During March of 2013 I had the opportunity to experience the world's most sophisticated transportation system first-hand. Natural scientists have printed forests' worth of scholarship on the honeybee's dance and lowly ant's pheromone trail. It is truly an act of divine wonder that creatures are able to organize traffic flows between colonies and food sources, unearthing the optimal path balancing safety and speed -- and all without need for top-down control mechanisms like the ubiquitous robocop with its red, amber and green lights. Yet had these scientists set aside their magnifying glasses and used their time to study a little Arabic, they could have gleaned a decade's worth of research by speaking to the average Cairo driver.
Egypt is unlike anywhere else on earth. The cultural capital of the Middle East, the country has retained its unique approach to life in spite of regional tumult and the revolving glass door at the top. Although the country's public infrastructure and economy has been battered in recent times, it remains a bucket list destination for lovers of antiquities, religion, and sheesha alike.
A city of 9.5 million people with little public infrastructure, the city's transportation networks rely on peer-to-peer communication and the natural evolution of traffic lanes. It is not uncommon to find a six-lane, divided highway operating with traffic flows alternating direction lane-to-lane. Need to make a left turn in the middle of a block to drive down a sidewalk? No problem habibi. Just hold out your hand and point left; the traffic will accommodate you.
Cairo is proof incarnate that top-down, government control of traffic (and life?) is unnecessarily burdensome. It is here that I predict the transportation industry will face its John Henry moment for autonomy. Though mere mortals, we are naturally tuned to the vibe of the cities we inhabit. Mechanical responses to automobiles crossing into your lane presupposes that those dotted yellow lines bear the sign and seal of a government ultimately in control of your actions. How will they cope when the rule of law is negotiated peer-to-peer?
Connected cars may hold part of the answer. Vehicles able to communicate to one another harness the power to eschew the traffic norms of today in favor of more organic, efficient transportation flows. Seen in this light, Cairo represents ideal proving grounds for proponents of this mode of autonomy. At its most extreme, this form of transport could also overcome dilapidated roadways. Want to take advantage of the median between highways? Purchase a connected 4x4.
This connected transportation paradigm also offers an opportunity for Egypt's ruling party to define the cultural norm of its future. Will regulation affirm the democratic ideals of equality on the roads? Or will the government use its powers to promote a class system typified by other regional powers? The answer to this question may well determine the duration of the current party's rule.
For now, Egypt remains on the rebound with the need to restore basic government services spanning healthcare to security. This will beget the return of tourism, and with it the economy. In the meantime Cairo's traffic will continue to operate with the same natural instincts it has always followed. Who knows? Perhaps it is all part of a larger plan to leapfrog evolutions in transportation design in preparation for connected cars. It is, after all, the most sophisticated transportation system I have ever experienced.
Nick B. is a guest contributor to APEX. He is a journeyman adventure junky with a passion for technology, ethics and culture. He currently resides in New York City with his wife, two kids and two dogs.