A Plan for an Automated Electric Vehicle Highway Faces Many Hurdles

By · August 23, 2013

Will Jones has a plan for getting us out of our transportation malaise, cleaning the world’s air in the process. It’s the Tracked Electric Vehicle System (TEV), and it’s an automated interstate highway for EVs, with charging embedded in the roadway. You’d never stop to charge, because you’d charge while you’re driving. “It requires no technical breakthroughs,” said Jones. “Just competent engineering.”

"Destination, Please"

It is likely that TEV (an open-source plan like Elon Musk’s Hyperloop) could be built with current technology, even though it is highly automated. Under the plan, you would drive to the express track, where a dashboard navigation screen tells you, “Entering TEV Network, destination, please.” As you enter the highway (at speeds up to 120 mph), your drive-by-wire car locks into a guide slot and autopilot takes over to your destination, where you undock from the roadway. “Prepare for departure!” the same cheery voice says.

Your car won’t be alone on the driverless highway—you’d run cheek by jowl with mini-buses, robo-cabs and vans, and even trains, the latter with flexible schedules that “will run whenever the people need them.”

You can download a 71-page handbook for TEV, and it addresses everything about the system, including some thoughts on how it might be funded. That’s critically important, because along with Musk’s Hyperloop and many other approaches to transforming transportation—solar panels embedded in the roadway, anyone?—the big stumbling block is not whether it works or not, but whether it can possibly be funded.

“TEV is not another well-meaning public-transit scheme designed for city-folk,” Jones says. “It’s not another academic exercise based on unavailable technology. TEV is very practical and down to earth.”

Cheaper than the Interstate?

Jones claims that TEV has relatively low costs per passenger-mile, a claimed tenth or less (per unit capacity) of an equivalent three-lane interstate that can cost $10 million per mile. It’s supposed to carry 29,000 vehicles per hour, the equivalent of 10 lanes of interstate. But the costs of building such a network would be huge, even if the technology for driver-less cars is rapidly advancing.

Google self-driving cars

Google's self-driving cars have covered millions of miles. (Google photo)

And, of course, it’s not only about money—the interstate system was built in the 50s with a unified national commitment that would be nearly impossible to muster in the current political climate. High-speed rail, for instance, has become a lightning rod for Tea Party criticism, and already allocated funding it has actually been refused by sitting governors.

Public-Private Partnerships

The TEV plan is to be funded with public-private partnerships. “There is plenty of investment wealth available in the world to invest in a company that has a good profit potential.” TEV could become “one of the most profitable investments in the history of mankind. In short, we don’t need subsidies.”

The concept of developing what would essentially be a private, profit-making highway in partnership with government is hardly unprecedented. It’s a major way highways are funded in Latin America, for instance, and a similar structure was used for the “Lexus Lanes” on the 110 freeway in Los Angeles. High-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes are a big trend. Obviously, the concept involves a big toll structure to recover costs, but the TEV plan doesn’t go into this.

The private investors in the TEV plan would have to make a very big bet, including that every motorist in America is going to buy a TEV-ready electric car. Right now, electrics are far less than one percent of the market. The TEV plan leaps forward to setting up international consortiums to standardize track design and such, but it’s the building costs—and the consumer and political acceptance that are the real hurdles to any kind of plan like this.

Don’t get me wrong, I love ideas like this. It probably would work, if we were in a better world. But Congress (which would have to be deeply involved in approving such a system, even if it wasn’t fully funding it) can’t even agree on keeping the government running.

Comments

· · 33 weeks ago

Great. Except if a customer decides that for privacy reasons, he wants to temporarily shut down all monitoring.

How much you want to bet people overseeing the program start saying, "OH we can't shut this down, even for a minute !!! It would be much too dangerous for you."

But if privacy concerns can get addressed, and the 'end to end' cost is competitive, then I'll give it a guarded Yes.
.

· · 33 weeks ago

This is a very cool concept. I love the video.

I agree that the technology for this is basically already here, it just needs to be built. Unfortunately it will be built in Asia before the U.S. because our politicians are playing kindergarten games.

· · 33 weeks ago

hey, i had a "somewhat" similar idea:

http://indudas.blogspot.com/2012/04/what-about-personal-railroad.html

but rather than making car driverless (which is a huge change & would prohibit millions of cars on the road to do the switch), I suggested carrying the car on railroad beds.

· · 33 weeks ago

This is not going to happen.
Instead of a massive investment in dedicated new infrastructure, progress in true automation will enable cars to drive themselves in existing streets.
We are very close to being able to do this now, and by 2020 should have systems up and running at reasonable cost.

Infrastructure will then follow in exactly the opposite way to that laid out, with inner cities coming first and much of the cost paid for by their use by buses and taxis.

Only around 5-10% of the road needs electrifying, unlike this system with is basically a railroad with cars on it.

Single lane electrification of freeways will then follow, with costs reduced by only being undertaken where the road is due for resurfacing anyway.

So this proposed system is cumbersome, outdated and requires huge infrastructure build of an entirely new type.

We can get the job done without any of that.

· · 33 weeks ago

Self driving cars on existing streets is just as fanciful as flying cars. Don't expect it any century soon. It would work about as well as speech-into-text applications; which is to say, not very well.

Here's how a typical self driving event would go: The car takes off, runs over a dog it didn't see, suddenly slams on the breaks when it loses track of the road and gets rear ended, takes off again after finding the road, encounters something in the road making it think the road curves, drive off the side of the road and comes to a crashing stop into the front of a Starbucks. Driver sues car company for millions of dollars.

The only way it would be practical is if the rider is actively monitoring the driving, in which case what's the point? She might as well be driving it herself.

· · 33 weeks ago

@Skotty writes:>>>>>>>>> Self driving cars on existing streets is just as fanciful as flying cars. Don't expect it any century soon. [continues with humorous/frightening travelogue] <<<<<<<<<

How very 1980s of you. I'd suggest you read up on the real performance of real driverless cars in the DARPA challenge and Google's driverless car program before embarrassing yourself with another such willful display of ignorance.

· · 33 weeks ago

It's all very interesting from what I've seen so far (I watched the video but have yet to download/read the 71 page proposal.) However, I have many of the concerns that others here have brought up: exclusivity to a generation of expensive EVs that haven't been built yet, the sort of technical glitches Skotty outlines (or variations thereof,) and the hideous cost of such a thing.

High speed rail can get it done for a fraction of the cost. Maybe a variation on Elon Musk's Hyperloop (another proposal that I've only given a cursory look and don't want to rashly endorse or dismiss out of hand just yet.)

What those systems do is ask the traveler to leave their primary vehicle in their home city and travel the larger distance without them. The traveler can then rent a personal vehicle at the destination point or - if lucky enough to arrive in a city with good urban planning - rely on public transportation. The schemes that have you take the car with you are always going to be more expensive, complex and energy intensive.

· · 33 weeks ago

@Robert:
Since you include no details at all of how your proposed system would work other than that it needs a dedicated track, it is impossible to evaluate, and certainly foolish to invest in.

· · 33 weeks ago

'"A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is" '

http://myweb.dal.ca/dmcneil/bubble/sketch.html

The distinction between investor and contributor escapes me, unless the latter is even more open to seeing their money down the drain than the former.

· · 33 weeks ago

It all sounds good, but realistically, who would fund it? It would take a visionary billionaire mogul like Elon Musk to even attempt such a thing, and Elon is busy for the next 20 or so years. I don't see anyone else who comes even close to having the bread, brains and balls it would take. You could start with just a powered highway without all the other jazz that seems partially there just to make the costs sound reasonable but squeezing as many cars on the road as possible, but even that seems a daunting task.

As for driverless cars, it's just not going to happen without constant driver supervision, and then it will probably only be on highways where it's easy for a system to track the center line and edges. Anything more would take a computer with the intelligence and good judgement of an actual human for it to work. You would literally need Skynet at the wheel.

I'm all for advancing humanity, but I really believe we will have commercial fusion power and a base on mars before we ever see commercial driverless cars or an electric vehicle highway. The complexity, costs, and liability issues will delay the latter ideas for a very long time, if they ever make it at all.

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