The futurist and prolific inventor Ray Kurzweil describes the evolution in technology as an exponential curve following the Law of Accelerating Returns. Technological breakthroughs are happening constantly and occurring within exponentially shorter intervals. The speed of the microprocessor is doubling every 18 months, and we are approaching a true revolution in information technology; The Singularity. What if we applied Kurzweil’s exponential model to predict the evolution of the car?
From the invention of the wheel 11.500 years ago until now the same exponential progress exists! Could it be the next revolution of urban space will be caused, not by flying cars, advances in speed or engine power, but by the full merger of information technology and personal transport? The driverless car; the first truly auto‐mobility could be the next revolution in urban space.
We imagina that inner cities that are currently banning cars through taxation or tolls to relieve congestion will simply become driverless rather than car-less. Driverless cars will combine individual mobility outside city limits with collective mobility within, as self driven cars move in coordinated concert with their fellow commuters they occupy a quarter of the space human-driven cars require. As the new generation of cars will additionally be noiseless and polutionless it will mean the end of the apartheid that currently separates cars from pedestrians and bicyclists for comfort, health or safety reasons. The result is an elastic urban space that can expand and contract to accommodate peak traffic hours or allow a park or plaza to invade the car lanes to fit the demands and desires of its citizens.
Picture a future city in 25 years where the vertical facades appear unchanged, but the city pavement is transformed into a reprogrammable surface replacing the fixed elements of driveway, sidewalk or square; a digital street surface compeltely re-animating a familiar city.
The concept of the driverless car is gradually shifting from plausible to probable. Cars have been able to drive autonomously for over three decades. There are self-parking cars on the mass market, active cruise control, and even crash-prevention systems that take control of steering to evade danger. Predictions by several major car manufactures claim that the driverless car will be presented to the market by 2015.
Currently, the real barrier to autonomous driving is infrastructural rather than technological. Smarter infrastructure will be necessary to enable smarter vehicles. The modern highway allowed the proliferation of the current car, yet roads are constantly being entirely re-surfaced every 15 years , nearly double the average rate of buildings. Why not use this as an opportunity to upgrade rather than “same-grade” urban street infrastructure?
By adding a thin layer of reprogrammable sensors within the surface of the road, we imagine a future where driverless technology is shared between the vehicle and the tissue of the street. This “Smart Tile” surface is the next upgrade of infrastructure required to coordinate the flows of driverless cars, bicycles, and pedestrians in a completely fluid and adaptable way. This sensor network coordinates traffic flows by communicating with the flux of driverless cars. This vast surface area also has the potential to harvest energy from the sun as well as piezoelectric power of human movement. This collected energy could be transmitted wirelessly (electromagnetic induction) to electric cars and personal mobile devices, making electric power truly mobile for the first time!
Sign systems are necessary in order to understand how to use the urban environment. There are many examples of this in every city; crosswalks, stop signs, traffic lights. The future will breathe life into these graphic systems. Pixels of light in the street surface will create the next generation of the “traffic light.” This digital layer will display pixels several seconds in advance of the actual movement of driverless vehicles so that pedestrians will be able to properly anticipate and react. In this future it will be possible to see future movement through this animated graphical surface.
Cities should be built to reflect the needs and lifestyles of the people who inhabit them. Infusing the surface of the city with information, energy, and light, will enable the city to adapt to the changes of urban life in real-time. With this re-surfaced city it is possible to liberate the street from curbs and physical barriers, and allow for the greatest flexibility of public use. The new digital layer of the city is able to adapt with the ecology of movement above, orchestrating a perfect mess of each mode of traffic. In a single day, the function of the street may alternate multiple times between entirely pedestrian, vehicular, or even recreational functions. This plasticity will replace the static city cast in concrete with a future city that dynamically transforms and adapts to the life between the buildings.