Nature Machine

[Image: Illustration by Benjamin Marra for the New York Times Magazine].

As part of a package of shorter articles in the New York Times Magazine exploring the future implications of self-driving vehicles—how they will affect urban design, popular culture, and even illegal drug activity—writer Malia Wollan focuses on “the end of roadkill.”

Her premise is fascinating. Wollan suggests that the precision driving enabled by self-driving vehicle technology could put an end to vehicular wildlife fatalities. Bears, deer, raccoons, panthers, squirrels—even stray pets—might all remain safe from our weapons-on-wheels. In the process, self-driving cars would become an unexpected ally for wildlife preservation efforts, with animal life potentially experiencing dramatic rebounds along rural and suburban roads. This will be both good and bad. One possible outcome sounds like a tragicomic Coen Brothers film about apocalyptic animal warfare in the American suburbs:

Every year in the United States, there are an estimated 1.5 million deer-vehicle crashes. If self-driving cars manage to give deer safe passage, the fast-reproducing species would quickly grow beyond the ability of the vegetation to sustain them. “You’d get a lot of starvation and mass die-offs,” says Daniel J. Smith, a conservation biologist at the University of Central Florida who has been studying road ecology for nearly three decades… “There will be deer in people’s yards, and there will be snipers in towns killing them,” [wildlife researcher Patricia Cramer] says.

While these are already interesting points, Wollan explains that, for this to come to pass, we will need to do something very strange. We will need to teach self-driving cars how to recognize nature.

“Just how deferential [autonomous vehicles] are toward wildlife will depend on human choices and ingenuity. For now,” she adds, “the heterogeneity and unpredictability of nature tends to confound the algorithms. In Australia, hopping kangaroos jumbled a self-driving Volvo’s ability to measure distance. In Boston, autonomous-vehicle sensors identified a flock of sea gulls as a single form rather than a collection of individual birds. Still, even the tiniest creatures could benefit. ‘The car could know: “O.K., this is a hot spot for frogs. It’s spring. It’s been raining. All the frogs will be moving across the road to find a mate,”’ Smith says. The vehicles could reroute to avoid flattening amphibians on that critical day.”

One might imagine that, seen through the metaphoric eyes of a car’s LiDAR array, all those hopping kangaroos appeared to be a single super-body, a unified, moving wave of flesh that would have appeared monstrous, lumpy, even grotesque. Machine horror.

What interests me here is that, in Wollan’s formulation, “nature” is that which remains heterogeneous and unpredictable—that which remains resistant to traditional representation and modeling—yet this is exactly what self-driving car algorithms will have to contend with, and what they will need to recognize and correct for, if we want them to avoid colliding with a nonhuman species.

In particular, I love Wollan’s use of the word “deferential.” The idea of cars acting with deference to the natural world, or to nonhuman species in general, opens up a whole other philosophical conversation. For example, what is the difference between deference and reverence, and how we might teach our fellow human beings, let alone our machines, to defer to, even to revere, the natural world? Put another way, what does it mean for a machine to “encounter” the wild?

Briefly, Wollan’s piece reminded me of Robert MacFarlane’s excellent book The Wild Places for a number of reasons. Recall that book’s central premise: the idea that wilderness is always closer than it appears. Roadside weeds, overgrown lots, urban hikes, peripheral species, the ground beneath your feet, even the walls of the house around you: these all constitute “wilderness” at a variety of scales, if only we could learn to recognize them as such. Will self-driving cars spot “nature” or “wilderness” in sites where humans aren’t conceptually prepared to see it?

The challenge of teaching a car how to recognize nature thus takes on massive and thrilling complexity here, all wrapped up in the apparently simple goal of ending roadkill. It’s about where machines end and animals begin—or perhaps how technology might begin before the end of wilderness.

In any case, Wollan’s short piece is worth reading in full—and don’t miss a much earlier feature she wrote on the subject of roadkill for the New York Times back in 2010.

A Traffic Jam is a Collection of Rooms

[Images: The micro-culture of the motorway; images courtesy Associated Press/Wall Street Journal].

It was hard to miss the story last month that a 62-mile long traffic jam had formed in China, becoming a near-permanent feature of that nation’s roadway system. It lasted nine full days, in a state of almost perfect gridlock. NPR reported that drivers simply turned off their cars and slept for 8 hours at a time.

A temporary micro-culture of the motorway soon emerged: “Villagers along Highway 110 took advantage of the jam,” the Wall Street Journal reported, “selling drivers packets of instant noodles from roadside stands and, when traffic was at a standstill, moving between trucks and cars to hawk their wares. Truck drivers, when they weren’t complaining about the vendors overcharging for the food, kept busy playing card games.”

[Images: The traffic jam as scene from Dante; images courtesy Associated Press/Wall Street Journal].

But what if another such traffic jam were to form again? Where role might there be for architecture? Clip-on awnings, zip-up tent walls, velcro-connected halls and corridors spanning car-to-car and truck door to truck door, even crawlable tunnels for kids, with mobile parks on flatbed trucks, whole canopies held down by duct tape, antennas repurposed as anchors for tarps and makeshift roofs. Outdoor cinemas are formed. Social cliques develop.

The spatial infrastructure of the permanent traffic jam kicks in: guerrilla, unfoldable, pack-into-a-backpack-able, made from lightweight materials—ripstop fabrics and military-grade rope—a city takes shape on the highway, with every car, bus, truck, and motorcycle a luxury room or repurposed piece of home furniture.

[Image: Courtesy of Newscom and the Christian Science Monitor].

Lock this in place a few years and give it a postcode. Children are born there. Like Dan Hill‘s quip that “There are 500000 people airborne at any one time. A drifting airborne city, the size of Helsinki, a few meters tall, threaded around [the] globe,” this city-on-the-road would be named, memorialized, revisited. New highways would simply thread around it, abandoning the vehicles to their stationary fate as their tires drain of air and engines stall forever.

Generations later, the fact that, down in the mud and dust beneath your metropolis, you can find abandoned frames and chassis from the city’s founding traffic jam, will be impossible to believe—a run-of-the-mill urban legend. Archaeologists will argue over the best sites to excavate to find truck doors and ancient oil spills down there in the formerly mobile foundations of the city.

Even David Greene of Archigram once wrote that “a traffic jam is a collection of rooms.”

[Image: From Archigram].

“We also know that a traffic jam is a collection of rooms,” Greene wrote in a short text called “Gardener’s notebook,” and “so is a car park—they are really instantly formed and constantly changing communities. A drive-in restaurant ceases to exist when the cars are gone (except for cooking hardware). A motorized environment is a collection of service points.”

On the level of architecture, then, what could we do to prepare for the impending return of the near-permanent Chinese traffic jam? What prosthetic walls, floors, ceilings, and corridors—what new families of clip-on architectural forms—could we explore?

Traffic Walls™—an instant city brought to you by North Face and the GA Tech School of Architecture. Easily deployed. Houses up to 10,000 people. Machine-washable.