Having smart roads will be of great help to tomorrow’s car

Not so long ago, I had an informal chat with the bigwigs at DT Dobie, and almost inevitably, our conversation drifted to the seemingly devious machinations of the National Transport and Safety Authority and the apparent war it seems to be waging on drivers everywhere.

The itch under my skin was about speed limits and how they are used, not so much as a tool for road safety, but as a trap to snare the unwary.

One of the bigwigs (the name is not important) suggested that since Kenyan drivers wilfully and notoriously disregard traffic regulations in general and speed limits in particular (don’t shout, it’s true), perhaps it would not be such a ridiculous idea to cap all cars at a certain speed.

Not just PSVs but every car would be fitted with a speed governor. You can’t get caught if you physically cannot break the law, can you?

Most of my fellow driving enthusiasts would at this point start reaching for their supplies of tar and feathers and demanding blood in reaction to that second-last statement, but hold on a minute, lynch mob. The man might be on to something here.

I had thought of calling him out on his theorem, especially given that we have not one speed limit, but several: as low as 20 km/h outside hospitals and as high as 120 (if I recall correctly) on the lone superhighway this country can boast of, with several others in between.

So what speed exactly does one cap personal vehicles at? One hundred? That way there is still room for felony: I could do 57 in a 50 zone, like I once did and was promptly arrested.

Fifty? Too low: what would happen to that long distance Mombasa-bound bus coming from western Kenya? It would take three days to cross the country.

Since this was a discussion over lunch, I kept my mouth shut about this series of essays (today’s is part 4, if you’ve been following), a series whose genesis was TheEast African newspaper (long story).

I wanted to tell him that there might be a solution not too distant from his own thesis, and that he was definitely on the same train of thought as yours truly.

I wanted to tell him that I was doing an article on roads and how the roads themselves, rather than one overzealous department of a cloudy police force, could be the nemesis of the horsepower-rich, high-strung helmsman in search of hedonism and haste on the highway.

A road is just a road, right? Wrong. There is more to a road than a surface flat enough to drive on connecting two discrete locations. Even the ancient Romans put some thought into designing their thoroughfares.

Road markings such as yellow boxes, solid and dotted lines as well as road signs are all part of the infrastructure layout that will determine the future of the motor car. How?

The self-same self-driving cars we mentioned two weeks ago, that’s how. Cars will need to “read” and interpret road information, including markings and signage to avoid committing traffic violations and/or infractions. That means the advent of smart (read electronic) traffic signs.

Does it sound fantastic? Not really, modern cars with lane- assist systems use “cat’s eyes” more or less the same way the autopilot system of an aircraft uses runway landing lights to bring an aircraft safely to the ground without the pilot’s input. Cat’s eyes are the little reflective plastic whatevers demarcating the lanes on highway, the ones that thump against your tyres when you drive over them.

Beyond the cat’s eyes, some cars could be programmed to stop at a red light to prevent jumpers from causing disastrous T-boning, one of the worst types of road accidents imaginable. They could be programmed to slow down automatically when in the precincts of a school or a hospital.

The nannying could extend to a point where engine managements limit power or cut speed in accordance with prevailing speed limits, as had been suggested by the high-ranking conversationalist I met earlier.

If road safety will not be exercised by drivers, car makers could make the cars themselves obedient, overriding the driver’s input if his/her actions are deemed to be in contravention of the demands of the government and/or common sense. Volvo claims to be making such a car already.

There was a news piece that drew plenty of divided opinion on one of my social media platforms, concerning the development of smart road signs. One young inventor’s interpretation of it was a little to the left of expectation: I’m not one to disparage a young man’s dreams but what he invented was… redundant, to put it mildly.

His device was simply a dashboard-mounted electronic gizmo that would beep any time one approached a black spot on the highway. The beeping was a reminder to the driver to exercise care as he or she approaches a dangerous section of road.

The intentions are honorable, obviously, but it also helps to leave the house once in a while and find out what is happening in the outside world. We already have a black spot warning system, and that is in the form of currently existing road signs.

Speed bumps mean you should check yourself before you wreck yourself. Other signs warn of specific dangers such as falling rocks, slippery surfaces, sharp turns or crossing animals.

In fact, we even have road signs that say “Black Spot”; how much more obvious does one need to be?

The road signs are free of charge (for the most part), why pay money to get a device that relays that same information in a less specific and highly audible — and more irritating — way? Our dashboards are already cluttered enough as it is, and we have more than enough beeping and chiming instruments — beeping if the driver’s door is open, beeping when reversing, beeping when reaching certain speeds — without needing to add to the cacophony.

The capitalist mindset is forgivable; after all, we live in hard times and it is getting harder to put food on the table. It is even understandable to want to sell something that we don’t really need (that is how billionaires make their money).

If it is an impact being sought, how about the following for a suggestion: Develop a smart road network. Speed limits could be dynamic depending on weather and traffic conditions.

I still do not understand why I have to do 50km/h all the way from Kabete to City Cabanas on the other side of the city (thank God for the bypass). Try and do 51 and see the cops come after you as though you have just committed treason. Eighty is a fair enough speed to do up to Westlands, then the 50 limit can take over from there on to the central business district.

I have spotted limits as low as 30km/h on the open highway for no clear reason. I have also seen an 80km/h limit on an open road; again, it beats sense why.

I have seen two speed signs, one for 50km/h and another for 100km/h only a few feet apart, next to a set of rumble strips. Makes one wonder what the road engineer was thinking when he set them up. These are not the makings of a smart road network.

So, how about our enterprising youth developing a GPS-based system that clocks into the vehicle’s ECU to control the top speed, depending on where one is?

In the city, the car will never go beyond 50km/h, and on the highways, it will not exceed 100 or 110 or whatever speed the government wants you to do. The chap seems to be really into programming and mapping (if he can identify all the black spots on all the country’s roads, surely knowing all the speed limits cannot be any more difficult. Either way, he will still be installing geographical information into his device).

The premise is not unheard of either; we all know of a car called a Nissan GTR, right? I might have mentioned it a few times and how I wound one up to 255km/h on a racetrack. That is the focus point right there.

Japanese-spec early versions of the car known as an R35 came with the usual speed limiter set at 180km/h, just like all home-spec Japanese cars have for the longest time. It has something to do with a gentleman’s agreement to prevent needless competition among car makers, and to keep the roads safe, I think. The thing is, you don’t buy a 500-odd hp twin-turbo supercar to do a maximum of 180km/h (a speed the GTR attains in 3rd gear).

The GTR is a car bought specifically for the owner to bend the space-time continuum with a deft prod of the hot pedal. One-hundred-and-eighty is underwhelming. What gives?

But you see, the GTR is so complex, it knows exactly where it is at any given time. If it is being driven on public roads, it knows this and goes into its supervised state, cutting fuel at 180 and killing any further pull beyond that point.

But once it is driven onto a racetrack, it also knows this and divests itself of its fun-sapping chastity belt and can now “go the whole way”. The top speed is no longer 180; it is 314km/h, a speed it can attain from rest in a distance of about 3 km . Leave the track and the buzzkill limiter reactivates itself.

Why not have that on all cars? You don’t necessarily need a 314km/h race mode in your double-cab pick-up, but if the ECU can interpret its map coordinates and determine the current speed limit, you will never break any speed laws.

CHANGING LANES

There is a concept that is sometimes used in more advanced countries where drivers are better behaved compared with us, and that is changing roads. It is a method of curbing traffic jams by adjusting the size of the road, and this is how it works. I will again use the city roads as an example.

The major roads that connect the city to the suburbs are now all dual carriageways, for all intents and purposes. The number of lanes may vary but for the sake of illustration, let us assume there are three lanes on each side.

During rush hour, traffic is dense on only one side of the carriageway: inbound lanes in the morning and outbound lanes in the evening. This is typically accompanied by an almost empty half across the divide. Now, to feed the numerous cars as fast as possible into or out of the city (depending on time of the day), the lanes on these roads are adjusted for direction.

The three full lanes on one side of the carriageway serve as usual. The three empty lanes going in the opposite direction are “reassigned” duties: the innermost empty lane becomes the fourth lane for the opposite side, while the other two empty lanes serve as usual.

Depending on the severity of the gridlock, two empty lanes could be used instead of one. So in effect, during the morning rush hour, the three-three inbound-outbound split now becomes four-two or even five-one.

In the evening, the split is reversed: one-five or two-four. This will allow faster flow of traffic due to the increased number of lanes and less “wastage” (or disuse) of road space.

The split is usually executed using traffic cones to demarcate the reassigned lanes. An ideal arrangement would be to increase the number of inbound lanes between 7am and 9am, after which the road reverts to its standard layout, then another reassignment of lanes from 5pm to 7 pm, after which the road reverts to its normal layout until the next morning.

The problem with this is that we are never satisfied with what we have, we are impatient, and we are generally badly behaved on the roads. Closing off the extra lanes will be difficult as just “one more” driver tries to squeeze into the available space.

The gridlock could spill over onto the empty lanes not reassigned, creating a terrible jam that wastes even more time than was trying to be saved. Better road manners are the first step towards developing an ultimately smart road network.

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