John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
What would happen if you took every neat idea in the realm of public works and piled them all onto one city vehicle?
Cities are always trying to build a better municipal fleet. From Boston wanting to turn road workers into automatic pothole detectors to the prospect of compressed natural gas powering the buses of Columbia, Missouri, experimentation in the realm of vehicular problem-solving is booming.
But what would happen if you took every neat idea in the realm of public works and piled them all onto one city vehicle? Probably it would 1) get stolen and sold on the black market for millions of dollars, and 2) weigh so much it would be outpaced by a sloth. Still, it's a wonderful idea: Strap a pavement-measuring laser, a GPS, a robotic weed-killing spritzer and a whole bucketload of other neat gadgets to a carbon-fiber body, and create the Ultimate Municipal Supertruck of the Future! You can see what it would look like in the highly realistic illustration above (don't steal my idea), which is based on real technologies that public works, transportation and police agencies around America are using or plan to implement soon.
Here's the key:
a. High-definition cameras for "asset management"
Cities need to keep a good handle on the condition of their roadsigns, lest an incorrect or non-reflective one directs somebody into a train tunnel or an alligator-filled lake. Back in the day, this task fell into the hands of road crews, who would laboriously go inspect each sign. But with the advent of better computers and HD video, a government truck can now take a spin around the city while recording everything on the roadway. The footage is then analyzed by a company like Fugro Roadware, which quickly IDs problems. The cameras can also pick up on faded pavement markings, clogged drains, missing manhole covers and other dangers of the road.
b. Pain ray
Patrolling the streets in post-apocalyptic America could be dangerous, what with all those blobs of sentient pink slime. The Pentagon's experimental pain ray, aka the Active Denial System, could go a long way toward deterring unwanted encounters. (OK, you caught us. While this is a real thing, no city anywhere is considering adding this one to its municipal vehicles. The rest are all real, though!).
c. Leaf sucker
A single city truck could hold many functions in the future. Chattanooga, Tennessee, is already moving that way, purchasing Swiss Army Knives on wheels that function as dump trucks, leaf trucks and snow plows.
The satellite system has become popular among local governments, who use it to keep tabs on public-works employees and make sure they're not, you know, getting a city vehicle washed by strippers. Seattle uses GPS on 55 snow plows and sand spreaders as well as its mail-dispatch vehicles. Explains city spokesperson Katherine Schubert-Knapp:
This project allows us to monitor the deployment of snow equipment efficiently through the practice of roadway priorities, giving us a real time record of the truck locations and current function. An additional part of this project was the integration of a messaging component that can provide alternate routing information through an on board GPS map display, as well as text messaging providing the driver with more information regarding the current route. This additional information reduces missed stops and route duplication, and provides more up to date and accurate situational information for the operations center.
The City’s central mail dispatch vehicles are also using a GPS system to provide routing information to the drivers. This system is connected to live traffic reports, and enables smart routing with respect to live traffic situations. The system also allows for dispatch routing for on-demand user requested stops. Data provided by this system is used to refine and optimize mail and delivery routes to minimize time and fuel consumption. With the routing optimized and the ability to offer live dispatching of drivers, more departments have been able to eliminate underutilized internal mail systems and eliminate redundant vehicle use.
e. Parking-scofflaw detector (on the back left panel)
Again proving its foward-thinkingness, Seattle has outfitted a pair of police vans with cameras that automatically read the text on license plates. If the cameras find a match in the city's database of scofflaw vehicles, a parking officer gets out and slaps a Paylock boot on that baby.
f. Streetlight sensor
Boston says it's working on obtaining a device that automatically detects burnt-out streetlights. These reports are fed into a central digital repository, and crews rush out (or get to it in their own sweet time, perhaps) to screw in a fresh bulb.
g. Weed destroyer
Hunting down and killing weeds growing around curbs is a time-consuming process, and detracts from other urban fix-it projects like pothole repair. Into the picture comes the WeedSeeker, a system that affixes to the bottom of a street sweeper and sprays weeds with poison while city workers go about cleaning the roads. How's it work? According to the WeedSeeker website, "The sensor surveys the ground for the presence of chlorophyll. If a plant is detected, a valve activates the nozzle to spray a controlled amount of herbicide." Lakeport, California, has purchased one of the devices, and its public-works superintendant Douglas Grider is a fan:
"Now some people think if a little bit [of herbicide] is good, then a whole lot more is better," he says. "With that mentality, 250 gallons of herbicide can be gone after only five or 10 blocks. The really great thing about this new system is you take away that variable completely. It does away with someone walking along or driving along and having to think when to turn the spray on or off and guessing how much is enough."
Your comfort on the road depends a great deal on the pavement's "transverse profile," measured by all the little ruts in the road. Some cities use lasers mounted on road trucks to detect these grooves and calculate their depth to determine if a repaving job is necessary. Theoretically, the lasers could also be pointed upward to scare away nuisance birds like grackles, a la Fort Worth.
i. Fuel-conserving doodads
Gas is expensive. Some cities, like Seattle, have figured out ways to conserve every precious drop. "City policy requires factory-installed idle shut-down timers be installed on all diesel engines," says PIO Schubert-Knapp. These timers cut off rumbling engines after 5 to 10 minutes of inactivity. Similarly, most of Seattle's new vehicles use generators instead of power inverters. Says Schubert-Knapp: "The theory is that the city would rather have a small generator producing power, than a large chassis engine idling to supply that same amount of power. This saves fuel and wear and tear on the internal combustion engine."
j. Pavement-quality cameras
These downward-facing cameras capture the condition of the pavement in great detail. Roads that are too rough get a fresh coat of asphalt. Tucson, Arizona, has tested out this camera system and reports that it made a quality check that used to take weeks a matter of just two to three days.
It's a rough time for cash-strapped cities. So why not open up the municipal fleet to advertising? New Jersey recently passed a law to do just that, becoming the eighth state to allow mattress companies and pizza-makers to sponsor government vehicles.