"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 --
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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