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Category: Transportation

Increase driving safety AND driving enjoyment with this new speedometer-linked fan system. Ask for—no, DEMAND—this option in your next fine luxury automobile!

Background:

When traveling in a vehicle, a person’s intuitive sense of speed is partly determined by the feeling of air movement.

For example, going at 30 miles per hour on a bike (enclosed cabin: no) may feel faster than going 600 miles per hour in an airplane (enclosed cabin: yes).

The issue:

It’s important for automobile drivers to intuitively understand their speed, especially when driving on slick or windy roads.

But with a properly sound-insulated passenger cabin, it’s easy to ignore the fact that you’re going 70 miles per hour on a highway.

Proposal:

In order to help drivers intuitively understand their current speed, a fan should be added to the dashboard in order to blow air on the driver’s face.

This fan would be synchronized with the speedometer: more speed equals more airflow, thus resulting in intuitive “feeling” of car speed (Figure 1).

 

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Fig. 1: A fan mounted on the car dashboard would allow the driver to get an intuitive understanding of speed based on the sensation of airflow.

This system is basically a just a more complicated version of sticking your head out the car window.

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Fig. 2: Increased driving speed translates into higher fan speed. Fan is not to scale.

Fan Implementation Option #2:

The car’s existing climate control system could be used, instead of requiring an additional fan. The only downside here is that the car’s normal fans are probably not sufficient to fully convey the speed of highway driving. But on the plus side, this could be implemented entirely in software!

Fan Implementation Option #3:

The fan could be replaced by a simple duct leading from the outside of the car, which would direct outside air directly into the driver’s face. This has a few downsides, such as the possibility of venting ice-cold air or swarms of insects directly into the driver’s face, which may negatively impact driving safety.

Conclusion:

“Implementation option #2” could probably be an actual product. Not sure if it would run afoul of any automotive safety regulations, though!

PROS: May cause people to once again buy driving goggles, thus revitalizing a neglected manufacturing industry.

CONS: None! Only upsides found here.

Improve your car with the new bicycle-bell-inspired “secondary car horn” option. Now you’ll have options besides just honking at people! Unless you are a goose, in which case that will remain your only option.

The issue:

Imagine that you are driving a car down a narrow road and you see a person unloading groceries from a car trunk.

There are two common options:

  1. Continue driving: hope the person unloading the car doesn’t walk out into the street
  2. Honk the horn, to inform the person unloading the car that you are there

The second one is safer, but is considered extremely rude.

Thus, in real-world scenarios, most people will probably politely run over the car-unloading pedestrian rather than honk potentially unnecessarily.

The root problem here is that there is no “polite” way for a driver inform others of their presence. This is also becoming more of a problem as quieter electric cars become more common (so the car engine isn’t generating a “hey nearby people, a car is running” sound at all times).

Proposal:

This was solved ages ago for bicycles with the traditional bicycle bell, which conveys the sentiment “in case you weren’t aware, a bike is passing by!”

The car horn, on the hand, conveys the accusative sentiment “hey, you have committed some major driving error!”

What is needed is the bike-bell equivalent for a car—a “more polite” horn (Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: Left: a traditional steering wheel only features a startling “honk extremely loudly” option. Right: we can add a bicycle-bell-inspired “chime to inform pedestrians of a car nearby” button as an alternative to the normal car horn.

Conclusion:

Why isn’t this a feature, anyway? It seems like this should have been standard on cars since the mid-1980s.

PROS: Improves public safety and may reduce the number of people run over every year.

CONS: Adds one cent to the manufacturing cost of the steering wheel.

Never get on the wrong train again (assuming your city has a functional public transit system), thanks to these new musical cues—enjoy country music and/or smooth jazz on your entire commute! Also, it’s the same songs every single day.

The issue:

In cities with extensive public transit systems, it can be easy to get on the wrong bus/train/subway or miss your stop.

Obviously, an astute transit-taker could realize their mistake by noticing the following:

  • Stop names being verbally announced
  • Stop names being indicated on a screen, even on buses.
  • In some places, different metro stations may have a distinctive jingle that plays. This “train melody” can be unique for each station.
  • And now that essentially everyone has a cell phone, a rider can also check their position with their phone’s GPS.

But we can still improve things further!

Proposal:

In order to make the “train melodies” even more informative—and make it less likely that you’ll get on the wrong train—the following system is proposed:

  • While moving, each train (or bus, subway, etc…) plays a song the entire time it is moving between stops.
  • These songs are specific to each pair of stations and direction: so there is a particular song that plays from Station A to Station B, and a different song that plays from Station B to Station A (or we could play the same music, but backwards).
  • The song durations are chosen to be the approximate amount of time that it takes the train to travel between the two stations. So a passenger has a general idea of when they’re about to arrive at the next stop, since they will notice that they’re coming to the end of the song.
  • And here is the key additional innovation: each transit line (e.g. a train line or bus route) has a different genre of music: see details in Figure 1.
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Fig. 1: Each dot in this transit map represents a station, and the four colors represent different lines (a “Green Line,” “Red Line,” etc.). Each line plays a different genre of music: e.g. the Green Line could play American country western (serving the journeys indicated by “A” and “B” above) while the Blue Line plays 1980s German industrial music (which would regale passengers on the commute indicated in “D” above). This will allow each reader to have an immediate intuitive understanding of which line they’re on.

This sort of music-genre-specific train melody also makes it extremely obvious when you’re on the wrong train at a transfer station: you might not notice that you’re on the wrong train if two lines have substantial overlap for much of their routes, but the unexpected music would make it extremely clear.

This might get complicated for bus routes: large cities have dozens (or hundreds!) of routes, so we’d have to start delving into very subtly different musical sub-genres.

PROS: May save hundreds of work hours that have been, previously, lost as a result of commuters getting on the wrong trains.

CONS: It would be very difficult to change the music selection without confusing everyone, so we would end up with a “time capsule” of musical choices from whenever this system was first implemented. It could get increasingly dated as time goes on.

Bonus Idea:

Instead of just playing random unrelated songs in a specific genre, the entire line could be calibrated to play an entire album by a specific band. This might help bring back the long-form album in a world dominated by singles, too! So maybe the “Red Line, Westbound” would also be the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” line.

 

 

 

Revitalize your city’s probably-terrible public transit system with a new and unexpected source of funding!

Background:

In many cities, there is no substantial funding for public transit. This results in extremely poor service (routes with minimal coverage of the city and few buses). This leads to a “death spiral” where people stop taking the (terrible) public transit, the service gets even worse, and so on.

These problems can, in theory, be fixed with enough money, but who wants to pay for it?

Proposal:

There is a simple way to encourage companies to pick up the tab for public transit. Currently, advertising is the only method of obtaining private funding for buses, but maybe we need to think of some other options.

Consider the bus route in Figure 1:

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Fig. 1: Here is a default bus route, before it is changed it due to corporate sponsorship. Circles indicate bus stops.

In order to entice a company to help pay for this bus line, we’ll let the company have some influence over where the buses go!

This could result in several possibilities, including:

Possibility 1: A bus route could be “detoured,” with a new stop added in front of a specific business (Figure 2). This would bring new customers to the business, and allow the business’ existing signage to reach more eyeballs.

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Fig. 2: If a chicken-themed fast food restaurant sponsored this bus route, the final route might be detoured as shown. Although the route might take a few minutes longer, the passengers would be delighted by delicious and economical fast-food chicken!

Possibility 2: One or more bus routes could be re-routed so that the route itself spells out a company name or slogan on the map. Since these routes would show up on online map searches for transit routes, the chosen phrase (e.g. “CHICKEN_4_LESS”) would be shown to countless map-viewing individuals, even if they didn’t end up actually taking that specific bus.

Possibility 3: As a more nefarious option, the sponsoring company could route the buses around competing businesses, rather than toward their own.

Conclusion:

This is a great way to fund public transit that does not require city bonds or taxpayer funding.

PROS: Helps promote the futuristic cyberpunk-style dystopia that was promised in 1980s science fiction.

CONS: Might slow down buses a lot, since these chicken-vendor-based routes are unlikely to be optimal for commuters.

Never worry about finding a parking spot again; park in extremely small spaces thanks to this new hydraulic automobile lifting system!

Background:

In many cities, there are a large number of “almost-a-parking-spot” locations (for example, between two driveways) that can only fit an extremely small car.

Additionally, most popular models of small cars have gotten substantially larger over time.

For example, a 1959 Mini Cooper is 120 inches long, while a 2005 model is 143 inches long (~2 feet longer). A 1966 Toyota Corolla is 152 inches long, while a 2015 Corolla is 182 inches long (2.5 feet longer).

The issue:

These longer cars no longer fit in many small parking spaces (Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: This is an example of a spot that is almost a parking space. With some creative car redesign, we can still make it work, however!

Proposal:

Since parking spots rarely have a height maximum, there are a number of ways we could re-orient a car to fit it into a parking spot without crushing the car into a cube.

A hydraulic system could be added to a car to allow it to lift itself up in such a way that it now fits in one of these small spots (Figure 2).

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Fig. 2: Left: the car has been modified with (A) a “foot” that can support the weight of the car, (B) an extendable rear axle that can move the rear wheels forward and down, and (C) an additional telescoping element to push the car up in the first place (and let it down gently). This telescoping element has a small roller on the bottom, rather than a full wheel. Right: the system after deployment.

Now, when a small parking space is found, the driver can line their car up with the back of the spot, get out of the car, and then engage “car lifting” mode to re-orient the car into a vertical orientation that reduces the car’s required horizontal space by approximately 40%.

Conclusion:

This would be a great selling point for people who live in cities with the combination of poor public transportation and poor parking options. Major car manufacturers should start redesigning their cars today.

PROS: Allows a car to fit into a number of previously-un-usable parking spots.

CONS: Cars are generally engineered with the assumption that gravity will always point directly down, so it’s possible that some elements of the car would need to be redesigned. Also, the driver should be sure not to leave any drinks in their cupholders before they engage this system.

Speed up the passenger-pickup phase of a Lyft or Uber ride with this new conveyor belt system for ride-sharing cars!

The issue:

One transportation model used by ride-sharing cars (formerly called “taxis”) is the “carpool”-style trip, where multiple passengers are picked up and dropped off at various points along a mostly-shared route.

(Lyft Line and Uber Pool are currently the most well-known of these.)

This “carpool”-style trip is cheaper than a normal ride for each individual passenger, but the route may be slightly longer due to detours to pick up and drop off each person.

The issue:

Sometimes, a car will be partially full when it picks up a new passenger. If there is someone sitting in the curb-side rear seat, the new passenger will generally attempt to enter through that door first, then realize that someone is there and walk around the car to the other side (Figure 1). For maximum comedy, the passenger already inside the car may misunderstand and slide themselves over to the other seat, thus accidentally blocking the incoming passenger yet again.

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Fig. 1: If someone is already occupying the back right seat, then a new passenger who attempts to enter through that door (see arrow “A”) will be stymied. They will have to either walk around the car or else wait for the current passenger to slide over to the opposite seat.

This inefficient entry method wastes time and increases the chances that the stopped ride-share car will be hit by an inattentive motorist.

Proposal:

The fix to this situation is simple: the back seat can be replaced by a pair of conveyor belts (Figure 2). These conveyor belts will be controlled by a switch on the dashboard, and will allow the driver to slide any current passengers out of the way of new incoming passengers.

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Fig. 2: The back seat is replaced by a pair of conveyor belts. Note that this new configuration still seats three, so we haven’t lost any functionality.

 

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Fig. 3: The conveyor belts are synchronized, so any passengers on them will hardly notice as they are gently scooted over.

Conclusion:

Although this feature is not currently standard in any production automobiles, it would make sense for it to be an add-on, like heated seats or a sunroof.

PROS: Increases ride-sharing efficiency by reducing the new-passenger pickup time. This is especially important since ride-share company profits are currently in the “negative numbers” range.

CONS: It is unclear whether seat belts could be installed in this conveyor-belt seat system without strangling back-seat passengers. Possibly this system should be prototyped in countries with non-existent safety regulations.

“Potemkin Maps”: Impress foreign dignitaries and out-of-town investors by following a GPS map route through a misleadingly-nice part of your city!

Background:

Phone map apps often have a few optional settings for a route, such as:

  • Avoid highways (for driving)
  • Fewer bus transfers (for public transit)
  • Avoid hills (for walking)

The issue:

Sometimes, you want drive on the most scenic route from point A to point B, without too much concern about efficiency.

For example, you might want to impress an out-of-town guest, or hide the seedier parts of a city from a visiting foreign dignitary or investor.

Proposal:

The “scenic route” to a destination attempts to route you through the highest-economic-value areas that it can find.

This method, called the “Potemkin Route” after the 1787 idea of the same name, uses the following data:

  • Tax records (to find the highest property values)
  • The police blotter (to avoid areas of high crime)
  • Elevation maps (to look for scenic views)

Then, it routes you to the optimum area to show off the most appealing areas of the region near your route (user interface mockup in Figure 1).

 

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Fig. 1: If you select both [AVOID HIGHWAYS] and [AVOID LOW PROPERTY VALUES], as the user has in this example, your route might be substantially longer.

Conclusion:

You could use this route yourself, even if you aren’t trying to impress a foreign dignitary.

PROS: Allows you to ignore the problems of your city.

CONS: Allows you to ignore the problems of your city.

If you obey the demands of this phone app, you’ll never have to wait at a stoplight again! If you are a pedestrian, anyway. Might also work for bicyclists and drivers!

Background:

In most American cities, four-way intersections with stoplights are the most common form of traffic control.

The issue:

As a pedestrian, these intersections are frustrating: if the stoplights are not synchronized, you’ll randomly encounter red lights while walking from block to block. But even when lights are synchronized, they are synchronized for car driving speeds. Thus, at normal walking speed, a pedestrian will inevitably spend a large fraction of travel time waiting at crosswalks for the light to turn green.

Although a pedestrian can increase or decrease their walking speed, it is difficult to select an optimal speed without knowing exactly when the light will change.

Proposal:

Fortunately, a phone app can easily measure walking speed and distance to the next traffic light, and then display a recommended walking speed that will get a pedestrian to the light when it is green (Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: Since this phone knows how far the next light is and exactly when the light will change, it can recommend a walking pace that will get its owner to the light while the light is green. The green / gray arrow in the middle of the screen is a “progress bar,” showing the pedestrian’s current position relative to the previous intersection (base of arrow) and the next light (tip of arrow).

 

Using this app, a person can enjoy both a more leisurely pace at lights they’d miss anyway, and can walk ever-so-slightly faster (Figure 2) in order to make it through intersections just before the light turns red.

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Fig. 2: In the top example (A), a pedestrian walks at a uniform pace that causes them to have to wait at two of the three lights. In the bottom example (B), the pedestrian is using our new app, and adjusts their walking speed to hit all the lights while they are green. Recommended walking speed is shown by the orange bar at the very bottom.

Conclusion:

This type of app would probably work for drivers and bicyclists as well (ideally through audio instructions).

PROS: Encourages walking in cities, thus improving national cardiovascular fitness.

CONS: Users of this app might wait at fewer lights, but would be at higher risk of being run over by a car / bicyclist / steamroller while distracted by the app’s various recommendations and statistics.

Stop getting hit by self-driving cars with this one fashion trick that involves putting weird labels on all your clothing! Don’t be the last one to catch on to this new fashion trend.

Background:

In a hypothetical future where self-driving cars are increasingly common, they’ll have to do a really good job of automatically distinguishing between things that require sudden braking (e.g. a person in the roadway) and things that are OK to hit (e.g. a tumbling empty cardboard box).

The issue:

This is a hard problem. When a car gets data from its various cameras (and other sensors), it needs to figure out what exactly it is that it is seeing (Figure 1).

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Fig. 1: This is probably a pedestrian in the roadway, but could it also be a billboard advertisement hundreds of feet away?

Although the specific “distant-billboard-or-close-pedestrian” question in Figure 1 can be answered just by using two cameras to estimate distance, there are situations where the problem must be resolved in a more complex fashion (Figure 2).

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Fig. 2: Top: the image is interpreted correctly, and the car does NOT hit the pedestrian. Bottom: the car incorrectly believes that it sees a sunflower, and collides with it at full speed. Lest you think this is totally implausible, check out some specially-crafted adversarial examples (that can turn a panda into a banana) and a method of tricking lane-following algorithms into swerving the car into oncoming traffic.

Proposal:

We propose to place special “this is a human” symbols on articles of clothing that a human might wear (Figure 3).

When a car sees one of these unusual QR-code-like symbols, it will instantly say “ah, sunflowers do not wear specially-marked shoes, time to hit the brakes!”

To avoid this becoming a fashion disaster, these markings would not be apparently at normal human-visible wavelengths of light, but would only be detectable by special camera equipment.

Perhaps the markings could have fluorescent ink in them, and all cars could drive around with UV lights in the front.

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Fig. 3: Left: this is what the shoe looks like to a human—the markings are invisible to the naked eye. Middle: the camera can see wavelengths of light beyond human ability, and can detect these special markings (shown here as yellow checkerboards). Right: the camera sees the checkerboard, and the object-classification algorithm realizes that this shoe is likely to be attached to a human.

One common objection to many self-driving-car-related issues is “couldn’t some criminal put these markers all over the city, to trick self-driving cars?”

The answer is yes, but it would be as equally illegal as it currently is to put mannequins on a winding road (which would also confuse human drivers).

Conclusion:

This might be redundant with an infrared camera—in most locations, a human already is obviously distinguished from the background environment just by their warm-blooded glow in the infrared spectrum.

PROS: This will definitely make me a ton of money when it is licensed by major car manufacturers. Also, would someone please apply for and pay for a patent on my behalf? Thanks!

CONS: If one of these specially-marked shoes falls onto the roadway (perhaps by falling out of someone’s messenger bag while they’re biking), do we really want every car to come to a screeching halt at the sight of a single unattached shoe?

 

 

Make your carpool / ride-sharing commute even safer with this amazing plan to add strobe lights to your car—legally! Bicyclists love this one weird tip!

The issue:

One ever-present hazard for bicyclists is the possibility of being “doored”—hit by a suddenly-opened driver’s side door of a parked car.

A similar issue confounds carpool passengers: when exiting a full vehicle, the driver’s-side passenger must open the door directly into traffic (since they cannot exit on the curb side). This presents the obvious risk of being hit by a car that is swerving around the temporarily-parked carpool vehicle, as shown in Figure 1.

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Fig. 1: A) The ride-sharing vehicle (blue) is stopped in the farthest-curbside lane, and a passenger is about to exit. A fast approaching-car (red) in the same lane is about to swerve around the parked car. B) The passenger opens the door (purple) and will step out into traffic. C) The red car collides with the open door.

There may be a lot of blame to assign in the scenario in Figure 1 (“the passenger should have waited longer before opening the door” or “the red car shouldn’t have gone around the stopped car”), but it’s easy to see how it would occur without any egregious negligence.

Proposal:

In order to make it obvious that a car door may be opening soon (i.e., that there is an occupant associated with a door of a stopped or nearly-stopped car), the following is proposed:

  • A row of lights are placed on the edges of the car, near the doors. These lights must be easily visible from behind the vehicle.
  • When the door handle is operated, these edge lights flash (see Figure 2). This would provide ~1–2 additional seconds for a driver or bicyclist to react before hitting the door.
  • Optionally, weight sensors in the car seats could detect whether or not someone is likely to exit via a specific door (if there are no passengers in the car, there is no reason for any of the lights to flash except for the ones on the driver’s door). Weight sensors are already used to decide whether or not to deploy passenger air bags, so this wouldn’t be a huge engineering challenge.
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Fig. 2: Flashing lights on the edge of the car can notify other drivers and bicyclists that a door might be opening soon (or is actively being opened).

Conclusion:

If you own an LED manufacturing plant, you should lobby your local government to make this feature mandatory, and try to avoid letting anyone do any scientific research to determine whether or not it’s actually effective.

PROS: Creates a new source of revenue for the LED light industry.

CONS: It is likely that there would be so many false positives—flashing lights for stopped cars at nearly every intersection, for example—that everyone would tune out these ubiquitous and uninformative warnings.