I badly documented my latest idea of an ultra-cheap transport system in https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/10/24/an-ultra-cheap-future-transport-system/. I think I need another blog to separate out the idea from the background. Look at my previous blog for the appropriate pictures.
We’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm now for electric cars and in parallel, for self-driving cars. I support both of those, and I like the new Next system that is extremely close to my own ideas from 1987 when I first looked at cars from a performance engineer’s viewpoint and realized that self driving cars could drive millimeters apart, reducing drag and greatly reducing congestion. I estimated back then that they could improve road capacity by a factor of 5. Many others have since simulated such systems and the same factor of 5 has popped up a few times now.
Next have visualized the same idea nicely, but the world is more receptive now. http://www.techinsider.io/italys-next-created-self-driving-pods-that-can-connect-in-motion-to-form-a-train-2015-10
https://youtu.be/Wk12TmZ3GiQ for their nice video, although I’d envisage rather more pods in most areas, almost filling the entire road area.
I’ve lectured in vain many times to persuade authorities to divert investment away from 20th century rail system to roads using self driving cars. The UK’s HS2 system is no more than lipstick on a 20th century pig. Pig it remains, obsolete ages ago, though our idiotic government remains determined to build it anyway, wasting £70Bn even by charitable estimates. Systems similar to Next’s could replace HS2 and reduce journey times for everyone, not just those whose starting point and destination are very close to the terminals. I wish them well. But I think there is an even better solution, that is feasible in a similar time-frame, and I have no doubt they could pick it up and run with it. Or Tesla or Google or Apple or Toyota or any other car company.
My realization is that we don’t need self driving cars either. Take exactly the Next system, with its nicely trapezoidal pods that nest together. They will need a smooth road surface if they are to ride in contact or millimeters apart, or they will constantly bump into each other and create irritating vibration. Make them ride a centimeter or two apart and it will solve that.
Then start looking at each part of the system.
They each have a computer on board to drive the pod. You don’t need that, because everyone has a smart phone now which already has formidable computing power and is connected to the cloud, which has vast amounts more. Together, the entire system can be easily managed without any computers on board at all.
Similarly, much of the internal decor in cars is there to make it look pretty, offer interfaces, information or displays for passenger entertainment. All of that could easily be done by any half-decent augmented reality visor.
Then look at the power supply and engines. We should at the very least expect electric motors to replace fossil fuel engines. Most self-driving cars have expensive batteries, using scarce resources, and lithium batteries may catch fire or explode. So some systems in R&D now use the idea of super-capacitors instead. Furthermore, these could be recharged periodically as they drive over special mats on the road surface, so they could be smaller, lighter and cheaper. Even that is now being trialed. So these systems would already be better in almost every way to today’s transport.
However, we don’t even need the electric motors and super-capacitors. Instead we could update the ancient but well-proven idea of the linear induction motor and make factory-produced mats containing circuits that can be instructed to make steerable magnetic wells that pull the cars along, as well as navigate them correctly at every junction. Again, the management can all be done by the cloud plus smartphones, and the circuits can reconfigure on command as each pod passes over them. So they won’t need batteries, or super-capacitor banks, or engines or motors. They would just be pulled along by magnetic fields, with no moving parts (apart from the pods as a whole of course) to go wrong, and almost nothing needing expensive maintenance. Apart from wheels, suspension and brakes.
So the driverless pod would not need a built-in computer, it would not need an engine or motor, and not need a battery or super-capacitor. Already it would be vastly cheaper.
The last remaining moving parts can also be dispensed with. If the pod rides above a mat that can generate the magnetic fields to drag it along, why not let other magnetic fields suspend it above the ground? That would mean it doesn’t need suspension, or wheels. Conventional brakes could be dispensed with using a combination of magnetic fields for normal braking, combined with a fallback of gravity and brake strips for emergency braking. Reducing the levitation field would create friction with the road surface and stop the vehicle very quickly, far more quickly than a conventional car can stop, only really limited by comfort limitations.
So my proposal is a system that would look and behave very similar to what Next have designed, but would not need engines, batteries, on-board computers or even wheels. My pods would be no more than simple boxes with comfy seats (or empty for freight transport) and a couple of strips on the bottom and might cost no more than $200 each. The road would have a factory-made mat laid on top for the magnetic well trains and levitation. Adapting a road to the system would be an overnight laying out of the mat and plugging it in to the electricity supply. In cold seasons, that electricity supply could also power on-board heating (but that would incur extra expense of course)
It won’t be long before such a system could be built. I can’t see any fundamental barriers to a prototype appearing next year if some entrepreneur were to try. It could make self driving car systems, even Next’s current proposals, redundant before they are implemented. If we were to change the direction of current plans to utilize the latest technology, rather than using ideas from 30 years ago, we could have a cheaper, better, more environmentally friendly system even faster. We could probably build such as system in every major city for what we are going to waste on HS2. Surely that is worth a try.