Monday, January 24, 2011

116> Parkin' On the Hill...

This post is in response to comments made regarding the last one. In order to illustrate my points, I have used a modified version of the following picture, which I had originally intended to use in a different manner, so even though it is a bit off-topic, let me start with an explanation this illustration first.

This picture is the result of a design exercise, the object of which was to create the highest capacity station possible with the smallest footprint. In order to do this, I used elevators with curved doors, so that they can retract without needing much space in the walls. There are two of them, one for entering and one for exiting the station. This station is not “off-line,” but would rather be bypassed by a track that is not shown. Four cars can be loading while four are unloading, and (guessing a time of thirty seconds to get seated and on your way) the capacity of the station would be one car per 7.5 seconds, which works out to 480 vehicles per hour. It was designed to be ADA compliant, yet has a footprint of only about 50 square ft. One thing to think about is that if 8 of these stations where operating at capacity, the track they would be feeding would need sub-second headways to handle the passenger load. A station like this would be factory-built and delivered to the site in several pieces. Obviously the design is a bit misplaced in this setting, which isn’t exactly downtown, (so a footprint small enough for a crowded sidewalk isn’t really needed) but I had no other jpeg to “shop” the model into.

This leads me to the next picture, which shows a two-way variation of the same station. In this one, each elevator handles both arriving and departing passengers, with one elevator being for each direction. I drew this in response to alert reader Lars Endre, who suggested the possibility of using sloping track to capture the energy lost in deceleration. While this would be impractical for most PRT designs, it’s a concept that is well suited to self-leveling, hanging systems. The idea rests on the recognition that it takes a great deal of energy to get a vehicle up to speed and that it wastes a lot of kinetic energy to get it to stop. Parking atop a hill, so to speak, addresses both issues. This picture shows such an arrangement.

An alternative (frequently mentioned) approach to the problem is regenerative braking. As the vehicle slows, the momentum of the vehicle turns the wheels, which rotates the motor faster than it wants to go. This turns the motor into a generator and a brake at the same time, and the power is fed back into the track to be reused elsewhere. Sounds good when you say fast. I am not, personally, completely sure that this is an efficient process that is practical to exploit, what with electrical transmission losses, etc., especially with minor voltage supplementation in a DC system. 

Regenerative braking raises another fundamental question. How much braking do you want to do? After all, if the system is smart enough, it ought to have vehicles coasting more and braking less, right? The problem boils down to the need for speed. To some, it is assumed that assumed that PRT has a natural speed limit. Studies have shown that as speed increases, the safe spacing between vehicles must increase as well. Thus a system with a densely populated track going slower could move more people than one with faster, more widely spaced vehicles. The problem with those studies is a glaring fault in logic. It assumes that nothing can improve braking ability or crashworthiness of the vehicles. Fix that and you can both pack them tighter and go faster. But then we need brakes, and must deal with those mechanical inefficiencies. Consider the off ramp leading to a station. Making the split-off ultra gradual and giving a very long lead-up track is not very practical. 

Here is a different angle to show more track. While my first instinct was to think that raising the boarding area was a waste of materials, I soon realized that this cost could be offset by allowing shorter on/off ramps. Obviously this is more of an attractive option for fast, densely populated systems than for slower ones with few vehicles.

Another consideration is the “Umbrella Effect,” where overhead structures block the sky, a concern for landowners along the route. While this is less of a concern for minimalist track systems like I advocate, in a bi-directional station like the one shown there is still a lot of track up there, as can be seen. (Imagine the ULTra track four lanes wide!)  Long acceleration lanes represent additional visual obstruction. If raising the station can shorten these ramps, that would seem to be a plus for public acceptance as well as cost.  Even the station itself would appear somewhat less imposing by being higher, as more light would get in beneath it, and individual areas would remain shaded for less time. 

Astute reader Andrew F further pointed out that in tight turns, a sloping track could also be used to “bleed off” speed. (and give it back again after the turn) There are plenty of tight turns in a city environment, so this is something to consider. The negatives here are about ride quality, the way the system looks, the extra engineering, etc. Clearly, going very fast downtown would require a system that would be designed like a roller coaster, and I doubt we really want to go that far. On the other hand, in a system fast enough for commuting from the suburbs, there will always be the interface into the slower urban environment, just like freeway exits feeding downtown streets. Such an approach should certainly be in the toolbox. The case for using slopes to slow or speed a vehicle naturally arises, I believe, from the fact that it is so easy to do, considering that the track is raised anyway and the vehicles are designed to handle slopes and turns with minimal discomfort to the rider.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

115> Swing Low, Sweet PRT...

Sometimes a technology pops up out of the blue that unexpectedly solves stumbling blocks that have been around for years. In this case I will refer the reader to the 3-axis accelerometer, a nifty little device that you probably own a few of. Own a car? There’s probably one in the airbag controller. Own a digital camera? Probably one there too, to help you take a clear shot with shaky hands. Got a smart phone? That’s how that nifty feature that keeps the screen upright works. Game controllers. The Segway. The list goes on.

What I am exited about is how the device can operate as a level, a feature that was exploited to create the iPhone app above. You see, because gravity and acceleration are essentially interchangeable, an accelerometer senses gravity as constant acceleration. Zero this force out with software, and your accelerometer senses “acceleration” every time you tip it in any direction… a thousand times a second.  Voila! A level! Or actually, to be more precise, an inclinometer!

Meanwhile, in the world of motion control, engineers are redesigning the electric motor. In the old days, it was realized that rather than putting bunches of electromagnets in a large circular array to make a motor, just a few would do, if the rotation were faster. That way, the same magnets could come around and around again, faster. More power, less materials. Magic! Only problem was that many people didn’t want fast rotation, and a century’s worth of bulky and inefficient reduction gearboxes ensued. Recently, a revolution has been taking place in the world of motors, the conversion from mechanically switching the electromagnets off and on (brushed motor) to using an external controller. Now, rather than simply rotating at a given speed, motors can be made to stop, change speed, reverse, hold a position, etc. The modern servomotor has been born.

Now a new generation of brushless, direct-drive motors is emerging which return to large diameter magnet arrays for torque, rather than gearboxes. These offer powerful and accurate rotational control without requiring that a machine be designed around standard gearboxes and motor mounts. I am referring, specifically, to frameless torque motors, which have reduced this architecture down to a simple pair of concentric rings. They are simply inserted between the machine and the shaft to be turned, like a bushing or ball bearing unit.

So here’s how it all comes together. Pictured above is the swing-arm for the PRT vehicle that I have detailed in previous posts. Two pair of frameless torque motors (shown in red) are controlled by an accelerometer. These keep the vehicle in line with the normal gravitational forces. The accelerometer-torque motor combination can, in theory, eliminate any errant, sideways G forces. The idea is to emulate a free hanging system, without really being one. Why not just let it hang? Unbalanced or shifting loads, sudden gusts of side winds, or continual rocking back and fourth are all effects that need to be canceled. Other than that, a free hanging design has the wonderful effect of self-canceling motion-related forces from acceleration, deceleration, or turning. It’s like a bucket on a rope. No matter how you swing it around, water in the bucket won’t spill, because all gravity gets shifted toward the bottom of the bucket. With a vehicle-mounted accelerometer, any forces that it senses other than “downward” (in a relative sense) would cause the motors to lock up to arrest that movement, with the exception of a slight dampening, to control of the tendency to swing repeatedly like a pendulum.

I have mentioned in previous posts how the swing-arm design is extraordinarily safe, because rather than throwing occupants through the windshield in a head-on collision, the cab would swing forward, absorbing shock and transferring the direction of momentum so that it would essentially push the occupant into the seat instead of out of it. In this system, extreme forces will initially simply break the magnetic bond, allowing this forward swing. As the swing continues toward its apogee, however, the relative strength of the torque motors increases geometrically, applying ever greater braking force. Meanwhile the cab has gone from traveling forward to traveling upward, so it is additionally fighting gravity. All of this absorbs the force of impact without any mechanical damage to the vehicle. Combine this with bogey-to-bogey bumpers, and you have an extremely effective crash protection system. There are theoretical and mathematical ways demonstrate that split-second headways are not dangerous for PRT vehicles, but it’s pretty hard to beat coming out of a crash test damage-free to drive the point home.

Bottom line:
 You could set down a full cup of coffee and be whisked away at high speeds without spilling a drop. There is no reason why PRT can’t put any luxury car to shame in ride quality. An added bonus is unprecedented safety.  

Sunday, January 9, 2011

114> In Search of a Cheap Lunch

One of the dirty little secrets of “green” electric cars is that the batteries have consumed a lot of energy and created considerable greenhouse gases before they are even installed in the vehicle. The real environmental cost of batteries goes all of the way back to the mines, where diesel fuel is used in large quantities to extract ore. Fossil fuel is an ingredient in the plastic battery cases. Refining the ore into metals and useful compounds often is extremely energy intensive. It takes fossil fuel to ship the materials to the battery maker and still more energy to assemble them. Of course then they need to be shipped to distributors or to the vehicle manufacturers.  More energy lost. The real energy costs should probably even include the energy budgets of all of the employees of all the companies involved insofar as those expenses are directly tied to the manufacturing process. (A miner’s gasoline costs getting to the mine, for example) Then there is the energy to move the electric vehicle’s extra battery weight, and eventually everything involved in the steps of removal and recycling. Then there is the fact that fossil fuel is burned by utilities to generate electricity to recharge the batteries, but let’s leave that one aside for the moment.

It is a reasonable to ask, “How much energy is actually saved over simply fueling vehicles with gasoline directly?” After all, gasoline has one thing going for it. The pipeline between the well and your car is very efficient. This is something to consider with other supposedly “green” products as well. Solar cells, for example, are notoriously energy intensive to make and, likewise, do not last forever. It’s like the oil used to make the fertilizer for the corn to make cleaner burning ethanol fuel. There is no such a thing as a “free lunch…”

I am certainly not saying that this stuff is a waste of time to pursue, but that it should be considered in the design considerations of nascent technologies like PRT. This applies to all design choices, not just whether to use batteries. In particular, I would point out that my call for a minimalist track profile is not purely for aesthetic reasons. We ought to be asking ourselves, “What is the greenest possible medium for moving from point A to point B within the urban/suburban environment?” This, as luck would have it, will also probably be the cheapest, and least objectionable to look at.

I submit that a power-carrying micro-monorail system is the greenest alternative, all things considered, unless we can invent a way to make ski lifts have branching routes and off-line stations. It should be as close to invisible as possible and use minimal materials. It should allow very flexible routing options including tight turns, steep slopes, etc. If it can’t be run somewhere, then people can’t use it. I further submit that it should be thick enough to be a “workhorse” that can take fast vehicles and span wide streets without shaking or sagging. Being too thin mandates closely spaced supports, which can also be a disadvantage. On balance, this trade-off puts me squarely in the Ed Anderson camp, size wise, of about a meter high and about two thirds of that in width. Long-time readers of this blog know how much I have agonized over these dimensions. One advantage to a self-leveling suspended vehicle, I would note, is that it can transition in elevation easily, so that the main routing need not be on the same level as the stations, enabling track that can be higher and more out-of-the-way, if that is what the community demands. We don’t want to cut trees to put PRT in.
PRT has been caught up in kind of a “Gee-wiz, I’m so futuristic!” mindset, even though there is nothing, in this age, futuristic about it. But it is still about being green. My last post was about how free-roaming robocars had co-opted the PRT moniker, and we’ve been having a lively debate on better names. I would just like to add this thought to that debate. If PRT is the physical equivalent of the internet, then the track is the equivalent of telephone wires or fiber optic lines. I say, “Let’s go broadband from the start!” Furthermore, let’s make that infrastructure as green as it can be. That means not being designed to be scrapped, but rather being modular, so it can be moved and reused rather than melted down; It should contain zero fodder for the landfill.  PRT, of the powered rail variety, isn’t just another green transportation alternative. It is the ultimate green alternative, bar none. (I’m not counting open-air or human powered vehicles) So maybe it should be presented that way, by the infrastructure, and not the vehicles or the difficult-to-explain operational characteristics.

After all, if you are promoting “elevated microrail transit,” then the whole rest of the PRT paradigm becomes implied. 
“Automated or involving lots and lots of drivers?”  - Automated.
“Make everyone wait behind a stopped vehicle or have off-line stations?” - Off-line. You get the idea.

In the end, being green, being efficient, and being prosperous are all one-in-the-same. Battery powered electric vehicles, though not a complete red herring, do start with substantial energy deficits that should not be ignored, so environmentalists should be made aware of the fact that powered rails are a much more efficient option.

Elevated, line-powered, mini-monorail transit: To me, it’s a no-brainer. There should be non-profits promoting it, universities developing vehicles for it, the works. It’s where we need to go. Delay in doing so is simply squandering resources, including our land, our raw materials, our fuel, our time, (spent in traffic) our time (spent building and unbuilding stuff) our (still not totally carbonated) atmosphere, and of course, our money. 

PS - If there’s anyone who can find a link to actual studies on the energy used in the life cycle of batteries I would be grateful if you would share… I have only found this paper, which is so outdated that it doesn’t even have figures for Lithium-based types. Finally, I would like to share this video, listed as “300 years of fossil fuels in 300 seconds”.