Driving itself is changing. Between electric and self-driving vehicles, ubiquitous sensors, network connectivity, and new kinds of transportation companies, everything is in flux: cars, how we feel about them, even roads and cities. This isn’t just hypothetical; you can use these things today. A radical phase shift is redrawing the map, literally and metaphorically. ... the new tools and technologies for moving around are interesting; put them together and you get something profound. Connect these new systems and individual networks to each other and they self-assemble into a transportation super-network. It’s decentralized, offers multiple routes from node to node, carries any kind of person or thing to any kind of place, and adjusts itself in real time. ... Sound familiar? Of course it does. That’s how the Internet works. ... To the new transportation supernetwork, you and I are just data. It doesn’t matter where we want to go; it just knows how to get us there—faster, cheaper, and utterly in control.
The United States Air Force, which runs the G.P.S. Master Control Station, in Colorado, calls G.P.S. “the world’s only global utility.” Wholly owned by the U.S. government, the system is available free to everyone, everywhere; an ISIS terrorist glancing at his phone for a position fix benefits from the Pentagon’s largesse as much as a commuter on I-95. Since the first G.P.S. satellite was launched, in 1978, the system has steadily become the most powerful of its kind. (Other countries have navigation satellite networks, but none are as dependable or as widely available.) There are now around seven G.P.S. receivers on this planet for every ten people. Estimates of the system’s economic value often run into the trillions of dollars. ... The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently determined that, within thirty seconds of a catastrophic G.P.S. shutdown, a position reading would have a margin of error the size of Washington, D.C. After an hour, it would be Montana-sized. Drivers might miss their freeway exits, but planes would also be grounded, ships would drift off course, commuter-rail systems would be tied up, and millions of freight-train cars with G.P.S. beacons would disappear from the map. ... Fortunately, a worldwide G.P.S. failure is unlikely. A hacker or terrorist would require either a weapon powerful enough to destroy the satellites or a way to infiltrate the heavily fortified Master Control Station. The bigger worry is spoofing, the transmission of a bogus G.P.S. signal that nearby receivers mistake for the real thing.
The costs of air traffic control have continued to rise, as has the size of the controller workforce. Decades of steadily increasing air traffic have put excess pressure on air traffic controllers. Planes fly around the clock, and the greenest controllers get saddled with overnight or odd shifts, often stuck in a dark room while senior employees opt for cushy positions in places with little air traffic and good weather. ... It's a mess. But it doesn't have to be this way. ... While the FAA accepted this kind of GPS-based system in theory, it took years to develop compatibility software to allow controllers to receive radar-like position information for their screens. Once this system became operational in Pacific and North Atlantic airspace, it took the FAA more than a decade of testing to adopt a similar program for domestic airspace. In 2003, the FAA put an indefinite hold on development. It wasn't until 2012 that the program relaunched with the capability to begin this year. Even so, it won't be fully operational until 2025. ... The FAA, a government agency, must prove competitive due diligence and receive authorized appropriations from Congress, whose representatives aren't always motivated to close down obsolete facilities, especially if it means losing jobs in their districts. Even the FAA's current plan for bringing in satellite-based nav relies heavily on radar as a backup for GPS surveillance, which reduces funding for a new and modern system. ... Sometimes a controller literally calls the next person in line. Sometimes controllers pass information written on plain old paper. ... What if the business of air traffic control were to break off from the FAA, freeing the system from the bureaucracy of a federal government agency? This isn't just idle talk. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized agency created by the United Nations to manage aviation standards among its 191 member states, recommends all nations separate air traffic control from aviation safety agencies. While nearly all member countries do so, the United States has not.
Next year it will be 60 years since people first witnessed the majesty of a satellite being launched into orbit: Sputnik 1, hurled into the night sky in Kazakhstan early on October 5th 1957. ... Just 15 years separated the launch of the first satellite and the return of the last man from the moon, years in which anything seemed possible. But having won the space race, America saw no benefit in carrying on. Instead it developed a space shuttle meant to make getting to orbit cheap, reliable and routine. More than 100 shuttle flights between 1981 to 2011 went some way to realising the last of those goals, despite two terrible accidents. The first two were never met. Getting into space remained a risky and hideously expensive proposition, taken up only by governments and communications companies, each for their own reasons. ... New rockets, though, are not the only exciting development. The expense of getting into space during the 1980s and 1990s led some manufacturers to start shrinking the satellites used for some sorts of mission, creating “smallsats”. Since then the amount a given size of satellite can do has been boosted by developments in computing and electronics. This has opened up both new ways of doing old jobs and completely novel opportunities. ... No single technology ties together this splendid gaggle of ambitions. But there is a common technological approach that goes a long way to explaining it; that of Silicon Valley. Even if for now most of the money being spent in space remains with old government programmes and incumbent telecom providers, space travel is moving from the world of government procurement and aerospace engineering giants to the world of venture-capital-funded startups and business plans that rely on ever cheaper services provided to ever more customers.
But after stopping on a desolate gravel road next to a sign for a gas station, Santillan got the feeling that the voice might be steering him wrong. He’d already been driving for nearly an hour, yet the ETA on the GPS put his arrival time at around 5:20 P.M., eight hours later. He reentered his destination and got the same result. Though he sensed that something was off, he made a conscious choice to trust the machine. He had come here for an adventure, after all, and maybe it knew where he was really supposed to go. ... It’s comforting to know where you are, to see yourself distilled into a steady blue icon gliding smoothly along a screen. With a finger tap or a short request to Siri or Google Now—which, like other smartphone tools, rely heavily on data from cell towers and Wi-Fi hot spots as well as satellites—a wonderful little trail appears on your device, beckoning you to follow. ... The convenience comes at a price, however. There’s the creepy Orwellian fact of Them always knowing where We are (or We always knowing where They are). More concerning are the navigation-fail horror stories that have become legend. ... Enough people have been led astray by their GPS in Death Valley that the area’s former wilderness coordinator called the phenomenon “death by GPS.” ... By turning on a GPS every time we head somewhere new, we’re also cutting something fundamental out of the experience of traveling: the adventures and surprises that come with finding—and losing—our way. ... Individuals who frequently navigate complex environments the old-fashioned way, by identifying landmarks, literally grow their brains.
Consider the number of networked cameras that capture data about you as you go about your day. Surveillance cameras are mounted in offices, stores, public transportation; on city streets, ATM machines, and car dashboards. You or your neighbors may have installed cameras to watch over your front door; you may have a webcam watching over your valuables—perhaps even your children. Security cameras are virtually everywhere, installed both to provide a record if a crime is committed and to deter people from committing a crime in the first place. Based on an exhaustive survey of the number of such cameras in one English county in 2011, it was estimated there were 2 million surveillance cameras in the United Kingdom alone—about one camera for every thirty people. ... Generalizing this to the rest of the world, there are about 100 million cameras watching public spaces, all day and all night. Yet, this is only one-tenth of the 1 billion cameras on smartphones. Within the next few years, there will be one networked camera for every single person on the planet. ... If technology continues to follow Moore’s Law, doubling the computing power available at the same price every 18 months, we will very likely be sharing the world with roughly 1 trillion sensors by 2020, in line with projections from Bosch, HP, IBM, and others. ... If everything is recorded, will it encourage "better" behavior? And how will the lack of any recording be interpreted?
Although robotic ships of this sort are some ways off in the future, it’s not a question of if they will happen but when. My colleagues and I at Rolls-Royce anticipate that the first commercial vessel to navigate entirely by itself could be a harbor tug or a ferry designed to carry cars the short distance across the mouth of a river or a fjord and that it or similar ships will be in commercial operation within the next few years. And we expect fully autonomous oceangoing cargo ships to be routinely plying the world’s seas in 10 or 15 years’ time. ... Remotely controlled ships, piloted by people on shore, and autonomous ships, which can take actions for themselves, are the latest beneficiaries of increasing digital connectivity and intelligence. These developments in electronic sensors, telecommunications, and computing have sparked interest in a range of autonomous vehicles including cars, planes, helicopters, trains, and now ships. ... That people should be seriously interested in robotic ships is easy enough to explain: Such ships are expected to be safer, more efficient, and cheaper to run. According to a report published by the Munich-based insurance company Allianz in 2012, between 75 and 96 percent of marine accidents are a result of human error, often a result of fatigue.