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Boston as the harmonious, driver-friendly glass city

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  January 9, 2014 09:00 AM

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Imagine a Boston where you could drive straight to the office and let the car park itself. Think about an MBTA so efficient that buses and trains always arrive on time. Or how about commuting from the Western suburbs, with every driver sipping coffees on complete autopilot?

It's a dream as far away as Copley Square is from Las Vegas. But this week, that's exactly where those three scenarios are playing out, under the bright lights of the Consumer Electronics Show. Boston architecture firm Höweler + Yoon, with funding from Audi, built a table-sized glass model of Boston's downtown from Copley Square to the Seaport. Equipped with motion sensors and cameras, visitors can "move" traffic and other road variables with their hands. They can see the results on three movable screens which overlay live 3D animations over the acrylic glass buildings and streets. It's a visualization of what Audi calls "friction-free" driving, or what our city and its thousands of cars would look like if they communicated with each other. In three-part harmony, no less.

Such wireless networks, known as vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I), envision cars, people and roadways connected as one seamless unit. They're being tested by automakers, universities and cities all over the world, including a trial run involving 3,000 drivers in Ann Arbor, Mich. If everything goes to plan, our cars will know if another driver is about to run a red light, or engage cruise control to perfectly time a string of green lights. When fully autonomous cars become commonplace, we'll be relaxing in rush hour traffic, letting our vehicles accelerate, brake, change lanes, and even park themselves without us behind the wheel.

It's not really fantasy, either. At last year's CES, Audi demonstrated a self-parking "valet" that let the driver walk away while the car drove itself into a garage, found a spot, parked and shut off. Active safety aids, once relegated to expensive luxury cars, are now coming down in price. More and more cars are coming with lane correction, which actually moves the steering wheel when a tire drifts over a marking, and adaptive cruise control, which can automatically pace with a car in front and even stop and resume acceleration in heavy traffic. Sure, it doesn't always work, but the dozens of cameras, sensors and computers in modern cars are getting smarter all the time.

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In the Boston simulation, Audi and Höweler + Yoon looked at three commuting types: The suburb dweller that drives into the city, the park-and-ride people that take the T from a commuter lot, and the reverse commuters who live in the city and work outside of it. The suburb dweller could drive straight to the office and then program his car to park in the Pru, for example. The woman taking the T from Riverside station would know, via her car, exactly when she could grab the D line. And Bostonians who drive home from Waltham could switch on autonomous controls to avoid commandeering the crowded lanes of I-95.

Boston being Boston, this is not realistic in 2014, or even in this decade. While many Red, Blue and Orange Line stations display arrival times on digital signs, the century-old Green Line still relies on manual track signals and always screws up whatever schedule it might have started with in the morning. Even with published timetables that display on smartphone maps, Boston buses are a mystery onto themselves.

But there are many more things that Audi really doesn't understand and can't possibly map in a model. Say, the precise number of lawn chairs blocking parking spaces after snow storms, or the exact instant Storrow Drive closes for nightly road work. And if humans can ever confuse and take advantage of robot-controlled cars programmed to drive conservatively, it'll happen in Boston. An autonomous car simply isn't going to drive in the left-hand I-93 South exit lane on the eastbound Pike, passing the line of cars waiting for I-93 North, only to cut over at the very last second. Autonomous cars may enrage us more than we're already. Because we know we're very good at driving.

It's nice to see Boston represented in Vegas. And it'd be nice for our streets to be easier to navigate and for our transit system to work in harmony. The Red Sox just won the World Series for the third time in nine years, so nothing, not even our mucked up roads, is impossible to change.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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