Blood Flow As a Model for Autonomous Transportation

Nature has a way of recreating biologic events in surprising ways, such as the coin-like stacking of red cells and the linear linking of autonomous cars moving through arterial highways. Red cells are round and similarly shaped and can connect to one another by
protein links in a stack of discs, called “rouleaux”.  Greys RBCs 2

Autonomous vehicles might similarly connect in platoons to increase roadway capacity and transportation efficiency. Good-bye the 2 second safety spacing rule between non-autonomous cars!  Instead, autonomous cars, linked bumper to bumper, will move as one, like stacked blood cells. When the light turns green, the line of connected cars will move through the intersection together. Just as red cells may collect in rouleaux or disconnect to move individually, the autonomous car can join or leave a sequence of platoons according to destination.

The study of blood can lend other lessons to future transportation planning, such as laminar and turbulent flow, cellular diversity, rheology, and pathology. Understanding these factors may spur novel approaches to vehicle and roadway design and anticipate imperfection and disease. Driving through highway construction traffic, I learned of Ford’s plan to mass produce autonomous cars in five years. Sounds like a bloody good idea to me!

Reference: The above image is from Henry Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body (1918) via Wikipedia Commons. Panel “a” shows red blood cells en face. The cell has a discoid or bi-concave form that maximizes its surface area, which may be more important for laminar flow than diffusion of oxygen.  Laminar flow is orderly flow in parallel layers, rather than the disorganized motion of particles moving in different directions and velocities seen in turbulent flow. If most cars on the road adopted the same size and shape, speed, and direction, more efficient laminar-like flow would be expected. Autonomous vehicles in rouleaux formation might take the turbulent steam out of road rage and other erratic driving styles. Panel “b” shows red cells stacked in rouleaux formation, which can be visualized on ultrasound or echo images of the heart and blood vessels as smoke


Tech and the Common Touch

I recently learned about some techo-magic that seems irresistible. Radar micro-motion sensors now enable controls of electronics with the snap, tap, or rub of a finger. In a car, instead of reaching for the volume knob, you can  slide your thumb over the top of your first finger and turn up the radio. The science of sound extends what we can do and what we can see – from radar to echocardiography, from seeing the heart to gesture recognition.

This ability has many advantages but it is one more way that technology separates our bodies from the physical world. Humans have been around for 200,000 years and it is relatively recent that we have reached through space to control our world. From flint spears to missiles, our trajectory evolves with benefits and costs, which may include losing the acuity of our senses and changing the way we interact with our world for better or worse.

Industry may presume that we prefer a cabin full of sterile flat screens and consoles rather than the knobs, buttons and levers of years past. At first glance, this pact with devilish
convenience seems like a good idea. Yet dream cruises that display old cars highlight the
wonderful multi-sensory experience that our parent’s parents enjoyed. This includes manual
connections and the enjoy of interacting with controls of different shapes, the wooden
paneling, the leather and fabrics. The tactile experience of interacting with our vehicles and electronics deserves restoration. This will keep us connected, not only with these tools, but with what keeps us human.  

iStock_000011092631Large                                                  iStock photo

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An Engineer at Heart

I told my teenagers  that I  joined the Society of Automotive Engineers while driving home from school. In other words, Dad was not  just a cardiologist but a CAR-diologist. After the predictable eye rolls and plugging in of ear buds, I expounded that hearts and carts share a few things in common, and by carts, I refer to the internal combustion engine of cars.


– require an electrical discharge, oxygen, and carbon based fuel so that a chamber can pressurize.

-emit carbon dioxide as a byproduct of this mechanical activity.

-have valves and associated inflow and outflow lines.

-have cyclical pressure cycles that alternate between filling and emptying.

-have pressure priming before a much greater force is triggered.

-transmit energy to connected and remote components.

-have standstill when repetitive mechanical cycling stops.

True, there are differences. The internal combustion engine depends on explosions while a heart chamber depends on biochemical processes that contract its muscular wall.

Then I became concerned that my kids, immersed in their devices, might not appreciate all this as much as their Dad, the science nerd. Who would think that biological beings would create machines that, in some ways, would emulate their biology?

Cardiology and cars are not so unrelated.  Both are in the midst of a technology revolution (stay tuned). The American College of Cardiology, American Society of Echocardiography and Society of Automotive Engineers – I glad to be part of it all!

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Trail mix and steering wheels

I had a “your chocolate is in my peanut butter” moment while driving my car. It started with eating trail mix at the wheel. I noticed that I did not need to look down into the bag to pick out my favorite items, cashews, raisins, and almonds. But I did need to look away from the road and at the wheel closely to distinguish the cruise from the radio channel buttons, which were smooth and labeled with small print. Fortunately, I did not hit the truck in front of me while adjusting the radio station. Then I had the epiphany that it should be as easy to find these buttons as it is to eat trail mix, without the need to look away from the road.

I thought, why not make the buttons on the steering wheel as recognizable to the sense of touch as anything else we feel with our fingers in day to day life?  trailmixrep

The sense of touch is a sense that we take it for granted, until it is lost, say to neuropathy or other neurological diseases. Touch guides us constantly in our day to day lives, to to connect with a friend or feel a flower. A large part of our brain is dedicated to our hands and fingers and their associated motor skills and sensory inputs. It is amazing that when forced by blindness we can actually read pages using Braille. It is surprising that we have not deliberately capitalized on this sense in our vehicles. Now is the time.

If using the sense of touch keeps our eyes on the road, this ability can be lifesaving.

Disclosure: I ate a lot of trail mix while writing this blog and taking the photo.

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