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.