If I were in charge...
...But if I were, and by "in charge" I mean "in charge of something that would empower me to hook up what I'm about to talk about", this is what I would do. This is a long post by the way, but I think you'll like it.
A little background first...
I recently bought a new car, because the pimp mobile, while pimp, is also a V8, and gas is getting a little expensive. I was tired of putting $100 a month in it when I commute 5 minutes one way to work. Sure, it was comfortable, and it was like driving around in a lazyboy, but it was time to get something a little more practical.
So I went from this:
Granted, it has a "not getting laid" blast radius of about 500 meters, but I like the idea of having a station wagon sized car with slidey rear doors. And it can seat 7 if you put the back seat up. The best part though are the options. Two cameras (one for backing, one on the side) for parking, with lines that move when you move the steering wheel to show where your car is heading. It has a "music box" which automatically downloads onto a harddrive and labels any CD you put into it, and the navigation system is badass. The top view or 3D views are creepily accurate, and it will even tell you where traffic jams are, how far ahead they go, and will reroute you.
Every time I use it to get from point A to point B, I think about this cool idea, which I'm about to tell you about. Then I go to work and rant about it until my co-workers begin to make light of my brilliant idea, causing me to sit there and stew. I'd like to caveat this entire thing by saying that I'm sure someone has already thought of it and it's probably in the works. But here goes.
The navigation system is guided by GPS, and some (not sure if mine is) are (I believe) assisted by cell technology (towers). GPS receivers are just that -- receivers -- but imagine if they were transceivers? What if this tranceiver received GPS signals and transmitted its location to the nearest cell tower, which sent your constantly updated position, direction, speed, and destination to a computer, which would put your car on a map along with everyone else's car, and guide traffic? What if everyone had it, so every car's location, speed, direction, and destination were available to this computer, which could, like some Queen Mother Alien Thing, tell drivers which roads to take and which lanes to travel to create the most efficient traffic flows possible? What if this computer were also connected to traffic signals, further guiding traffic?
Ground Rules -- the Overlord Computer
For the sake of this idea, let's assume that the Overlord Computer, or OLC for short, is a cubic acre uber-super-computer in a bomb-proof, earfquake-proof basement with super-redundancy backups. Let's assume that the OLC's algorithyms and formulas and whatever voodoo magic that makes computers work would take into account all kinds of traffic patterns and variations, because I'm sure there are PhDs out there in traffic flow stuffy. Basically, do exactly what I hate about a lot of movies -- let's explain a lot of stuff by using the mystical computer.
Still, a computer with complex traffic flow algorythems isn't that crazy a concept and using computers to map traffic flow patterns and create models has been done since computers came to be. Still with me? Great.
Why / How it Could Work
Any red-blooded American knows that this would never fly in America, mainly due to Americans being convinced that "big brother" is watching them, intense privacy issues, and a general disdain of being told what to do. Any red-blooded American would cut the wires on the transmitter part of the unit. Any red-blooded American would look at where the navigation system was telling them to go, roll down the window, extend his or her middle finger, proclaim that all other motorists were "sheep", and go their own, "better" way. All motorists would do this at the same time. Chaos would ensue, and the project would be a bust.
But this is Japan, baby!
In Japan, though, where there are a lot of roads but it's still ridiculously congested, I think this could work. One thing a lot of people notice when they visit Japan is that there are no "piece of shit cars" on the road. This is because each car must go through a very strict inspection every few years, and fixing problems is so prohibitively expensive that most people just opt for a newer car. Also, Japanese people like buying new stuff and don't like being seen with older models of goods. Because of this, in a few years, almost every car will be equipped with some manner of navigation system. Further, the GPS tranceiver system could be a part of the inspection process, so even if a car doesn't have an up-to-date navigation system, the OLC would at least know and account for the car's location, direction, and speed.
One way that social change is enacted in Japan is by social pressure or shame. You see it all the time. On TV, there has been a recent campaign for "smoking manners" and to use "portable ashtrays".
People carry these around and ash in them. It's become shiek. Recycling is another example of this sort of marketing. Japanese people are insane about recycling, more so than Americans, but if you ask any one of them what happens to their garbage, why it's sorted the way it is, etc, they have no idea, but they all do it. The launching of this OLC traffic system would be preceded by a huge PR campaign. YOU can help solve Japan's congestion problem. Follow your navigation system like everyone else. Everyone wins.
Another thing Japanese people love (again, more than Americans) are "point cards." Every where you go, you get a point card, which result in discounts later on. One way to make this system work (because people aren't that giving) is to give points based on how much you actually follow the OLC's guidance. These points can be redeemed at, say, toll ways (Japanese highways are not free), trains, convenience stores, etc.. It's amazing how fast a population's sense of Civic Duty will increase when you start throwing in free shit.
Another problem would be hackers. What's to keep some 14 year old in Romania from diverting all traffic into Tokyo bay? Good question. Possibly a secondary failsafe system that would activate in such a case. Another benefit would be that in order to hack the system, one would have to hack the Japanese cell infrastructure. I think it'd be tough. I'm probably wrong though. But making transmissions cell-based might complicate things. Also, if the system's infrastructure were also cell-based, individual cells could be shut down or rerouted to other cells. Uber redundancy, given Japan's cell coverage. Even if the system shit the bed, cars' internal navigation systems would still get people where they need to go until the problem is solved.
Again, I'm probably wrong, but it sounds good.
Here's why it Needs to Happen
For the sake of Japan's traffic, that's why. It's freakin congested here. Japan could serve as a model to other countries. If it works, and it will, it will sell itself. One thing people hate is sitting in traffic. If listening to the OLC's commands allowed you to roll more, even at a slightly slower rate, people would love it.
The biggest reason though is that sometime in the future, cars are going to be automated. You know it's going to happen. Japan already has cars that parallel park themselves. There are contests every year where students and virgins submit autonomous cars in a distance race. Results have been shakey at best, but it's going to happen. with no OLC-like system firmly in place, these automated cars will be automated bumper cars. The already established OLC infrastructure will eventually serve as a guidance system for future driver-less cars. I don't think that we will ever have flying cars -- gravity is as unforgiving as it is a factor in everything in the universe -- but I think automated cars are a possibility, and they'll need a mother brain.
So that's my idea. Or rather an old idea that is most likely google-able, but I don't want to google it because I prefer to maintain the illusion (read: delusion) that I thought it up first.