net a little wider to show you how little has been improved with all the myriad ways we have to augment the world around us. The time to start asking hard questions about our state of technology is long overdue.
The future has not, as some claim, arrived. We have barely started using things to their greatest ability, yet a few people remain convinced that we have made the faltering steps on the way to a world envisioned by Star Trek. While it is true that personal computers, data storage devices, personal computers and mobile ‘phones have managed to improve wildly generation upon generation, we are laughably far from the world we should be living in. Take, for example, the number of people who go missing each year. How expensive would it be to use something not unlike the chips routinely placed in pets on people. We would be able to locate anyone with GPS, saving countless lives each year – and not merely those foolhardy enough to scale mountains or traverse deserts. Missing people would become a thing of history.
I expect that the civil liberties zealots will probably be shaking with anger over the suggestion that we start tagging people haphazardly with this technology. Breaching human rights isn’t what I’m suggesting at all, being merely a suggestion for an opt-in procedure. They, of course, would point out that every new technology is evil until proven otherwise – the DNA database (one of the blessed few intelligent decisions implemented by police forces) is a perfect example of this. The anti-technology crowd would rather have criminals walking the streets. I say we all start asking for chips embedded in our bodies so that if we ever have need of them, they are there. Like the Boy Scouts are fond of saying, “Be prepared.” When the naysayers go missing we can look for them the old fashioned way – and we all know how effective that is. I’ll be first in the queue when the procedure is offered.
That is barely scratching the surface of what we could be doing. Taking transport as the easiest target for technological improvement, it is easy to see where people are slacking off in the big ideas department It is offensive to consumers when terms such as “intelligent vehicles” are thrown around by manufacturers who are under the delusion that surface gloss will hide the deficiencies of their product. The main problem when discussing cars is fuel. I’m going to go out on a limb and declare all petrolium-based engines obsolete. It is a messy, inefficient, wasteful and ridiculously expensive waste of resources when hydrogen-powered vehicles are ready to roll out of factories. It becomes farcical when the manufacturers insist that their engines have improved. No, they haven’t. The combustion engine we see in the current generation of cars is still based on designs over a hundred years old, so any improvements are merely tweaks. Not impressive when looked at that way.
A shift to hydrogen offers a limitless supply of fuel (something many people claim to be looking for, though the odds of them finding it in a more glitzy form soon is doubtful), which would also ease political pressures for some countries. While I’m thinking about cars specifically, I may as well add that HUD’s really ought to be mandatory rather than an add-on, as taking your eyes off the wheel for any reason is a bad idea (yes, kids, I really am suggesting you never look at your speedometer ever again). I’ve never understood the appeal of all the gauges embedded into the dashboard of new cars – it suggests a lack of confidence in the software used on the part of the manufacturers, and a stubborn sentimentality for antiquated solutions on the part of the consumers. The safety aspect of HUD implementation is only a minor change, but one which would convince me people are thinking about design rather than regurgitating old ideas.
Seeing as how I’ve started on vehicles, I may as well see this through before moving on to other targets. There’s a lot of things wrong with the way people use cars, especially older and slightly less advanced ones – I refuse to describe any modern, road-legal, straight-from-the-factory car as advanced. The biggest problem arises when people who are not educated in simple math decide to drive very fast right behind another car, raising the probability of a crash to one hundred percent if the vehicle in front has to brake for any reason. That’s one of the things that can be solved by technology if we took three seconds to think about the problem. It is clear that no-one has bothered to take those three seconds to think about the issue though, and I’m calling car manufacturers out on the issue. It isn’t as if we would even have to come up with any new devices to deal with this sort of thing, as the basic components are already used in many automobiles.
The sensor which is attached to the rear of some cars to assist in (and even, in some instances, take over from) reversing into a space, whilst quite useful as is, could be combined with the speedometer to indicate when a car traveling behind gets that bit too close. With clever software solutions to take into account road surfaces, weather conditions, visibility and other factors, the instances of being rammed from behind would all but cease. How, you ask, would knowing you are about to be rammed cease it from happening? Simple. All that is needed is a automatic limiter kicking in on the car traveling dangerously close. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that everything I have just outlined in that instance is already installed. All it would take is for the currently separated systems to be integrated, and one major cause of vehicular accidents to be removed from the many other dangers on our roads.
Remember those funny little automated vacuum cleaners? The cute flying saucer-shaped things which never quite worked as well as people claimed they would? They are a perfect example of existing technology being put to use in an unexpected and useful way, though by themselves are of little to no importance in moving us to a brighter future. They hold the key to ensuring that cars never leave the road to travel on pedestrian areas whilst under control. They might also be a way to stop accidents in forecourts as well, but it’s the wider application of the underlying mechanics which interest me more. The cleaners are prevented from entering locations because they are told not to move past a certain sensor point – normally to keep them in a specific room, though any demarcation of territory is possible given enough of the posts which transmit the boundary outline.
Take a moment to ponder that. Keep thinking. Have you caught up with my track of thought yet? Yup, that’s right. We stick those things along the side of roads, and drivers will be prevented from mounting the sidewalk because their car will cut out on them if they try it. It’s a simple way of solving a major problem, yet nobody has seemingly thought of it. I despair at the rampant lack of imagination being put into modern automobiles. It’s almost as if everyone has given up on cars as a viable method of transport, and industry heads are waiting on the axe to fall on the entire industry – a prospect not entirely unimaginable if they keep traveling on their current trajectory. A skeptic may argue that any, and all, safety measures are useless if people continue to drink under the influence. Which is why I suggest installing breathalyzers in cars so that they won’t start if people are near the limit.
Simple measures. I’m not revolutionizing technology here, merely adapting existing things to new purposes. That in mind, the sensor which is currently positioned on the backs of cars, as I described above, is one which has the most potential. It’s a rather pitiful nod to advancement of automotive safety, ignoring the immense potential inherent in having a real-time assessment of the space directly near the vehicle. It’s also one of the things which could be enhanced by implementing the aforementioned sensors along the sides of roads. Computing has managed to advance to point where a few gigabytes is neither expensive nor spacious, so processing information second-by-second cost efficiently (when compared to the overall price of a new family car) is negligible. You may think that the car you are driving is smart, but how much better would it be if the car knew exactly where it was?
Using sensors on each face of the car (front, back and sides), and on each corner, the on-board computer could analyze speed and road position against other cars and the road itself. It could also make adjustments to the preprogramed journey to avoid traffic jams if it was made to take information from other road users – accepting that they also have the system operational. Taking it a step further, the chip I mentioned each person being allocated to prevent them going missing could be logged in the memory of the automobile each time they enter the vehicle, and if they have spent too long driving, the car could prevent them from driving whilst tired (an oft overlooked cause of crashes). This would also have a law enforcement benefit, as the driver of a car could be doubly identified, both by the breathalyzer and the chip identification. It is the small changes which would provide the largest rewards to road users, pedestrians, and those entrusted to keep our roads safe.
Where would the power required to keep the roadside sensors operational come from? Even better than free power, we have limitless free power available to use here – using the motion of the wheels of the cars traveling on the roads to generate the power would offset any cost from installing them. The excess electricity could then be used to keep the street lights lit. It is something which gets brought up from time to time, though (to date) nobody seems to have the nerve to suggest it as something that actually has a chance of being seen through. If there is enough power generated – and when you consider how many cars are on the roads these days, there would be a lot of power generated – then power not used in maintaining the sensors and the lights could actually be sold. There’s a cash cow, sitting there under your asses when you drive to work, as yet untapped.
When I started thinking about the lack of imagination used in building our future, I never expected to find so many deficiencies. It’s slightly worrying that there isn’t more concern about how little we have advanced in the last few years, nor questions raised about the way new technologies are being routinely ignored. This irregular series of missives on the inadequacies of modern technology will continue for a while, or at least as long as I can be bothered to write it, because I really do want to witness first-hand the things we see in films come to pass. We may never make it back to the moon – thank you, Neal Armstrong, for raising our expectations to unmatchable levels – but we might as well make the most of what we can do. That means we have to ask hard questions, then whine about the lack of movement in regulating and disseminating the technologies we should have had a decade ago.
Innovation doesn’t come from companies. Innovation comes from consumers pleading and pestering companies to do the things they should have been doing all along. Go annoy car manufacturers with requests for them to start acting like they are living in the twenty-first century rather than perpetuating the mistakes of the last hundred years. Hell, something as easy as installing five-point seatbelts instead of three-point seatbelts would save countless lives every single year, and that is without bringing into question why run-flat tyres aren’t installed as standard. There are less visible, yet equally impressive advances, in the paint industry which means that scratches should never bother anyone any more. Has it trickled down to the automobile industry yet? Hah. Don’t hold your breath. Dents and bumps in the bodywork bothering you? Has nobody heard of ‘memory’ materials, which reaquire their shape? Apparently not.
We’ve not come very far from the pony and cart, and we deserve much better automobiles than are available.