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Posted: April 16, 2014

The futurist: The next bold step in transportation

Getting your ride on: Personal Rapid Transit

Thomas Frey

Throughout history, speed has been synonymous with greatness. In sports, those who ran the fastest were heroes. In times of war, those with the fastest chariots, ships, planes, and weapons had a significant advantage. In the business world, a company’s competitive edge has typically been formed around speed – quickest delivery, fastest transaction times or speed of information.

With the aid of technology, we’ve found ways to speed up communications – voice, text, email, social networking, even delivery systems. But we’ve only been able to achieve minor advances in the speed of physically traveling somewhere.

As we look closely at the advances over the past couple decades, it’s easy to see that we are on the precipices of a dramatic breakthrough in ultra high-speed transportation. Businesses are demanding it. People are demanding it. And the only things standing in our way are a few people capable of mustering the political will to make it happen.

The change we’re alluding to is the introduction of large scale Personal Rapid Transit Systems (PRTs).

So how do changes like this ramp up to a global scale? The same way they always have, with a few unreasonable people, proposing unreasonable concepts enough times until it stops sounding unreasonable.

Currently four thought leaders are leading the charge for PRTs, each proposing a different solution to the world’s growing transportation problems – Elon Musk, founder of Hyperloop; Jerry Sanders, CEO of Skytran; Bill James, CEO of Jpods; and Daryl Oster, CEO of ET3.

The following is an explanation of what’s driving the need for PRTs and why they’re the logical next step in human and cargo transport.

The History of Speed

Society has been speeding up. If we look at where we’ve come from, there are two important trend lines to consider:

1.) Circumnavigating the Globe

It was less than 500 years ago when Magellan’s crew became the first to circumnavigate the globe, and it took them a little over 3 years to complete the journey. Magellan himself was killed in the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines, but his crew managed to complete the journey.

Since then, the time it’s taken to circumnavigate the world has shrunk dramatically. Here are a few of the records set along the way:

  • 1522 – Ferdinand Magellan – 3 Years
  • 1764 – John Byron – 2 Years
  • 1924 – US Air Service – 175 Days
  • 1929 – Hugo Eckener – 21 Days
  • 1931 – Wiley Post – 8 Days, 16 Hours
  • 1933 – Wiley Post – 7 Days, 19 Hours
  • 1949 – USAF B-50 Lucky Lady II – 94 Hours
  • 1961 – Yuri Gagarin – 1 Hour, 48 Minutes (First Russian Cosmonaut)
  • 1969 – Apollo 10 – 1 Hour – Astronauts Thomas Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan traveled at 24,790 mph (All-time human speed record)

Compressing the time it takes to travel around the earth from 3 years to 1 hour is indeed a huge accomplishment. But sadly, the all-time human speed record was set in 1969 and hasn’t improved since.

2.) Distance Traveled Over a Lifetime

If we assume the average person in 1850 walked 4 miles a day, same as the average travel speed of the day, over a 50-year lifespan, they would have covered 73,000 miles over the course of their lifetime.

Using the same assumption, that people travel an hour a day at the average transportation speed of that era, we can begin to get a picture of how mobility is changing how we live:

  • 1850 – Average speed 4 mph* – Traveling 4 miles per day X 50 year life expectancy = 73,000 miles.
  • 1900 – Average speed 8 mph* – Traveling 8 miles per day X 60 year life expectancy = 175,200 miles.
  • 1950 – Average speed 24 mph* – Traveling 24 miles per day X 70 year life expectancy = 613,200 miles.
  • 2000 – Average speed 75 mph* – Traveling 75 miles per day X 80 year life expectancy = 2,190,000 miles.
  • 2050 – Average speed 225-250 mph** – Traveling 225 miles per day X 90 year life expectancy = 7,391,250 miles.

* – Average speed based on Richard Florida’s calculations for the U.S. in his book titled “The Great Reset.”

** – Projection based on current trends.

Even though these numbers are rough estimates based on travel by people in the U.S., every country in the world has seen their mobility progressing along a similar growth curve.

To be sure, people who travel 7.4 million miles in their lifetime will have radically different ways of thinking about their life, their work, and future opportunities than someone who only traveled 73,000 miles.

If we follow this trend line, our average transportation speeds by 2050 should be between 225-250 mph. So how do we get there?

Yes, high-speed train systems can go faster than this, but just barely. Planes can also go faster but they top out at 550-600 mph. So what comes next?

Next-Gen Transportation – Four Key Innovators

People are traveling more but our airports are getting congested, our highways are overcrowded, and our oceans and skies are becoming far too polluted for more of the same.

Next-gen transportation will need to be far less dependent on internal combustion engines, traditional highways, and petroleum-based power systems.

For these reasons, the stage has been set for something bold and exciting to emerge.

To better understand how this is likely to unfold, let’s take a look at the four top innovators who are driving the conversation:

1.) Elon MuskHyperloop: While easily the best known of the group and certainly the most accomplished, serving as CEO for both Space X and Tesla Motors, Elon Musk has proposed a system he calls Hyperloop. The Hyperloop system is a concept for high-speed tube transportation where pressurized capsules ride on a cushion of air inside of reduced-pressure tubes, powered by a combination of linear induction motors and air compressors. Speeds of up to 760 mph may be possible with this approach. While initially conceived as larger scale vehicles with over 20 passengers, smaller PRT cars could still be added to the mix.

2.) Jerry Sanders, CEO of Skytran: Skytran is a personal rapid transit system that allows up to two passengers inside a well-spaced pod. The pods are accelerated via linear electric motors on an elevated maglev track. Because there are no moving parts, the pods can reach speeds of 165 mph. Skytran’s goal is to end traffic congestion around most major metropolitan areas. NASA Ames has built a Skytran test route and Skytran is building its own system in Tel-Aviv.

3.) Bill James, CEO of Jpods: JPods are also a personal rapid transit system able to move cargo and passengers at 35 mph on an elevated guide way that operates so efficiently that it could be powered by solar energy. While 35 mph may not seem fast, this becomes the last-mile component of the larger PRT ecosystem. Jpods has a letter of intent to build systems in both Linyi and Anshan, China as well as a project in Secaucus, NJ.

4.) Daryl Oster, CEO of ET3: ET3 (Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies) is a system where car sized capsules composed of high temperature superconductivity maglev materials that levitate on a permanent magnet track within the tube. The tubes are evacuated of air, with almost no air resistance, the capsules are accelerated via LEM. The Chinese have been researching and developing ET3 for 12 years. Three miles is needed for proof of concept. City to city networks via ET3 would allow 800 lbs cargo/freight or up to four adult passengers, including luggage to travel 400-600 mph within local ETT-Evacuated Tube Transport networks. ETT networks would be able to connect with other local ETT networks while operating cross nationally around 1,000-4,000 mph.

Next: Understanding the Need for Personal Rapid Transit Systems (PRTs)

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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Readers Respond

Advertising for the 1970 vote in Denver authorizing mass transit promised PRT, but we got dirty diesel buses instead? By John Tahoe on 2014 04 16
maybe you have missed it, but the economy of the WORLD is in free fall. so no one will invest in the futuristic non-sense these men are talking about. WE the USA is as a result of the politicians that have come along for the past 115 years are now in reverse towards times that existed before the industrial revolution. manufacturing in all areas is gone and it is not going to come back! we have no one left from the time we did have manufacturing here to teach the youth of America, and the school system is so bad they don't know how to learn. the end result is the world doesn't need to go faster as you seem to think, it has to TAKE STOCK OF ITSELF. but the elected leaders haven't a clue as to how to do that. By jerry wigutow on 2014 04 16
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