Technology

Have Battery, Will Travel

Moving the American road from gasoline to electricity will require radical common sense. Until now the range of electric cars has paled compared to the gas guzzlers we’re use to. But that’s in the process of changing. Recent developments in nanotechnology are leading to new types of batteries which will have far greater capacity and far quicker recharge cycles than current products. AltairNano of Reno Nevada has created technology capable of producing devices which hold three times the charge of current lithium ion batteries, and which recharge in a matter of minutes while operating safely in a wide range of temperatures. Researchers at Stanford recently announced a nanowire technique capable of holding ten times the charge of current generation lithium ion devices. With such power packs, electric cars could eventually surpass gas powered cars in range.

But it will be a few years before these technologies become widespread and cheap. Right now it’s the cost of fancy batteries which makes electric cars so expensive. For a public used to driving 300 miles on a tank of gas, the limited range provided by current electric technology isn’t attractive. How can we overcome the obstacles presented by these limitations? Shai Agassi’s Better Place is a company working to find answers to these questions. One of their more interesting concepts is to establish Battery Exchange Stations for travelers on long journeys. You would drive to a Battery Exchange Station as if it were any gas station. But instead of "filling up" the station would use an automated procedure to swap out your spent battery, and replace it with a charged one. According to Better Place, you’d be on your way with a fresh battery in less than three minutes.

Battery exchange stations are a great idea, one capable of letting electric car drivers go on long journeys. But we should take the concept a step further by establishing government standards for Universal Road Batteries, or URBs. Such standards would be designed to let owners of different electric cars share common battery types. The idea is to promote the interoperability we now take for granted when fueling our cars. It doesn’t matter what kind of car you drive today: a two seat sports car, a sedan, SUV, or pickup truck. You can go from coast to coast knowing that in every state you can pull into a gas station where the pump will work with your car, and what comes out will get you on your way. So the URB isn’t a radical concept, but a way to give electric cars the same freedom to operate over long distances that gasoline provides us with now.

URBs would also help us make sense of renewables. Solar and wind are intermittent sources of energy. In power company lingo this type of energy is known as non-dispatchable, meaning that when the energy is available, the grid either needs to accept it, or it will be lost. This differs from traditional forms of energy like coal or oil which stick around until we decide to use them. So a key factor in adopting renewable energy sources is the ability to store that energy when it’s available. URBs would fulfill this objective in spades, and in the process provide a huge incentive to develop renewable energy. Millions of interchangeable electric car batteries would represent an energy sink of formidable proportions, one which would provide instant justification to tap the sun and wind to make electricity.

Unlike traditional forms of energy, much of this activity could take place on a decentralized basis by ordinary people. Having a widely practiced Universal Road Battery standard will help every family with a wind machine or solar roof panel power their own car. People with spare acreage in windy states will have an incentive to start their own wind farms, knowing they can "sell gas" to cross country electric car drivers in the form of URBs. And unlike current day gas station owners, these people won’t be passing most of the profit on to a giant corporation. That’s the thing about an electric-renewable economy which won’t be true for other forms of energy. Both the big and the small will get to play. We’ll have the best competition of all, the kind that lets you make something for yourself when someone else decides to overcharge for it! That’s supposed to be what capitalism is all about. It won’t hurt our democracy one bit either!

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)

Project Spotlight

Americans burn millions of barrels of oil to light up the sky each night. This represents a huge burden, not only in terms of energy outlay, but for the constant river of equipment, time, and effort needed to keep the process going. Street lighting also adds significantly to our national health care bill. Normal sleep behavior in humans is easily disturbed by artificial light, and there’s substantial cause to think it complicates our health by interfering with normal sleep patterns.

LED (Light Emitting Diode) is an emerging lighting technology which offers new ways to cope with these problems. In its early years LEDs were only capable of emitting specific colors, notably Red and Green. But blue LEDs have recently become available in large numbers, and with them comes the prospect of using LEDs to create light of any color. Since the 1960’s the efficiency and light output of LED technology has been doubling every thirty-six months. As a result LEDs have become an order of magnitude more efficient than incandescent bulbs, and are starting to eclipse fluorescents as well. Other key advantages of LEDs include a much longer life span, low heat emissions, and superior susceptibility to complex computer control. LEDs are virtually instant-on devices which can be cycled on/off many times more often than other forms of lighting. They are also much more directional than normal lights, a fact which can be used to both increase efficiency and lower light pollution. Last, but not least, LEDs fail gradually by slowly growing dim, in stark contrast to the abrupt failure of incandescent bulbs.

All these advantages add up to a tremendous opportunity for America to save energy and fight global warming. A 2008 white paper funded by the Ford Foundation found that if the our ten largest metropolitan areas convert to more efficient lighting, CO2 emissions will be cut by 1.2 million tons a year, the amount produced by 212,000 cars! The long life of LEDs would also save money by slowing the rate at which municipalities need to buy and install replacement lights.

But LEDs may make a radical new kind of economy possible, one based on not bothering to light empty streets where no one is stirring! It has been our habit to light millions of empty streets each night all across America, streets which for long stretches of time are completely devoid of traffic, where no one is even awake enough to know if lights are on! This is a colossal waste of energy which LEDs are ideally suited to put an end to. Equipping LED street lights with motion sensor detectors will let us turn lights on only when there are actually people there to see and use them. LEDs can accomplish this because unlike incandescent lights they can power up/down a huge number of times without breaking, and unlike florescent lights they turn on instantaneously.

Under this scenario a street would light up before you as you drove or walked down it, only to fade back into darkness when no traffic is present. Some might object this would lead to a “strobe light” effect all over town. But LEDs are ideally suited for sophisticated network control which could provide many options. One might be to simply dim lights slowly on streets with little or no traffic, instead of shutting them off completely. Programming for a new generation of street lights could be split between the local intelligence of individual lights designed to react to real-time traffic, and a central control center which could override their behavior with its own programming. Such systems might consist of street lights with flash memory software which could be updated from a central office. This would allow the programmed behavior of an entire municipal lighting system to be updated on the fly without needing to send workmen into the streets.

What’s needed at this point is a grand experiment, one designed to test these possibilities in the interest of arriving at an optimal solution, one which balances our desire to conserve energy while providing nighttime illumination people find useful and comfortable. Only by conducting such an experiment can we learn what will work best. I also suggest that this needs to be a national experiment sponsored by the federal government. If we are to move on this into the 21st century as a people, it won’t do for each town to have their own way of programming street lights. However inefficient our current way of lighting up the night may be, it has the advantage of being predictable. Regardless of the state or city we’re in, we know what to expect from street lights. But as with all systems which contain significant software, this new technology will be capable of surprising us with unexpected behavior. Such surprises can be good or bad. To make sure it’s the former, we need to coordinate our efforts to create a standard way to use this new potential, one tested by real experience.

(Originally posted by R. Guenette 01.10.09)