2018-11-06

The Dream Machine



As a young boy, I used to daydream about the future. Often, I daydreamed about my own future, but equally as often, I daydreamed about the world’s future. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. This daydream was vivid for me, I remember it clearly, and it stuck with me all these years, perhaps thirty whole years. The daydream was rather simple.


It occurred to me that automobiles had undergone an incredible evolution since their inception, especially with respect to mechanical efficiency. My father’s 1969 Chevrolet Camaro – truly a classic car if ever there was one – had only four gears, plus reverse. My car today has seven gears, plus reverse. This year’s Rolls-Royce Phantom has, if I remember correctly, twelve gears. These gears make the driving experience smoother and less noisy. They create mechanical efficiency such that the car is able to go faster and smoother with less effort.


With that in mind, my boyhood imagination thought, it stands to reason that bicycles can be made far more efficient than they currently are. Why not increase a bicycle’s mechanical efficiency such that it is capable of driving speeds, with very little effort on the rider’s part? This was an exciting prospect to me. I imagined a network of bicycle highways, full of bicycle riders who could traverse the full length of their morning commutes without breaking a sweat. The highways would be virtually noiseless. Accidents might still occur, but they would tend to be less frequently fatal or maiming; after all, a bike-on-bike accident is far less destructive than bike-on-car accident. Parking would be much improved, too. Not only do bicycles take up less space, but they can generally be parked in more convenient places. Even when they can’t, it’s not completely unreasonable to simply carry them into your destination with you. We’d all save money, since we wouldn’t have to spend so much on gas. The environment would be cleaner, as air pollution and greenhouse gases would be reduced, and oil spills would become very infrequent. Even communing with nature on a daily commute might inspire people to take better care of the environment. There would be virtually no need for speeding tickets, and most stoplights could be replaced with simple roundabouts. Perhaps obesity rates would decline.


My young imagination ran wild with thoughts like these. I’d dream about this alternate universe at night. I imagined riding my bicycle far, far away on clean, empty, silent roads. Not being mechanically inclined, however, I relegated this idea to the world of my imagination. It was something to dream about, but it was not a world I could help create. I had no talent or interest in mechanical engineering or bicycle building.


Today, however, my thoughts turned back to this old dream of mine. Why? Because I discovered the e-bike, ie., the electric bicycle. Electric bicycles are not a new technology, but they are a technology that has advanced quite a bit recently. Battery technologies have improved greatly over my lifetime. Chinese engineering, combined with Chinese demand for low-cost transportation and a local enthusiasm for bicycles, has produced a new line of electric motors that stretch into 1000-watt territory, and beyond. Hydraulic brakes have become commonplace in the biking world. And new materials have enabled manufacturers to explore lightweight bicycle components whose strength is on par with all the traditional bike materials. And, miracle of miracles, free trade has spread far and wide, enabling the efficient and ingenious technological solutions of a Chinese bicycling community to touch the lives of the modern American every-man (to say the least).


These e-bikes are capable of driving at modest automobile speeds without much rider effort, just as it was in my dreams. Most major cities have bike path and bike lane networks, which serve a similar purpose to the bicycle highways of my boyhood dreams. They consume a miniscule amount of electricity and emit no greenhouse gases or air pollution directly.


Well, you get the picture. The pie-in-the-sky wonder-world of my boyhood dreams is practically here. Technology has enabled society to achieve something that was literally only a dream of mine a few decades ago. It’s nothing short of a miracle, the miracle of human ingenuity and economic freedom.


Human progress is a Dream Machine.