Transport past, a priest in Jaffna, 2010.
Traffic sucks. Sitting in traffic just feels completely unnecessary, and that’s the sort of feeling technology evolves to fix. So what will future traffic look like, in Sri Lanka especially?
If you’ve ever been trishaw level with the exhaust-pipe of a Colombo bus, it seems obvious that fossil fuels have to go. The problem, however, is that electric cars have less range and still cost much more than petrol or diesel models. One quirk in Sri Lanka, however, is that our taxes on cars are so high (100-300%) that simply reducing the taxes can make hybrid and electric cars cheaper than regular models. Indeed, the government did just that and sales of hybrids spiked.
Hybrids generate their own electricity from the motion of the wheels, which is one thing. The best model, however, is using electric cars, but Sri Lanka has a problem there. As you may have noticed, we’re having power cuts. This is because successive governments have long neglected to build enough power plants, and the new ones we have seem to have been built badly. Sri Lanka actually generates up to 50% of its power from thermal plants, AKA, generators. We burn liquid fuel to make energy. So burning diesel to power electric cars is kinda pointless. But hopefully that will change.
Another big trend globally is driverless cars, pioneered by Google. Google’s driverless cars have completed over 300,000 accident free miles across America and they are lobbying to make them street-legal. The value here is that the average car is only driven for a few hours a day. The rest of the time it’s just sitting around, taking up valuable real estate. If the car is driverless, it can drop someone off at work and then be used by someone else, by someone in the family or even as a cab. That would mean less cars, less traffic, and more efficient travel.
In Sri Lanka, however, we have enough cheap labor that a driverless car may not be a significant savings. Hopefully wages will go up to the point that robots can compete.
What about not going anywhere at all? Video-conferencing sucks, but new technologies like the Double Robot are pushing the limits of what’s possible. This simple device is essentially a stick on wheels with an iPad on the top. You can remotely connect to the robot and control it, moving up and down and around a room. This means you can work the room at a conference, shop remotely, or tour a factory floor. You could inspect a garment factory in Ratmalana from New York, or tour a gallery in New York from Ratmalana. It’s rather at expensive at $2,000, but this is technology available now. If, perhaps, in the future we could control more sophisticated robots or stuffed animals, videoconferencing might become less of a chore and more of a game.
This is the most extreme change imagined, but it was also imagined decades ago, by an honorary Sri Lankan, for Sri Lankan. Arthur C. Clarke, who predicted the modern communications satellite, also predicted the space elevator. This is a tube that goes from the earth (at a spot near the equator) up to space. This would take the cost of going to space from the current $16,700/kg to a more affordable $100 per. Which would be revolutionary.
This system would work much like a tetherball. The rotation of the earth would keep a counterweight in space strung tight. You could even imagine the thing hanging down from space rather than a tower going up. We currently have the science to build one on the earth, and the projected cost at $10-50 billion is about what the International Space Station cost.
This is interesting for Sri Lanka because, as a country close to the equator, we’re an ideal spot to build such an awesome idea. Forget catching up in terms of ports and airports, this is a spaceport.
So, as you’re sitting in traffic, think it over. We could soon be in a future of driverless, electric cars for the travel we need to do, remote-controlled robots for mundane tasks, and affordable space travel on long weekends.