A Street Car You Desire

wiki-horse-street-carThere is something called “desire paths”, that I learned about while watching an excellent TED talk by Mr. Tom Hulme . Desire paths are the short-cuts or “paths of least resistance” that one recognizes while interacting with a structured model. Sidewalk landscaping around buildings is a good example. Have you ever found that the walkways to buildings are too circuitous, taking you on unnecessary journeys through gardens and parking lots? They abdicate the “line” rule, the shortest distance between 2 points. Impatient people like me may cut through the lawn and  wear down the grass until a more direct dirt path emerges. If the architected field of dreams does not correctly anticipate what we need,  users may not come. 

Recognition of desire paths may improve implementation of any technology. When the elevator was first developed, there was nervousness about the cable breaking and the risk of a free fall for all.  Innovators, like Elisha Otis in 1852 pioneered solutions. Now, the pleasantries and culture of attendant operated elevators are forgotten and automation is taken for granted. The designers of the autonomous car also believe that we will learn to accept and safely use their technology too.

So what are desire paths that may enable quicker implementation of the autonomous car? One way is to put smart cars on smart roads. This means switching on autonomy when the enabled vehicle drives on a road that can interact with it because of technology integrated in the roadway, signs, and lighting. Highway lanes could be designated for autonomous vehicles just as there are lanes for vehicles with more than one passenger.   When the vehicle leaves this special lane, it would revert to manual control. 

Another model for autonomous driving is vehicle platooningHere, cars or trucks could be
switched into autonomous mode when they join a string of similar vehicles. This sequence of vehicles resembles the attached cars of a train. The first vehicle in the platoon is manually driven. In turn, it chauffeurs the vehicles behind it. This model is being investigated by the
Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) project in Europe. Advantages include fuel efficiency, decreased wind drag, and autonomy for the chauffeured vehicles

Perhaps someday, I will own a car with a single red brake button and no steering wheel or floor pedals. And I may find special desire paths for driving such a car. Until that day comes, there are other ways autonomous vehicles will become mainstream soon – at least that’s what I desire.

Formula One race car with light effect. Race car with no brand name is designed and modelled by myself

References: The concept of “autopilot” lanes was described in an article by T Melba Kurman, Triple Helix Innovation and Hod Lipson, Cornell University in December 2013 called: Where Are the Autopilot Lanes for Driverless Cars? (Op-Ed) 

Future Car from iStock photo. Formula One race car with light effect.

Horse drawn street car: “Rapid transit in 1877″ – First horsecar run in Manchester, New Hampshire”. Published 1908 by the Hugh C. Leighton Company, Portland, Maine. Image was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

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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