Why Are We Going So Fast?

When we build machines that are heavier and faster than us, we create the ability to hurt ourselves. As long as this level of hurt is below a perceptible level, we accept the consequences. Therefore the roads are full of vehicles that can and do kill the occupants or pedestrians from time to time, duly reported in the news. At the same time, if anyone intentionally caused the same injury (life threatening or otherwise) to another person, the would be faced with criminal charges. What we accept as a group and put down to random events (weather, road conditions, etc.) we do not accept on the individual level.

This is precisely the sort of fuzzy thinking that has carried forward from the industrial revolution and could lead to our death as a species. Pollution on the individual level is acceptable, while pollution as a group (the entire human race) could very well harm our planet beyond repair. That is, we have built and used technology before we had a chance to look at the ramifications. Only after looking at the ramifications, can we go back and rethink the technology that we have built.

When the first mass produced cars came out, we did not have access to wireless technology or the internet (although the capability was there, we just didn’t have it). That meant that people had to go to work to type reports, sort through information and do all the things that people do at work. In a corresponding fashion, our cities developed based on the principle of going to work. There was created an industrial section, a shopping district, a residential zone, and these generally were separated. Because of the economies of scale, items were mass produced and the production of the items were shifted to the regions with the lowest labour rates. This meant, over time, that much of the goods consumed in North America were produced in China or other East Asian countries with low labour rates. Because of this, it made sense to be able to get from here to there as quickly as possible, as that was then the bottleneck.

But with the advent of the internet, much if not all of the information available at the source could be available for the user, where they were, without the need to travel at all. This has resulted in people peering at their smartphones typing out a message with their thumbs to friends, acquaintances or colleagues, whether these people are across the room, across the country or on the other side of the world. Yet, because of historical inertia and momentum, we have kept the physical structures that developed before information was freely available.

In other words, our cities, how they are structured and the distances between them and the smaller towns, have gradually (and apparently without any overall planning?) assumed that people drive a certain speed in a certain kind of vehicle.

So, what if we re-imagine that and try to come up with a rule that would allow us to solve some of these problems? The first of these is speed. Current speed limits are approximately five to ten times the running speed of a fit human adult. This means that a person on the ground could never outrun or get out of the way of a vehicle in time. If we were to put the priority on the person on the ground (instead of in the vehicle), then what maximum speed should the vehicle be allowed to travel? Based on this argument the vehicle should not be allowed to travel faster than a human being could get out of the way. This could be in the ten mile an hour range. If we are realistic and take into account the intercity distances or distances between cities and towns as they have developed based on the fast car model, we need to come up with a speed that is a happy compromise between pedestrian friendly and “get to the next town in a reasonable time” friendly.

In my own experience, I find that fifty minutes to an hour is a reasonable time to commit to any one activity, whether I am working physically outdoors, typing a blog post or listening to a lecture at university. Fifty minutes seems to the be time I am able to focus on one activity before needing to get up and go do something else. So, we will set that as one parameter. Fifty minutes. The next parameter is to determine the average distance between cities and towns in an “average” area, if such a thing exists. Since the only area I have to go on for personal experience is the one I am in, I have found the distances to be between the ten and twenty mile range (fifteen to thirty kilometers). Ebikes are currently regulated to 32km/h (~20mph), so this would mean an existing ebike could get from city to city or town to town in under an hour. As this rate is on the outside edge of what a person could run to get out of the way, a more reasonable pace would be ten to fifteen miles per hour. Whatever the exact number the ratio of human speed to machine speed is important. EITHER we have machines that run accident free (as may happen if self driving cars are perfected and become the norm rather than the exception) OR we have machines that are set to operate within human friendly parameters.

IF the machines we call vehicles are set to operate within human friendly parameters (always slower than a human needs to get out of the way of one), then accident rates, including serious injury and death should drop substantially. This means that needs for insurance should also drop substantially, thereby reducing cost on that front. Further, as slower rates of speed place less demands on the vehicle, the entire construction of the vehicle could be adjusted appropriately. A slower travelling vehicle can weigh less and thereby also reduce energy needs and the pollution created.

In summary, this discussion is designed to look for parameters that we have accepted by default for historical reasons (in this case vehicle speed) and to find ways to adjust them that take into account new technologies (such as the internet and mobile data plans). A result that falls out of this discussion is that slower driving vehicles would be correspondingly easier to make self driving (consider a vehicle travelling at 10mph vs. 50mph). Therefore, if a person were in a self driving vehicle with a data plan all of a sudden they could do work while travelling, have a cup of coffee, a bite to eat, enjoy the scenery, send a few emails. As the rate of speed and distance traveled are adjusted to the optimal human time frame (in my experience) of fifty minutes or less, rather than driving into work being a polluting, rushed and stressed experience, it could become a relaxing time of preparation. Sounds good to me!

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This article is part of a series looking at how we have programmed ourselves in three dimensions.