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Whole Earth Review

Smart highways

Smart highways – computer-controlled highways

J. Baldwin

YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED the increasing media attention being lavished on the topic of Smart Highways. They are a potential goldmine for smart insiders, but what makes the proposed highways “smart” is the installation of electronics in or near the pavement to guide, space, pace, and brake autos equipped with matching control technology.

The idea is touted as a safety boon: with a computer at the controls, driver error is unlikely. Sideswipes and rear-enders would be impossible even with cars closely packed and going fast. The system would adjust to weather conditions, too – no chain collisions in the fog.

The thinking thoroughfares are also being boosted as an environmental boon: by eliminating congestion – usually caused by accidents (ineptitude) and traffic waveforms (also ineptitude) – a smart highway could carry many more cars per hour, faster, thus reducing the need for more highway construction. Moreover, autos moving at a steady speed are more efficient, and consequently pollute less.

Add economics to all of the above: the implementation of Smart Highways would mean many new long-term jobs in engineering, materials supply, and construction. And, of course, a vigorous demand for new cars equipped with the necessary devices. Faster, easier commutes would make possible affordable new housing developments on cheaper land away from urban centers.

With all of these advantages, how could anyone oppose Smart Highways? What could such an opponent say against them?

Let’s start with the claim of faster, easier commutes. Freeway-building has always encouraged land-eating urban sprawl and its unfortunate side effects. It’s inevitable. It’s irrefutable. We know better than to do more of that, don’t we?

It is also well known that adding capacity (in the past by adding lanes; now by adding Smartness) does not reduce congestion for long. Facilitating auto commuting has always encouraged more auto commuting – one of the worst contributors to pollution and unpleasant demographic trends. As congestion relief, Smart Highways are merely another empty promise. They will increase environmental and social degradation. Added capacity always has.

What about safety? A Smart Highway is no better than the reliability of its design and the quality of its hardware and software. “The system is down” – A bug or virus could have horrendous results. The big problem would be maintenance. Smart Highway hypesters blandly refer to the good record of complex air traffic control systems. But those systems are operated by skilled, well-trained personnel. Their high-quality hardware is less vulnerable to the planned-obsolescence strategies typical of the auto industry. Air traffic control equipment is (at least supposedly) inspected and maintained to a very strict standard; the same is true of the receiving hardware aboard the aircraft. The aircraft themselves are subject to federally mandated periodic inspections and parts replacement schedules performed by federally licensed technicians.

The auto industry has never worked to anything approaching aircraft standards. Why should they, when most failures result in nothing worse than an annoying walk or a wait for the towtruck? As the shining new Smart Cars aged, there would be a high likelihood of decrepit clunkers infesting the Smart Highway. How are they to be controlled? What (and whose) freedoms will be rubbled away in the process?

The same problems with standards apply to highway contractors accustomed to solving problems with a shovel and a bit of asphalt. But a Smart Highway would have to be built and consistently maintained at a very high level of reliability. If the hardware were built into the pavement, construction quality would be even more critical. Repairs and upgrading could be drastically expensive.

Indeed, expensive is a key word in any discussion of Smart Highways. The money, of course, will come from us, but how will it be extracted – will Smart Highways be toll roads? Will they and the special cars be too expensive for ordinary working folk? Will vast scandals accompany their construction? Are Smart Highways the road of the future?

Yes. Yes. Yes. No! – Smart Highways are a stupid idea. As a Smart Citizen, nip them in the bud whenever you can.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Point Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group