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.