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vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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vCity 1.0
Chapter 25

"Cities may be looked upon as large assemblies, of which all the inhabitants are members; their populace exercise a prodigious influence upon the magistrates, and frequently execute their own wishes without the intervention of public officers."

-- Alexis de Tocqueville --


Diatribe mode.

Saturdays are race days on the vCity Megabahn!!

This is one argument I definitely lost years ago, before the vCity ever came on line as a matter of fact. I did not want the vCity to become a gigantic driving simulation, similar to so many racing video games. As much as I loved mass transit, I disliked automobiles and their foul internal combustion engine (I.C.E) technology.

Frankly, the I.C.E is an antiquated technology that has some serious drawbacks. For one thing, it requires a ridiculously large infrastructure to support. Drilling for, pumping, and distributing hydrocarbons and refining, processing, and redistributing them into petroleum-based products is no joke, requiring significant human and capital resources. Secondly, the environmental effects of mass use of gasoline-burning engines on the air, the water, the land and human sensibilities is no joke either. The use of propane, "natural gas" and "liquid coal" makes a little bit more sense in this regard -- but not much.

I argued that in the vCity the primary focus for mass transportation should remain on the light rail and mass transit lines. The vCity, I suggested, wouldn't really want to encourage individual ownership and use of vehicles, even non-polluting ones, because traffic accidents are still a leading cause of dismemberment and other medical problems, not to mention premature death.

Overruled, steamrolled, nuked on this one. Others on the Zoning Council argued that the vCity also had to recognize that mass transit is a centralizing system that isn't necessarily convenient for everyone. Not very democratic, in other words. But the real reason we had to have a huge automobile infrastructure (techsimm) was simpler. Turned out the CEO of corporation, Number One so to speak, was an automobile collector. He loved to take his antiques out on the track and air 'em out. So he said, "Let There Be Cars," and there were, and by definition, this was Good.

"But a gasoline-consuming civilization isn't sustainable," I wrote in an e-mail message to Big Boss himself, "the only reason to exist in a petroleum-based economy is to use its benefits to quickly transition to some other, more benign form of technology."

"Prove it," he e-wrote back.

It is true that under certain specific conditions, there's nothing like a rip-roaring high performance engine (diesel, gasoline, turbojet, or rocket -- take your pick) for supplying maximum power within given restrictions on weight and volume. Which is why even in 2002, we don't see a lot of jumbo jets and monster trucks using wimpy electric batteries for engines.

Backplot and Lecture Mode.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the United States, and possibly some parts of Canada, was built around the automobile in the 20th century. No other people on the face of the Earth, with the possible exceptions of the wandering nomadic tribes of central Asia, were more mobile than the North Americans. The growth of the automobile industry fueled (no pun intended) U.S. economic growth from 1910-1970. In the 1950s and 1960s, at enormous expense, the U.S. taxpayers funded the creation of an interstate highway system. Ostensibly for national defense, but in fact a huge subsidy for the long-distance trucking industry, this had the effect of crippling a healthy railroad industry.

Anyway, the widespread affordability of the automobile allowed the creation of the socio-political economy of the "suburb". Generations of U.S. citizens measured their quality of life in part by the kind of car they owned. Other nations, eager to grab a piece of the American mystique, followed suit. But there was a catch. Cars ran on petroleum and required lots of roads and parking lots. So the better part of the 20th century became an environmental disaster. Oops.

As civilization honked, coughed and sputtered its way into the 21st century, people -- even U.S. citizens! -- began taking another look at engine-powered wheeled vehicle (epwv) technology.

The one thing that is undeniably attractive about epwvs is that they can haul large numbers of passengers and bulk cargo quickly to almost any place on the map. It is true that an epwv is a highly flexible, decentralizing, and therefore largely democratic technology. So I figured the trick would be to see if an automobile-loving civilization could avoid environmental suicide by means of technological substitution.

With that in mind, the Zoning Council decided to create a simmcorp called the vCity Coalition for Automobiles and Roads that would sponsor and push for a truly excellent road system that would feature beyond-state-of-the-art technology. It was the CAR that would keep tabs on "driving" simulations that allowed people to "cruise" the roads and highways of the vCity and surrounding districts. The CAR would be comprised of concerned vCitizens, and it would regulate itself.

In this way, I absolved myself from all responsibility for the stupidity which I was convinced would follow.

Actually, things didn't turn out that badly.

The first thing that the CAR did was to take itself seriously. We had a very strong early contingent of California-based vCitizens that saw the vCity as a way to atone for the sin of Los Angeles, I guess. To encourage commercial and industrial enterprises to use non-polluting epwvs, CAR announced that it would allow "tax credits and generous depreciation allowances" for all vehicles with electric engines.

So, of all the VR epwv designs -- software programs, that is -- only about 20% of all "heavy" epwvs (those weighing more than 4000 kg or any vehicle with more than two axles) were "powered" by gasoline or diesel engines. A smattering of vehicles "ran" on alternate fuel or hybrid-fuel mixtures such as gasoline/alcohol. The remaining 78% were "powered" by either natural gas engines, electrochemical batteries, or fuel cells. Of all other epw vehicles, almost 95% were "powered" by electric engines.

Only 5% of VR passenger vehicles in the vCity were conventional. CAR liked the antique-car dealers and hobbyists. The rental car companies were permitted to reserve a few i.c. engine-driven cars for those who want to take a vacation to one of the outlying areas.

There was a big debate about the wisdom of using electrochemical batteries for cars. In the end, the CAR insisted that cars had to use fully rechargeable batteries. Otherwise, landfills would be hip deep in worn-out batteries oozing all kinds of nasty stuff, which would sort of defeat the purpose of trying to come up with an environmentally friendly automobile infrastructure.

The obvious advantage to using fully rechargeable batteries is that, similar to an electric shaver, one could recharge it anywhere there is a power outlet. Park the epwv in the garage at night, plug it in, and by morning one is ready to roll.

The CAR established regional standards for rechargeable battery (RB) size, shape, and power. They theorized that when an automobile sensed it was getting low on power, it would inform the driver, who would then access an information display to find out where the nearest RB station was located. If a car ran out of power, the driver would use his or her wireless commlink to call for on-site delivery from a local RB station.

CAR suggested that there would be literally hundreds of thousands of RB stations, because anybody could run one, even kids. The business would consist of taking in run-low batteries and exchanging them for fully charged ones, for the cost of the electricity plus a minor profit. It would requires access to a power outlet or a generator, and some knowledge of safety rules, plus how to handle a screwdriver. Easier then running a pizza joint, an RB station would require less capital investment, too. One CAR member even did an experiment in real life and discovered that an experienced RB "jerk" could do a change-out in less than a minute -- the entire transaction taking less time than filling up and paying at a petrol station.

The thing that amazes me, looking back on it now, is how eagerly the major automobile corporations of the world -- General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Nissan, Toyota, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Volvo, BMW, Mercedes, Volkwagen, etcetera -- embraced this stuff. Ford in particular designed some amazing VR simulations based on their pioneering VR work done in tandem with Carnegie Mellon University in the mid-1990s. And Ford handed them out freely by the millions. Today, one out of every ten epvw programs on the "roads" of the vCity is a Ford.

You would think that the major automobile corporations had never even heard of gasoline engines, judging by their participation in the vCity.

It was, of course, naked marketing. I didn't mind. If all the automobile corporations of the world truly understood the precise market for alternative vehicles and decided to market something to those potential real world customers, I would surely think that I had died and gone to heaven. I guess I just didn't expect them to be so smart so quickly. I always imagined that auto executives were hidebound lugheads from the 20th century, Henry Fords walking around saying things like "History is Bunk" and "The Public Will Not Accept Safety Belts."

CAR never quite came to grips with the motorcyclists, those speed- and power-loving demons of the open road, who to this day continue to be a pain in the posterior. Most of them refuse to register their VR programs. So CAR, which had quite a few good programmers, retaliated in a particularly nasty way. Any unregistered VR motorcycle program detected running was given a 10% chance of an accident. A motorcyclist tooling on the Megabahn would simply be plucked right off. Game Over. Originally the CAR programmers wanted the offending nasties removed from the vCity permanently, but by the rules of the simulation we couldn't do this. So the Zoning Council cut a deal with the two warring vCitizen factions. The CAR could continue its techsimm sweeps, and instead of being removed from the vCity, the unlucky motorcyclist would instead be beamed to a bed in the nearest vCity vHospital, where s/he could read 2D web pages about safety helmets.

As a warning to others, the CAR designed a scapp that looked like a big mess to clean off of the roadside after an accident. Later, someone designed maintenance RoboWipers, but that's another story.

CAR established three kinds of roads for the vCity, not counting privately designed roads, driveways, or farm-to-market lanes. The first were simple two-lane asphalt overlays with minimal grading and drainage, cheap to design and build, and which, if they were real-world roads, would need frequent repair. The local vCitizens have complete control over these, which includes responsibility for designing sidewalks, pedestrian/cycle overpasses, and access for physically challenged citizens. The layout of the road and street grid in any given area is organic and often crazy-quilt. Near chaos, but not sheer chaos.

The second are regionally funded main arteries which, if they were real-world roads, would handle mostly commercial and industrial traffic. They are four-lane concrete overlays with excellent grading and drainage, paralleled by a single narrower lane for human powered wheeled vehicles. These main arteries have a minimum of traffic lights and are equipped with many pedestrian and animal overpasses and underpasses. In the real world they would be expensive to design and build because they are designed with operations and lifecycle cost in mind. The layout of the major boulevards, avenues, and connectors tends to be inorganic and geometric, both because CAR's regional interests tend to override local vCitizen opposition and for reasons of logical traffic flow.

Finally, CAR established the highways and megabahns to handle all kinds of traffic, but most importantly, electric epwv commuter traffic. They are usually six- and eight-lane affairs paralleled by two hpwv lanes. Megabahn lanes consist of silicate/ceramic inlaid concrete that allows the lanes to "sense" weather conditions and expand, contract, or "rib", as well as perform self-diagnostics and self-repair. There are no traffic lights and infrequent entrance/exits; however, there are frequent "rest areas" and "concession centers" accessible directly from the highway where in the real world food, beverages, tourist information, and rechargeable batteries could be purchased. There is a basic "beltway" megabahn plus a number of feeder highways into and out of the downtown area -- essentially, paralleling the light rail lines.

CAR established the vCity standards for road signs, both static and dynamic, and the principle that they would be well designed and plentiful; mark distance in both miles and kilometers; and provide useful information on traffic and "weather conditions."

It is a rarity to find anyone using a VR driving simm without internal Transportation Information technology, however. TI units, whether audio or audio/video, enable drivers to maintain up-to-the-minute traffic information including suggestions on which route to take to avoid traffic jams. This is all effected by some very sophisticated AI software managed by the CAR. It is estimated that at any given moment, there are more than 500,000 programs on the road . . . and CAR's TI system can track every one of them.

CAR established the principle that the roads themselves would be wired (a misnomer, truthfully -- in the real world, most of them would be fibered) to send information to maintenance and repair crews. This would include information about potholes, stress fractures, debris, accidents, and the occasional stranded motorist or animal. Different kinds of crews would be dispatched depending upon the nature and urgency of the problem. For the really serious or unusual problems, an all-human Public Safety Team would be the proper response. Otherwise, the solution would be to send a mixture of human supervisors and robotic devices operated by remote control or nolo. For very mundane tasks such as picking up debris from emergency shoulders, fully autonomous robots would be a cheap, effective solution.

What about costs? CAR accepted the fact that in the real world, highways are very expensive to design, build, and maintain, even using nolo and robo maintenance crews. Because they would be used by all vCitizens, argued CAR, these highways would be funded from transportation revenue funds. The funding would come from users in the form of "taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel", and a "sales tax" on all epwvs. Furthermore, all owners of epwvs would purchase monthly epwv passes, which are purchased from stores and kiosks throughout the area. There would be no enforcement. To discourage freeloaders, these passes, which would look something like credit cards, also serve as lottery tickets for which winners receive trips and other prizes. They would also make nice collectibles.

About those RoboWipers, now.

RoboWipers do not exist in reality. No one has ever taken credit for them, which is just as well, because the goddamn things are still floating around in our techsimm. There is no simmcorp producing them in the vCity, and as far as I know, no real world corporation is designing such technology. They are scapps, but in some respect they act like viruses. See, this is what happens when socially irresponsible people get on the Internet.

The RoboWipers were designed to clean the motorcycle "mess" scapps off the road techsimm. But no one invented a way to get rid of the RoboWipers.

After much consternation on the subject, the CAR decided to create a program called "Buckshot". It was actually offered by a motorcyclist enthusiast (registered) who happened to be a superb software programmer. Apparently the earliest of the RoboWipers were not designed to be impervious to Buckshot.

Unfortunately, as is wont to happen among a billion Internet users, the Buckshot program got into the wrong hands. Suddenly, every VR motorcyclist had one and gleefully used it to remove all RoboWipers, a hated reminder of the 10% "Game Over" routine.

In retaliation, the programmer who designed the original RoboWiper scapp gave the Gen-II RoboWiper a capability to return fire at drive-by vandals, a 100% "Game Over" function. The problems started when the new scapp didn't always clearly differentiate among registered and unregistered VR programs. Suddenly, thousands of innocent vCitizens cruising the backroads of the vCity found themselves assaulted by a scapp and beamed to the nearest vHospital to read up on safety helmets.

"We gave you the world's largest sandbox," I told them all in a nowlink editorial, "now will you morons please behave yourselves?"

I am happy to say that in the end cooler heads prevailed, and now the Gen-III RoboWipers just have thicker armor plating but are not themselves armed.

next chapter


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