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I'm loving the Shweeb concept

There was a bit of a stir when Google last week announced that one of the winners of their 10^100 contest would be Shweeb, a pedal-powered monorail from New Zealand that has elements of PRT. Google will invest $1M in Shweeb to help them build a small system, and if it makes any money on the investment, that will go into transportation related charities.

While I had a preference that Google fund a virtual world for developing and racing robocars I have come to love a number of elements about Shweeb, though it's not robocars and the PRT community seems to not think it's PRT. I think it is PRT, in that it's personal, public and, according to the company, relatively rapid through the use of offline stations and non-stop point to point trips. PRT is an idea from the sixties that makes sense but has tried for almost 50 years to get transit planners to believe in it and build it. A micro-PRT has opened as a Heathrow parking shuttle, but in general transit administrators simply aren't early adopters. They don't innovate.

What impresses me about Shweeb is its tremendous simplicity. While it's unlikely to replace our cars or transit systems, it is simple enough that it can actually be built. Once built, it can serve as a testbed for many of PRT's concepts, and go through incremental improvements. You should read the Shweeb web page and their FAQ to get a lot of the initial details, but the general idea is recumbent bikes inside an enclosed pod, suspended from a thin monorail where steel wheels run on steel rails. The aerodynamic drag of such pods is very low, and the rolling resistance of steel on steel is also very low, so they claim it is much easier than riding a regular bicycle or even a recumbent. They claim going 20km/h will take less energy than walking and plan to cap speed at 25 km/h. (That's still a lot faster than the real average speed of city buses and trolleys which get about 16kph net speed including stops.) They claim that when riders get together to form trains it gets much better, and nobody will have to break into a sweat, or need to pass other people, or even mind if one person in the train isn't pedaling.

With shock absorbers in the pods, they can hit one another without problems. For uphills they plan an escalator that grabs your pod and pulls it up if you're going slow. They don't have it yet, but they plan switches and offline stations just like PRT.

So what's to love?

  • The pods are clearly about as light as a PRT pod could be -- just a person, fairing and a bicycle. They are also about as small as a PRT pod could be as the person is reclined.
  • With the light pods, the track is also as light and cheap as elevated track can be. Some claim cheaper than plain old bike trail, especially if you factor in crossings and bridges which are inherent in elevated track.
  • The small, cheap track eliminates some (but not all) of the opposition to the sunlight and view-blocking of larger track.
  • There is no need for electrified track, or power brushes feeding power to the pods, with the cost and safety issues that entails. Some things may be powered like escalators and stations, but that can be done in those specific spots.
  • Clearly the public will love it as being as green as you can be, though it turns out that human power is not particularly green due to all the fossil fuel that goes into making our food. However, most of us need the exercise, which fixes that issue.
  • It doesn't need a fancy control system, and it doesn't need to convince the public it has one. Vehicles can travel with zero headway in safety. It wants a basic localized control system to ensure safe merges, but that's about it.
  • It's not very fast. While normally a downside, this makes many problems (particularly control ones) go away. Because it's human powered, people will not expect or demand it be fast. If it were electric powered, people would ask why it doesn't go 60kph. But collisions, switching, merging can all be handled much easier at 25kph than at 60. The speed problems will be solved later.
  • While you do have to pedal, you don't really have to watch except when changing lines or stopping. So you could probably read or watch videos and listen for alerts about proximity to other pods, switches or even needing to bank. Blind people have ridden the test unit.
  • While they claim it's light exercise it still is exercise, which will attract some ridership.
  • You could actually pull off a simple three-stop system without switches, but they don't plan that, they plan to make a switch and go further.
  • I could so see this being just what they would love at the Google campus to get among their sub-areas.
  • Small as it is, it's easier to convince buildings to install a station on their 2nd or 3rd floor, taking little room.
  • While they plan elevated stations due to the physics, ground-level stations are also not too hard and are much more convenient.

In short, so many of the things that PRT vendors have failed to convince potential customers of are either not present in Shweeb obviously less of a problem. That means it has a decent shot of getting built. It will never be for everybody, but it doesn't need to be. While bike commuters are a minority in the USA, there are many places in the world where as much as 30% of commuters are on bikes. Offered a ride that is a fast, straight shot with no lights or stop signs or crossings, no danger of hitting cars, pedestrians or other cyclists, the ability to watch a video at a faster speed with half the effort, it would not be hard to recruit such commuters. As well as a number of transit and car commuters, if the system is going where they want to go.

Over time, Shweeb can play with other features. Vehicles can get electric motors for the disabled or those who just don't want to pedal. They can get computerized controls which allow completely unattended operation. They can get movement of empty vehicles to stations on demand (one of Shweeb's biggest issues -- they claim that at rush hour, staff will ride in the reverse commute direction pushing large trains of pods.) They can put in all the elements of PRT.

Or they might fail, but learn a lot. I am not surprised that Google, which has PRT-fan Larry Page at the helm, decided to give Shweeb a shot. Other PRT systems would do very little with $1M, and Shweeb just might make something of it.


I like the idea of Shweeb, too. The name needs a little work, though; it sounds like a hybrid of schmuck and dweeb.

Some caveats:
(1) The "bumpers" meant to absorb the impact of two vehicles will need a certain amount of splay to accommodate collisions during a curved segment of track.
(2) The clear fairing will serve as a solar cooker in the sun belt. A one-way reflective coating would be a necessity for the 6-month-long summers.

Other thoughts:
(1) Most central business districts are located on a river, which topographically means that a ride from the suburbs to the city is net downhill. So for a suburban commuter, the ride to work is downhill. Yay! The ride home is uphill. So the harder workout is in the evening; assuming you'd break a sweat going uphill for 10-15 miles you'd reach your home ready for a shower.

(2) Vehicle storage could be doubled by designing a hinge near the nose of the vehicle and a quick-release latch at the rear. This would let the unused vehicle hang vertically, taking up less track length.

(3) Electric power assist would be a welcome for-pay option.

(4) The suspended monorail means that local topography can be smoothed to steady slopes making for a ride that's easier than taking the road.

(5) The city of Austin, TX would be an ideal candidate for this system: Austin has a young, cycling-friendly population. Three points of interest are adjacent and in good cycling distance: UT campus, the State Capitol and Downtown. Local PV panels in this sun-drenched city could recharge the power-assist systems.

I agree about the climate control issue. No power means no AC, though they have holes in the fairing that can open to provide a breeze at the cost of some drag. Heat could be provided both from the rider if you insulate it, or from a propane heater attached to the unit. There are some low-tech AC approaches. For example there could be tank in the unit with a lid that opens up. In the station, position the tank under an ice dispenser and fill it with ice. (Drain the leftover water first of course.) Allow a flow of air (while moving) through the ice. Needs a more insulated pod. Or pump cold water through the seat and seatback (tap a bit of pedal action to run the pump.)

The name is funny, they took it from the German word to float but they may regret it.

One design for this I speculated would be a bit roller-coaster like. Deliberately route the pods up a hill with escalator or tow, and then release them to a long gentle grade. With the fairing and steel wheels, you could coast (or pedal very gently) for a long time on a very gentle grade. However, having to do this regularly would be jarring and people would not want to put the track up really high so you can't climb a long hill this way, but you could go upriver.

In a true mountain city (like you might see on the mountainous coast) I could imagine a system where track zig-zags down the mountain in long switchbacks, but there is an escalator going up along one or both sides, and a special down-track with brakes somewhere as well. To get anywhere you either go downhill all the way, or go downhill to the switchback turn, get on the escalator, go up above your destination and take one segment downhill to it. (I have thought such a system would be good in general for bicycles or unpowered cars on towns that have streets like this.)

However, there is no doubt that a system like Shweeb is not for every city. It will be best for fairly flat cities in moderate climates. But there are enough of those.

"Clearly the public will love it as being as green as you can be, though it turns out that human power is not particularly green due to all the fossil fuel that goes into making our food."

I know this has been discussed before, but this statement is misleading. When a person rides a bike rather than
taking the train, say, he doesn't necessarily eat enough to compensate, since he will tend to expend less energy
elsewhere. One can ask the question how green agriculture in general is, but raising the issue in the context
of transport is a red herring.

I explain that in the very next sentence.

The bulk of us need exercise, and so if we can get our transportation from our exercise, then that's a green way to get our transportation. For the few of us who don't need more exercise, it does turn out that humans are less efficient than electric motors and both pure joules spent, and on fossil fuels burned with our typical agriculture.

When Lance Armstrong cycles for transport it's not very green. When I do it, it is. For Armstrong, the Shweeb workout would not diminish the amount of training he has to do as a cyclist (well, I guess he has retired now) because it is not enough of a workout.

They could probably do shiny snap-on shades that riders or staff could install in the mornings on hot days. And if they record and report times, they could add a lot of game mechanics. ("You beat your best time for this route! You get one free intro ticket to give to a new rider!")

You've got to be joking.

1. It looks to be very uncomfortable for most anyone over 35.

2. You're constrained where you can go.

3. You can only go as fast as the person ahead of you.

4. People outside can see your fat butt.

5. You can't stop and buy a sandwich.

6. You're sitting in other people's sweat and smells.

7. You've got to build this rail infrastructure.

8. If a car breaks down everything is held up and you need a big truck to go retrieve it.

9. If you get sick or tired the fire department has to come and rescue you with a cherry picker.

10. You can't carry much.

The FAQ addresses some of these issues---I think they are being swept under a rug.

While I don't think Shweeb is a universal replacement transit system -- well nothing is, but this perhaps even less so -- I do notice people are comparing it either to a PRT or a bike and finding it wanting. I think it's a new animal.

I am not sure why it doesn't work over 35. I ride a recumbent, I think they are much more comfortable than regular bikes. I see lots of over 35 bike commuters. Yes, you can see their butts, though the regular exercise keeps more of them in better condition. What of it?

All transit lines constrain where you go and don't let you stop and buy a sandwich (without getting off the line) and need you to build the infrastructure, and the rail ones are shut down by breakdowns. These are issues for all these systems but no more so for this than other transit.

They plan for this one to ride a little lower. I would hope they will put a small rope ladder in each unit but right now they just claim they have had no breakdowns at all. That won't last and will be an issue, as is the case with all elevated rail and monorail and gondola. This is only if a car seizes up, because otherwise any stopped car which can still roll is pushed by the next pod to come up behind it. They have not revealed how their switch will work, but I am expecting the computer will be able to control it so that it's easy to push the pod to the next station.

It is their belief that everybody will just go the same speed, because forming a train is such a win for everybody. If somebody ahead of you is going slow, they say you will just form a train with them and both of you will go faster together with the same effort than the faster person was going before, within limits. Trains are a big win, as drag is the largest energy use of cycling, especially on steel wheels.

If I were designing it, I would have the computer measure the effort of each rider. Those who don't do the minimum effort (unless disabled) when there are riders behind, or in a train, would get charged extra, and the computer would beep at them. This is not to say that if Lance Armstrong comes up behind you that you have to go to his level, but that you can't go below the minimum for long, which would be a walking level of energy (which they claim solo will produce 20 km/h and will keep a train going at the max speed.) In trains, it probably would be the case that some people could take turns just resting.

I doubt the systems will get really long at first, long enough to demand rest stops. If they do, they will have to consider putting in sidings where people can rest or slow down. You can also pause at any stop, but typically only by changing cars, at least in a simple station design. In a more complex station design you could have pause-and-rest stations.

As for the question of sweat, I agree that is unanswered. They say that pods will be sanitized between uses but don't say how. They may plan initially to have a worker at each station. They claim it really is very easy exercise and will not make people sweaty, at least at their constrained max speed of 25 kph. (On their test track at higher speeds people do get a workout.) That's a claim they need to prove. Of course, in gyms, they have the same issue with workout machines, and have rules you must clean the equipment you use, and they have staff for extra needed cleaning and end-of-day. I don't know how readily Shweeb affords staff at every station, though it can have staff who clean all the pods at night, for example. But this remains to be seen.

When you look at this as a bicycle transit system, you can either not like it because it has some of the disadvantages of transit systems combined with some of the disadvantages of bikes. Or you can like it because it has some of the advantages of transit systems (particularly PRT) combined with some of the advantages of bikes.

The one big new thing is the advantage of trains on steel wheels. Serious cyclists all know the huge advantage of drafting, but it's exacting riding, less safe and you must swap out the leader frequently. Not every cyclist knows the advantage of faired recumbents but it is also large.

In addition to the FAQ, the Shweeb technology page addresses some of your issues.

Point by point rebuttals:

1. As uncomfortable as a reclining chair. I've ridden a recumbent; they're much more comfortable than a regular bike. Your body's weight is distributed across more area, so there are no severe pressure points.

2. On a road or rail, you're just as constrained (unless you drive off-road). Thanks to trillions of tax- and toll-payer dollars, roads are ubiquitous. I'd rather have some of that money in my pocket, fewer roads and more efficient alternatives available.

3. (Addressed by technology page): The person in front breaks the wind, the person in back helps push. It's even better than the peloton effect because there is direct physical pushing from the vehicles in back.

4. Nothing a little paint or advertisement sticker can't fix.

5. Same as a car. You have to pull off a highway or road, into a driveway or parking lot.

6. (Addressed by technology page): You don't get overly sweaty because it can be as little effort as walking. They wipe each car at the terminal.

7. Cheaper than a 2-lane road. Cheaper than acquiring land to convert 2-lanes to 4-lanes. Can be built overhead. Could be built in conjunction with the light poles in new construction.

8. Same as an automobile on a road, except the Shweeb vehicle is smaller and lighter.

9. If you get (violently) sick in a car you could have a wreck. In a Shweeb, the vehicle behind you could help push you to the next station.

10. Enough room for a briefcase, duffel, backpack or one bag of groceries. That's good enough for the majority of commuters.

That said, I admit this transit technology isn't for everyone. These people probably shouldn't take it:

- Women in dresses.
- Men in 3 piece suits.
- People with pets or service animals.
- People transporting massive loads.
- People in *many* other special situations.

But I think the Shweeb would take some cars off the road which would be of benefit to everybody.


Good answers. But...

The strongest argument in favor of Shweeb seems to be energy efficiency. This is achieved by steel-on-steel, by small frontal profile, and by drafting. These factors result only by imposing very strong constraints which are otherwise undesirable.

The arguments against are largely about flexibility, and personal space and comfort. Unless energy is extraordinarily expensive, these factors will dominate for practical transportation.

The best of both worlds is achieved by robocars. Like Shweeb, they can draft and they can push each other. And if human driving error is eliminated then personal vehicles can safely be made small and lightweight. Small vehicles can cohabitate with large. The next best thing to steel-on-steel is high-pressure bicycle tires. Heck, if you really like human power you could even make roboquadracycles.

Instead of requiring an alternative to the existing trillion dollar investment in roads, robocars will leverage it.

Shweeb can be built today, robocars not yet. But for the long term a robocar-based transportation infrastructure is clearly the most comprehensive goal, in my view.

The best rationale I can see for investing $1M in Shweeb is to encourage meme diversity. Perhaps the money would be better spent laying the groundwork for public acceptance of robocars as they inch toward technical feasibility.

I don't think Shweeb is really about energy. It's about simplicity. The human power is nice and looks and feels good (as least to a certain demographic) but mainly what it does is make it cheap, and make some of the negatives of it acceptable. You don't mind that it does not go very fast. You don't worry about control and collisions because a human is operating the vehicle and they are allowed to hit one another at low speeds. Obviously I think robocars are the long term solution. My interest in Shweeb is it can happen now (moreso than motorized PRT) and we'll learn interesting things from it.

The use of guideways is an interesting trade-off. Normally I am skeptical about them -- they are expensive, and it's hard to convince people to let them run in front of their 2nd story windows or even down their streets blocking the sun. Nobody wants to live right next to the elevated train, it's the classic low-rent scene in the movies. On the other hand guideways are cheap, and immune from traffic and many obstacles and don't have stop signs, which turns out to be a huge win for cycling. I love bike trails but the reality is that bike trails still run into obstacles, and have pedestrians on them.

25km/hr speed limit sounds *painfully slow*. No one ever drives a car that slow, people drive faster than that in underground parking garages (they shouldn't, but they do). It's mellow cruising on a conventional recumbent on a level road no wind. If this thing is any more efficient you'd be well down below the lazy/bored crossover, where you're putting in minimal effort but going really slow and it's boring and you have a destination to get to. If you could go door-to-door and never stop for anything, it would be a hair over typical average speeds on the road including intersections and traffic lights. Now, uncap the speed and make these things aerodynamic as in wind-tunnel testing rather than just rounded-is-better-than-blunt, and you could be cruising at 40+km/hr, and if you can fly over the traffic lights everyone else is stopped at, now you'd be actually competitive with car speeds. But I'm probably not the target market anyway.

25 kp/h is not fast, I agree, though many bike commuters do less, and as noted they stop frequently for all the things on the road that stop you.

I believe they have chosen this speed because they need to allow collisions and make them safe -- it's how you form a train -- and because everybody is on the same line and must go a similar speed. If you want to do 35 kp/h (which the track can physically do just fine) you are going to be coming up behind people. You might be able to push the first or second one but eventually you will slow. Though if everybody works, it seems a train with one strong cyclist and some average one could maintain the better speed. But some will have the goal of not working up a sweat, and so will resist any push to harder work.

Down the road one could imagine the money for two tracks, or perhaps 3 tracks, one of which reverses direction mid-day, allowing a fast track and a slow track. But the system would have to get a lot more mature before that would happen. You can't have both tracks go inwards during the morning because pods have to come back and there are people who commute the other way.

Anyway, 25 kp/h is way ahead of all surface street public transit (buses and street cars.) So people will be OK with that I think.

Muscle-powered with no ability to overtake? The slowest will determine the speed.

What Shweeb claims but has yet to prove is that when this happens the two form a train, and the train goes faster for the same effort as the slow rider was putting in, because trains are more efficient.

They even claim that the rear rider can go almost as fast with the effort that was being put in solo, though that would not apply uphill.

I think they might want to have a small computer measuring the torque being put on the chain by each rider, and penalize riders who don't pull their weight in trains to at least the level they were doing before if needed, or who go way too slow too often. Penalize could mean cost or it could mean they have to leave trains briefly at sidings/stations, or it could mean they are eventually not welcome any more.

What if the front guy ceases to put in any effort at all?

I don't think it would be possible to have any uphill stretches, but then again this is an amusement park ride, not a transportation device.

This looks like the perfect answer, as long as your question is "how can we take away most of the good things about commuting by bicycle and put in a lot of the bad things about commuting by automobile?"

I will say that this would be really fun to have at Disneyworld. Put one of these lines in next to the monorail line and let parkgoers Shweeb from place to place.

Yes, some people think this combines the problems of cycling with the problems of PRT, but I think it goes the other way and combines many of the advantages of cycling with the advantages of PRT.

Now it truth it is a mixture, it has some of the advantages and disadvantages of each. If you are not the sort of person who would cycle commute in the first place, you will probably see all the bicycle aspects as downsides. If you are not the sort of person who would transit commute you might see those aspects as downsides.

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