Why the Car Is Obsolete

Question: What will the city of the future look like?

Bill Mitchell: We don’t have a utopian vision. We have a set of ideas that we think are important to discuss. Those ideas largely have to do with sustainability of cities. The ability of cities to, over time, remain in balance with the resource streams that are available to them, and they have to do with social justice and equity of the fundamental conditions of satisfactory citizenship. These are the sorts of things that concern us.

These are classic urban planning and urban design issues. They just get redefined when you start to think of them in the context of the intelligent city. So, to be very specific about that, we’ve been looking at reinvention of mobility systems, for example, reinvention of transportation because that’s where you can get enormous payoff. The automobile as we know it has been around for about 100 years. It’s one of the most successful inventions of all time, but in my view, it is thoroughly obsolete at this point. And so by fundamentally rethinking the automobile, thinking of it as a robot on four wheels, essentially, something that can communicate with other intelligent devices, it can operate in a coordinated way, you can really start to fundamentally rethink urban personal mobility. That’s one example.

Question: Why do you believe that automobiles are obsolete?

Bill Mitchell: If you think of an automobile, think of firstly, it weighs at least 20 times the weight of the rider. Now, that’s crazy, that’s just crazy. It doesn’t need to do that. Or look at the footprint of it. Look at the footprint of this chair that I’m sitting in takes up. Look at the footprint of an automobile and see how large that footprint is. Most automobiles spend about 80 percent of their time sitting around doing nothing. They’re gasoline powered; they go to very high speeds, which in fact, under urban conditions, you don’t need. These high speeds generate enormous safety requirements and so on and so forth.

Now you can incrementally tweak the automobile. You can make the power train more efficient and you can enhance safety and all of these sorts of things that are very worthwhile, but what we are concerned about is stepping right back and saying, can you fundamentally rethink the whole idea? Can you really begin to think of urban personal mobility in totally different terms that are fundamentally more sustainable? Fundamentally more equitable and fundamentally better for the planet and that’s what we are trying to do. So, we’re not working within the framework, I mean incremental tweaking. We’re working within the framework of fundamental reinvention. 

Question: How would you get people to implement this behavioral change and wrap their minds around something new?

Bill Mitchell: The way that we work always is by trying to identify the fundamental underlying design assumptions that everybody takes as a sort of given and unchallengeable when you think about solving these problems. And we try to challenge those assumptions. For example, everybody thinks an automobile needs an engine. Well, an automobile doesn’t necessarily need an engine. What we do is shift electric motors into the wheels of our automobiles and so we have a completely different kind of thing where we have four independent intelligent wheels rather than a traditional internal combustion engine and power train and so on. So, we do that.

And then we try to make products and systems with solutions to the problems that we’re trying to solve that are not only good technical solutions, but engage people’s imagination and engage people’s desire. An automobile is not just a way of getting around; it’s an expression of yourself just as much as your clothing is, your representation in public. It’s an intensely emotional thing, your relationship to your automobile. So, what we try to do is make designs that are intensely appealing, not only at a technical level, but also on a fundamental emotional and human level. And I don’t think you can succeed without that.

Recorded on January 21, 2010

Everybody thinks automobiles need to have engines. They don’t. We need to radically change our perception of transportation.

Your genetics influence how resilient you are to the cold

What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science

Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.

Keep reading Show less

Harvard study finds perfect blend of fruits and vegetables to lower risk of death

Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.

Credit: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
  • The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
  • Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.
Keep reading Show less

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Cephalopod aces 'marshmallow test' designed for eager children

The famous cognition test was reworked for cuttlefish. They did better than expected.

Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
Surprising Science
  • Scientists recently ran the Stanford marshmallow experiment on cuttlefish and found they were pretty good at it.
  • The test subjects could wait up to two minutes for a better tasting treat.
  • The study suggests cuttlefish are smarter than you think but isn't the final word on how bright they are.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast