Friday, November 14, 2008

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The National Economic Crisis

America and the world are undergoing the worst economic crisis in most of our lifetimes. Rather than scuttling plans for a national personal transit system, it seems to me that it is even more imperative to begin as soon as possible. The current crisis has been blamed on falling real estate prices but that is only the tip of the iceberg. The fact that many borrowers got loans based on an inflated value of their assets, with little regard toward their cash flow situation, only begins to tell the story. On top of that you have financial institutions making the loans then immediately "selling" the loan to a third party, frequently another financial institution. This gives the originator of the loan little incentive to make sure that any payments are made after the first ones, they will have their money and whoever bought the loan has to deal with any consequences. Then you have derivitives, complicated investing devices based on the assets of whatever the derivitive is being written for, in the case under discussion real estate and they are known as credit default swaps. Other sources describe derivitives and credit default swaps far better and in more detail than I could ever hope to so I won't go into them any further than to state that they essentially allow leveraging of investments, an important concept to consider here. What leveraging does is allow you to buy more of something for less money (similar but not to be confused with a loan) by requiring less money up front to acquire it. Many leveraging schemes will allow 10% or less of the price to be actually put up in the initial transaction, meaning you are 90% or more "leveraged". This is almost identical to the situation in 1929 when most of the banks were leveraged to the point that they had no way of paying off their depositors once the market started crashing, causing a run on the banks for people to get money. A lot of people lost money then but there was no FDIC or SEC, which may still not help us out now, but at least there is someone to assign the problem to. Nobody seems to know the worth of all the derivitives out there, much less the ones related to credit default swaps, but the estimates I have seen are in the $500 trillion range. That is more than 10 times the worlds annual GDP in one financial instrument. I am not intending this to be a complete economic evaluation of our financial institutions but only to point out that the sector is in deep doodoo even if real estate prices and investment pick up soon and the former values have been nearly recovered. This is not the sole component to our current situation.
Converging with the bad economy, is a situation where demand for resources, especially petroleum, is threatening to outstrip our ability to produce them, driving up prices. I am very surprised this hasn't caused a higher rate of inflation than it has, but the pressure is there. Additionally, it is becoming apparent that fossil fuel use must be curbed for other reasons as well (i.e. environment). Resource demand also creates a situation where national leaders have decided that use of the military is imperative to ensure supply. The military has long been the poster child for wasteful spending and manages to dispose of around a trillion dollars of our wealth every year, more than all other countries in the world combined spend on theirs. Not only that but subcontractors are hired for exhorbitant prices to do most of the work that isn't actual fighting. One sector of the economy that is not hurting is the military supply part, only problem is that military funding is not a net gain for the economy of the average person. I wonder what would benefit our economy more, a war in Iraq or a national personal transit system?
Now we come to the third reason the economy is tanking, it is overly tied to the motorized vehicle. Far and away the biggest manufacturing component of the economy has been historically automobile and related industries. This in itself is not a bad thing. What is bad, is the fact that automobiles are very destructive both environmentally and socially (you can read entire rants about this on other threads) and show no sign of going away anytime soon. However, when the cost of gas goes up and credit tightens it almost guarantees people buying fewer new cars and traveling less, not good for stimulating the economy or very predictable. Right now the car manufacturers are asking for a bailout to keep producing dinosaurs. While this might help in the short term, I believe it to only be prolonging the problem for some future greater collapse.
How will a national personal transit system solve any of these problems, especially when it requires significant investment on its own? Let me make the case for the auto industry first, since it is the most straightforward. If the industry is not to be nationalized, one or more manufacturers will be chosen to build vehicles uniformly to exact specifications for the system, rather than every car being "different". This will likely eventually leave some car manufacturers finding another line of work (how many different companies do you need making the same exact car) as a result of efficiency of scale. The same efficiency of scale will apply to mechanics, road construction workers and many others. These effects will not be noticable until the system has started operation on more than a small scale and begins to have widespread use, about 5 years or so at least for the timeline I would like to see. This sounds like a drastic change but the reality is that it will happen anyway as fewer and fewer people can afford to drive and support for road improvements dwindles. The difference is that if we do it in the fashion I advocate people will have a chance to retrain and adjust before they lose their livelihood and we will end up with a better system besides. If we shift resources from the military to build our transit system, we will have essentially "leveraged our investment". What I mean is that instead of a dubious return for each dollar invested in the military, you will have solid benefit from a better transit system ( I can see those with vested interest in the military rolling their eyes now). In addition the transit system will pay for itself whereas the military does not. As for the financial system, I am not even sure they can or should be bailed out but it looks like our elected reps will try their hardest to do so. At any rate, it seems like it sould be easier and more likely to get money back from a transit system than from the banks. Near as I can tell the only thing the banks will do anyway is keep track of the transactions (they certainly don't have the money to loan us). The biggest problem will be getting started before those financial institutions lose the rest of our money (that we don't really have anyway).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Who Will Benefit

Everyone in America will benefit in some manner. There will surely be some who suffer as well, as always seems to happen during any great change, but with careful attention I believe most of the suffering can be ameliorated (auto workers can build vehicles for the new sysem, mechanics can be retrained to repair them, etc.). For the rest of us the worst things we will have to suffer are the construction and paying for it, not too bad a deal in my opinion. What we will get in return is far more than a faster, safer, more convenient, more efficient, greener, and less expensive system. It will provide a new economic stimulus to our economy on a massive scale, seemingly something that is going to have to be done anyway. It will also provide more stability to the American economy by helping blunt the effects of energy cost fluctuations, which never seem to go downward very far or for very long. Eliminating all the oil required for over 1/4 of our national energy use will do more good than any amount of drilling, plus it gives oil producers (national and corporate) far less leverage over us. Over 40,000 people every year will benefit by still being alive instead of dying in gruesome accidents, likewise, almost another 2.5 million will benefit from not being injured in those accidents. I dont know the number of people that will benefit, but it would be all those who own the property recieving damage to the tune of tens of billions of dollars every year. Government at all levels stands to benefit directly from not having to worry about transportation financing or enforcing traffic regulations and safety, the lost revenue from tickets, personal property taxes, etc. should be more than made up by this. People unable to drive for physical, medical, legal, or other reasons would have unprecedented ability to get where they need to go without assistance. Folks who have an altruistic streak in them will also be able to say that their generation did something that will be useful to us all, far into the future. Finally, the planet will benefit, from the skunk meeting its untimely demise in the middle of the road, to the pelican that is covered with oil after a spill, to a biosphere that is undergoing more rapid change than likely has ever been seen on earth (other than meteor impact or other major disaster).

Friday, September 12, 2008

Its Never Been Done Before

The fact that a system like I propose has never been built before will likely require a working model to demonstrate to skeptics its utility and feasibility. A scale model should be constructed as soon as possible along with designs for vehicles and infrastructure, hopefully to be well on the way to completion by the end of 2009. Never having been done before should be no excuse for pressing forward. Who ever built craft capable of taking and returning humans to the moon before the Appolo project or built a nuclear bomb before the Manhattan project? Yet Americans did both of those unprecedented things. For sure every idea and proposal needs thorough vetting for both technical feasibility and practicality, if it is to succeed. That is one of the reasons for this blog. I have talked with a fair number of individuals who believe the whole thing is impossible (see The Politics of Personal Transit thread) even if the federal government can be convinced to undertake it. What encourages me the most, however, is that most of those people have come more to my way of thinking about it, when facts are pointed to and discussed, than have stubbornly clung to their point of view. Additionally, the vast majority of people I have spoken with have thought it would be a great thing to begin with, if we could actually make it a reality. The sheer scale of the project is not the biggest obstacle, it is convincing people that the effort to do it is worthwhile. This ought to be the great legacy of positive effect from the current generation and for many reasons a way to get out of and control our national debt, the probable legacy we will leave instead if we continue our present course. The choice is ours.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Corporation Larger Than Exxon/Mobil

What follows may be the most controversial part of my proposed system but I dont think any of the current corporate models of government or the fortune 500 are up to the task of successfully managing the system efficiently. So let me jump right in with both feet, the national personal transit corporation will be owned by the federal government, possibly with some private investment. The first reason for this is the fact that it is the federal government who will own all of the assets, build, maintain, and regulate it anyway. Why should American society hand over trillions of dollars in investments to any private entity? The second reason is that it is the federal government that will ensure the system operates and remains solvent, it already insures that any corporation "too big to fail" will get a government bailout, so why not have a direct stake in the corporation? I realize many people will oppose the gov owning and operating anything, but it already de facto owns nearly all of the roads and associated equipment for construction, upkeep, and operation of roadways, plus it frequently infuses cash into the rail system. About the only part not owned by government is the actual vehicle, which is manufactured to more government standards than any product and even then you pay taxes to rent them. While there is no reason a person couldnt own their own vehicle for my system, it should be unnecessary. The biggest problem with government ownership (aside from purely ideological objections) is the waste and corruption that seems to inevitably plague government run enterprises, our department of defense is a glaring example. So how can we minimize that in our national personal transit corporation? The first way, I propose, is to tie the salary of every employee to success of the system. The method I like is to give every employee a base salary (say for example 110% of industry average for similar job) plus bonuses (monthly, quarterly or annually) when the system generates surplus or if they have an idea that cuts costs or improves services. This, I believe, would greatly improve the chances for efficient operation and ferreting out corruption. The goal of this corporation should be to provide its services to the public as cheaply as possible and still make a profit and mangement bonuses ought to reflect that when it happens (or doesnt). All profits should be split between system employees and the federal government according to a prescribed formula (say 80/20 the first billion $, 50/50 for the next billion $ and 20/80 above that), with so many quarters at some level of profit (if ever met) triggering fare reductions (which ought to give top managers big bonuses). As with any corporation, there will have to be some kind of oversight. This corporation will be the largest in the world (or very close to it) and will need to be subject to public opinion and scrutiny if it is to serve that public. I propose a board that will report directly to the secretary of transportation, that should include at least 2 independent financial auditors, 2 engineers (structural, transportation, civil, etc.), a management expert, all presidential appointees and a member each appointed by management and whatever organization the workers have. This board would be the final arbiter in all things npts not actully taken to a court of law and is ultimately answerable to both congress and the public marketplace. Unions should not need to be encouraged or discouraged since most of the usual issues will be automatically resolved (pay raises and bonuses tied to economy and success of system, arbitration instead of strike agreement, standardized working conditions, board to appeal management decisions, standardized health care plan...not currently available in America, etc.) but every employee should have a vote on their representitive to the board. None of this is intended to be a comprehensive or immutable, just my general idea of how to operate, what ought to be a model corporation, the likes of which to encourage on a broader scale. The ideas I have presented here are how to hopefully use the self interest of people for a positive result.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Largest Public Works Project Ever

I have been told my idea for automating our transportation system is crazy or undoable by different people, mostly because of the scale of it and political realities that exist today. If someone were to attempt this by themselves, there is little doubt of failure. Any project of this sort will require the efforts of a very large number of people and a vast amount of resources, akin to building pyramids or the great wall. This requires a well-thought out plan of execution and, in a representative democracy, the support of a large majority of the citizenry. In the beginning, there will be work for public relations people and planners (computer programmers, designers, engineers, etc). Public relations should be the number one emphasis until sufficient interest is generated to begin planning. Generating that interest will possibly be the most ambitious part of this whole idea and must be carried out in a thoughtful manner for any chance of success. Right now the plan for generating interest is to keep this blog up to date, do a valid cost/benefit analysis, comment every place I can find relevant (i.e. letters, newspapers, blog forums, conversations etc), find other people to participate in publicizing, and to write a book. Once a good cost/benefit analysis is done the rest should be much easier but still not easy. The next step will be finalizing the design of the system, requiring the work of many design engineers and others. If all of this is done and it is finally decided that the system will be built, there will be work for literally millions of people, from the most unskilled laborers to the most highly qualified engineers. I would expect construction to require more peoples efforts than the CCC work projects of FDR and if it is to be done in the time frame of by mid-century a societal commitment nearly on the order of what it took to build pyramids many centuries ago. The reason I don't think it is hopeless, is that I have seen most people work very hard when they can see that their efforts are producing a positive effect and not mostly wasted or for some unknown benefit.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Politics of Personal Transit

There will be many powerful interests opposed to ever building anything like the system I have been describing, especially since the government will inevitably be involved and much of the American economy will be changed forever. Opponents will include but are not limited to; the insurance industry (particularly auto insurance), automobile manufacturers and their related sub-industries, bus,rail and air transit providers, many power utilities, and those philosophically opposed to government involvement. All of those groups will be vociferous and ardent in their opposition but in a democracy it only matters who has the most support. I am not talking about the 50% plus one vote majority our politicians refer to, I am talking about the support of at least 80%-90% of the populace. Without such strong support those opposing interests will prevail, I believe to the detriment of all of us. The biggest problem is how to get that kind of support when the vast majority of people have never heard of a national personal transit system, much less the feasibility of it. We are halfway there now since most people are at least aware there is a problem, even if that awareness is limited to how much gas for their car costs. Additionally, nearly everyone sees or hears about deadly a accident on the highways on a daily or weekly basis, so there is also some awareness of the safety problem. It is my opinion that these two factors, plus gridlock and cost, will be the reasons most people support a project of this sort. It will not be easy, however, since a large number of people adamantly resist learning about anything new once they are out of school but if enough mention is made on talk shows, blogs, newspapers etc. enough people will see how much such a thing will change their world, and a fierce debate should ensue. Hopefully, most, if not all, opposition can be shown to be pure self-interest over the greater societal good, and will be dismissed by most to the point that a solid majority in favor of updating the American transit system into the 21st century emerges. Anyone who can mention the ideas on this site in any kind of technology/energy/transportation forum would be much appreciated.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

When Can We Start and How Long Will It Take

Fact of the matter, is that coming up with an idea is the start of anything and that has already been done, so the more relevant question is what to do next. There are several things I plan to undertake simultaneously immediately. In addition to writing in this blog and commenting on news stories, I am collecting information for a better cost/benefit analysis, looking for others (individuals and groups) interested in participating in design, education, lobbying, and setting up a nonprofit (hopefully in the next week or two) to promote the idea of a national personal transit system. I expect to have enough written and edited within the next year to publish a book with as many of the details about the system as possible. Within two years I would like to see such a system being widely discussed as a serious alternative especilly in political campaigns, a very ambitious goal I realize, but time is not on our side against the looming energy and environmental crises, especially if human population continues to grow at its current prodigious rates. Within five years, I would like to see design plans substantially finalized and commitment by the federal government to giterdone, as some friends of mine like to say. This may be the hardest part since there may be politicians who adamantly oppose the system and it only takes a few to obstruct change of any kind. Also, congress tends to only work on things there is widespread knowledge and support, making the first part of becoming a major topic of discussion even more important. In an ideal world, construction could begin by 2010 but if it takes until 2020 we will be moving too slowly, the underpinnings that support our current system are already beginning to show signs of crumbling at many levels. Once building begins it will have to average 10 miles of construction every day for a bare bones national system of around 17,000 miles to be completed. While this is an ambitious construction goal, I believe it is both possible and necessary and once real construction has given enough people the experience required. It should be possible to approach or exceed 200 miles per day, a rate that will put the system at the vast majority of Americans doorsteps within 20 years. This high rate of construction will be facilitated by prefabricating sections of the roadway in sections, like a childs car track, so that all that has to be done is level the area and put the pieces into place and align them. If that sounds simple or easy, make no mistake that it is neither, it will take every bit as much effort as winning World War II or sending astronauts to the moon, but it should be worthwhile even if it weren't necessary. To finish the system to the point where nearly all that is being done is upkeep may take 50 years or more but I dont think 20 years for the vast majority of Americans to be served by the system is at all an unreasonable goal.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Who Will Build It?

A national presonal transit system, such as has been described, will be a monumental undertaking akin to building China's Great Wall or sending humans to another planet. In addition to organization, it will take a vast amount of resources (money) to build an acceptable system. The only entity that can command enough resources to make such a dream reality is the United States federal government and this will only happen when enough people clamour for real change in our energy/transportation paradigm. Currently, we are almost half way since a healthy majority (I think) of Americans have realized that our energy paradigm must change and soon. Now if people begin to see transportation as part of the same problem, the comprehensive upgrading of nearly all our utilities and transit system as one great leap forward becomes possible. The biggest problem with having the federal government involved is that a great many people will oppose the idea simply because of that regardless of any other merits to the argument. There will also be others who will not want to give up their humvee or hotrod for any reason. It is my hope that these will be a small minority but there will be enough fierce opposition from other entrenched interests to make serious consideration a major achievement perhaps equal to actually building the system. As stated elsewhere, one of the goals is to form a nonprofit to promote the idea of an automated national personal transit system and to write a book which I hope to be delivering personally to every elected official I can track down but especially congressmen and senators and their staffers. If it takes educating the public to the point of having to "throw da bums out" the nonprofit can help raise the transit system as an election issue, it will simply be harder than necessary if there is more widespread co-operation. I believe the biggest obstacle at present is not having a valid cost/benefit analysis. The closest figure I can come up with is in the 25-40 trillion dollar range* but that is still less than we will spend on the current system over the next 20 years. Americans have never been shy about facing up to a challenge and if they can see that they are going to be leaving behind a much better off world for their children I think most people are willing to sacrifice for it. In addition, it must be remembered that updating other utilities at the same time should save billions (maybe trillions) of the dollars we are going to need to spend anyway and it will be better than just maintaining the current system. Finally, by showing why this system is our best choice and that it can actually be done, it seems to me a solid majority will get behind it, then the politicians will follow or be dragged along kicking and screaming. The hardest part is to get attention for discussion of your ideas in a political campaign but I am pretty confident that I haven't seen a better alternative.

*Assume 100 million vehicles @ $20,000/vehicle (mass production ought to bring the costs of the automated vehicles close to or below the costs of todays less expensive car models) and 2 million miles of road @ $10 million/mile for four lanes in each direction (highways averaged $2.3 million/lane mile nationwide in 2002) and solar panels to cover 15,000 square miles at about $10 trillion total equalling $32 trillion initial investment not including windmills. Prices should go down as economies of scale will kick in.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Energy for Travel

As mentioned throughout, my preference for powering a national personal transit system is to use a combination of solar and wind generation with a hydrogen or compressed air backup. The most obvious reasons for shifting over 1/4 of Americas current energy use to some other method are the environmental and geopolitical problems associated with the widespread use of oil. These include; pollution, global warming, uncertainty of supplying the "pipeline" from volatile regions of the world, and oil "profits" largely going to entities Americans should definitely not be giving money to. In addition, as other forms of cleaner energy become cheaper, competition for increasingly hard to get oil will make its price keep rising. It is no mistake that folks like T. Boone Pickens are investing their own money in things like wind powered generators, changes must be made soon or our children and grandchildren are slated to pay an even heavier price than they are aleady likely end up with. This is the same reason I believe that coal, nuclear, and (current)bio-fuels are not good options. Coal is one of the dirtiest fuels ever used by humans and even if the pollution from usage is worked out you still have to mine, transport, and store it. Nuclear* power seems to hold promise for relatively cheap energy but to my knowledge nobody has ever put forth a potentially successful plan for either controlling proliferation (with enough skilled people in the world talented in refining and using nuclear materiel for industrial use to potentially misuse their skill) or what to do with waste (which is among the most toxic and radioactive substances ever created by humans and will last many times longer than our civilization has been in existence). Biofuels as are now being produced use almost as much or more energy than the final product yeilds depending on the source and method and are as dependent on market fluctuations as oil. Other methods of production like geothermal or tidal generators might be appropriate for parts of the new system but would have to be sent over long distances (where much of the electricity generated is lost) to much of the system to power it entirely. The main reason I can see for anyone advocating any of the power generating methods discussed above is to make sure it stays centralized for better control by fewer people (can you say Enron or market manipultion?). That brings us to my preferred generators, the sun and wind (still the sun technically but different form of energy.....kinetic vs radiation). Solar power alone could probably provide enough energy for the system if it has solar cells over the length of it. According to "The Scientific American" 30,000 square miles (which also happens to be about how many square miles of road there are in America according to U.S. D.oT.) of solar cells in the desert southwest would provide half of our energy needs in 2050. While it is true that most of the system will be somewhere else (and presumably less effecient), the system will not consume 50% of our energy either. Unfortunately, a solar panel only produces usable energy during daylight hours, so some sort of supplement is needed. That supplement would be the wind, which is in every location in the world like the sun. Also, like the sun, it is not a steady source. During the times of production the system should have much excess capacity which could be used to compress air or make hydrogen for generators (can you imagine a strategic hydrogen reserve like todays oil reserve?). The excess could also be used to charge batteries but that would be very cumbersome and expensive and may not be practical with current battery technology. Once installed the energy source is free, making it very competitive cost-wise over the long haul and less subject to market vagaries and manipulation plus the technology is in a usable form today.

*I would like for someone to show me how I am wrong about nuclear power but I will warn you I know firsthand a great deal about the technology and industry.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

How the System Operates

On the average roadway there is much unused space, mostly for safety reasons due to the relative ineptitude of human drivers. Computers could do the job with fractions of inches tolerance instead of several or more feet. That means that your average interstate highway going in one direction with two lanes of travel plus shoulders, could have eight lanes of traffic, four in each direction. Like todays highways, there would be slower lanes and faster ones, with top speeds exceding 200 mph. The first lane would be for merging and freight, the second for freight and very short trips, the third for longer trips and off-hours light freight, and the fourth for the longest trips and will go the highest speed. The heaviest and largest freight may be unmanageable by the system but anything smaller than about one-and-a-half times the size a standard freight cargo container and weighing less than several hundred thousand pounds ought to be doable, even if it takes up three lanes of traffic and must be shipped during low use hours. Vehicles would come in a few different sizes with two seat and four seat vehicles being what is referred to when talking about personal vehicles and all other vehicles referred to as freight or light freight even if passenger transport is their main purpose. An average freight vehicle would occupy two lanes, could carry a large shipment container, be refrigerated or climate controlled, be enclosed or not, and would have top speeds near 100 mph (smaller vehicles such as those for more than four passengers or light freight could go faster). An onboard computer recieves a controlling signal from a central computer telling it what to do to seamlessly navigate the system. The same computer controls vehicle environment, monitors operating parameters, and provide feedback to the central computer, which is itself part of a system of regional central processors which co-ordinate with neighboring regions to keep traffic moving in an orderly and expeditious fashion. These computers should be among the most reliable in the world and run on a dedicated system not linked to any other in order to prevent hacking and other malintent. Hookups for internet, cellphones, or other applications will be through wireless portals inside a vehicle that will also provide many of the amenities found in cars today. Users will also be able to do emergency bathroom (or other) stops within a few minutes of asking or change destination en route (try that on a city bus).
The area that "The Scientific American" claims is required to provide half of Americas energy use in the year 2050 with solar power is about the same as the area the U.S. Department of Transportation says is roads in this country. While it is true that S. A. estimated for southwest desert and roads meander everywhere, it shows that the area already being used for roads has potential to be used to power all of the vehicles on those roads (transportation being only a little over one quarter not half of our energy use). The use of windmills to supplement solar should ensure the capacity to produce energy beyond what the system uses most of the time far into the forseeable future. A nuclear advocate might want to use reactors to power the system and it would be a relatively proper use of the technology, there are two serious drawbacks, in my opinion. Firstly, what does one do with the most poisonous and radioactive substances ever accumulated by humans and which will remain that way for many times longer than his civilization has even been existance? Secondly, what can be done about nuclear proliferation when America is the main proliferator? I am well aware that reactor fuel cant be directly made into a bomb but the same type of technology used for refining reactor fuel is used to refine bomb making materials and should be known and understood by as few people as possible, i.e. sanctioned researchers only. Once all of the current nukes (plants and bombs) are out of operation much of the technology used will be nearly impossible for anyone other than a state actor to obtain and use. I will get off my soapbox now and finish describing the system. All the electricity generated has to provide power to something. As of this writing, the systems being examined include electric rail, mag-lev, and conventional tire on pavement. All have benefits and drawbacks and will also affect the final cost analysis which is in itself in the earliest stages. Electronic eyes for a GPS-like system will keep traffic in line and efficiently going where it needs go.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Better Transportation Paradigm

Previously I have stated the our transportation system is probably the best ever constructed by humans. So what could be better? In my opinion, better is a system that substantially reduces or eliminates the problems discussed in the antiquated transportation system chapter. As discussed, automation will improve safety, speed, reliability, and convenience of the system and solar and wind for an energy source will make it sustainable and green. Safety should be improved through automation by eliminating the number one cause of accidents, the distracted driver. While there many problems that can occur in any kind of computer, redundancy and fail-safe modes should make catastrophic events causing death, injury or damage extremely rare or even non-existent, saving over 40,000 American lives every year. Speed will be much improved from not having any stopping and starting since the system will automatically regulate merging at intersections, meaning no stop signs or traffic signals (and no drivers not moving when they should be). Additionally, vehicles can be safely be packed together in tighter bunches (no need to leave large amounts of space ahead, behind, and on either side of every vehicle) and operated at higher speeds (if a nascar driver can drive around in ovals at 200+ mph, a computer controlled car should be able to navigate in mostly straight lines at least as fast). One of the biggest priorities in a new transit system should be reliability and one way to address this is the aforementioned redundancy. While that will help in day-to-day operations the system is still subject to aging and wear and tear. Self-monitoring of the system will greatly improve reliability through each vehicle automatically going to be serviced after a given number of miles travelled or when the on-board computer indicates operating parameters begin to fall outside acceptable limits. The same computer would also alert the central processor about larger conditions that may need attention like water or debris on the road or something like a bump from a forming pothole or shift of an abutment in a section of highway. By attending to problems when they begin instead of waiting for a bridge to collapse or something, repairs should be less expensive and faster to do, thus cutting the time any section of the system is out of or at reduced service. By using prefab methods for construction and repair of highways, work directly on the system can also be greatly speeded up which in itself improves reliability. The last thing I want to talk about is convenience. One of the goals of my proposed system is to combine the efficiencies of mass transit with the convenience of the personal automobile. Most people don't use mass transit because its operation is limited both in range and availibility when compared to a car, making it inconvenient. If, however, you could summon the bus or train to your location at the time you wanted and go directly to wherever you wanted to go many more people if not everyone would do it. A prescheduled ride could be set up or a few minutes (not hours) wait for on demand service would save a lot of time over driving to most places, allow the user to do things other than operate the vehicle, and not require the user to think about issues like fuel and maintainence. I don't see how anything short of a "Star Trek" transporter could be any more convenient for travelling most places.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why the Current Transportation Paradigm Is Antiquated

Even though the American road and rail system is probably the best ever built by humans, the basic technologies are from near the beginning of the industrial age around 200 years ago. Any person from that time would marvel at the speed and convenience of it today. However, humans and their technology have advanced significantly since then and what was once acceptable has developed into a system that is unsafe, inefficient, expensive, and unsustainable as it exists now. The fact that over 40,000 people die and hundreds of thousands more are injured along with lost billions of dollars in other costs is a matter of record (see U.S.D.o.T. website). This makes transportation one of the most dangerous activities Americans undertake on a frequent basis. If any other imaginable activity had such a high rate of mortality it seems like a sure bet that activity would be outlawed. The only reason it is now tolerated, is that the current transportation paradigm evolved from one for use by horses or beast-drawn carts or carriages, a time when there were few or no deaths from transport accidents. When the automobile began coming into fashion, so few people owned and used them that deadly accidents were still infrequent enough to draw little notice from citizens used to many dangerous things in their lives. As use and ownership increased, so did mortality, eventually becoming one of the major causes of death and injury and causing enough public outcry to spawn things like speed limits, seatbelt laws and crash standards. While those things have surely saved some lives over the years, the biggest difficulty in truly making transportation safe has been the need to have error-prone humans in control. There are certainly many good drivers out there but even the best ones are occassionally distracted and the worst ones are in a near perpetual state of not paying enough attention. Until the past decade or so there has been little means of solving this particular problem, but we now have the means to completely eliminate human error from driving if we automate the system.
Our current system of mining fuel, refining it to a usable state, then distributing it to various points for use is highly inefficient. A system powered by solar and wind with hydrogen or compressed air backup would do away with the whole process at the current scale of doing it. While it is true that solar panels are now less than 20% efficient and both solar and wind are intermittent sources (but essentially free) they could both generate excess power enough to store to make up for slack production periods (can you imagine a national strategic hydrogen reserve instead of a strategic petroleum reserve?). There are other inefficiencies like not maintaining vehicles, how many hours each vehicle is used, and losses from death and injury, but the main one that automation will solve is traffic jams. Anyone who lives or travels near a major city can relate stories about sitting in traffic. With a fully automated system traffic should never stop completely and only slow significantly under unusual circumstances. In addition to saving the time and frustration of rush-hour like traffic, anyone riding would be free to relax or do something productive during their commute.
The price we pay for the opportunity to risk our lives on the roads is very high. In addition to inefficiency costs the U.S. D.o.T. says that we collectively spend more than 1.5 trillion dollars every year on transportation of all kinds, about $5,000 for every citizen, and not including gas or insurance costs. Anyone who owns and drives a car can relate to how expensive it is even though they only directly see part of the cost. For that kind of money one could buy many unlimited use eurorail passes and should be able to do the same on a national personal transit system.
For those who believe in human caused global climate change, I need not outline the unsustainability of widespread use of fossil fuels but even a skeptic would find it difficult to make the case that continued extraction and use is not becoming geopolitically more untenable as the rest of the world tries to play catch-up in modernizing their societies. The stark fact of the matter is that even if the planet could tolerate every human using resources at the rate of your average American, there just are not enough here to go around. By reducing our nationwide energy consumption from current sources by more than 1/4 we should see savings from not having to compete for increasingly scarce fossil fuels.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Action sooner rather than later

As much as alternative transportation people (including myself) would like to see bicycling and walking promoted there doesn't seem to be any massive shift toward use of these modes, even in places where they consider such things in their transportation planning. That means rehabilitating an antiquated American transportation system. Almost nobody would argue that America's transportation system is not in serious need of attention, especially since the deadly bridge collapse in Minnesota and close calls in Philadelphia and elsewhere. The various estimates I have seen for bringing all of our highways up to modern standards run from hundreds of billions to a couple of trillions of dollars, more than one year of our collective spending on all forms of transportation in America. My preliminary best guess for the automated personal transit system under discussion here is between fifteen and forty trillion dollars, a vast sum to be sure, but when compared to the amount needed to maintain a system that kills more than 40,000 individuals every single year, it seems like a relative bargain. In addition, the system should eventually pay for itself and generate revenue, unlike the current road system that mostly just drains money from governmental coffers. Therefore, it seems to me, the sooner we stop trying to maintain an increasingly antiquated and dangerous road system and start building a modern one, the better off all Americans will be. Other major reasons for urgency include but are not limited to; need for reducing dependence on petroleum for fuel, need for curbing greenhouse gas emissions (transportation is over 1/4 of our national energy consumption), and the need for faster and more convenient transportation for the masses.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Hope for America

Reading a daily newspaper or watching the news would make one think the number one problem in the world is terrorism, but there are far greater risks to Americans doing day-to-day activities than that. One of our chief risks is the transportation system. We would have to have ten 9/11 events every single year to kill as many as the over 40,000 each year that die on the nations highways. Furthermore, our transportation system is almost 100% dependent upon the use of fossil fuels with their associated geopolitical and environmental baggage. There is a good solution to this, however, an automated national personal transit system. During the coming months my aim in this blog is to show; why building such a system makes sense, how it is technologically feasible today, how to go about overcoming the current transportation paradigm, why other utilities (especially the electric and fiber optics grids) should be upgraded by incorporation into the system, how to organize the management of the system, and a cost/benefit analysis. These ideas are to be bandied about here to be organized and put into a book within the next year (by Aug 2009), I hope, so if you are sharing proprietary information please state such, so it doesn't end up being published by mistake. The ultimate goal would be to actually see the system built but there must be intermediary steps along the way to fully vet the ideas and to educate people and get them to support it before any movement towards that will happen. This, I hope, is the first step in an ambitious journey that has potential to better all of our lives.