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Suffering for motor control

From personal phone to personal transport, according to speakers at the 'Transport in the New Millennium' conference organised by the Transport research group at the Royal College of Art, it is but a small step into the future - though one which seems to require an awful lot of deliberation by industry and government alike.

A 'driverless taxi' actually exists in prototype and is the subject of trials in Paris. The small, emission-free, mobile modules, operated by smart cards, return by remote control to collection points after use. Speed and spacing on the roads are likewise remotely controlled through a beacon-based infrastructure, solving the problem of traffic accidents.

According to prospective London mayor Steven Norris, such a scheme is 'perfectly financable in the private sector' - as was the underground system when launched last century. He believes that the driverless taxi, alongside other developments - the elimination of routine shopping trips through Internet technology, for instance - will deal with the issues of chemical pollution and congestion, and soon: 'people won't tolerate a world where mobility means destruction of the planet.'

But according to 'deep green' Mayer Hillman, of the Policy Studies Institute, we are fooling ourselves if we think we can overhaul our transport systems to the necessary extent in time to prevent climatic catastrophe: a reduction of emissions by 90 per cent within the next ten to fifteen years. Hillman has no doubt that the only possible solution is for the inhabitants of the western world - where we each travel, on average, 29 km a day - 'to completely revise expectations of mobility and travel.' As he points out, no transport system can ever allow the equivalent freedom of movement and access as the car, and we have to accept that we can no longer make these kinds of journeys.

Not only does the next generation face environmental catastrophe. According to new research, children who are unable to walk freely around their neighbourhoods are intellectually less developed, have more difficulty in making decisions about their lives, and less motor control, by five, than those who do enjoy that freedom.

Predictably, Hillman's warnings met initially with anger and even derision from the floor, where the general consensus was that 'there's no point trying to sell people the idea that they've got to suffer.' Nick Talbot of Seymour Powell helped fuel a spirit of optimism with his view that, 'we can improve things straight away', based on research and development already undertaken by the automotive industry. He asks why the government is not investing the massive duty it receives from fuel sales (about 84p in the pound) in radical action. The answer seems evident from the exhibition, 'Moving Objects', at the rca, which is dedicated to the glamourisation of car design, with no reference to environmental implications and the need to develop alternatives. Sponsored by Ford, it is a testimony to the power of the multi-nationals.

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