Saturday, June 13, 2009

The next big thing: Automated Transportation Network

Andrew D Atkin:

Forget flying cars - this is your future.

Automated Transportation Network (ATN) is a concept of mine presented as a website.

Please click on the following to download the presentation: (To view the presentation just read the first paragraph on the page, for instructions)

Basic Description:

ATN is, in effect, a description of the future of urban transport as I logically predict it. In my opinion an automated transport network will rapidly evolve out of the synthesis of Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) technology, and key modern automotive technologies such as steer-by-wire and anti-collision systems.

The development of an automated transport system (no drivers - full automation) is inevitable. The impact of such will be revolutionary not just for transportation but for the logistics of modern producing/living, as it literally gives birth to a new world of opportunity. I believe this revolution could ultimately prove to be comparable to the electrification of our lives through the introduction of AC power.

An ATN can and will empower us to redefine and re-optimise the logistics of a vast amount of what we do - eliminating entire industries that will no longer need to exist, and facilitating the radical redesign of very many existing ones. An ATN will indeed penetrate into the structure of our lives far more deeply and broadly than the internet alone.



With modern technologies, it cannot be argued that we will eventually have full-automation transport. We already have the tools to pull it off, even without active road-based controls (road-based signalling equipment to control existing traffic to facilitate automated vehicles). The question is: "How will it evolve, and when?"

Personal Rapid Transit technologies are now being deployed (the first will be in Heathrow airport) using the now developed PRT system ULTra. This will represent a basic example of full-automation network based transport. Ultra has the potential to expand out from a basic specialised application to a city-scale and even national/continental-scale application, and it can finally expand out so as to operate on conventional roads as well as its dedicated guideway network: ultimately replacing cars as we know them.

A full-scale automated transportation network could evolve directly out of the ULTra (or similar) system alone. This is one key deployment possibility.

The other key possibility is that an automated transportation network could evolve from "micro cars" which represent full automation pilotless/manless cars designed to efficiently send any odd item anywhere from within an existing road network (a "physical internet").

The following diagram represents a basic schematic for how a first-type micro-car may appear.

This is how deployment from this end of the game could evolve:

1. Micro-cars are introduced, first in low-speed/low-traffic density areas.

2. Larger cars that take [only] one person develop, once a demonstrated reliability record is first achieved with the micro-cars. These cars will automatically drive themselves to a passenger who then drives the car manually. This provides a very cheap taxi and convenient service which should be very popular.

3. With further demonstrated safety and reliability the passenger cars can then take the step into full-automation (no driving at all). From here, all transport is progressively and rapidly converted into full-automation network-based transport.

So what will happen? My bet is that both technologies (PRT network transport, and sophisticated micro-cars) will develop and expand, and will eventually meet somewhere in the middle and morph into one master system.

How long will it take? The technology is essentially here: we know it can be done. So, I would hope to see some serious movement in this direction within the next 5-10 years, and a complete full-automation system in maybe 10-20 years. I think that is a reasonable guess.

The thing to realise is that this will not be a "creeping" technological progression. Once it gets a proper foothold, growth and development will be explosive. The economics are too good, and the latent demand is too high.


The following video shows the ULTra PRT system (now completed). I believe that ULTra will prove to be the 'other' end of the game that will help drive our transport revolution:


The following links to a You-Tube video which highlights the DARPA Urban Challenge. As can be seen, a fully autonomous vehicle has already been successfully demonstrated in an urban environment.

Note: You will notice that the vehicle from the included Urban Challenge video uses electronics that are somewhat cumbersome, and currently no doubt costly. Obviously this is in part because there was no need to make anything compact for the purpose of the challenge, but I will point out that a considerably more simplistic and cheaper system can be developed if you employ electronic indicators on the road surface which serve to tell the vehicle exactly where it is in relation to the road and the city.

Another point to note is that, over time, you could install a simple GPS system on all cars, so that a real-time map of road traffic can be developed and viewed online. From here, automated vehicles can stream [and respond to] a precise, real-time map of moving vehicles in their immediate area. This initiative would vastly reduce the technological demands on automated vehicles. It also opens up other opportunities for traffic planning and road tolling, and long-range safety warnings/responses.


Network-based transport: A revolution in transport efficiency:

Another major advantage of network-based transport is in the fact that it can and will revolutionise transport efficiency. This will mainly be achieved by allowing us to order-up a vehicle that performs only the specific job that we need to have done, and nothing more. This effectively means that about 80% of all vehicles in a network-based transport fleet will be for single occupancy only--matching real transport demand.

The other dynamic that will radically improve transport efficiency comes from the fact that the vehicles are naturally insulated against capital costs. Network-based vehicles will have a very high transport productivity because they are used maybe 20x more frequently over a given time, as compared to privately owned cars. This means that we can invest heavily in energy-efficiency systems within each vehicle. (see diagram below).

Furthermore we can build vehicles to directly match operating conditions. For example, vehicles operating in low-speed high-congestion areas will tend to be electrically-based and light, whereas vehicles operating in higher-speed low-density conditions will tend to be diesel engine-driven, and possessing an aerodynamic design.

And finally, with a well developed network even greater efficiencies can be achieved as there can be much less stop-and-go and idling operation. This is due to the much better management of traffic that can be achieved with a network-based system, exploiting the explicit total-system control. In fact, over time you can eliminate stop-and-go operation altogether, as vehicles can be controlled so as to seamless merge in operation (like in the PRT format).

The result of these advantages will be a transport system providing extraordinary improvements in overall operating efficiency. You could realistically get energy consumption down to as little 5% of what we consume today, for an equivalent real transport productivity.


The following diagram provides a schematic to show an example of how far we can go with vehicle design for efficiency, with modern available technology:

The concept is for an ultra-efficient single-seat car. It has 3 separate drive units: Electric, Compressed air, and Diesel.

Compressed air: The engine has 4 cylinders: 2 for Diesel drive, and 2 for air compression/recovery. The compressed air system is for short-term/range energy recovery only. It collects and recovers energy from typical slow-speed around-town operation, collecting air as the vehicle slows down from ~60km/h to stopped.

Air compression is an efficient and robust short-term energy recovery system that takes pressure off the more expensive batteries. It would require computer-controlled valves, and the compressors should be plastic-composite to reduce mass and therefore mechanical losses within the engine.

--The air-compressor needs to be a short-term recovery system; otherwise a lot of the energy from the compressed air would be wasted through heat loss (air heats up significantly when it is compressed). Air-compression is not an efficient system for long-term energy storage without heavy investment in bulky and probably problematic thermal insulation; and long-term energy storage is not necessary for effective around-town energy recovery.

Electrics: The flywheel would couple as an electric generator and motor. It allows the engine to shut off completely so as to avoid idling losses, as the rigid electric drive can smoothly re-start the engine as required. The electric drive will operate up to about 20km/h before either compressed-air drive or diesel come into power.

--It is important to provide the capability for electric-drive operation if only to ensure that the vehicles can be (virtually) silent and non-polluting in sensitive areas. We might as well take the opportunity to develop our automated fleet so as to reduce or eliminate parasitic noise in our residential areas. It is also very convenient to be able to operate vehicles inside buildings, especially for a fully-automated system.

To conclude: This concept-vehicle might consume only 10% of the energy of a more typical full-sized car, and this assumes normal (existing) operating conditions. Alone it would revolutionise transport efficiency as it could absorb about 80% of total existing transport demand.


Note: We should be going forwards - Some are taking us backwards!

Most city planners know virtually nothing about transport physics and technology. And so they want to solve our (so-called) transport energy problems by reinventing the city; which means buses, trains and walking oriented development. Putting it simply, changing the transport system (or letting it change itself - as it is) is not an option for these people because they do not understand it, nor seem to want to understand it.

The modern planners ideology represents a depressingly wasteful and destructive "vision". It is a vision rooted in technological ignorance, and what also appears to be a dogmatic adherence to a literally backwards (old world model) belief in the ideal form of a city.

Too many of todays planners are driven by outdated, spurious and highly subjective beliefs associated with the ideal city function and form - beliefs inherited from yesterdays (and todays?) planning schools, and what appears to now be modern planning fashion.

Please see my Smart Growth article. I address this very serious issue directly and in detail.

An ultra efficient car:

The included image shows the Volkswagen, tandem 1-liter car. It is about to be commercialised.

This car achieves a remarkable efficiency gain of about 10x that over a typical car of today--consuming about 1-liter of fuel for every 100 km traveled. And it is also about 10x more efficient than buses and trains (public transport has similar energy-efficiency levels to modern cars).

The provided example stands as a striking statement of the potential for serious efficiency gains in cars, using existing technologies and intelligent design. I would say this vehicle could be a good commuter option for people, to complement their more traditional cars.

It seems that Smart Growth planners would rather pretend that options such as this are not available to us; but of course, they are.


Another example:

The following image shows the concept vehicle, the X-Tracer (the leading yellow vehicle).

The X-Tracer is basically just an enclosed 2-seater motorcycle with automatically retracting wheels. As a structural format, it can provide the ultimate in efficiency. You can't do any better than this. If you replaced the rear vision mirrors with a camera-and-screen system you could probably streamline it so that it consumes about 5% of the fuel of a standard modern car.

Personally, I think the X-Tracer is a great long-distance and commuter concept, with a lot of commercial potential. It morphs the advantages of a car and a motorcycle together. The following is a video of the vehicle in action.

Again, it just further reinforces the point that we will never need to rebuild our cities to move people from A to B in the name of reducing energy consumption.

...Following on


  1. link to updated website does not work but the .rar file does. you should get rid of the link at the top or tell people to ignore it. if you don't change it, nobody will click on that awesome .rar file. get your shit together

  2. Yes thank you Richard. So eloquently put. I'll look into it when I get the time.

  3. Also, the ATN concept is eclipsed by Google's development, which will give us an ATN regardless:

    However, I think ATN still has many structural/operational insights that are and will be applicable to the development of an ATN from Google's foundation.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.