Wanis Kabbaj: Can We Improve Our Transportation Network Using.. Biology? Wanis Kabbaj wants traffic to flow smoothly and efficiently, like the blood in our veins. He says driverless cars may be the solution to today's highway gridlock.
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Can We Improve Our Transportation Network Using...Biology?

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Can We Improve Our Transportation Network Using...Biology?

Can We Improve Our Transportation Network Using...Biology?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today the Power of Networks, the forces that connect us and the connections we build for ourselves. Can you tell me about your - like, your typical morning drive into work?

WANIS KABBAJ: (Laughter) Absolutely terrible, mind-numbing. For one thing, it lasts at least an hour and a half. And the interesting thing is that six years ago over the same distance, you know, my commute was 45 minutes.

RAZ: This is Wanis Kabbaj.

KABBAJ: And I'm a director of health care strategy at UPS.

RAZ: Wanis works at UPS headquarters in Atlanta. And, yes, every day he spends three hours in his car going to and from work.

So what is the distance from your home to your office?

KABBAJ: Every morning, I drive for 25 miles.

RAZ: So 25 miles takes you about an hour and a half every day?

KABBAJ: Yes. Yes.

RAZ: What is the problem? Is it just more people? Is it - or is it just more people who don't know how to drive or what?

KABBAJ: I think it's the success of a system that was invented in the late 19th century, beginning of the 20th century. You know, we're reaching the point where the productivity of the system is going down. And the basic problem is that the idea that most people living in a city can use their own individual car to go to work. It's just impossible with the infrastructure that has been built.

RAZ: Now, Wanis happens to know a lot about transportation networks. Of course he would. He works at UPS, and he works mainly with health care clients. These are customers that need UPS to deliver medicine all over the world.

KABBAJ: Exactly. It goes from the very familiar process of distributing flu vaccines every year at flu season to things that are very unpredictable like the Ebola crisis or...

RAZ: Yeah.

KABBAJ: ...Where you have to intervene very quickly with no infrastructure, and you have to come up with solutions.

RAZ: And the more he talked to these companies, the more Wanis started to change the way he thinks about transportation networks.

KABBAJ: I work with pharmaceutical companies, and they occasionally talk about drug delivery and when they talk about drug delivery, we say, yeah, yeah. We can do that. We deliver all sorts of drugs, and the customer will typically say, no, no, no, we're not talking about the drug delivery to the patient. We're talking about the drug delivery to the cells inside the body. And so this type of conversation just made me realize that, you know, you have a fascinating transportation system within our body where if you ingest a pill, it will go from your digestive system to your bloodstream, and ultimately needs to go to potentially a specific area to produce and affect.

RAZ: The human body has a pretty efficient network to move things around inside of us. And this idea made Wanis think maybe we could take some of those lessons from biology and use them to improve the transportation networks in our cities. Here's Wanis on the TED stage.


KABBAJ: Biology has been in the transportation business for billions of years. It has been testing countless solutions to move nutrients, gases and proteins. It really is the world's most sophisticated transportation laboratory. So what if the solution to our traffic challenges was inside us? I wanted to know why is it that blood flows in our veins most of our life when our big cities get clogged on a daily basis? Each of us has 60,000 miles of blood vessels in our bodies - 60,000 miles. That's two and a half times the Earth's circumference inside you. What it means is that blood vessels are everywhere inside us, not just under the surface of our skin.

But if you look at our cities, yes, we have some underground subway systems, tunnels and bridges, but the vast majority of our traffic is focused on the ground, on the surface. So in other words while our vascular system uses the three dimensions inside us, our urban transportation is mostly two-dimensional. The reason blood is so incredibly efficient is that our red blood cells are not dedicated to specific organs or tissues. Otherwise, we would probably have traffic jams in our veins. Now, they're shared. They are shared by all the cells of our body.

And because our network is so extensive, each one of our 37 trillion cells get its own deliveries of oxygen precisely when it needs them. Blood is both a collective and an individual form of transportation. But for our cities, we've been stuck in an endless debate between creating a car-centric society or extensive mass transit systems.

RAZ: I mean, it really is amazing when you think about it like how incredibly efficient the human body is at moving things around, right?

KABBAJ: Absolutely. I mean it is absolutely incredible. One thing that I was curious about was the heart. The heart is a pump, and I was curious to estimate how much it would cost us to operate it, you know, if we plugged it on the electrical grid. And I made some calculations and the estimate that I found, you know, in order to operate your heart on a four-year on the electrical grid system, it would cost you $1.10.

RAZ: Wow.

KABBAJ: And I just was mind blown by the - how little energy our body uses to transport oxygen, to transport nutrients. And it just was an impetus for me to dig into it and try to learn more about different components of that transportation system.

RAZ: So I mean what could a - like could the future look like? Like, a future where streets and highways work like our bodies do? Like if you took a city like Atlanta in a hundred years from now, what would all the transport options be like?

KABBAJ: So, I mean, if you think about a city like Atlanta that has a very dense core with very high buildings and high rises, one first striking thing is that you will see more and more vehicles in the air. It doesn't make sense that we've built higher and higher buildings in order to create density, but that our transportation is still mostly flat, mostly horizontal. So you will see flying vehicles, companies like Airbus today are working on flying urban taxis. You have more and more ventures working on drones that can transport people. You may have other layers, horizontal layers of transportation beside the roads.

You may have suspended magnetic trains or parts that transport people. So I think that's one component. A second component is that you will have more driverless pods that people can use that move at a very fast pace in a very smart way that communicate with each other, communicate with the infrastructure. So it will be mesmerizing, but it will be fast-moving and definitely more fluidity in the system.

RAZ: I mean, once driverless cars are real, these cars presumably will be networked. They'll be communicating with each other, there'll be no traffic, there'll be no accidents, there'll be no slowdowns. The car will know exactly where to go, where to park. I mean, won't that sort of fix the problem?

KABBAJ: I think it will be a major solution to our problem. There are already studies that are being made around sharing platforms so vehicles that are shared by multiple users, and we already can see that it has a very positive effect on the congestion level in cities, that one shared vehicle can replace five to seven individual vehicles on the road. That's a big improvement, and the perspective of having these vehicles driverless will push to savings even further once we have these large driverless, infrastructure built in and available.


KABBAJ: Just imagine a very familiar scene. You've been driving for 42 minutes. The two kids behind you are getting restless, and you are late. Do you see that slow car in front of you? Always comes when you're late, right? That driver is looking for parking. There is no parking spot available in the area, but how would he know? It is estimated that up to 30 percent of urban traffic is generated by drivers looking for parking. Do you see the hundred cars around you? Eighty-five of them only have one passenger. Biology would never do this. Space inside our arteries is fully utilized, and the tiny space inside our red blood cells is not wasted either. In healthy conditions, more than 95 percent of their oxygen capacity is utilized. Red blood cells are not flowing in lanes. They never stop at red lights in the first driverless cities, you would have no red lights and no lanes. And when all the cars are driverless and connected, everything is predictable and reaction time - minimum.

They can drive much faster and can take any rational initiative that can speed them up or the cars around them. So instead of rigid traffic rules, flow will be regulated by a mesh of dynamic and constantly self-improving algorithms. The result - a strange traffic that mixes the fast and smooth rigor of German autobahns and the creative vitality of the intersections of Mumbai. Traffic will be functionally exuberant. It will be liquid like our blood and by a strange paradox, the more robotized our traffic grid will be, the more organic and alive its movement will feel.

RAZ: Do you think that in your lifetime, in my lifetime do you think we'll be able to see these networks of connected, driverless cars? I mean, do you think we'll be able to actually solve the transit problem in our cities?

KABBAJ: So, I mean, today, you can hop on a driverless car in Singapore and have a ride in Singapore. You have a city like Dubai that is committed to test autonomous pods to transport people and in our sort of buses that are modular. So I definitely think that we're going to see that. The problem is big enough, the congestion problem is big enough and has such high economic cost that I think the incentive will be pretty high for some very competitive cities to implement innovative solutions. So the combinations of intelligence, capital and the magnitude of this problem just makes me convinced that we are definitely going to see in our lifetime driverless cities that are more fluid. I'm - yeah - absolutely convinced of it.

RAZ: Wanis Kabbaj lives in Atlanta. You can see his entire talk at ted.com.

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