Friday, October 03, 2008

The 21st Century Interstate Highway Project

My own vision is somewhat similar to Christer Lindstrom's and others. I call it the New Interstate. I am envisioning a hybrid semi-autonomous rail system with roads much like we have now, but with the addition of New Interstate terminals located in each city. You drive your car (a PHEV) into the terminal and onto a big long rail car (a Carrier), and it whooshes you off to the New Interstate terminal in your destination city. Then you drive away autonomously for the last mile(s) of your commute. The New Interstate system would be computer controlled, managing traffic 10 times as efficiently. A trillion dollar investment could expand current highway capacity tenfold and eliminate the need for more than a 20 mile battery in most PHEVs. The amount of oil this transportation model could save is nigh immeasurable. The US alone could save 10 million barrels a day. The current economic collapse (brought in part by the failure of the Old Interstate highway system) is what will provide the fuel to build the New Interstate. All that is needed is imagination, and resolve.

I dont like either candidate, but somehow we've got to get them to see how big of a long term economic boost the New Interstate could be. The Interstate is everything, because an electrified Interstate removes the need for more than 20 miles of range on a PHEV battery. It's worth trillions of dollars in both energy savings and economic growth. And we have everything we need to build it, right now.

What is needed:

- An inexpensive PHEV with a 20 mile range
- An electrified rail grid, with the ability to charge the PHEV batteries while aboard the Carriers.
- Rail Terminals designed to allow large throughput of PHEVs.
- Wind and solar arrays to power the grid.
- The ability to conceptualize how much energy it would take to build all this, vs the energy saved during the first 5 years of use. Hint: in 5 years we will import nearly 3 trillion dollars worth of petroleum. At what point do we decide that it is better to invest money in infrastructure that saves fuel, rather than simply burning it up as fuel‽

I am not an artist so I cannot draw my recommended design of a terminal, but it would look a lot like the above image. That image is just a row of toll booths. But if you picture the row of toll booths as the Carrier car, you can see the basic design of the terminal.

The idea is that many cars will simultaneously drive aboard the Carrier. Then a pair a doors will close around the cars and the Carrier will take off. Then a new carrier arrives and the doors open, the cars drive away and a new line of cars loads onto the Carrier. The terminals would not have to be very big. They need not be much bigger than the row of toll booths pictured above.

Such terminals could be placed ubiquitously around a city. With computer controlled traffic flows, it could take literally 5 minutes to commute from one side of downtown Atlanta to the other. Clearly there is more than just energy savings at stake here. Productivity could go way up as well.

List of advantages and disadvantages:


-Supports the existing paradigm popular in America. People want autonomous vehicles rather than to be tethered to an inflexible public transportation system. Now we can have the advantages of both.
-Reduces oil consumption by eliminating 50% of the demand for gasoline and 10% of the demand for diesel fuel.
-The same grid and terminal design can be used for much of our commercial shipping. Because the Carrier charges the batteries, even companies like the UPS could use low-cost PHEVs to ship containers over vast distances. They just wont be able to stray very far from a Carrier.
-Terminals can be built directly at the locations of big box retailers like Walmart. Fully commercial Carriers (the equivalent of semi-trucks) can be built to travel on the same grid, making deliveries directly to Walmart in much the same way that trucks do now. Note: the same Carriers that transport PHEVs around during the day can be used to transport goods at night.
-Highway accidents would be almost completely eliminated, saving hundreds of billions of dollars. Any accidents that do result will result from software errors in the control logic. That means that all accidents would eventually be eliminated as the software is perfected.
-Commuting would be less stressful because all the highway traffic management would be done by computers.
-The rail infrastructure can also act as part of a 21st century direct-current power grid, delivering cheap solar-thermal power from the desert to cities like Atlanta and Houston, with limited transmission line losses.
-Can easily integrate with pedestrian transport. You can have People Carriers and PHEV Carriers operating on the same grid. Perhaps even on the same carrier.
-Emergency vehicles would be able to function much better because they can be given priority on the network. Police and fire stations could have their own private terminals, as would hospitals.
-Easy transition to interstate, intercity, and intracity terminals. Intercity and Interstate Carriers would be built to travel much faster, possibly even over 200 mph, while intracity Carriers would be built for rapid acceleration and deceleration to take you to many different terminals within a single city. If you needed to ride one local Carrier to a central Main Terminal, where you drive off that carrier and onto an Intercity or Interstate carrier, it would not be difficult or overly complicated to do this. In fact, the whole process could even be automated.
-The ability to promote domestic manufacture of goods. This is very important. By providing free electricity for shipping while on the grid, we eliminate or nearly eliminate the impact of high shipping costs for domestically manufactured goods. Imported goods will be more expensive because they were shipped overseas, whereas domestic goods were produced in the US and shipped across the network for free.
-The Carriers can act as part of an extremely high capacity emergency evacuation and wartime supply infrastructure. Millions of people could be evacuated out of a city in a few hours. Troops and weapons can be shipped in. All using the same infrastructure.
-Carriers fitted with a large number of ultracapacitors can act as mobile power units, delivering emergency power to areas that need it. (I am assuming that ultracapacitors will advance significantly over the coming decade.)

-High upfront capital costs
-Vulnerable to the same potential software problems as other computerized networks.

Cost control and funding strategies:
-Implement a tiered priority pricing scheme. If you are rich, and you want to avoid any queues, you can purchase a priority pass.
-Free grid power? The government would be able to decide whether or not to charge users for their electricity use while traveling on the network. They could give everyone a certain amount of free credit, and then start charging if you go over that limit. (Say 1,000 miles per month for example.) Grid power should be free to promote the use of PHEVs. But it could also be based upon income.
-Start with Interstate and Intercity first. Intracity can come later. Just having an Interstate system will allow most PHEVs to make trips like SF to LA, or Chicago to Detroit, relying on the PHEV range to get them to their final destination within each city. Later, intracity terminals can be built to eliminate all but the last mile of travel.


Anonymous Zipper said...

Nice idea, but the funds to create it could only come from the State and we're kinda short at the moment.
Can I offer another alternative?
Suspended monorail intercity services that are simply and cheaply built to overhang existing Interstates with stations adjacent to exits with carparks to allow easy access.
The train units can be electric or diesel electric powered, or with greater investment use existing maglev technology to increase point to point speeds.
The cantilevered supports would be rooted in the "dead zone" beside the carriageways on either side and be able to rise and fall with the topography and obstacles such as overpasses and bridges.
This is not pie in the sky but buildable using EXISTING technology and techniques

8:35 AM  
Blogger Plamen said...

Why carry around all those thousands of pounds of steel with you?

I think a combination of good old light rail plus rent a car waiting you at the station would do the same thing. The cars rented may be standardized cheap NEVs.

Now if this considered cumbersome for US standards, then you should think about what will be the capital expense of deploying those miles long trains needed to accommodate those cars... I bet it would be comparative to the value of the cars themselves.

A similar but probably much better idea is to electrify the existing highways, like it is suggested for example here

7:53 PM  
Blogger Iconoclast421 said...

plamen, I agree that would be simpler and cheaper. But as silly as it sounds, I do not see a large enough profit potential in it.

The only point of profit would be the rental cars, and they would need to be extremely mass produced in order to have enough ubiquity in order to make the whole thing work. (You'd have to have a good inventory built up in every city.)

By having a semi-autonomous Carrier based system, it is true that you are building an infrastructure that seems wasteful. But there are a number of advantages that can make up for it. For one thing, we need a new electric grid anyway. And we need jobs. And, during off peak hours, there will be a great deal of spare Carrier capacity that can be used to do shipping runs. When a Carrier is used for shipping, none of that steel would be going to waste. The Carrier would be packed full of goods.

The Carriers also buy us something else: an extremely high capacity evacuation and wartime supply infrastructure. Millions of people could be evacuated out of a city in a few hours. Troops and weapons can be shipped in. All using the same infrastructure.

Also, Carriers fitted with a large number of ultracapacitors can act as mobile power units, delivering emergency power to areas that need it. (I am assuming that ultracapacitors will advance significantly over the coming decade.)

1:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a new "WPA" style roads project for the soon to be unemployed masses - including returning soldiers - and our infrastructure is in such need of repairs already - scrap and redesign!

Land ferries!

Just stumbled upon you ~ love the idea.

Monorail is a big bus, gotta mix with the masses

carrier based leaves me in the privacy of my own cocoon.

5:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why reinvent the wheel? Trains, subways, light rail, bicycles and god forbid - legs - do perfectly well in much of the world. And legs, they really are the most efficient mode of transport.

Trying to patch up a system (private car ownership) that doesn't work is just futile. Trying to create a new untested system when the resources to do it are getting scarcer each year is also far too risky - and what you're proposing is really just like putting a bandaid on an open wound - it does nothing to get to the fundamental root of the problem.

North Americans have just got to get back to more walkable cities with decent public transport, cycle lanes and sidewalks. The lawn has to go, the suburbs have to go and people have to get used to living a lot closer to each other. It's not impossible - New York is high density living and the city seems to tick over pretty well. Moreover, 4/5 of all trips are done by public transport.

As for intercity - well, TGV technology is proven and reliable and already in use in North America. The speeds are reasonably fast too. The rights of way for the rails are still there too, if not the tracks themselves. The tracks just need a considerable investment input. Not even to high speed rail at the outset.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Iconoclast421 said...

Philipek, I would agree that in theory it would be most efficient simply to do away with any and all concept of personal autonomous transportation (aside from things like bicycles). But you're always going to be butting up against human nature. There are going to be wealthy individuals who desire the freedom that a fully autonomous system brings. And one would be a fool not to see the tremendous potential for wealth generation that such a system has brought to America. Do you honestly believe that America would have become the world's wealthiest nation if it had stuck to a philosophy such as what you describe? Also, you have to concede the fact that such a system is simply not feasible on a national basis. America is just too big. There will always be a large market for autonomous vehicles. It only makes sense to try and integrate the two systems. Another thing to keep in mind is that even in a city such as NYC, you still need some kind of infrastructure to transport supplies and emergency vehicles in a quick and timely fashion. How do we get that if all we have is subways and bike paths? What I'm describing gives that feature merely as an added bonus. A well designed system would perfectly integrate all forms of public and private transport onto one grid. Like I said, people carriers and car carriers could travel alongside each other, and each would get passengers from point A to point B quickly. The infrastructure would be paid for by the people who can afford to own a vehicle. The mass transit side, the people carriers, would basically be another freebie.

4:48 PM  
Anonymous Tel said...

I can see a good compromise in this design between the personal comfort of private transport (not needing to fight over seats, or having someone sneeze in my face) and the efficiency of public infrastructure.

There's another hidden benefit if done properly which would be to reduce all speed limits for private vehicles down to somewhere round 30 MPH so only the Interstate Carriers would be allowed to use high speeds. This would improve safety, and beyond that the private vehicles could be built much lighter and cheaper if every speed limit was down low.

People drive huge steel vehicles in order to protect themselves from the other loonies driving huge steel vehicles, it's self fulfilling inefficiency.

Having said all that, transporting vast numbers of people over long distances twice per day to have then sit behind a desk, type on a computer and talk of the phone, is bloody minded idiocy in the first place.

6:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Iconoclast: It sounds like a good idea, but it's really not at all viable.

You want a suggestion from me?

Legalize hemp, and make gas out of it. In fact, google 'Hemp Car', for an example of how this really works.

1:19 AM  
Blogger Iconoclast421 said...

What does 'viable' mean to you? Ask any european professor with 30 years of logistics research and an IQ of 150. Ask them if the US interstate highway system is "viable". They will surely laugh and say it is the biggest misallocation of resources in human history.

Hemp could be used to make fuel to power farm machinery. It could be grown locally as part of a crop rotation regimen. This would solve two problems at once. I dont know if hemp is the best choice for crop rotation (for permaculture), even if it may be the best choice for biomass production.

1:34 PM  

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