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Predictions of how technology will impact traffic and safety: Long historical track record of being systematical wrong

Leonard Evans introducing the GM Futurama movie 

This presentation uses scenes from the 1939 General Motors Futurama movie to illustrate how predictions about the future of transportation have remained remarkably the same. Things keep getting predicted time and time again that simply do not happen. The presentation was given at a meeting focused on the Federal Government's latest effort to apply technology to improve traffic efficiency and safety. There have been earlier efforts with different acronyms. However, there seems to be no desire to provide any evaluation of what safety changes resulted from prior expenditures. 

Apart from the historical movie scenes, this presentation derives mainly from the ideas that are described in greater depth, detail and with documentation in my book Traffic Safety

The word expectations in the session title looks remarkably like the word predictions. I have indicated, somewhat lightheartedly, a reluctance to make predictions, especially about the future. However, I am prepared to share with you predictions of transportation 21 years into the future. These are not mine, but those of my former employer, General Motors. They are predictions for the far off year of 1960, made in 1939. They formed the basis of the hugely popular GM Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World Fair. Large numbers of people lined up for long periods to be transported in moving carriages through a model representing an estimate of what the world would look like in that far off year of 1960. 

We will be seeing 8 short scenes from the total Futurama movie. The entire movie lasts 15 minutes, with an additional 7-minute black and white introduction. Like its much more famous 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, the present day is represented in B&W, and the imagined world in color. The phrase "in the far off year of 1960" or equivalent occurs about once per minute.  Let me set you a secondary task. Observe the percent obese in the 1939 crowd scenes. Obesity has become a major national public health problem. Regrettably, we tend to approach it as we do so many problems, by invoking what might be called Technobable. We keep hearing terms like genes and metabolism - not to mention the plethora of products sold to an all too gullible and unknowing public. Clearly the genetic and metabolic composition of our nation has not changed appreciably in the last 70 year. False claims about the origins, nature, and cures of both obesity and traffic crashes do immense harm. 

Now let's see the first scene from the Futurama movie. 

Commentary accompanying the 1939 Futurama movie  

Scene 1: Introduction: Starts B&W, fades into color.  To help us get a glimpse into the future of this unfinished world of ours, there has been created for the New York World Fair a thought-provoking exhibit of the developments ahead of us. The greater and better world of tomorrow that we are building today. A vivid tribute to the American scheme of living, whereby individual effort, the freedom to think, and the will to do have given birth to a generation of men who always want new fields for greater accomplishment. 

Scene 2: Arrived in 1960.  And now we have arrived in this wonder-world of 1960. The World's Fair exhibit modeled with such artistry and skill that we must continually remind ourselves that the world we are now seeing is a vision - an artistic conception which may undergo many changes as it develops into the great realities of tomorrow. 

Scene 3: 100 miles per hour with safety.  Here are the farm roads to the community. They have been improved and made to flow into great motorways. This superb one direction highway, with its 7 lanes accommodating traffic at designated speeds of 50, 75, and 100 miles per hour is engineered for easy grades and for speed with safety. Cars from the farm roads and feeder lanes join the motorway traffic at the same speed as cars traveling in the lane they enter.

 Scene 4: Highway engineering at its most spectacular.  Here is a highway intersection. Highway engineering at its most spectacular. Traffic may move safely and easily without loss of speed. By means of the ramped loops, cars may make right and left turns at rates of speed up to 50 miles per hour. Elevated and depressed are the turning-off lanes. There is no interference from the straight ahead traffic in the higher speed lanes. The motorist of 1960 finds this intersection safe and efficient. The two-directional traffic of the motorway, which merged at the intersection, separates again. The highway surface is automatically lighted by continuous tubing in the highways safety curbing, which evenly illuminates the road surface. What's this just ahead? An amusement park - 1960. 

Scene 5: Headways automatically controlled by radio.  And now we see an enlarged section of 1960s express motorway. Along the ledge of this beautiful precipice traffic moves at unreduced rates of speed. Safe distance between cars is maintained by automatic radio control. Curved sides assist the driver in keeping his car within the proper lane under all circumstances. The keynote of this motorway - safety - safety with increased speed. 

Scene 6: Eliminate congestion, traffic interference.  Over a spectacular suspension bridge the motorway enters a large city spanning the navigable river on which it is situated, and forming a gateway to the city. A feature of this bridge is the elimination of congestion and the elimination of interference from all the various converging motorways and from all the feeder roads. And now we see a great river city of 1960. 

Scene 7: Elevated sidewalks - double width for traffic, very safe.  Here is an important intersection in the great metropolis of 1960. Elevated sidewalks give a new measure of safety and convenience to pedestrians. They actually double the available width for traffic in the street. 

Scene 8: Finale.  We see some suggestions of the things to come.  A world that far from being finished has hardly yet begun.              A world with a future in which all of us are tremendously interested - because that is where we are going to spend the rest of our lives. A future which can be whatever we propose to make it. True - each of us has different ideas as to what that future will be - but every forward outlook reminds us that all the highways of all research and all communications - all the activities of science, lead us onward to better methods of doing things - with new opportunities for employment - and better ways of living. As we go on, determined to unfold the constantly greater possibilities of the world of tomorrow. As we move more and more rapidly forward, penetrating new horizons in the spirit of individual enterprise in the great American way.

Leonard Evans comments after the Futurama movie 

The most striking aspect of these earlier predictions is the buoyant naive optimism they exude. Nobody familiar with the dreadful events that happened since 1939 could entertain so upbeat a view about the wonderful new world that technology is going to herald. However, the technical content of the predictions remains remarkably unchanged. In the 1930s, and in every decade since, we have heard predictions of high speed travel by personal vehicles, and more specifically of safe headways maintained by electronic means. 

Why do we keep getting it wrong? I believe this arises from fundamental misconceptions about the nature of, on the one hand, traffic composed of personal vehicles, and on the other hand, the traffic crashes in which these vehicles are involved. 

I believe most purchasers of vehicles are not so much buying the vehicle, but buying something they prize even more highly, namely personal mobility; that is the freedom to go where they want, when they want, and with whom they want. They want to do this in a hassle free manner, and at a cost that is affordable. Most drivers positively want to control their own vehicles. Even if they did not, automatic control of platoons of vehicles faces formidable intrinsic technical hurdles. It is the tire-road interface that is crucial. Personally-owned vehicles are not all going to have new tires inflated to the manufacturer's recommended pressure. Likewise, roadway friction may vary rapidly vary due to patches of oil, ice, or bird poop. It is not electronic limitations that prevent a platoon of automatically controlled personal vehicles from traveling safely at high speed a few feet apart. If it were, the predictions of the 1930s would have been realized many decades ago given the dramatic increases in the reliability and speed of electronic communication. 

While at the national level we have millions of crashes, individual drivers experience them rarely, typically one per 12 years. Crashes involve violations of expectancy, in most cases also involving violations of law. They are rare events. If you narrow it down to a specific type of crash, such as a side impact, the driver experiences one of these about once per 30 years. Drivers are not going to tolerate frequent warnings against such rare events. If on the other hand the warning occurs only about once per year, then the driver is not going to have any idea what it means! 

Ignoring the overwhelming desire for personal transportation, and the nature of traffic crashes, will lead to the continuing squandering of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of thousands of lives. 

We can cut US traffic deaths in half. But in order to do so we must develop policies that do not deny the knowledge that 70 years of traffic safety research has provided. How we can do this is the subject of the last chapter of my book Traffic Safety. The chapter is called Vision for a Safer Tomorrow. Additional information on this and other topics in this presentation is available on my website