Monday, December 28, 2009

The Third Rail

I am concerned about our dependence on oil.  I understand the multiplier efects of tackling the biggest and most inefficient oil users first.  So I support nuclear, wind, solar, and other alternative power solutions.  

The second-biggest use of oil is in mass transportation, specifically big rig interstate transportation.  We are a long way away from a battery technology that can make multi-day tractor-trailer transportation possible by electric power--our batteries are just not big enough and take too long to charge.  Maybe hydrogen technology will get there.  Maybe we will discover a clean cold method of fusion.  Maybe the clowns at Stoern will build a useful perpetual-motion motor to power free transportation.

I would prefer a solution that didn't require waiting and hoping for an invention.  I would prefer a solution that could be built with current technology.  So I propose that we upgrade our roadway system to include a third rail.

The third rail would be an electric power source, like the third rail on electric rail systems.

No new technology has to be invented to take advantage of this.  We just have to let the market do it's thing.  Tractor-trailer manufacturers will start building trucks that can take advantage of the third rail as the road way reaches a critical mass.  Hybrid and electric car manufacturers will add third rail support to their cars immediately, because supporting that infrastructure makes their vehicles more valuable.

This is just the sort of high-tech infrastructure project that the country seems to need right now.  So an engineering company could probably get a huge government grant to begin the building project and make huge strides in fixing many problems at once.

There are a hundred little implementation details.  I've already thought through many of them.  I would love to work with a proposal team to flesh this out.  I'm not sure if I can get together the resources to found that company on my own, though.

The first big problem is the actual rail itself.  It has to provide a significant voltage, in order to actually power/charge the vehicles.  It has to power down when there is no vehicle present, to keep from frying wandering wildlife.  And it has to withstand traffic, rain, snow, and scorching sun for years with little maintenance.

An inductive rail installed beneath the road surface would be safe from the elements and animals.  The contact points could be either in the wheels (already in contact with the road) or in the center of the lane (requiring a new third wheel to be installed that would make contact/keep the vehicle's inductive contact points in close enough proximity.)  The existing wheels have the disadvantage of wear-and-tear that would probably require additional maintenance of the expensive inductive rail.  The new centerline third wheel would not be weight-bearing, and so it would not cause the same level of wear on the road surface.  So I prefer the center-line solution.

I also expect that the third rail would be chopped up into sections.  This would make the system more robust--a single break would not take down the entire roadway.  Also, sections that did not have a vehicle charging on them could be discretely powered down to save energy.  I'll let the engineers figure out how long the sections should be.

The second big problem is billing.  Fortunately, there are a large number of possible solutions.  The GPS and system and cellular networks in the US are well-enough developed that we can rely on them.  We could also use proximity badges with unique identifiers or toll-tag window stickers.  But I prefer the GPS and cellular solution because of the flexibility (you don't have to build and move toll booths) and interactivity (drivers can choose to not charge on this particular road if the electricity price is too high.)

So each vehicle that was equipped with the third wheel would also need a GPS, cell phone, and small computer.  Then as the vehicle approached a third rail-equipped roadway the computer would get notified by the GPS and cellular.  The driver could choose to lower the third wheel and begin charging on the third rail, and the cellular would alert the billing system that they are charging.  The driver could decide to stop charging before they left the third rail-equiipped road (like if she was within battery disatnce of home and a cheaper recharge.)

With those two big problems solved, the rest of the system can develop naturally.  People in different regions can experiment with taxes or subsidies.  The federal government could start the system on the Interstates, and let the states each invest in upgrading their State Highways as they see fit.  Engineering companies, similar to the ones that build toll-roads today, can work with the various governments to build and maintain the roads.  Hopefully many different companies will get in and compete for the contracts to build and maintain these roads.  They would get a large portion of their revenue from the electric charging--a markup that they include in the bill.  In short, there are many good free-market competitive features of the solution.

This system enables a whole new range of vehicles.  Electric-only vehicles could travel cross-country, and become much more feasible.  Eventually all vehicles could be electric-only--the most oil-efficient type of vehicles.  Gas-electric hybrids gain much more range, in the interim.  And hybrid tractor-trailers become much more feasible in the short-term, and the fuel costs for interstate commerce would be reduced.

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