Third World Tomorrow

Some Half baked ideas, with the intention of trying to enhance the standard of living of the third world without the American-style gas guzzling. Prosperity will only be a consequence of efficiency. The developing world has limited resources. They must be used to the fullest. We explore exciting possibilities - in not just energy technologies, but any other technologies that help us use our extremely scarce resources better.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Automobiles and Railroads

Driving and moving cargo in trucks in India is a nightmare. The roads (more often than not) are terrible and crowded. They are extremely unsafe too. As a matter of fact, India has the dubious distincti0n of having one of the highest accident and mortality rate per kilometer on its roadways. And to top it all, petrol (which India does not have enough of) is getting costlier; automobiles are extremely inefficient on Indian roads (where stopping and braking is the order of the day on the highway).

The idea is to, rather than roads, use fixed guideways for automobiles doing the long journey. Let the journey be powered by electric motors fixed within the automobile (receiving power from overhead electric lines, much like the electric trains of today). Let the automobile be controlled by the guideways, so that the only responsibility of the driver is to schedule stops every now and then (bathroom breaks?). Let all the cars travel at a standard speed on the tracks (something like 130kmph?).

How would the automobile be controlled by the guideways? My contention is that there should be only two states possible for the automobile - "GO" or "EXIT". A lever would be provided within the automobile. When the lever would be in the "GO" mode, the car would travel at 130kmph on the track. When the "EXIT" lever is engaged the car would ramp onto the next exit tracks. The car would then come out onto a road - bay, where it slows down and comes to a halt. The driver would then gain control of the vehicle and drive it like a conventional car.

This new method of transportation is going to be quite costly to install at first glance. Building the new guideways, for one isn't going to be cheap. One needs to develop a whole new breed of cars (armed with an electric motor, the "taps" to get electric power from the overhead power lines, and of course, wheels (like those of a train) to stay on the tracks.) too.

It could strike us that we have a lot of the pre-requisites in place aready. The country has a phenomenal railway network; most of it is electrified. All that needs to be done is to build intermittent "road-bays" and by-passes for passenger stations. Existing automobiles could be retrofitted with relative ease; new automobiles meant for the long journey could be manufactured with these settings standard.

These ideas are merely the tip of the iceberg. Consider this: programmable wagons! On this new backbone, one could send an unmanned loaded (freight) wagon from one road-bay to another, as long as they are connected to each other by rail. Lots of Industries in India do not use railways for shipping freight since they do not have access to railway tracks; loading an unloading is a tremendous hassle. Now, suppose trucks were to roll on these tracks instead - this would mean a lot quicker, cheaper and safer transport.

Safety is surely a big plus in this system, primarily because the human element is eliminated entirely. The only thing that the human being needs to do is to depress the "EXIT" lever - and the vehicle exits at the next possible exit. All vehicles on the freeway travel at a constant speed - if any one vehicle slows down, the vehicle is automatically exited. All the other vehicles are slowed until the above vehicle is exited. (I exect the slow-down to be quite insignificant).

Before I get carried away entirely with this "intellectual masturbation", I must summarize the pros and cons of this idea:


  • MASSIVE energy savings
  • Time savings
  • Safety
  • Availability of Infrastructure
  • Flexibility
  • Lesser dependence of Oil - a commodity that has proven quite fickle of late.
  • Larger mobility of masses reduces migration - allows rural farmers to access urban markets directly

  • The economics of this are quite hazy; I don't have any concrete numbers yet
  • Retrofitting all automobiles isn't going to be a walk in the park
  • Retrofitting them with something as heavy as an AC motor would add to the weight of the car; greater power required to move the thing
  • The electric "taps" for sedans, for one, would be extradordinarily large. Drag due to the same might be extremely significant. These "taps" might have to be designed aerodynamically. (Alternatives to these taps need to be considered - perhaps buring primary cables under the track? - but that's a lot of effort)
There's a lot more cons to this thing ... let's just leave this at this for now.

[ I know this idea makes sense. I also know that the best place for such an idea is probably the middle of some Sci-Fi novel. (Note that I have not used the abbreviation SF). And that is because this idea is a massive perspective change on something which is more of a lifeline to India right now. Any democracy is resistant to change; India even more so. Any politician pursuing this agenda would be courageous, and I mean that with a "Yes-Prime-Ministerial" connotation. For India to adopt this, the US would need to do it first. And the US does not need these gains in efficiency.]