Transportation – A New Approach
Our current transportation system is unsustainable and when it comes to improving it, we tend to take an incremental approach – increase fuel efficiencies by 5%, add high speed rail or more carpool lanes, but incremental can only take you so far. If we gave everyone an an electric car, we’d still have congestion. So rather than the incremental approach, I propose we try something different. Let’s first design the ultimate transportation system and THEN decide if it’s possible. So what would this ultimate transportation system look like? First, the system must be fully automated. An automated system is a safe system. Automated vehicles would see in all directions and in complete darkness. An automated vehicle would never tire or be distracted by children. It would have nearly instantaneous response times and the combined knowledge of every vehicle in the system. It would save thousands of lives, not to mention countless injuries. An automated system is an efficient system. Vehicles would know exactly which route to take and how much braking force to apply. In fact automated vehicles would rarely break at all, instead moving through the system in precise coordination with every other vehicle. An automated system provides mobility for everyone – young people, the elderly, the handicapped, and freight would move through the system with no human intervention at all. Second, the system must provide door-to-door service. Eighty-six percent of all miles travelled are by automobile, not public transit. That’s because people are either unable or unwilling to make transfers. Nobody wants to lug groceries between bus and light rail and for most of us the bus does not stop at our doorstep. Only an individualized transportation system can accomplish this. In transportation this is known as the “last mile” problem, the mile that is most difficult to service. So in our design we will stipulate that the vehicles will take you directly to where you want to go, WITHOUT transfers and WITHOUT stopping. Finally, our system must be energy efficient. It must take you from point A to point B using the LEAST amount of energy. And that requires an electric motor. Gasoline engines operate at 15% efficiency, electric motors at 80% efficiency. Gasoline engines create exhaust. Electric motors are clean, quiet, and extremely reliable. Finally, electricity is energy agnostic, meaning the source is whatever makes the most sense – wind, solar, nuclear, or all of the above. So this brings us to an important design decision. Do our vehicles run an asphalt or in rails? The answer is rails. The inherent problem with the electric car is the battery. It makes an otherwise environmentally friendly design, environmentally unfriendly. A system that runs on rails doesn’t need a battery, instead drawing power directly from the rail. And it’s not the deadly third rail you might imagine. 48 volts is sufficient to move individualized vehicles. It’s the same voltage many amusement park rides use. But aren’t rails too restrictive? Not really. Think about everywhere you traveled today, everywhere you go hundreds of people travel those very same roads, day after day, and if we overlay rail on top those very same roads, you have the same mobility. And there are other advantages to rail. Vehicles are much easier to control. No bouncing off potholes are sliding off the road. And once you built the system, rails cost less to maintain. Finally, rails are environmentally friendly since you’re not running rubber tires over asphalt. So we have individualized vehicles running over our existing road infrastructure on rails. Since all vehicles must perform reliably, individual ownership is no longer practical. Vehicles would instead be a shared resource, a sort of automated taxi service. You just call up a vehicle, ride to your destination, and step out, leaving it free to seek out the next passenger. And like a taxi, you would pay by the mile. The other advantage of a shared resource is that you only need enough vehicles to cover peak usage. And since automobiles spend the vast majority of their time parked, we need a lot fewer vehicles. Fewer vehicles to produce, fewer vehicles to maintain. And just imagine what we can do with all the parking spaces we no longer need. We could turn parking lots into parks, gas stations into rest stops, and since the system wouldn’t require the full road surface, we’d have a lot more room for bicycles and pedestrians. So how can we convert from the system we have now to the system we’ve described? The challenge isn’t the technology to run automated vehicles. DARPA’s design contests and Google’s driverless cars prove we already have the technology. In fact it’s actually a lot harder running automated vehicles on asphalt roads shared with humans. A design that instead restricts vehicles to rails would be much easier to implement. The real challenge would be the transition. It would need to happen fast to minimize disruption. We would convert entire cities, one neighborhood at a time, not in months or weeks, but in days. Remember, we’re not bulldozing new roads, we’re mounting rails atop the existing ones. It would look a bit like how a child assembles a toy train set. As quickly as each prefabricated rail section is installed it would be ready for use. How fast could we lay down rail? In 1869 a record ten miles of rail was laid in a single day. And this was at a time when they used horses and pickaxes, not modern construction equipment. If the record back then was 10 miles, just imagine how many miles WE can install in a single day. So there you have it. This is one vision for the future of transportation. Perhaps you have another. Ultimately the numbers will dictate the solution. Each proposal must address the same basic design requirements listed earlier: safety, convenience, efficiency. And each design has a cost, both in dollars and to the environment. I understand that people like to drive – so do I. And it will always be places to drive, fun places. But nobody enjoys sitting in traffic or searching for parking spaces. The reality is that our current system is just not sustainable. At what point do we decide that there are too many cars on the road? Incremental is not going to solve this. We need to think beyond small changes. It’s time to reinvent transportation.