Some of my followers might remember this idea I invented way back in 2005, and have blogged a few times since, such as in https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/11/23/future-of-bicycles/
The idea is simple enough: use a linear induction motor built into a rubber mat laid out on a bike lane to drag a metal plate attached to the bike front forks. The bike moves faster with less effort (though you can still put in as much effort as you want), and you get to the office less sweaty. Since your bike goes fast, the cars won’t need to endanger you by overtaking in unsuitable locations. The mat is laid out overnight and plugged into a nearby lamp post for electric supply. This was much more nicely illustrated by a proper illustrator in a report I just did with Hewden, the equipment hire firm:
I’ve since thought about using the same idea for the larger transport pods, which we imagined as self-driving vehicles in the report and picture. There is no reason at all why a scaled-up version couldn’t be added to them too (just imagine them with a plate underneath to drag them along), then you don’t need the engine and once you go down that path of thinking, lots of other things start falling out. Read on.
Important note: no endorsement of any of this content by Hewden or any other company is implied. If you don’t like any of what follows, blame me and Futurizon Limited.
I think we may be about to see the biggest disruption of any industry. The transport industry is ripe for three waves of disruption. It knows all about the first two but seems to have totally missed the third, and yet it could be just a few years away. Every part of the industry will be strongly affected and some of it will be wiped out – whether it’s vehicle manufacture, servicing, fuel, spare parts, tires, brakes, or driving, it will change beyond recognition.
In the first wave, the internal combustion engine is starting slowly to give way to hybrids and all-electric vehicles, with talk of fuel cells, hydrogen, super-capacitors and so on. This wave is very well known and already well absorbed into every industry strategy. This week I helped promote the ‘go ultra low’ campaign. I am all in favor of using electricity instead of burning fuels wherever economically feasible, especially in city areas, even if the electricity comes from fossil fuel power stations. People should breathe clean air, not air full of exhaust gases and particulates.
The second and related wave is the push towards self-driving vehicles. Again, everyone that needs to probably already knows all they need to about it. They certainly have no excuse if it affects them and it still manages to catch them by surprise. Cars driven by AI coupled to sensors monitoring everything around the car can react in microseconds and talk to each other, so they can drive very close front and back and side by side so roads can hold 5-15 times more cars, all driving at a good speed. They can interleave automatically at junctions without even needing to slow down significantly instead of being stuck behind someone who is waiting for an invitation in triplicate to arrive signed by the Queen before they proceed. Self driving cars would not eliminate congestion, but they would very greatly reduce it, almost eliminate accidents, save pollution and resources and be far more socially inclusive than buses or trains. They have great potential to improve our lives in many ways, but obviously would make a lot of drivers redundant. They would also shift power from conventional car manufacturers to IT companies who are best placed to develop the intelligence and control systems. No surprises there at all, we read this stuff every day now.
However, we don’t even need self-driving cars. They are barely out of the lab, lawyers are still arguing over how insurance and liability for accidents should work, and already their end is in sight. Self-driving cars could be the next Betamax.
The third wave is driverless vehicles that don’t even need an engine, or batteries, or even supercapacitors, or the huge expenses for all the sensor equipment and onboard computers and all the other electronics. They don’t need much in the way of electronics or electrics at all. We might have the first buses in history that are simpler than a bus shelter.
This 3rd wave won’t even be electric vehicles!
Forgive my use of powerpoint graphics, but with generic vehicles, boxes make a good start point anyway, vehicle designers can design them any which way they like:
This wave will reduce the vehicle to little more than a moving box. It might have comfy seats and air conditioning added, but apart from that, it doesn’t need much else. Really it doesn’t. They could have wheels, and that would reduce electricity requirements somewhat, but then wheels would cost more and bring other issues, so they will be optional and we all know future cars are meant to hover anyway. If they do have wheels, they would still use the plates near the road surface just as the non-wheel versions. There is no need for brakes on the wheels if there is a long braking pad on the road surface for emergencies. One of my first ever engineering jobs was designing an electromagnetic braking system that pulled a brake pad onto another using magnetic field. If it worked in 1982, it will work in 2020.
The most basic version of such a vehicle would be literally an empty box with three pads on the base. It would be used for carrying goods. Two of the pads would levitate the vehicle, propel it, steer it and stop it. The third pad would be a high friction pad that would stop the vehicle very rapidly if necessary. That’s it. This kind of vehicle would only cost whatever it costs to make a thin plastic or carbon fiber box and stick two thin strips of metal on the base and a strip of brake pad. $200 is a reasonable estimate. For people transport, cost depends on the level of comfort needed. It won’t crash, so a minimum requirement is a plastic seat and a safety belt to stop you falling off, shaped to sit on the pads underneath and nest easily into the one in front for storage. Again, that could easily be mass-produced for $200.
Higher comfort versions could be made of course, where the passengers are fully enclosed, sound insulated and air conditioned, sitting on nice comfy leather seats on nice soft suspension. Even then, they still don’t need any engine or battery, or any electrics other than lighting, sound cancellation and air conditioning system. But there is nothing to stop car manufacturers continuing to make high luxury cabins if they want, there just might not be much of a market for them.
Lots of the electronics in modern cars is not really needed. We already have enough computing capability in our mobiles to do all our entertainment, navigation, location, comms between vehicles, all the IoT management. Your phone knows where it is, can get you all the media and comms you can eat, and can do the noise cancellation too. Decor is irrelevant once we have augmented reality – you can sit in a blank box and make it look as if you are in any place or any vehicle you want.
Propulsion doesn’t have to come from an engine, not even an electric motor. Decades ago the first linear induction transport system was built and now there are lots of trains using that mechanism, some travelling at very high speed. However, technology has moved on. We don’t need a huge rail for our boxes to sit on. It’s easy to suspend the box on strong magnetic fields and those fields can be produced and shaped easily, especially using graphene or superconductive materials, but perfectly adequately using conventional materials and strong permanent magnets. Position the plates on the base of the box in nicely shaped magnetic wells and they will stay there. The magnetic wells can be shaped as the vehicle goes along to direct it any way it needs to go. The passenger’s mobile knows where the passenger wants to go and can talk direct to the cloud based management system, which can control invisible ‘points’ in an invisible re-configurable ‘railway’ beneath the vehicle. If there is no passenger and only freight on board, the management system still knows what to do with each box and can navigate it correctly. So it is a travelling magnetic well drive. Steering the wells steers the cars or pods. It doesn’t have to use classic linear induction motors, it just needs to be able to move magnetic wells. Linear induction motors are one way of doing that, but anything that can shape a magnetic well for the pods to sit in, and make them travel along, will do. There are lots of ways to skin a cat, so they say.
A factory-produced mat can be laid out on a stretch of road overnight, plugged in to an electricity supply, and these vehicles could be carried on it the next day. Vehicles that need to slow down could have their kinetic energy recovered and transferred to others that need to accelerate. Total energy costs would be low.
All the benefits of self-driving cars would still hold. The vehicles can still be millimeters apart in each direction so could still reap all the congestion benefits, along with virtually zero drag. Not needing any engine, motor or battery or capacitor bank on board would greatly reduce the amount of resources needed to make a vehicle and the energy needed to propel it. Recognizing that almost all the electronics needed sits happily inside a mobile saves a lot more resources.
Grabbing a vehicle would be done by direct discussion between the mobile and city transport system. Any empty vehicle would simply pull over, you get in and get off at your destination. Cost could be low enough to absorb into normal city running costs. If vehicles are designed to nest into each other like supermarket trolleys, and if they really only cost about the same, they would require minimal storage space, liberating car parks and taxi ranks for other uses.
So our vehicles really could be just simple boxes with minimal additions for basic comfort or high luxury. On nice days, they could be open, on rainy days, you pull the hood over. In colder climes, there might be sides and doors.
Here’s a quick summary of the key points:
Internet-of-things is enabling the systems needed to track obstacles such as pedestrians, linking to ubiquitous sensors and cameras, so all the safety side is entirely feasible too without having to put it in the vehicle. Our mobiles and digital jewellery will work with lots of different kinds of security systems to ensure that pods don’t go anywhere without knowing who is or what is on board, preventing terrorists from filling them up with explosives and sending them to a target. Delivery pods would only open when properly authorised. Suspicious passengers or vehicles could be locked and routed automatically to safe inspection points.
I’m not going to build this, but someone will. If it’s you, buy me a beer when you get rich and make a donation to a homeless people’s charity. No new physics is required. As graphene becomes commercially available cheaply, as it will, it will become very cheap to put all the circuitry into cheap mats that can be laid out to do the work. Thieves won’t steal mats that only have carbon in them, whereas if they use lots of copper wiring, they might try. But understand that there is absolutely nothing to prevent someone starting development tomorrow and implementing this within a few years. This should be easier to build than self driving cars.
Reconfigurable circuits have been with us decades too, so rearranging the circuits to route each pod the right way at each junction is no problem. Electronic control systems too. A few bits of software need to be written, but then a simple box achieves exactly the same functionality as a self-driving car 100 times the cost.
So basically, conventional vehicles can be replaced by simpler and cheaper boxes. No engine, no fuel, no wheels, no suspension, no mechanical parts other than optional doors and sliding roofs, just comfy seats and life support systems. Almost all the frills via augmented reality and whatever else your future smartphones do. All the system management and control and data collection ditto.
In new cities, roads could be built with such a system in mind, with less street furniture and clutter. They would have clean air. Cheap and fast transport would encourage people to travel more, socialize more, live more, be happier. Cultural life would improve. Retrofitting it to existing cities would be easy too, just laying out factory-produced mats and plugging them into electric supply. With such ultra low costs, it would be the obvious choice for developing countries, helping to reduce CO2 production and demands on resources.
Lots of industries would be affected. We won’t need as much lithium of course, since these vehicles need no batteries. We won’t need as much steel, or aluminium, and we can recycle plastic to make the bodies and seats.
All the benefits of a self-driving car system at a tiny fraction of the price. What’s not to like?