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.

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