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Distributed Intelligence on the Highway

Automobile designers love to create "concept cars" -- vehicles which will never actually see the showroom floor, but demonstrate ways in which new technologies or design ideas can be implemented. Sometimes, the concept vehicle just looks like an oddly-muscular version of a modern car or truck, as if the designers were hoping for it to be included in the next Batman movie. And sometimes the concept car looks nothing like anything currently on the road, a design guaranteed to stop traffic. Such is the Toyota PM -- the "Personal Mobility" vehicle.

First unveiled at the Toyota Motor Show last October, the PM is a single-passenger electric vehicle designed to fit in a niche somewhere between the convenience of a motorcycle and the comfort of a regular car. The website "HowStuffWorks" has a good, heavily-illustrated write-up of how the PM is supposed to work, along with some previews of other Toyota concept cars (including the "Alessandro Volta," a hybrid sports car able to go 0-60 in 4 seconds and still get around 35 miles per gallon). While I doubt we'll see funky single-passenger cars like this on the road any time soon, even in small-car-friendly places like Japan and Europe, many of the innovations in the PM design will certainly find their way into actual production vehicles.

But while the science-fiction-styling and joystick controls may draw the initial interest, what leapt out at me was the description of the PM as a mobile networking device:

The PM is more than just a mode of transportation; it's also a communications device. It melds the functionality of transport and wireless communication into one machine. Using a yet-to-be-named wireless technology, PMs are able to locate other nearby PMs. Multiple PMs can then communicate with each other. Additionally, PM drivers can surrender control of their vehicle to another PM driver.

The instrumentation panel displays vehicle data, location, and position based on information, attributes, and the paths of nearby PMs, and even entertainment guidance. On most vehicles, knobs or push buttons are used to input preferences. The PM uses a virtual interface that appears to float in midair and uses infrared sensors to detect fingertip position.

When PMs are communicating with other PMs, LED technology is employed to change the color of the vehicle to indicate "emotions" and situations. Different colors display on the door tips, antennas, headlamps, side and rear panels, and rear wheels to indicate what activities are taking place in the PM.

That last bit is particularly cool; we've talked about ambient technologies before, and it's good to see the notion of non-intrusive but hard-to-miss communication techniques finding their ways into auto designs. I wouldn't want a networked car beeping at me or popping up alerts on the heads-up display every time there's a traffic slowdown ahead, but a shift in interior lighting from green towards red would be perfect. Similarly, a change in dashboard coloration as fuel gets close to empty, speed exceeds legal limits, or one gets too close to the car in front of you would be useful. Non-intrusive, but hard to miss.

But it's the ability of the vehicles to hook up with each other, sharing road data, travel information, traffic conditions, and the like, which is the most intriguing. Unlike the "Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems" (recently renamed "Intelligent Transportation Systems") under discussion for more than the last decade, the PM networks don't appear to require highway-embedded intelligent control systems to function. Proponents of ITS argue that vehicles with automated controls can be run safely with greater speed and shorter inter-car distance than can human-driven cars, and that even without the automation, computers watching and channeling traffic in communication (with vehicles acting as display terminals) can keep things running more smoothly than current highway systems.

One problem with ITS is that it requires a huge, all-at-once investment in infrastructure. The relatively dumb ITS cars wouldn't be any more functional than current-model vehicles without a fully-built ITS highway. Vehicles with their own bit of intelligence, such as the PM, could have added utility right "out of the box," and each new one on the road would add to the potential power of the network. Such vehicles could also take advantage of any ITS that does eventually get built, but wouldn't require one to exist.

The difference between a "smart highway" and "smart cars" is a particular case of the contrast between a system with intelligence in its structure and a system with intelligence in its uses (David Isenberg referred to the latter, in his seminal 1997 paper, as "stupid networks;" Lawrence Lessig more politely refers to them as "end-to-end" systems). End-to-end systems are less controllable and arguably less efficient than centralized systems, but they are far more flexible (particularly with regards to innovative, heretofore unforeseen uses) and far more robust in the case of component failure. Stupid networks also can be more readily upgraded -- additional functions don't necessarily require replacing the entire system, only end components, as needed or desired.

Smart cars -- or smart highways, for that matter -- are not going to be here for awhile yet, but the inclusion of end-to-end-type systems in the Toyota PM is a good sign. In energy, computation, political organization, and, yes, transportation, the future is distributed. Good to know that vehicle designers see that, too.

Comments (5)


One person cars?

That sounds *so* ecologically sound.

*chuckle* -- well, I didn't mention that the design is electric, so it's not quite as bad as you might think. And since most cars are driven with a single passenger anyway, it wouldn't be a huge change.

Regardless, what you need to remember is that this is a concept car which will never be made as a production car. It's a technology test-bed.


Dude, forget the concept car. This concept has been done, and in the Bay Area, no less. Five years ago. Corbin Motors's Sparrow was a one-seater EV, with fabulous quirky styling, top speed of 70mph and range of 60 mi--perfect commuter car, and could use the HOV lane and park where motorcycles do. Alas, Corbin Motors is no more--went belly-up in 2003. But you can see photos of the Sparrow here: http://www.microcarmuseum.com/tour/corbin-sparrow.html

"Electricity is more efficient than gasoline" is possibly the biggest ecological myth ever.

Consider where the electricity COMES FROM. In most of the country it comes from bigger polluters than the power-equivalent amount of gasoline!

Fuel cells are similarly kinda questionable, because, well, you get the hydrogen by doing things which take more power than what you get out of the charged fuel cell. Like electrolysis, or using sodium to dissociate the hydrogen from the oxygen (which in itself doesn't take much energy, but getting the sodium to begin with does).

Solar power requires the manufacturing of solar cells which takes more energy up front than what you can expect to get out of it over its entire life time.

Hydro, wind, and nuclear are the only really clean fuel sources, but hydro has quite a bit of ecological impact, and wind and nuclear have the NIMBY syndrome (and for some reason, people think that wind power is going to sound like a jet engine or something, when that totally ignores basic physics). Nuclear *could* be safe but nobody wants to be a guinea pig for it (though there's *plenty* of remote, totally-unused land where it really wouldn't make any difference to anyone if it had a couple of reactors dotting the landscape).

One person cars? That sounds *so* ecologically sound.

Recent sport bikes (the ridiculously overpowered ones) are getting around 40-50 mpg. Smaller ones are getting like 50-60+ mpg. These are non-exotic production vehicles. Two motorcycles get better total milage than most small cars carrying two passengers. Combine this with the average number of riders per vehicle (I found 1.4 nationwide and 1.15 for the bay area), and tiny, 1 person "cars" look pretty good.


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