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Personal Rail

Automated personal rail would be a system using small rail cars, perhaps a maximum of 6 feet wide, 9 feet high, and 24 feet long. Probably the gross weight should be kept under two tons. The cars could be as small and light as desired. There would be a set of computer- activated switches to control the routing of the cars. Users would input destinations and other commands to the computer on each car through a control panel or a phone or broadband connection. Then the car would automatically drive itself to the desired location. Personal rail would combine the best features of mass transit and the private automobile or truck.

Instead of paying a flat fee for unlimited usage, the usage could be metered by the computers that ran the system, and the users would only need to pay for the services they actually used. People in a hurry could just pay more for high priority routing instead of risking their lives and the lives of others to travel at excessive speed.

Such a system would not have the capacity of today's highway system to transport large objects, but the savings in other areas might make it cost effective to build more large pieces from small ones at their intended location, or to transport more large objects using airplanes, helicopters and conventional rail lines. At a rough guess, 98% of the items usually shipped would fit in the small light rail cars.

If a person needed more hauling capacity on a trip than could be put into one car, she could just take two or more cars to the same destination. She could also send the spare car home to get something she only discovered she needed while she was out on the “road”.

Since the cars would be capable of driving themselves, freight cars would not need drivers. Passengers in the cars would not need to steer the cars, and could work, sleep, eat, or perform other useful or entertaining tasks while waiting to get to their destinations. This would save the economy such large amounts of money it would be hard to really estimate it.

All the hardware aspects of this system are well within the limits of current technology. The software would be a cutting edge challenge, but the considerable benefits of such a system might make the challenge worthwhile.

Each day commuters, truck drivers, cab drivers, salesmen, and others spend millions of hours in a cramped position with their very survival depending on staying alert and focused. Most of this could be made unnecessary. People could travel in any state of distraction, intoxication, or drowsiness without endangering the population at large. License to operate vehicle could safely be extended to younger, older, and more disabled citizens. Traffic laws could be enforced electronically. We would not have to have constant reminders to stay alert and focused while driving.

Tens of thousands of automated freight vehicles could wend their way across the country and through the cities, efficiently, quietly, and economically. The system could be prioritized so that first responders could get to the scene of an emergency quickly without needing to turn on a siren and disturb the whole community. Low priority freight could use the roads cheaply during periods of low traffic. The routing of small freight vehicles would not have to take the needs of human drivers into account, and could be done much more simply and efficiently. Freight vehicles could be doing useful work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week instead of spending time waiting for the driver to finish sleeping or eating, etc.

Segments of rail line could change the direction of traffic flow depending on traffic conditions. If there were a bridge leading into a city with six lanes of traffic more lanes could be used for traffic heading into the city for the morning rush, and more lanes could be set to outbound for the evening rush. If there were a sports event, or some malfunction of parts of the system, the traffic could be routed around the problem efficiently.

Personal rail routes with very light traffic might only have a single lane. Software could make sure that a short rail segment was used without collisions.

The system would need no stoplights. The cars would rarely need to stop because computer control could allow them to weave their way through a grid in a synchronized dance that would require all to slow but very few to stop. That would save lots of energy because stopping and starting require more energy than a steady speed.

Provisions would have to be made for pedestrians and cyclists If the cars were limited to 9 feet in height, pedestrian bridges could be low and less costly than those required by today’s tall vehicles. In areas of low pedestrian traffic density, pedestrians could stop traffic by pushing a button at intersections much as they now do with stoplights.

There would be some glitches and malfunctions, of course, but I doubt such a system would have anywhere near the amount of accidents suffered by our current highway system.

Rail cars are much more energy efficient than pavement vehicles because they have hard steel wheels which have much less rolling friction. Electricity could be supplied with a third rail, or overhead line. This might be more difficult in heavily populated areas, so it would probably be practical to make the cars so they could be self propelled on city streets, but draw power from a third rail on intercity “freeways”.

Construction of extremely light rail lines would be much cheaper than construction of paved roads. Instead of having to prepare every inch of a wide swath of road for minimum rolling friction, only a couple of narrow pieces of metal would need to be make and kept smooth. In areas of heavy snow the tracks could be elevated so as to eliminate the need for snowplows and applications of large amounts of salt. A freeway lane is 12 feet wide. You could put three personal rail lines in the same space as two freeway lanes, and automated control would allow for much more efficient use of the lanes.

Private rail lines would be only have to cope with much lighter vehicles than conventional rail lines, so they would be much easier to construct and maintain than conventional rail lines.

Parking could be automated. A person go to a high-density area for business or pleasure, get out of her car and tell it to go park itself. When she was ready to go somewhere else, she could call the car on a cell phone to come and pick her up.

Cars could be shared more easily. If two people in a family wanted to go different places, they could coordinate their transportation through cell phones. If you wonder where your car is at any given time, you call it up and ask it. A car with a minor problem could be sent to a mechanic with human assistance.

As it is now, rail cars are huge, and trucks are only slightly smaller. If a person has to shepherd a load of freight somewhere, he needs to be able to carry a big load to make a decent living. That means freight loads have to be aggregated, then transported, and then dis-aggregated. Often they need to go from a larger truck to a smaller truck for local delivery. Without the driver in the equation, trucks could be sized to fit the needs of the freight being hauled If all the trucks were small, a lot of loading and unloading could be eliminated or made easier. There would be less empty freight space rolling. The same considerations also apply to shared passenger transportation.

Taxis could be automated. It would be easier to get a taxi in low traffic areas, and a computer would not discriminate among clients. Taxi drivers would not be at risk from criminal riders. The cost of using a taxi should go down. Buses could be smaller and run more frequently, or even be scheduled on an ad hoc basis. Terminals built into bus stops could allow passengers to flag automated buses, and the same could be done from a cell phone or a computer.

People could easily go places they'd never been before. That would save lots of navigation errors. Husbands would never have to ask for directions.

How could we get to a system like that from where we are now? It seems to me that the route from San Jose, California to Santa Cruz would be a good candidate for a pilot project. The terrain between these two cities is so rugged freeway construction is expensive. The existing route is heavily used by people who live in Santa Cruz and work in San Jose. I'm sure they would love to be able to relax in an automated private car for their commute instead of the high stress drive they currently endure.

Another approach would be to build a small community from scratch using personal rail for the primary transportation means.

It would probably be possible to build a car that would operate both on asphalt streets and a personal rail system.

Since the software would be the hardest part of the system to master, it would make sense to first write software to simulate the system. The software already in use to route large fleets of vehicles would provide a useful starting point.

A large city that had an integrated private rail system would have a huge competitive advantage over a city with conventional asphalt streets. Traffic congestion is a major limiting factor to the efficient functioning of large modern cities. Traffic congestion is also the cause of a major amount of the stress if big city life.