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On The Road

Experts envision how we will get from here to there

Photo Courtesy Of Ultra Prt Personal-rail transportation systems, such as the one in this illustration from ULTra PRT, could eventually transport local residents to their jobs in Silicon Valley.

 

Imagine you have a meeting in New York tomorrow and your husband has a meeting in Los Angeles this afternoon.

Leaving your battery-electric, plug-in gasoline or diesel-hybrid car in the garage, the two of you walk to San Antonio Road and push a button on a post at the curb. A few minutes later, a small people-pod pulls up. You get in and push the button for the Mountain View Transit Hub (the button below the one for the Google campus).

Five minutes later, you’re both on the platform in Mountain View, where you kiss goodbye. He gets on the high-speed train to Los Angeles, while you board the train in the opposite direction that drops you at the San Francisco International Airport, where another people-pod transports you to check-in.

In three hours, you’re in the air over the Midwest conferring with your presentation team via the Internet, and your husband is at his meeting in L.A., having just spent his three hours in transit reading the material he downloaded about the IPO he’s evaluating.

This sounds like those visions of the future from articles in Popular Science magazine several decades ago. But this time, it might be coming true – and in the next decade, according to the speakers at the recent “Future Cars Future Transportation” seminar presented at Club Auto Sport in San Jose by Western Automotive Journalists.

The presentations included several interesting facts and ideas.

Nancy Gioia, director of Global Electrification for Ford Motor Company, said collaborative development projects among all the key players – the auto manufacturers, the power utilities and the software companies – are taking shape to create systems supporting these new vehicles. Testing is under way around the world. Gioia is in a strong position to discuss these projects: Ford is the leading U.S. manufacturer, and one of the top-two auto manufacturers in the world in hybrid technology and automotive electrification development.

The 2020 horizon, which Gioia considers a realistic target for electrification as a significant fraction of the vehicle transportation market, can’t come soon enough, according to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Burton Richter. The former director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center is the author of the recent book, “Beyond Smoke and Mirrors, Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century” (Cambridge University Press, 2010). Even if one doesn’t believe that current transportation technology contributes to global warming, he said, the facts are inescapable that U.S. consumption of petroleum products is contributing to global insecurity and environmental issues.

And we’ve got to think outside the box on transportation needs more generally, according to Bob Doty, Caltrain’s joint High-Speed Rail program director. He explained that the air corridor between San Francisco and Los Angeles is already at capacity. It is impossible to add more airplane seats between these two cities. If the California economy is going to continue to grow, high-speed rail service is the only realistic answer to meet north-south transportation needs.

Silicon Valley has the same problems on a smaller scale, Doty said. The roads are saturated with traffic, not to mention poorly maintained. Doty is in a position to help solve this problem as well, because he is also responsible for improving rail service between San Jose and San Francisco. Caltrain approved the joint appointment because its studies indicate that the solutions applied to the California corridor – using rail equipment and control systems developed for European rail systems, improving roadbed and rail infrastructure and adding approaches that eliminate surface grade crossings – could also dramatically increase rail efficiency between Gilroy and San Francisco.

Doty offered his view that with the development of high-speed rail systems in California, San Jose will become one of the two most important intermodal transportation hubs in the state.

But today’s cars and buses just won’t cut it as the first and last links in these systems. Cars require large parking lots and are slowed by traffic. Buses, slowed by the same traffic, are inefficient for individual passengers and underutilized most of the day.

Steve Ranney of ULTra PRT Systems offered a solution: personal rapid transportation systems consisting of small vehicles with capacity for four to eight people. They run on narrow, dedicated concrete roadways and operate by control systems that allow individual passengers to travel quickly and efficiently. They only run when and where they are needed, using only the minimum energy to make that happen.

Lest we think this is just more science-fiction fantasy, Ranney showed the plans for the system his company is installing at Heathrow Airport’s new Terminal 5, and the proposal it made in response to San Jose International Airport officials’ plea for a system to connect the airport efficiently to Caltrain, BART, remote parking lots and surrounding office parks.

Most exciting, though probably further in the future, Ranney displayed how his system could be installed in Los Altos, Palo Alto and Mountain View, running above the median of current thoroughfares, to connect the three cities’ business districts with existing transit systems and multiple locations in the business parks occupied by nearby Silicon Valley companies. Preliminary discussions are under way with Google to explore the possibility of a pilot network among their buildings in Mountain View that could be expanded easily to business, residential, shopping and transit centers in the area.

Don’t expect construction to start tomorrow. The most important fact we learned at the conference was that solutions to energy, transportation and environmental problems can only be achieved by taking a systems approach to the problems.

However, these international leaders in various facets of transportation systems said at least all the important players are now at the same table. They are working hard to find those solutions, and one of the first places in the world that they’re going to appear is here in Silicon Valley.

 

Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.

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