Saturday, May 21, 2005

Cars and roads

If you look at SadTech posts like the ones on farming or cash or locks and keys, you can easily see why these technologies are about to be replaced by something new. The problem is that these technologies each have a huge list of disadvantages. For example, farming as we know it today has big problems with the weather, seasonality of crops, insects, weeds, pollination and so on. As soon as we can produce food in factories rather than producing it out in open fields, the elimination of traditional farming will happen almost instantaneously.

And so it is with the cars and roads that we use for most of our personal transportation today. There are so many disadvantages and costs with the way we do it today that we will abandon our current system at some point.

Here are some of the biggest problem with cars:
  • Cars are expensive. The average new car costs about $22,000 today, and it loses about half of its value in three to four years. In other words, it costs you about $10 per day to own a car.
  • About 95% of the time, however, that $10/day car is sitting idle. It is either sitting in your garage or it is sitting in a parking lot doing nothing.
  • The space where your car is sitting idle costs money. You see this most clearly at the airport, where you pay $10 a day for your $10/day car to sit idle. But any parking place costs money and we pay for it through higher prices for homes and higher prices for things we buy.
  • Cars as they are implemented today are a huge source of greenhouse gases.
  • Something like 40,000 people per year die in car accidents,
  • Driving as we know it today wastes a gigantic amount of time.
  • Cars break down and have to be repaired
  • New items like tires, hoses, belts, oil, batteries, etc. are expensive.
  • And so on.
Then you look at the road system that we have today and you see something similar:
  • Roads as we implement them today are incredibly expensive. In rural areas, an Interstate highway costs something like $5 million/mile to build, or roughly $1 million/mile/lane. In urban areas the costs can skyrocket (as best demonstrated by the "big dig" in Boston).
  • Roads take years -- sometimes decades -- to build.
  • Because they are so expensive, we never seem to have enough roads and traffic is a huge problem in every city.
  • Roads and bridges are expensive to repair and replace.
  • And so on.
Clearly today's situation is sad -- this is a system begging for a "better solution."

Anyone who has ever been to Disney World and looked at the monorail system knows that there is a possible replacement to roads sitting right before us. The monorail at Disney rides on a single, simple concrete beam that is suspended in the air every 100 feet or so by a concrete pillar. Compared to an Interstate highway, monorail track is unbelievably inexpensive -- perhps 1/100th of the cost.

There are a number of systems in various stages of development that all look at the current transportation system that we use today and try to come up with something better. They all work on approximately the same model. Here are three of them.

SkyWeb Express:

The opening sentence on the web site is: "Taxi 2000 Corporation introduces SkyWeb Express, a system that will be faster, safer, more flexible and less expensive than any other mode of transportation." There's a nice video explaining the system architecture and its advantages at the bottom of the home page.


It's opening sentence is: "SkyTran is non-stop, 100 mph personal transit that can totally eliminate commuter congestion in any city, for the same costs of one linear line of light rail."

Here in the RTP area where I live, we have been hearing for years about a light rail system that will install something like 35 miles of track and 16 or so stations for $725 million. Therefore, this sentence on the SkyTran web site is of interest: "People are still being conned into voting yes to be taxed to have archaic, hideously poor performing light rail systems built. Time to properly utilize the microprocessors, sensors and controllers that didn't exist in 1950 to cut costs and move people fast anywhere in a city."

The site goes on:
    In many cities all over the USA, the bureaucrats are trying to get the area residents to vote to tax themselves an additional billions of dollars to build Light Rail systems. All of these systems would consume millions in studies before construction would begin. When eventually completed in typically 6 to 10 years, the bureaucrats typically claim Light Rail will carry 30,000 to 60,000 people per day. (They never mention that auto traffic will have grown by 10 times those daily amounts in the same period of time.)

    Phoenix, Arizona is an interesting example. They want to build a 35 mile Light Rail system at a cost of $1.35 billion ($38.6 million dollars per mile). If the average trip in Phoenix was 10 miles long this would represent 600,000 passenger miles per day. This number is 2.4% of the current (not the year 2010) Greater Phoenix Area's daily commuter traffic of 25 million passenger miles (600,000/25,000,000 = 2.4%).

    Newspaper articles brag that even with stops every mile that the Light Rail would average "almost 20" miles per hour (17 mph in reality). This is barely a healthy bicyclist's cruise speed. Definitely not something to brag about.

    Sounds pretty useless, doesn't it? Can we use our brains to come up with a simpler, much lower cost, faster system?
SkyTran is the result of that thinking. Read the whole thing


The ULTra web site says: "A personal automatic taxi providing on demand driverless travel - using its own guideway network. Effective, low cost and sustainable transport for cities, airports and special applications worldwide." It's max speed is 25 MPH, so SkyTran (at 100 MPH) seems more interesting in larger cities where it is 30 miles or more from one side to the other.

In all three of these systems, the roadway is far less expensive and usually suspended. The idea of "owning a vehicle that is idle 95% of the time" is no longer necessary. In a fully implemented system, parking lots are not needed at places like airports, shopping centers or homes, freeing up huge amounts of land and capital. And so on.

Now the big questions -- Are Americans so tied to their cars that they are inseparable? Can we standardize "cars" and track systems so we can gain economies of scale? Can we build these systems with enough flexibility to do everything the current road systems do? Can we actually make a decision as a nation to start developing a new system? Can we overcome all of the inertia of the current system to create something significantly better in terms of cost and expandability?

If the new system costs a tenth as much as the current system and has a number of other advantages, it may be possible.

Either that, or we may totally transcend the need for personal transportation and transportation systems with technologies like Vertebrane and the body-free lifestyle -- cars and roads become completely irrelevant in that case.



At 9:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For public transportation to work the cities would have to be re designed. Few peo;ple even use the HOV lanes. Why? Because no one lives near them that works with them or keeps the same schedule at work. Public transportation has to go from where I live to where I work. It doesn't for me and most others. If it takes longer than driving because of stops or transfers people are not likely to use it. I was in a van pool once, the stops for pickup made the trip take longer than driving by myself. I carpooled once, my carpool partner quit the job. I think if the HOV lanes were abolished that the improved traffic flow for everyone else would probably reduce pollution more than the carpooling. The roads and suburbs have already been built. Its going to be hard to change now. How about some real traffic control. Much of the congestion results from people travling to work and back at the same time. Stagger the times. Crack down on speeders and lane changers. Seperate the truck traffic from the cars on heavy use routes like the New Jersey Turnpike does.

At 12:22 PM, Anonymous Jay said...

Check out these flyings cars:

The creator says they're only 10-15 years away from getting into mainstream use.

Military, police, and rescue-workers will start using them even sooner.

There is a nice movie clip on that link that shows a flying car saving a victim.

Extremely cool. Watch it.

At 12:23 PM, Anonymous Jay said...

Clickable (I hope):


At 3:22 PM, Anonymous Jeff Korpa said...


All of these alternatives look strikingly similar to another Disney technology -- the Peoplemover. FYI: this ride / attraction got yanked (not sexy enough?) and was replaced by "Rocket Rods" (a lousy replacement, IMHO). I am not sure if Peoplemover still exists at Disney World.

Given the clear price and performance benefits of these transportation technoloies, I have no idea why the Monorail / the Peoplemover never caught on. Perhaps they were too far ahead of their time?


At 6:55 PM, Blogger Jon said...

SkyTran sounds cool, but I wonder what all the birds in a large city would think about pods zipping through their airspace at 100mph. I guess they would figure it out or die trying...

At 1:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Frankly, these solutions are a scam. They sound fun until you realize the many problems they would cause. Two simple ones are that PRT's would work excellently as mobile brothels and as targeted bomb delivery devices. Imagine how popular this would be after people just once call up a car and recieve one with vomit, used needles, or used condoms, not to mention trash and grafiti.

PRT is an excellent way for public officials to sound pro-transit while saying untrue, negative things about other modes of transit.

The only real way to get people out of cars is to
1) build fast, comfortable fixed-rail subway or light rail

2) re-zone the areas around the stops to allow high density so many people can live within walking distance

3) Limit parking or let congestion do the work of convincing people that transit is more convenient.

Unfortunately, this poses a chicken and egg problem unless the planners are far sighted enough to build the trains and keep them operating until the density is achieved to make them useful. Without transit, you won't get density, without density, transit is too expensive.

If you are really enamoured by the features of PRT, I'd reccomend checking out something like ZipCar - a very convenient short-term car rental company - instead.

Ben Martin

At 4:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>Imagine how popular this would be after people
>just once call up a car and recieve one
>with vomit, used needles, or used condoms, not
>to mention trash and grafiti.

This is easy to prevent. The rider in each car will be known. Punishing offenders will be trivial.

Also, monitor what happens inside the car during the ride.

We spend billions on roads to reach every corner of America now. If, as in his example, a monorail track costs 1/100th of an interstate highway lane, why do you need density?

At 5:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The politics don't work. Car companies don't need competitors which cost less, and have enough influence on government to prevent them.

At 2:25 PM, Blogger pat said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2:32 PM, Blogger pat said...

>>Imagine how popular this would be after people
>>just once call up a car and recieve one
>>with vomit, used needles, or used condoms, not
>>to mention trash and grafiti.
>This is easy to prevent. The rider in each car will be known. Punishing offenders will be trivial.

I don't know about you, but I'm not too keen on having a security camera follow me everywhere I go in a city.

This transportation solution may be workable, but there are privacy concerns that need to be worked out.

Here in DC there's been a massive, well-nigh impossible attempt just to get one more metro line. The idea of an entire city-wide suspended rail system built is hard to take seriously.

In my opinion, we stand a better chance of getting workable public transportation by building robotics into more or less the current design for automobiles. If a safety threshhold can be achieved, then robotic vehicles and human-driven vehicles can coexist (on existing roads).

When it becomes apparent how much safer the robotic vehicles are, most people will switch over, if their insurance companies don't force them to.

At 12:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry to say it, but these modes of transportation will forever be the dream of engineers. These kinds of systems cannot fit into our reality because they are not "owned" by anyone. Public transportation will always be inefficient and overpriced. The very idea is a solution looking for a problem. The system we have now (too many cars crowding the roads, ineffective centrally-planned mass-transit systems) is the same one we'll have in 100 years, unless individual vehicles could be linked up and automated on the major roadways and then "de-linked" and let back on the smaller roadways under individual control. Of course, I could be wrong, the future may not have any room for individualism, as it is a dangerous ideal and counter to the needs of "society". I would highly recommend some reading up on the concepts of enlightened self-interest (see Ayn Rand) for clues on developing a future that could really work in the real world, not just on paper. Thanks for the provocative blog.

At 11:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>If a safety threshhold
>can be achieved, then
>robotic vehicles and
>human-driven vehicles
>can coexist (on
>existing roads).

I believe the point is that today's roads are quite inefficient economically. If a piece of track costs 1/100th the cost to build the equivilent length of roadway, why continue to build roads as we do today?

At 12:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you have ever read the sci-fi of L. Neil Smith you would note that there are no public roads in his version of society, because of the inefficiencies you mentioned. He is a sci-fi author with interesting ideas about alternate futures.

At 6:09 PM, Anonymous Leslie said...

Those monorail systems look nice, but even at reduced cost, installing them on every street in a city would be impractical, and people who today have their own vehicles will not want to 1) walk to the nearest station 2) wait more than a minute or two to be picked up.

I agree with some posters that smart vehicles, networked together, would be a much better way to go; they would also need to be manually operable for travelling beyond the high-density networked areas, but would be capable of "convoying" for high-speed travel even at rush-hour.

Some problems whose solutions are being worked on are navigation and hazard (pedestrian) avoidance. Such vehicles would also presumably be intelligent enough to know when they need to go "home" for maintenance, etc.

Take a look at
for an example of ongoing research. Other examples can be found by Googling for "smart road" gov (put the quotes in); many of them seem to be in Australia. (?)

The flying car technology is also interesting, but one would think that the energy costs might become noncompetitive.

At 8:45 AM, Anonymous Ken Avidor said...

The Taxi 2000/Skyweb Corporation is suing its founder and CEO in Hennepin District Court.

The court records reveal that PRT is utterly bogus. It's mainly used as a public relations, disinformation tool by the highway industry to say nasty and untrue things about Light Rail Transit (LRT).

Learn more about PRT at the PRT is a Joke web site.


New PRT-skeptic blog - News Tips and Comments Welcome!


At 6:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>>Learn more about PRT at the PRT is a Joke web site.<<

Holy ****. This guy has an axe to grind against this company...scam or not. How about a less personal attacks and more researched facts.

At 3:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

PRT systems do not work! thre are none, not even in airports or amusement parks. this "what if" system
(PRT) has been used to elbow out real transport fixes by techno-glitzed starry eyed and hard eyed chislers.

Last mile solutions (walkways bikeways), improved bus service (easy access buses, route improvements, busways), rail solutions and traffic improvements and traffic routing all get shafted when yet another PRT study sucks up cash and effort.

At 6:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One innovative use for idle electric, fuel-cell or plug-in hybrid cars is for car-to-grid electricity storage, see for example: Veh_Grid_Power/Veh_grid_power.htm

[remove whitespace from URL]

For any country which has largely moved to this sort of transportation, the total electrical storage available in cars would be several times that of any other source.

At 2:55 AM, Blogger Quit Smoking said...

Having discovered your blog through the blooger toolbar, I hope you don't mind saying that I have a ebooks site/blog. It pretty much covers ebooks related stuff. Check it out if you have time.

At 2:21 PM, Anonymous Mr_Blog said...

Ken Avidor: See How He Distorts

At 10:26 PM, Anonymous Mike Conwell said...

>Anonymous says:
...thre are none, not even in airports or amusement parks. this "what if" system...

Since this courageously anonymous posting, BAA & Heathrow have joined with ATS Ltd to develop the ULTra PRT vehicle for the new expansion of the airport. [Oct 20, 2005] See the following BAA Presss Release, or visit for more.

At 12:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A PRT type system was the famous Denver Airport Luggage Mangler.
$230 million 17 miles of track, hundreds of "stops" and thousands of
"pods" for luggage, not people, 5 miles of conveyors.

Dec 2005, it still had $184 million in debt and crippled any other transit in contact with it. Never worked. Now only the debt remains for the public to pay and pay.

Still like PRT? That is some REAL SAD TECH pal.

But I can already hear the chorus, "but thats not REAL PRT".

Well it was "real prt." PRT is a proven failure in planning, politics, engineering and implementation. the Denver PRT Debacle fueled dozens of PHD grads in Software engineering, public policy, management and finance as they picked the bones of this great stinking carcass.

At 7:28 AM, Anonymous cmf - seattle said...

the PRT concept has been proven. google "cabintaxi" to see what was accomplished with 1970s computer systems.

the guideways do not have to run on every street. the goal would be to locate them 1/2 mile apart.

funny how bus/light rail/streetcar systems rarely attract more than 5% of all trips, yet demand about 70% of their costs be subsidized.

PRT won't displace automobiles; it should be viewed as a means of increasing the overall efficiency of our transportation infrastructure.

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