Monday, February 2, 2009

Redesigning the Road System

This little design of mine scares me; but the sad thing is that I can see it fully realized at this moment, with the current levels of technology. What am I talking about? Why self-driving cars of course.

Consider these pertinent facts:

  • Update-Ready GPS devices consistently tell us where we are, and where we need to go
  • WIFI Network bandwidth is in massive supply thanks to the recent influx of bands due to the broadcast television turnover to digital
  • Cars come with the following technology today:
    • onboard computers
    • radar (that fun little beep when you back up)
    • video cameras
This design will need to make a few modifications to the cars rolling off the presses as new vehicles (but the components needed could just as easily be added in as aftermarket devices) as well as changes to the infrastructure. The good part of this change is that the devices would not affect or otherwise impair existing vehicles--though the system would run more efficiently if every vehicle was tied into the network as a whole.

Changes To Cars
The main changes to the car, outside of the computer brain needed to interpret the incoming data and to do the actual driving (which isn't that far fetched if one takes a look at how well airplane auto-pilots perform these days) would include additional radar devices, RFID readers (4 distinct ones) and a wireless network adapter.

The Radar devices are there to tell the car if something is in front of it, or behind it and how close. Quite simple; after all, no matter how many vehicles you get onto the network, a tree falling across the road can still kill someone if their car hits it at 55MPH.

Now, the RFID chips, these would need to be positioned at the four corners of the car, that way the computer can tell the direction the car is traveling in, and basically ensure that it remains within the lane. We want all four corners to have them so that the car will know when it has completed moves such as merging into a new lane, or turning a corner. More about the RFID chips later though.

The final addition to the cars would be a wireless network adapter. Basically, this would be used to allow the car to talk to all the other nearby cars on the road. If the car intends to move over a lane, it sends out the signal across the network, and pings the other vehicles on their precise location so that it knows whether it needs to speed up or slow down, or just to go ahead and merge into the next lane.

Changes to the Road
The primary change to the roadbed is that ever one of those little reflectors would need to be a RFID chip with the exact lat/long coordinates embedded within it. Basically, it would be a little chip that constantly screamed "Here I am!"

Another change, that would not be needed, but would be useful, would be to have network cabling running down the entire branch of the road. Then you could routine put up a wireless repeater, which would allow the vehicles to ping the internet as they drove. This would be useful for such things as real-time weather updates for the next X miles of road, or to allow the driver to send a command to their online stove to start cooking, or even send an email or an SMS message to the driver's spouse or kids or parents when the car gets X miles from the house.

Drawbacks
As in anything, there are drawbacks. The little things like people will still do stupid things in their cars, and older vehicles that have not been upgarded would not be a part of the vehicle's network mesh (though every smart-car would be able to locate and broadcast the location of the dumb-car via it's radar systems).

Beyond that, the issues I have with this design are privacy. First and foremost, is that it's a small change in those RFID chips to go from Broadcast to Receive/Broadcast. Imagine, every day, a thousand cars fly past those little devices. Now, if each car is network aware, then that means each car has a MAC address. A MAC address that would probably be tied into the VIN number and license plates of the vehicle. Now, if that chip is reading that MAC address as the cars go by, then someone with a reader can come by and snatch up all of the traffic metrics for a road. While such data can be useful (for example, accurate counts of high-traffic areas, and points of time which drivers experience excessive congestion) it can also be put to nefarious uses (tracking where people go).

The next issue is the fact that each of these cars is a small, mobile network, attached to a greater, wide-area network which is the entire set of cars in a given area. What's stopping the government from monitoring everything you do in your vehicle, from a remote point.

I know, and hope, that this was nothing more than an exercise in intelligent design and capabilities, but I actually do kind of fear this system getting installed and put into use. After all, as I said, we have the technology as is to do everything I listed in this article.

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