Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sky Rail, Not Quite the Jetsons

One of my favorite pastimes is dreaming up ideal solutions then bringing them back to something that is almost but not entirely a feasibility.  It's a great pass time with friends and a glass of wine, which happens less and less often nowadays.  Several years ago, my work from home job became a work from home and commute 45 mins each way twice a week job.  Commuting sucks, even if it's on mostly open highway.  It feels like such a waste of time.  That was almost 2 hours (when you count incidentals) every day that I could have been doing something else, even working!  It was such a waste!

Now, I used to love driving.  I started driving when I was 6 years old (in the field while my parents loaded wheat straw bales onto the car trailer the pickup I was driving was pulling).  I used to drive for my Papa on the back roads with the same pickup loaded down to twice it's weight capacity with grain.  He was a farmer, but he hated driving and since I liked it, he let me - as long as he was sure we wouldn't get caught and I was safe about it.  He taught me to drive tractor during the summers on his farm as well.  When I finally got to take drivers ed, I had a pretty good handle on what I needed to do, and my uncle, it turns out, was way more picky about my stopping than my driver's ed instructor - absolutely smooth all the way to the light.  I thought about getting a racers license for a bit, debating becoming a rookie at the local circle track.  My dad would totally have hooked me up with a stock car, although my mom would have preferred if I'd gone for an open wheel division.  I never did it though.  You get the point though, once I used to love driving.  Now, I could take it or leave it.  Sure it's a convenient way to get around, but for any routine distance, it's time I'd rather spend reading, writing, working, or playing with my kids.

Rails are great.  You sit back, watch the world go by at 75mph and aren't chained to your seat.  Rail has problems though.  There is very little privacy, I've heard some of the commuter trains are down right nasty from people not taking care of them or cleaning up after themselves, and where I live, there just aren't any.  Oh sure my friends and I designed a circuit with gravity power transfer for the hills, but that would only really be practical in circuits like our local area, and it still doesn't solve the privacy issue.  Besides people are used to having their own transportation and for the most part they don't want to give it up.

Yet, we all drive the same boring highways, the same major roads.  In fact, the only time we really need our own wheels is for that last mile stuff.  When we get off the main routes and on to those last bits that lead to our destination.  What we really need is an efficient vehicle that has a safe autopilot that we can put on the highway and trust to get us to our "off ramp" where we take over again and finish the last few minutes of our drive.

Unfortunately, in the modern highway system the most dangerous thing out there are the other drivers.  Robotic cars drive rather well with natural obstacles.  They're even rather good with interacting with each other, sharing a roadway.  There have even been some development with the avoidance of moving organisms, like livestock.  Unfortunately, the unexpected is the big risk with an automated system.

Because of the limitation of non-automated drivers causing erratic road behavior to get my autopilot the road system for my new chauffeured system needs a new safe highway system.  Ideally the existing highway system could be modified for this purpose and in many cases it could be done so while still allowing traditional cars to maintain transport, and for shipping purposes that is going to continue to be important.  While we are avoiding erratic behaviors, my ideal solution would also elevate the roadway (or otherwise form a land barrier) to limit the amount of animal and other interactions.  Sure it's prohibitively expensive infrastructure, but I'm dreaming here, right?

So now we have a safe roadway, with just our new self driving vehicles (at least while on the system) and a new self driving vehicle that can be driven when off the secure system to get you from the "rail line" to your driveway.  What does this vehicle and roadway look like.  Wouldn't it be great if we could do away with the restrictions of forward facing seats and make our space more comfortable and interactive?  Sure we'd need road safety for the last bit, but as things change that may become less necessary.  Wouldn't it be nice if we could maintain some of the train connectivity to connect with friends and family in a "carpool"?  Sure why not! I mean this could be really great, because sometimes you need more space and sometimes you don't!  Wouldn't it be great if you could connect both your "cars" for a big road trip, but only use half that space for your daily commuting?  You could even put the baby down for a nap in one car while the other kids run around in the other.

As for the road, with computerized driving we'd maximize our lane usage.  There would be very little need to slow down before your off-ramp.  Properly designed deceleration zones could maintain traffic flow.  On-ramp mergers could be just as maintained with the other vehicles seamlessly making a space for new arrivals.  Think of no more stress of red taillights as someone pushes through only to slam on their brakes!  Think of the ability to work around high congestion areas.  GPS systems are already directing so many cars around cities, it's really not that much further to go to an interconnected traffic management system.

Sure sure, automation can be bad and it can all brake down and end in tears, but so can everything else.

Think this is just a wild dream, that I've only half detailed out for you?  Well maybe.  I do have a lot more, but it's late and I'm going to post this as is now. If I get a few comments on this, I may post more about this idea again.  So there you are, you want my half baked revolutionary concepts on a new system of transportation? Post a comment!  This offer stands too because I check to see if there are new comments on any post pretty regularly (it's nice that blogger just puts all new comments in one space.)

Want some more info on robotic cars?  Check out this NOVA I watched ages ago - and when I did I thought, hey that'd totally work with that car-rail system idea I've got - which I just wrote the beginning of for you here.


  1. Oh my gosh! I totally thought of the same system not too long ago when we were stuck in traffic in Seattle. An automated track, like an amusement park ride, that you hook your car into for the main bulk of the commute. Then after disengaging at your exit, drive as normal again. While hooked in, drivers are free to read, do makeup, in other words all the stuff they do anyway while commuting just more safely! That would be so cool. :)

  2. Oh, and another benefit is, once hooked into the track, the speed of the vehicles on it could be much faster than normal driving, thus lessening the time spent commuting.

  3. I know, right! They've already proven that a computer even driving in traffic is much better at knowing when to actually brake when people are slowing down and when not to. Imagine if it knew what the cars in front and behind were doing! Where they were getting off. It would give us back some of that time, taking away one more menial task. After enough time it may even allow those with disabilities self transport as these cars can still use wireless communication even off the networked commuter system. They could drive themselves even on non-secure routes at lower speeds and get the driver safely home.

    Other ideas include having the commuting roads be powered (like the old trolley lines) thereby not needing to use as much gasoline since cars could hook together and share a power source reducing engine waste, or even a maglev type system. There's also the option in hilly areas to use gravity to power as vehicles "fall" down the hill providing mostly free energy for those on the climbing side.

  4. This sounds like a good implementation, but let me challenge your premise for a moment- wouldn't it be better if we focused on moving ideas and products around rather than people? If we focused our system on moving ideas around and moving products around, we should be able to reduce the congestion on the traffic system substantially. That should help speed up traffic and remove a lot of the drivers off the road, which should also help in implementing self-driving cars and so on.

  5. Siredge - I suppose that would be a solution, but it doesn't solve the issue that driving, especially repetitive driving is boring and a large chunk of time that simply can not (should not) be used for anything else other than the act of driving. You are strapped in a seat facing one direction with limited everything. My premise was to make the commute more flexible for those stuck in one, and long road trips more enjoyable overall. Even without traffic some commutes are an hour or more (my 45 min commute was very rarely hindered by traffic), and long drives stay long drives.

    The side benefit of my system is that the roadways are left clear for commercial traffic :) Although I would love to see less trucks hauling and more heavy haulers employed for efficiency sake.

    Also removing drivers isn't the only barrier to self driving cars. The big liability is that when a road hazard appears and an accident happens we need someone to blame for it. Someone to be responsible for safety in the vehicle. Without a closed system that need would still be there.


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