Tuesday, June 28, 2016

RETHINKING MODES

US DOT invested significant research and development resources into possible new modes of ground transport in the early 1970s. Out of its AGT programs came many airport APM applications, a few amusement rides and, in Europe, driverless metros. Also studied, with little result, were AHS - automated highway systems -- including ways to get electric power from road surfaces to motors in vehicles.

Congress opted for conventional roads and spiffed-up but still conventional mass transit.

USDOT research had little to show from work on dual mode concepts. The gist of DMT is that vehicles can be driven (manually back then) over streets, arterials and highways. When needed for longer trips, they enter into exclusive guideway networks to go faster and recharge batteries. In theory, a blend of car travel and mass transit results. This concept started Alden’s staRRcar in the 1960s. It morphed into the uni-modal (only on guideway) Morgantown PRT of the 1970s.

This Jpod layout would deliver service to stations. In DMT, vehicles
would exit and get to all points of the mall complex.
Many large companies -- including GM -- studied DMT with FHWA support.  They overlap into Automated Highway System (AHS) concepts that were also explored. It was grand conjectural thinking backed by big numbers with vast commercial implications.

DMT and AHS were two sides of the same hypothetical coin. Neither, however, hit pay dirt.


Where Are We Today?

Fast forward to 2016. Stunning technological advances are putting robocars in campus settings and on some streets. This should not be surprising. Automation and digitization are transforming all human activities -- emailing, web research, train and plane movements, shopping, community life, security response, to name but a few examples.

Satellites circling the globe keep a watch over what is happening on earth, almost in real-time.  All of life, it seems, is becoming digitized. Cars with eyes and brains help finding their own way without drivers. Robocars on streets -- maybe not busy arterials at first -- are around the corner.

The EU has run several fleets of robo-shuttles in tame European ways and plaza. The UK has its own robo-services. In the US they have been demoed in Greenville, Silicon Valley and recently DC. Robocars will become more common in progressive districts that value pedestrian-friendly, traffic-tamed streets. At first they will be slow and of limited range. The service options are many. Today no one can predict with certainty how robo-services will evolve.


Dual-Mode Concepts

What is predictable is that people will frequently want to send things or transport themselves more than a few miles. For longer travel, higher speeds are needed. Battery range becomes an issue. You need speed, and that draws more power from on-board batteries that need to be recharged.
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A guideway allows both! Your robocar can check into a guideway portal. Your account activates and you purchase speed and recharge your batteries. DMT use could be that smooth..

Who is working on DMT concepts today? Trans.21 has identified only a handful:

                        BiModal Glideway of California’s Bay Area

                        EcoPRT of Raleigh, NC housed within NCSU now with NCDOT support

                        Innovate has Texan Big thinking but eludes public exposure

                        RUF of Denmark, dormant since 2012

                        SST is little more than the thinking of an Albuquerque NM retiree

                        2getthere of The Netherlands has market-ready products

                        Ultra of the UK, with prototype in operation, but back-shelved by BAA

That’s a pretty small and motley club -- ranging from individuals to experienced suppliers.


Today’s Policy Responses

How can cities, towns and counties examine DMT options as they rethink their modal policies to have a policy for oncoming robocars?  Today decisions-makers face immediate questions on when and how to regulate robocars on streets and other zoned spaces.

Is it better to enlarge the sidewalk for robocars,
or implant an elevated guideway?
Robocars can operate in parking lots and structures, on bike and jogging paths, on some sidewalks and in utility ways, in parks and on private property if owners are welcoming. 

These issues open other questions, many of them critical to public safety and security. Not the least of which is who is responsible for maintenance and management? The potemtial gains in clean mobility are great.

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