Transportation

Efficient airline passenger loading

Many know that Southwest Airlines has some of the best on-time records and plane turnaround times. Some of this comes from the fact that without reserved seating, people can board the planes more quickly.

It seems to me it should be possible to board planes quickly even with reserved seating. Here's how...

For a simple system, draw on the carpet a diagram of the largest plane that uses the gate. Except put the rear of the plane up by the door, with numbers counting down to the front. Have a 2nd area for 1st class if you need to keep them boardig at their convenience. This can be just a line with row numbers, and a marker that puts window seats near the line, aisles further away.

When boarding is called, passengers stand in the line for their row, and sorted internally as noted, so window seats go first. Then just empty the line into the plane. Being out of place in the line will be very obvious on the plane. If people line up over their row number, you'll never wait while people load their stuff to get to your row, unless you're late for the boarding call -- which few people are today due to crazy security rules.

You hae to decide if premium frequent flyers and "people needing extra time" should go first or not as they do now. My view is that the pre-boarding needs are minimal, and that even a slow child or senior will be better placed with their row than pre-boarding, but pre-board can still be allowed. I also think the frequent flyers would rather have a plane that boards and leaves quickly than get on first, except for one issue -- overhead storage. However, even if you let us get on first, doing this for the rest of the passengers still will streamline things.

You could also just print a series of numbers on the carpet. People would be given a card with their number and expected to stand by it, showing the card. The cards can have a clear colour code making it impossible to hide which group of 12 you are in. In this case, you can assign low numbers to 1st class, pre-boarders and frequent flyers, and just sequence up by seat otherwise. Again, zip on the plane almost as fast as leaving it. That means boarding closer to take-off, and faster turnaround, which is good for everybody.

Eyes in the back of your head

Reading this NYT article about radar to cover car blind spots, which describes a system that will trigger lights in the rearview-mirror when cars are in the blind-spot, reminded me of an old idea I had some time ago I called “Eyes in the back of your head.”

The idea would be to wear a special collar while driving. This collar would contain small electrodes that could lightly stimulate the skin on the back of the neck. Perhaps just one row, but ideally a small 2-D image should be possible.

This would be connected to a camera, radar or sonar system pointing back from the vehicle. It would map where other vehicles are, and turn that into an image on the back of the neck.

Thus, as a car came up behind you and passed you, it would feel like something brushing the back of your neck on one side.

I was inspired to this by reading about a system for the blind that mapped a video camera image onto a 2000 pixel electrode map on the stomach. It was found that over time, the nerves would retrain and a sort of limited vision could develop. Might this have application in driving, or perhaps combat?  read more »

The peril in automatic cars

I hinted last week I would write about a peril from and to automatic cars, or actually any drive-by-wire cars.

That peril is they become highly useful terrorist weapons. Today terrorists get kamikazis to drive ordinary cars to attack targets and checkpoints. It will be easy to modify a drive-by-wire car (including the self-parking cars already on the market) to be controlled by the cheap remote controls found on toy cars and planes today, and easy to mount a wireless camera (X10, the terrorist's tool!) as well.

A remote control car can be a weapon on its own, just to smash into things, but more nastily it can be loaded with explosives or poison or other nasty things. If drive-by-wire cars become commonplace (and they will) this will be possible.

I present a problem without good solution, and I also fear some of the solutions even more than the problem. For example, one of the big advantages of the automatic self-parking car which I described earlier is the car that drops you off and picks you up right at the door of where you're going. However, just as false anti-terrorist security has made it almost impossible to park or pick people up at some airports, they will move to ban all vechicles from going just where we want them to go.

They may also start demanding government overrides for the automatic cars, so police can take control of our vehicles on demand, bypassing even manual control. They will try to tightly regulate the technology (stifling it) and only allow blessed companies to work on it. As I said, a problem without obvious solution.

The next market for automatic cars

I seem to be thinking a lot about the future of automatic cars these days. Already we're seeing cars in Japan that can park themselves in a tight parallel parking spot, and this leads me to think that the next market for the technology, after the basic automatic highway, won't be the city street but the parking lot.

Parking lots eat a lot of space, and where the land is expensive, automatic cars will offer automatic valet parking. Drive to the mall/office/whatever, enter the automatic lane and be whisked to the door. Get out and your car will run off and park itself efficiently, possibly some distance from the building. (In the future with more fully automatic cars trusted on city streets, it might rent itself out as an autotaxi.)

When ready to leave, use your cell phone to tell the car to come to the nearest door, and it will be waiting there. Obviously that's a great convenience, but the real reason this will happen is it saves a bundle for the building/parking lot, because they can park more cars in the same space, or even park cars offsite. Whatever cost is needed to bury guide-wires or other transponders is easily justified by the efficiency gain, especially in downtown multi-story lots, many of which already justify the cost of humans to do the work.

Later, however, I will reveal the big catch that may keep us from this.

Advance scout robot for trains

Another transportion item, because last night the train I was on hit a car stalled on the tracks (the occupant is OK, though was hit by the car when the train bashed it.)

Since trains do hit things, why aren't solutions to this more common in our data network world? A laser detector over the grade crossings would be simple enough.

At dinner, my friend Kurth Reynolds made a suggestion that I have improved. How about a small robot, equipped with camera and other sensors, which travels far enough in front of the train that if it sees a problem on the track, can send a signal back to the train in time to stop it. Trains take a while to stop, which is one of the reasons they can't do anything when they see a car or person ahead on the tracks.

You can't be too far ahead or you enter the "space" of the earlier train on the track, though during any tight conflicts you can of course give up this "foresight" and bear through (or slow down.)

If you have a human driving the train, you can show them video of what's ahead of the robot and give them time for a decision. Some decisions (Robot hits something or derails) would be automatic. Of course the robot might hit the car stalled on the tracks (though it can stop much, much faster than a train) but do far less damage.

The robot would be tall enough to go over the suicides who are "sleeping" on the track, but light enough so a car hit by it would survive.

Simpler for shorter runs like commuter trains would just be cameras along the track beaming to the oncoming trains. The engineer could be seeing a mile ahead at all times. Hey, if x10 can sell 2 broadcasting video cameras for $80 (WARNING: Don't buy from their web site, you will be spammed to death) I bet this can be made affordable.

This is important because some people don't think we should have rail with grade crossings. Without grade crossings, rail becomes vastly more expensive.

Some updates five years later: Some have worried the robot could hit workers or cars. Today, we are more comfortable we can build robots which would use LIDAR and never hit anything that wasn't running onto the track. The robots would also be light and perhaps have airbags to soften the blow against something rushing onto the track. When coming to a grade crossing, the robot would actually stop at the crossing and wait for the guard to come down (for the train, if the path is clear) and continue to monitor the crossing and report if something stops in it. Then it would speed up again and start going down the track to assure it is far enough ahead of the train.

Why don't oil companies develop automatic cars

I'll be writing more in the future on ideas for auto-drive cars (both plus and minus) but let me start by asking the question of why the oil companies haven't jumped up to foot the bill for the development of automatic cars and highways?

It seems a big win for them. Given the availability of a car that would drive itself on the freeway and perhaps a few major roads, people would be much more willing to tolerate longer commutes, and that seems a win if you sell gasoline. A multi-billion dollar win.

Not completely -- the automatic cars will be more fuel efficient (simply driving at constant speed is more fuel efficient, but they will also be more likely to be hybrid designs.) But that's coming anyway. Given the ability to read, work or sleep during the commute would easily make people willing to commute for longer. In fact, for those who can easily sleep, they might welcome a longer commute to get the chance to have a decent sleep period. (Though there are those annoying people who are asleep before the plane starts its taxi. I hate them.)

We're also talking about a car where, while in it, you can have a decent speed internet connection and phone. The commute time effectively could become fully effective work time. Or TV watching time, or reading time.

Of course, in theory an automatic car in special lanes would also not get subject to traffic jams, so a longer commute would take the same time, and a longer commute sells more gas -- though admittedly traffic congestion also sells more gas.

But once again, the upside for oil companies is huge, and it's also high for the automakers, and the highway planners. It's mainly not good for public transit, since it takes away one of its advantages. We already know the basics of how to build an automatic car on an automatic highway. One of the big remaining barriers is money, and this could be the source.

I've added some extra notes below...  read more »

Airport Check-in on the way there

Transit idea #2. Air travel is getting to be like hell, with searches and the need to get there so far in advance of the flight to be sure you will get through security that it cancels much of the benefit, turning 40 minute flights into 3 hour ordeals. High Speed train advocates point out the downtown-to-downtime time of the train on routes of 300-500km beats or is competitive with the plane, and it's true.

But this would not be true if they could check you in and through security while on the train, bus or ferry to the airport, and then said bonded carrier took the cleared passengers directly to their gates in the cleared section.

Imagine you board the special airport train downtown. Security personel and airline agents move through the car on the trip with wireless terminals, metal detector wands and an X-ray machine. Their machine moves down the aisle (a bit easier in a ferry than a bus I will admit, but it could be designed) and everybody behind them is cleared, everybody ahead of them waiting, until they get to the end, and the whole train/bus/ferry is cleared. Then, if not on a bus, you are dropped where you can transfer to special busses which drive around the inside of the terminals on that little road, dropping you at stops near your gate in the cleared area. Your checked bags were stuffed at the back of your train and are put on the right conveyers.

This was easier to work out before 9/11 but I still think it could be done. And many passengers would happily pay a fair bit extra for this, because the result -- by making use of the otherwise dead time heading to the airport -- would be to have a zero-time trip through check-in and security.

You could even insist on web pre-checkin to smooth the process. Even people who lived closer to the airport than downtown might find it worth the time to get this train.

The handicapped would need a way to get from ground level to the jetway
entry level. Probably require airport staff to escort them to elevators in such airports. Or they would (if the ADA allows this) be forced to use the existing system. Does the ADA forbid improvements for those who can climb stairs and keeping the status quo for those who can't?

It would also reduce congestion at the airport and the existing security stations and free up parking and reduce private car exhaust. A win all round, worthy of the cost of any extra security staff or machines.

Those without checked luggage could schedule to arrive at the gate 15 minutes before take-off the way we used to be able to do on short flights, if using a ferry or train with dedicated right of way. With checked luggage you would need to go earlier to give them time to rape that.

This kills the argument in California that a high speed train from SF to LA would be worthwhile compared to the current downtown to downtown time. You would get the best downtown to downtown time by putting in such rail just from the downtowns (and other places) to the airport, and using the time on the train to advantage.

Update: I have expanded on the idea on this page on transit checkin

Virtual Right-of-way

I'm going to write more in the future about how transportation is not making using technology. Let me start with streetcars and the bus.

People use transit a lot more if it is able to beat the car, or at least keep pace with it. Thus we spend a lot of money on dedicated right-of-way for subways, trains and streetcars.

But this is really inefficient. The dedicated right-of-way sits empty 95% of the time. It does nothing so that a train can pass over it every 10 minutes (or more.)

Imagine a system where street cars and electric bus lines run on regular city streets. But it's illegal to drive in front of the car or bus in its special lane. It's OK to drive behind it, but if the car or bus ever has to hit the brakes because you're in front of it, it snaps a picture of the plate, and your car is sent a ticket for $200 for blocking the lane.

The main downside I see to this is the risk of people pulling dangerous stunts to get out of the lane, trying to merge into heavy traffic in the next lane to avoid the fact ticket when they see a bus coming up behind them. The system would have to be tweaked and tested to avoid that, with bigger tickets for making an unsafe lane change etc.

Large carpools (4 or more) might also be allowed in the lane, private busses, shared taxis and so on. Of course, once the streetcar went past, people would zoom behind it to follow its speedy course. But that's good. It's far more efficient than dedicated right-of-way, but gets near the speed.

Traffic signals would of course have to be coordinated with this, stops somewhat limited and there would probably remain some dedicated right-of-way in certain areas. We won't tear out our subways to make this happen.

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