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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Reinventing the Wheel

Designers Worldwide Focus on Gas-Free Alternative Transportation Systems

By Karl Vilacoba

If necessity is the mother of invention, then big oil’s unpopularity is the mother of the unconventional.

From hybrid cars to podcars, scientists around the world are developing transportation technologies that cut down greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on petroleum. These times present a catch-22 of sorts for inventors—while the fuel crisis has made the public more open to alternative technologies, the economic crisis has further dried what was already a very limited investment pool.

This is especially true for those working on systems other than cars or conventional mass transit, which have historically struggled to break through in the U.S. marketplace.

An artist's rendering of the Aerobus system under development

in China.

“We’re all looking for someone like Ted Turner who will put some bucks into the pot and get things moving,” said Jerry Schneider, a founding member of the Advanced Transit Administration in the 1970s and a professor for 30 years at the University of Washington.

Since the mid 1990s, Schneider has been tracking a wide variety of systems on his Innovative Transportation Technologies website. His retirement hobby has grown into a well-known resource in the industry, drawing 3 million site visits in 2008. Its look is nothing flashy, but the website has filled a niche. Each day, readers drop by to glance over the latest industry headlines, look over a matrix tracking the development of over 100 systems or link to a message board where they can discuss these technologies.

One page is dedicated strictly to debating the feasibility and merits of personal rapid transit (PRT) systems. PRTs, sometimes called podcars, are automated transit systems designed to give single passengers or small groups direct rides to stations, bypassing other stops along the way. PRT cars pick up riders on demand and typically draw power from a source on their guideways. Proponents say PRTs are practical as urban transit systems or supplements to existing transportation networks—from a train station to an airport, for instance. Skeptics argue that such small vehicles can’t efficiently serve densely populated areas, and the systems’ infrastructure costs aren’t justifiable for the light action they’d see in the suburbs.

Others don’t think PRT goes far enough. Some prefer group rapid transit (GRT), essentially PRTs that carry more riders and make more stops. There are also advocates of dualmode concepts—cars you can drive from your home, enter a guideway like PRTs use, exit at a convenient point and rejoin the regular road system.

Another innovation garnering heavy scientific attention is magnetic levitation (maglev) technology. Maglev vehicles are suspended and propelled by magnetic forces generated by equipment in the track and vehicles. Maglev trains are said to be quiet, smooth, clean and fast—a Japanese version was once clocked at 360 mph. The U.S. government has invested in the technology’s research and development, but so far, there are no domestic maglev systems open to the riding public.

“There are plenty of cities who want to be second,” Unimodal Systems CEO Christopher Perkins said of his company’s SkyTran, a maglev PRT system.

So with a new administration taking the helm, can the industry expect a greater interest in unconventional transportation modes?

“One can hope,” Schneider said. “The priorities right now are so huge, I don’t see it being high on anyone’s agenda.”

The following are some of the systems featured on the Innovative Transportation Technologies website. All profiles written by Karl Vilacoba.


Aerorider Sport

This is not the tricycle you rode down the driveway as a kid. The Aerorider Sport is a part-electric, part muscle-powered hybrid under development in the Netherlands. With some electric help, a commuter can pedal to work at 45 mph. Its aluminum-reinforced fiberglass body is lightweight (about 130 pounds) but protects the rider from the elements. The Aerorider Sport’s 48-volt battery can last anywhere from 12 to 60 miles, depending on the terrain traveled and the size of the battery pack. The vehicle comfortably holds one driver and luggage. Its designers say the vehicle’s 4-foot height, headlight, tail lights and stop lamp ensure it’s safely visible to other drivers. It includes a ventilation system and an electric wiper to help give the driver a clear view, as well as two adjustable rear view mirrors to keep an eye on traffic.

According to Aerorider Company owner Bart de Wert, a small number have been produced to date for testing and promotion. A pure human-powered version of the Aerorider Sport called the Sunrider is available for purchase.

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MagneMotion Maglev (M3)

The M3 urban maglev is billed as a fast, affordable and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional guided systems like light rails. The M3 is designed to reach about 100 mph, and its lightweight, compact body is meant to reduce energy demands and guideway costs. Electromagnetic motors in the M3 tracks interact with magnets on the vehicles to provide thrust, while a wrap-around guideway guards against derailments. M3 vehicles, roughly the size of a small bus, are designed with 24 seats and standing room for another 12 people, although the company notes it can create versions that are larger and faster. An M3 system might also serve airports, theme parks or other places that need small transportation lines.

In 2008, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) awarded a $6.3 million grant for the Massachusetts-based MagneMotion, Inc., and Old Dominion University (ODU), Norfolk, Va., to team up on a M3 demonstration project. In the project’s first phase, MagneMotion will build and test a prototype track with multiple vehicles at its headquarters, with full testing and analysis scheduled for completion by late-2009. Pending FTA approval, a 500-foot system will be installed on an elevated guideway on ODU’s campus around the fall of 2010.

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Compressed Air Vehicles

Powering this engine is a breeze. Compressed air vehicles run on tanks of highly pressured air that can be recharged by plugging them in for a few hours. France’s Motor Development International (MDI) is developing a line of five compressed air vehicles. The zero-emission AirPod, scheduled to leave production lines in 2009, is a super-compact, joystick-steered car designed to reach 40 mph and carry three adults, a child and luggage, depending on the model. It has an estimated range of 135 miles before it must be repowered. The OneFlowAir, MiniFlowAir and CityFlowAir are souped-up versions that are faster (up to 75 mph in some cases), roomier and can travel longer distances without recharging. These vehicles will be outfitted with hybrid engines that run on compressed air in local traffic and kick in a secondary power source (such as gasoline, natural gas or ethanol) for highway travel. The MultiFlowAir is a concept for a larger, public transit version that looks like a train on wheels.

Air France Industries (AFI) and KLM Engineering & Maintenance recently agreed to give a fleet of AirPods a six-month trial beginning this spring. The AirPods will be used to carry employees and materials on the platforms at Charles de Gaulle International Airport, Paris, and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, according to AFI-KLM spokesperson Nicole Goineau. In addition, India’s largest auto company, Tata Motors, struck a deal with MDI in 2007 to support the further refinement of the technology and become its exclusive licensee in India.

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Magplane Pipeline

The Magplane Pipeline, or MagPipe, is a freight transportation system designed to cut the costs and pollution generated by diesel-burning trucks. A typical system consists of two pipes that use magnetic levitation (maglev) technology to propel incoming and outgoing capsules. The designers claim the MagPipe can cut transportation costs by 40 percent over the life of an average mining operation. Development of the MagPipe began a decade ago after Florida phosphate miners expressed interest in a system that would lower their dependence on trucks to ship materials to a regional port. A demo system in Lakeland, Fla., proved promising, as 6-foot-long test vehicles carried about 600 pounds of cargo at speeds near 65 miles per hour. The system caught the attention of the Chinese government, which hired the firm to develop a MagPipe for a coal mining operation in Inner Mongolia. The system will connect to a train line in the vicinity, sparing the government of the need to build costly access roads across the rough terrain.

Magplane Technology, Inc., founded by a group of MIT engineers in the mid-1990s, originally focused on a maglev passenger train concept, and later adapted the idea to the freight-moving MagPipe. A demo line under construction in Inner Mongolia is slated for completion in mid-2009. Pending a successful demonstration, work will commence on the full commercial line, according to Magplane CFO Jason Mill.

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Korean steelmaker POSCO is testing its mettle in the transportation sector with the Vectus PRT system. The Vectus is designed to give single riders or small groups nonstop service to their station. The small, driverless cars ride a pair of rails for guidance and are propelled by a motor system in the center of the track. Wireless communication equipment instructs the cars where the most congested segments are and adjusts their routes to avoid the trouble spots. Vectus cars know the positions of the nearest vehicles and adjust their speeds to keep a safe distance. Stations are positioned in offline pockets so other cars can ride by without slowing. The Vectus is being marketed as ideal for places that need small transit systems, such as urban areas and college campuses, or to connect transit-isolated neighborhoods to commuter hubs.

Vectus, a company founded by POSCO four years ago, completed a quarter-mile test track in Uppsala, Sweden, in November 2006. The site was deliberately chosen so the designers could test it against the challenges of a Nordic climate. The sample cars on the track seat four and move about 30 mph, but the company says those features can be adjusted. The company is holding serious discussions with local governments and cities both in Sweden and other countries regarding its implementation, according to Marianne Ogéus, vice president of projects for the Vectus’ U.K. and Sweden offices.

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Passengers will soon ride way high in Weihai, China. The port and tourist city has commissioned the construction of a 2.7-mile Aerobus line that will connect the mainland downtown business district with Liugong Island across the bay. The Weihai Star, an 848-foot observation tower, will serve as one of three Aerobus stops and a special pylon for the crossing. The Aerobus’ rides overhead tracks supported by a system of pylons and suspension cables built like the Golden Gate Bridge. The company says the relatively long distance between pylons (it takes between five and 10 pylons per mile to support a two-lane line) means lower construction costs, less visual clutter, less interference with ground traffic and easier crossings over mountainsides or water. Swiss inventor Gerhard Mueller successfully tested shorter routes in Switzerland, Germany and a Canadian ski resort in the 1970s. A knock on those earlier versions was that they only traveled about 30 mph, but with its more advanced guideway, the Weihai line is expected to move about 50 mph. The electric-powered cars can hold over 300 riders and be adapted to carry cargo.

The technology is owned by Houston-based Aerobus International. Construction is well underway on the $100 million Weihai line, with completion scheduled for 2011, according to a company spokesperson. The Aerobus stops are expected to serve as the anchors for large commercial and residential developments.

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The Danish expression “get along in a RUF” (pronounced “roof”) means “go fast.” The RUF (also an English acronym for Rapid, Urban, Flexible) website says this dualmode transportation concept “combines the flexibility of a car with the advantages of a train.” The RUF is a hybrid car that would let drivers connect to a smart monorail network, ride to their stop, disconnect and get back on the road like a regular car. A triangular slot running through the car’s center would connect to an electrified rail that supplies it power and computerized guidance. Upon entering the rail system, the driver would tell the computer where they want to go, and then relax as the car rides on autopilot to their destination. A typical RUF car is designed to carry two to four people, while larger maxi-RUFs might carry 10. The battery-powered RUF would have a road range of about 30 miles and could recharge on the rail. Its estimated top speeds are about 50 mph on the road, 120 mph on the rail.

Inventor Palle Jensen came up with the RUF idea about 20 years ago and has been developing it since through his company, RUF International, of Denmark. A prototype and 25-meter test track was built in Copenhagen a few years ago. Jensen hopes the next step will be the construction of a 2-kilometer test track, although financing has not yet been found. In the meantime, officials in Sweden and India have expressed interest in the system.

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Schmid Peoplemover

The Schmid Peoplemover is billed as a machine that guarantees “green lights for pedestrians and vehicles at all times.” This German innovation consists of two elevator towers linked by a bridge some 30 feet above ground. After pushing a button, pedestrians are lifted up the tower and carried above the roadway below, ensuring a safe crossing that won’t disrupt traffic. Its designers see the system as a breakthrough for pedestrians with wheelchairs or disabilities that impair their mobility. The Schmid Peoplemover can reportedly be installed in a matter of days, and its parts can be designed to blend in with the modern or historic structures that surround them. In a conceptual sketch on the manufacturer’s website, one of the elevator towers is actually located inside a building across the street. Signs and advertisements can be attached to its exterior.

The Peoplemover is a product of the German company Schmid Maschinenbau. A handful of Schmid Peoplemovers have already been installed to cross roads and railways in Germany.

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“People look at what we’re doing and say ‘Jetsons,’” Unimodal Systems CEO Christopher Perkins conceded. But don’t be fooled by the exterior—in the SkyTran’s case, he said, the future is possible now. Like a cross between a ski lift and a monorail, the SkyTran is a personal rapid transit (PRT) system designed to carry passengers above ground at high speeds. Cars would ride along a suspended maglev guideway network. Passengers would board the two-seat cars, choose a destination and head directly to their stop at speeds reaching 150 mph between cities and 35-100 mph within cities. Instead of cumbersome stations, smaller boarding portals are envisioned every quarter-mile. Unimodal claims the SkyTran would cost several times less to build than light rail, and the cars’ lightweight, aerodynamic bodies would keep energy costs to a minimum.

A SkyTran demo system is under development by the Irvine, Calif.-based Unimodal with a U.S. Department of Transportation grant and private investment. Perkins expects it to be complete in mid-2010. The SkyTran concept was invented by Stanford aerospace engineer Doug Malewicki, noted for his work with the Apollo program, unmanned aerial vehicles and the Stealth Bomber, among many other inventions (fans of monster truck rallies may know his Robosaurus, the fire-breathing, car-eating robot dinosaur).

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A number of cities trying to fulfill their future mobility needs are considering this Dutch option 2getthere. These driverless personal and group rapid transit systems run on a guideway not much different than an ordinary asphalt road. There are no rails or curbs required, only magnets embedded below the track every few feet. 2getthere is marketed as ideal for a local transit system or a supplement for existing transportation networks. Two vehicles have been designed to run on 2getthere systems—the six-passenger CyberCab and the larger ParkShuttle. Like an automated taxi, the CyberCab offers direct connections to riders’ destinations, bypassing stations and taking the shortest route. The 25-passenger ParkShuttle operates more like a minibus, stopping at every station requested along the way. Both travel at top speeds of about 25 mph. 2getthere vehicles are self-powered by electric engines so they won’t stall if a power source in the guideway goes down.

2getthere has successfully demonstrated the CyberCab and ParkShuttle at locations in Europe. A five-station ParkShuttle line in the Netherlands has been operating for several years now, connecting a subway station and business park along a 1.1-mile route. According to Marketing and Sales Manager Robbert Lohman, 2getthere systems are under consideration in the U.S., U.K., United Arab Emirates and various Scandinavian cities.

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