Sunday, May 16, 2010
I recently read an article called “Robocars vs. PRT” posted on ITT’s PRT Debate page, which directly relates to my last (and many other) previous posts. Whereas I found more than a few dubious assertions in there, I’ll confine my response to just one. Don’t get me wrong. There is a whole lot of good stuff in the article, and I would recommend reading it. I mostly disagree with the premise. That is that there can only be one urban transportation platform that “wins,” and that will be the robocar. Is it any wonder that, in some imaginary bipolar battle for acceptance, the winner is cars/roads? They are already here. The “robo” part is just evolution.
Virtually nothing is said as to why such a competition exists. Are there also “Robocars vs. Light rail” or “Robocars vs. Buses” articles in the pipeline? This is a false choice. One of the first clues to this fact can be heard in the author’s statement, “New dedicated right-of-way is, of course, wonderful for any transportation system…” Exactly. That hits the nail on the head, because it leads to the obvious question, “What is the cheapest, most efficient, most compact, least intrusive, most flexible way to produce this “dedicated right-of-way?” Score one for PRT. His argument, however, is that roads are actually more doable for political reasons. This is certainly true, but it doesn’t make it right. This is the kind of logic that perpetuates obsolete designs and practices of all kinds. The obstacles he sites that are faced by PRT are, however, spot on. His arguments against PRT should sound a cautionary alarm to all would-be system vendors. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.
PRT can be seen as the most efficient means of alleviating traffic congestion by bypassing it. Robocars and “smart” traffic management techniques are means to decrease that traffic in the first place. Both are sorely needed.
The PRT community needs to hone its message and its product offerings. The virtuous combination of being electric, automated, and point-to-point is not exclusive to PRT anymore. PRT must be a reflection what it does best – It must be (and bill itself as) the most efficient way to move stuff (like people) using the least expensive, most efficient and versatile infrastructure.
Steerable free-roaming robocars can never be as efficient as rail-based PRT. They need MUCH bigger (and heavier) batteries, time to recharge, and those batteries eventually need replacement. They need softer tires. They cannot go as fast because they have nothing to grab on to in an emergency stop situation, and could skid or roll over for the same reason. They are more at the mercy of adverse weather, again effecting speed. The road or guideway cannot be as compact or as lightweight. Moreover, privately owned robocars will evolve into as big and energy hogging a form as the law allows. If they can drive themselves, they’ll come with wide screen TVs in no time. Energy saving electric cars will become complete offices-on-the-go. Sometimes a little “top-down” infrastructure control is a good thing.
Rail based PRT need not go everywhere. Every mile of it that exists is saving the commuter and the taxpayer time, money and resources with every trip. It effectively uses an underutilized resource - the space over medians and sidewalks. It is ideally suited for being routed in 3D thus avoiding land-hogging ramps, as I mentioned in my last post. It is a minimalist solution that recognizes scarcity. Tell me THAT has no future.
Cities, states and countries are up to their eyeballs red ink and we live in a very competitive, increasingly used-up world. Doing more with less faster is the ONLY answer, so we as citizens, as communities, as countries, and even as a civilization, must get down to the business of replacing our various inefficiencies, or face a pretty dire future. We need both PRT AND Robocars. Hopefully there is somewhere in the world with the political will.