Future Vision

An End To Fuelishness

There is a great deal of debate today about how we should power our cars. Most recognize by now that the petro-diet we’ve been on is unsustainable in the long run. It’s hazardous to the environment, and given America’s dependence on foreign oil, it’s also impoverishing our country. But while gasoline may have lost it’s luster in the eyes of social planners, there are many champions of liquid fuel champing at the bit to take its place. I am here to argue that a major key to our energy future lies in spurning them all, and moving straight to electricity. It’s time to put an end to fuelishness!

We should look to abandon liquid fuels in general. For one thing, they’re socially regressive. They make us dependent on the powerful minority that delivers the fuel. We will all pay extra at the pump for empowering a new generation of fuel masters. Liquid fuels also require distribution systems which are enormously expensive to build and maintain. In the case of hydrogen, the existing system of refineries and gas stations is largely useless. A new system would have to be built at huge expense. Who would ultimately be asked to foot that bill? Ordinary customers, that’s who! Biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel pose fewer infrastructure problems. But all forms of liquid fuel require wasting huge amounts of energy simply to move the stuff around where people can use it. Then there’s the safety question. Is it really a good idea to mix fleets of gas trucks with normal passenger traffic? That’s an issue ethanol can only make worse, as it ignites more easily than gasoline.

Many who recognize the problems of hydrogen will argue for various biofuels. But biofuels have their own problems. Using corn to produce ethanol may be great for corn farmers, but it’s not going to solve our energy dilemma. Growing corn is itself a fossil fuel intensive process. So the net energy payback from ethanol isn’t good. According to Cornell University scientist David Pimentel, it takes 1.3 gallons of oil to produce one gallon of Ethanol! Ethanol also diverts land from food production and is already driving up food prices. Switch grass is a better alternative than corn, but with the potential exception of algae, all methods of making biofuel will require huge tracts of land to supply a significant portion of current energy demand.

Changes in land use inspired by biofuel initiatives are increasingly raising alarm with climate change activists. Brazilians have cut down huge sections of the Amazon rain forest to cultivate sugar cane for ethanol. Similarly, large areas of Asian peat lands are being converted to Palm oil plantations to make biofuels. Scientist are warning that these activities may release many times more carbon into the atmosphere than will be saved by the modest greenhouse gas improvement ethanol provides. Fixing our energy problem at the price of losing the war on global warming isn’t a road we can afford to take. Replacing gasoline with biofuels is not the answer to our problems.

As if these reasons weren’t enough, engines powered by liquid fuels are incapable of running efficiently. Heat Engines, which is what combustion engines are, are doomed by basic thermodynamic laws to be inefficient at normal temperatures. The only environment in which heat engines can be truly efficient is far too cold for humans to survive. Gasoline, ethanol, biodiesel, natural gas–it doesn’t matter. They are all doomed to be wasteful. In practice, combustion engine vehicles succeed in using less that a third of their fuel energy to produce motion. The rest goes out the radiator, tailpipe, or is bled off as waste heat. This is a matter of basic scientific law, and beyond debate. As a result no strategy aimed at achieving real energy efficiency can survive the widespread use of combustion engines. The same is true of any strategy which hopes to defeat global warming. If we are truly serious about fixing these problems, we need to end our reliance on the combustion engine. It’s that simple.

Electricity is the solution to our energy problem. The development of batteries capable of driving a generation of electric cars Americans can be happy with is well underway. Nanotechnology is in the process of radically extending the range of electric cars with batteries that can recharge in a few minutes. Unlike biofuels, electric cars don’t produce 80% of gasoline’s emissions: they have ZERO emissions! While heat engines are stuck well under 50% efficiency, a well maintained electric car can be 90% efficient. As Intel’s founder Andy Grove points out, electricity will also provide a unique flexibility in handling our energy problems. It can be produced from many sources, including solar and wind. It can be transmitted with virtually instant speed across the landscape. Unlike hydrogen or natural gas, we won’t have to completely rebuild our delivery system to accommodate electric cars. The national electric grid as it exists today is already capable of moving us in the right direction. Yes, the grid will need to be augmented as electric demand grows. But there’s no reason this can’t happen in an orderly fashion in the years to come. Current initiatives by the fledgling Obama administration are already beginning to lay the groundwork for the smart grid of the future.

To replace liquid fuels, the electric game plan will rely on a bridge technology called the hybrid car, a type of vehicle which combines a traditional gas engine with a rechargeable electric storage system. Hybrids have existed for some years, and are currently manufactured by several companies. Hybrids use several techniques to extend gas mileage, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the process. The plug-in hybrid, which owners can recharge at home, represents the next step, leading eventually to the all electric car. Over the coming years, this progression will provide a clear path traditional car manufacturers can take to help us evolve an electric future.

During this period there will be many temptations to extend our long reliance on liquid fuels. But it is critical that we not allow ourselves to be distracted from the goal of an electric future. In order to fend off catastrophic climate change, there can be no place for widespread use of liquid fuels. Either we stop dumping massive amounts of carbon dioxide in the sky, or we will pass on a sickened planet to our children. The electric car is the one way for us all to keep driving and avoid that outcome. The alternative is catastrophe.

Future Transit

We all know the reasons for action: Cities clogged by chronic traffic congestion; airborne pollutants which harm the health of millions; greenhouse gas exhaust which promotes ominous climate change. The need to develop new forms of mass transit to help transform our car-crazy world is clear. What’s not so clear is what form such action should take. Europe and Japan have made significant strides developing high speed rail systems. But to date not much has been done in the United States to bring mass transit into the 21st century. With the advent of the Obama administration, however, there is fresh cause to hope that long overdue action is coming. Clearly many have been nursing forward looking visions of what we might do, as this Comparison Matrix of Ready and Emerging Innovative Transportation Technologies developed at the University of Washington shows.

America’s transportation future should be based on phasing out internal combustion engines in favor of all electric cars, a subject I’ll deal with in greater length elsewhere. Going electric will make cars lighter in general, making passengers more vulnerable to collisions with heavy vehicles. For the sake of passenger safety, as well as overall energy efficiency, we should move most long haul trucking off our highways and back to trains. Accomplishing this goal should be the focus in updating our existing railroad system, not moving people around at high speeds. We need to update existing trains as a freight distribution system which will relieve highways of much of heavy freight they now carry. Doing so will not only make travel safer for passenger traffic, it will save energy and lower stress on our roadways.

Adopting the European approach to high speed trains would be a mistake for the United States. The expense required to install ground based high speed train service for a country as large as the US will be astronomical. People here also need to go faster than Europeans simply because the US is a much bigger place. But as the speed of ground based traffic rises, the potential for mayhem, mischief, and disaster rises with it. Moving people around on a national basis at speeds appropriate to the size of the US should cause us to move high speed transit off the ground, if only to reduce potential disasters.

ATI’s (Airtrain Inc.) Advance Guideway System is an approach with significant advantages over most high speed rail schemes. ATI’s current design uses a vehicle which carries 114 people hung from an overhead guide rail. Two modes of propulsions are used. At lower speeds drive wheels grasp the guide rail to push the vehicle along quietly. At higher speeds ducted thrust fans take over. Vehicles are reversible, so there is no need for two tracks. They can also be linked in groups to form multi car trains. Because the guide way is suspended from mounts, vehicles don’t interfere with local ground traffic and can use existing rights of ways. The system is also capable of climbing 15% grades, eliminating the need to tunnel through mountains. Both propulsion methods use electricity supplied by the guide rail. So no fossil fuel or combustion is involved.

The key to ATI’s system is dual propulsion. This is a system which acts as a subway or light commuter rail in town, and a like a propeller airplane when going cross country. Like airplanes, ATI’s vehicles pitch and roll when going around curves. The initial system is rated to operate at 150 miles per hour. But the company is already working on a 250 mph system, and is committed to providing 300. Since propeller airplanes can operate efficiently up to 350 mph, further headroom may be possible in the years ahead. These are speeds we are unlikely to see from ground based trains, and at which it would be inadvisable to operate ground traffic, even if it were possible.

A national network based on ATI’s system would be cheaper and faster to build than high speed ground trains. With enough time and development a grid built on this technology could displace national jet flights for all but the longest routes and most demanding travelers. Eventually express trains of this type could go coast to coast in ten hours. You would be able to take a sleeper car in New York, and wake up in Los Angeles. Advanced Guideway routes would also serve as superior form of urban commuter rail, allowing workers who live much greater distances from downtown retain the ability to commute into the city each day.

Of course one reason Why People Don’t Use Mass Transit services is the need to get around a distant town once they arrive. If someone feels they’ll need a car once they arrive in a city, they might as well just drive there to start with! This brings us to the other end of the national grid scale: the need locals and visitors alike have to simply get around town. Many schemes are being floated to solve this problem, but most will required extensive and expensive changes in how cities work. Rather than futuristic notions of fleets of small ownerless vehicles, or cars that can ride on rail lines, we might be better served by resurrecting an old Jazz Age phenomena called the Jitney, or Share Taxi.

IGT Taxibus is a British firm which presents a compelling scheme for what might be called Jitney service for the 21st century. The IGT system is composed of four elements: a fleet of minibuses to move people around, cell phone networks to order rides and coordinate payments, GPS to guide travel routes, and computer networking to coordinate fleets with maximum efficiency. Taxibuses provide door to door service, and IGT claims an average wait-time of only three minutes between ordering a ride, and being picked up. Fares would be automatically handled on cell phones, eliminating the token taking and exact change problems typical of city buses. IGT claims that Taxibus travel times will be much closer to a car or taxi than a city bus, especially as a Taxibus delivers riders directly to their destinations without the need to park a car on arrival.

IGT’s analysis suggests that the biggest benefit will be the elimination of six cars from city streets for every working Taxibus. For the scheme to work properly large fleets of Taxibuses are necessary to provide the quick response times IGT projects. But if IGT’s analysis is even close to being right, the benefit of deploying a large fleet of Taxibuses in big cities would be immense. A huge number of cars would be taken off the roads, resulting not only in big energy savings, but significant reductions in urban congestion and exhaust emissions. Furthermore, any city served by a large Taxibus fleet would give travelers added reason to ride high speed transit to town, rather than driving a car there. If you know cheap Taxibuses are available to ferry you door to door around town on short notice, there will be little reason to drive your car into the city to start with.

The combined strategies embodied by ATI’s Advanced Guideway System and IGT’s Taxibus can form a rich synergy capable of putting a major dent in America’s overwhelming traffic load. Who will want to drive a car 1000 miles when it’s possible to hop an Air train that moves at 300 miles per hour? Why would you need to drive your car to a distant city swarming with Taxibuses ready to provide quick door-to-door service? Yes, it will doubtless cost a great deal to create an Advanced Guideway network that covers the entire country, but not nearly as much, and to much better effect, than a ground based high speed rail system.

More importantly, it will cost us even more in the long run to do nothing. America needs to look up and embrace its future. It can do so by bringing the equivalent of flight down to the people. On the other hand, we need a way to unsnarl our complicated cities which won’t require the immense cost of retrofitting them with futuristic urban schemes. The indignity and inefficiency of city buses has soured most Americans on the prospect of mass transit. Taxibus fleets deployed in large numbers could remedy this, and in the process take huge numbers of cars off the roads where it matters most: from the heart of downtown.

(Originally posted by R. Guenette on 01.26.09)