Sunday, March 20, 2011
Well, it is “back to the drawing board.” In the course of the continuing debate about dual mode I have started to lean more and more toward the idea that the shape and functionality of the vehicle is secondary to bogie function and design. If the control system is shifted to the bogies, then the vehicles can almost be viewed as simple containers. As such, the main concern is how much they weigh and little else.
Of course there must be some degree of control from the passenger compartment. An emergency “abort trip” command comes to mind. It wasn’t previously so clear to me, though, where the computers and communications equipment would primarily reside and why. In post 56 I raised the possibility of autonomous “engines” that could live within the track and be called upon to boost the speeds of otherwise slower PRT vehicles. Clearly this would require command and control that is sometimes free from the vehicle below. Now I am contemplating taking this idea to its logical conclusion, which is to have a mobile, standardized “skyhook” that can latch onto a passenger compartment. Primary communications and driving functions would be from the bogie, which is only networked to the cab. (Please bear with the simplistic nature of the “hook,” as shown in the illustration. There is a lot to consider design-wise, and I haven’t gotten very far.)
The approach enables multiple, concurrent business models. For example, privately owned vehicles could “hitch a ride” right along with public PRT vehicles. Freight vehicles could be little more than containers with an RFID tag. It also enables some promising schemes that can only be accomplished via privately owned, dual mode vehicles. Since one or two seat vehicles could be robust enough for some general road use without being overly heavy, they could play an important role in a transportation mix. Such small vehicles would not pass ADA compliance rules for public transportation, yet clearly should be encouraged for environmental and energy efficiency reasons. With this scheme they could be developed and sold by vehicle makers directly to individuals.
In another model there could be multiple taxi or limousine fleets. I particularly like the idea of separate business entities competing for the most comfortable fleet of vehicles. “Fit and finish” issues have always been a weakness in public transportation, since there is little competition in the field. By putting the brains into the bogies we simplify the challenge of creating a great, aesthetically pleasing and ergonomic passenger vehicle. This is no simple matter. Modern cars employ assembly lines many miles long to assemble tens of thousands of parts. Since there is so much to it, why not ensure that this part of the project is completely within the core competency of a wide and competitive field of companies?
I do not mean to totally confuse the PRT world with endless choices. But the “last mile” problem is real and not going away, and I doubt the notions of dual mode or private ownership will either. From a design point of view it is a question of “Why not?”
Ultimately, the obvious business model is one of collecting a fee for using the track and the auto-navigating bogies within it. The “chicken and egg” problem would seem to mean that the service would start out as purely public transit, meaning the cabs are “rented” as well. The company responsible for this service would have to keep vehicles clean and in good working order. I would think the cab interior, save the seat cushions, would be bare-bones, of hard, scrubbable materials. A taxi or limousine company, on the other hand, would pay for bogies only, at a discount, and then charge passengers a premium price for riding in cabs fitted for more comfort. Rigorous passenger screening or even memberships would minimize vandalism of the amenities required for a truly luxurious ride.
Privately owned vehicles can be introduced even if they are not dual mode. “Pods” could be centrally garaged, for a fee, and made to arrive at any station upon request. (Failure of the owner himself to arrive on time would have to result in a penalty charge.) Eventually privately owned and garaged dual mode vehicles might appear, but I question how they would compare with regular cars, which themselves might be automated at that point. After all, if that is the case they could simply drop you at a station and go back home. An automated taxi could be waiting for you at your destination. (No, robocars alone CANNOT replace PRT, which is specifically designed for 3D, non-stop travel. Robocars will never be able to get across a city as fast unless they sprout wings!)
But back to the sky hook. A quick look at the illustration above makes another point about the design we have been developing. That is that the swing-arm itself is a fairly complex gizmo, which is a bit troublesome. Seeing it without the vehicle, though, gives a clue about who might want to make it. Below is a gantry robot. I am very glad these things are getting much cheaper, although they are not exactly following Moore’s Law.
In fact, here is a clip of the machine in action. Doesn’t it seem like this system would be a lot more useful if it were untethered? Such an arm connected to a bogie would clearly need to clamp the track for precision positioning, but other than that..
Finally, when I say back to the drawing board, I mean it. Below is an example of how the three-wheel design from the last post might play out. Such a design can “land” on a flat surface like an airplane. The back wheel can be jacked up to pivot the front down creating a front-loading boarding ramp. The wheel size would be dependent on the anticipated use. Were it to remain permanently attached to the bogey, they would be very small. For dual mode they would be replaced with larger, motorized ones, and the maximum passenger weight would have to be restricted accordingly. I figure I might as well share it, because I plan to shift my focus back to the bogey for a while. Chances are it will end up buried deep in the dustbin that is my hard drive, at least in its current form.