This week at The Triangle we’re reporting on the Drexel Hyperloop senior project, a multidisciplinary effort to enter a pod into the SpaceX Hyperloop competition. For those not in the know on what the Hyperloop is, please check pages one and three of this issue. (Or if you’re reading this online, use the search button.)
I’ve been editor of this newspaper for longer than is strictly responsible, but first and foremost, I study civil engineering here at Drexel, so I feel it’s important for me to offer some opinion on the subject.
Every so often a project comes around which really captures the public’s imagination. Today it’s Hyperloop. Two years ago it was Solar Freakin’ Roadways [sic]. In the 80s, it was cold fusion, in 1969 it was the moonshot, and in the 40s and 50s it was “too cheap to meter” abundant nuclear electricity.
It’s also self-driving cars, drone delivery, virtual reality, nutrient powder as a meal substitute which you order from an app, hoverboards—what have you.
The subtle thing is, of course, that some of these ideas are incredible and will change (or have already changed) society for the better (nuclear power, SpaceX reusable rockets, “sustainability” as a serious and concrete design idea, etc.). Some are objectively terrible (cold fusion, Solar Freakin’ Roadways, perpetual motion machines) and some ideas are incredible and will change society for the worse (self-driving cars, Soylent meal replacement shakes, the “sharing economy”).
I want to focus today on three of the most current pie-in-the-sky ideas which are impractical or simply do not provide the kind of benefits which are advertised, and are actually detrimental to the public discourse and understanding of what sustainability really is. These are the Hyperloop, Solar “Freakin’” Roadways, and the (presumably electric) self-driving car.
You’ll notice these are all transportation projects—that’s not a coincidence. The public has the most input into transportation decisions in this country and it’s the public’s dollars which are put up to build a new road or airport or port or railway. As such, this field is particularly vulnerable to public opinion and ill-educated ballot box decisions on how to spend the pittance of a gasoline tax which funds transportation in America.
Hyperloop, I think, is a huge offender in the practicality department. Our senior design team is surmounting the engineering challenges, namely, how to seal the hyperloop tube, how to build pylons to support the tube, how to design the pod, etc. We’ve come a long way since Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s atmospheric railway and the Beach Pneumatic Transit line (of Ghostbusters II fame), and there’s no doubt that the actual engineering goals can be met.
The issue, of course, arises when one tries to justify the cost, which is advertised in Elon Musk’s white paper on the Hyperloop as “low, because it’s all elevated and has solar panels on top” but in actuality will be “extremely high, because the whole thing will be in a tunnel.” Calling Hyperloop “cheap” is a bald-faced lie and a ludicrous proposition if you know anything about acquiring right-of-way in even undeveloped areas, let alone city centers.
In reality, to install a hyperloop in this city would most likely require miles and miles of deep-bore tunneling in an urban area (which we’ve seen go so well in Seattle), entirely new stations and entirely new transit and highways to serve them.
By contrast, high-speed rail to New York City on the existing dead-straight right-of-way through New Jersey is a bargain, even considering the multiple billion dollar new Gateway tunnel project which will facilitate it. Hyperloop is politically and financially infeasible, and, at least on the East Coast, will save a miniscule amount of time compared to existing Amtrak trains.
Solar “Freakin” Roadways was popularized in an eponymous 2014 Youtube video which purported that if we replaced all the roads in America with solar panels we’d make a hell of a lot of electricity and furthermore these roads would be heated in winter, have lighted road markings, and be more durable than asphalt or concrete.
Sounds great, right? It really depends on how you phrase it. “Building a solar ‘freakin’ roadway” sounds easy. Financing would be easy, too: government builds roads, and government has infinite money, therefore Solar Freakin’ Roads are easy.
What if we rephrase this? “Build a hundred thousand square miles of solar panels, at sub-optimal angles, at ground level (i.e. frequently in the shade), which are furthermore subject to thousands of wear cycles a day by overweight semi trailers. Have a return on investment better than that of asphalt paving, which, by the way, costs two bucks a square foot and is 99 percent recyclable.”
The bizarre thing is that municipalities have bought it. Seventy meters (or about 210 feet, in Freedom Units) of solar bike path have been installed in the Dutch town Krommenie, at a cost of $3.7 million. It produced over its first six months approximately 3000 kilowatt-hour of electricity, or, as the builders called it, enough to power a single family house for a year. At $0.012 per kwh, that’s a whopping $720/year savings from a $3.7 million investment. It’ll pay itself back in only 5100 years!
That is, of course, assuming the panels don’t need to be replaced in 5100 years. They will need to be replaced every 25 years, in fact. Solar bike paths miss profitability by five orders of magnitude, and that’s without the hardening necessary to support the rigours that solar “freakin” roadways would face. Meanwhile, an equivalent asphalt path would cost a cool $21,000 or so to replace in totality every five to ten years, and furthermore, you can patch it if there’s a pothole!
So Hyperloop is a non-starter, and solar freakin’ roadways are a ludicrous fiction. What’s the problem with self-driving cars?
Simply put, self-driving cars will make our lives marginally easier, at the expense of having a catastrophic effect on the environment.
What does an electric car run on? In most parts of the country, they run on coal. It’s burned far away and most people consider it an externality. It’s also burned more efficiently than in a dispersed series of internal combustion engines (i.e. your car and everyone else on I-76), so that’s a plus.
In a magic world where everything runs on wind, solar, and hydroelectric power, or a more realistic one where everything runs on nuclear power, this is not a problem. Here’s the real problem: Vehicle-miles travelled.
VMT is the number of vehicles times the number of miles driven: that is, you and your friend both drove two separate cars to a destination 12 miles away, resulting in a total of 24 vehicle-miles travelled. You could have taken one car and reduced that to 12, but this is America and we feel a compulsive need to drive.
Most studies have shown that with widely available self-driving cars, congestion goes down and accident rates go down, which everyone is excited about. However, studies also show a huge spike in vehicle-miles travelled, meaning more energy consumed, and more land devoted to the exclusive use of the automobile.
Here’s the problem: Today, you drive to school or work, you leave your car in a garage, then at the end of the day, you drive home, maybe stop at the grocery store, whatever. In self-driving car world, your car doesn’t need a driver and can run errands while you are working. It can drop you off and try to find parking elsewhere, or even drive home and park in your garage. It could even just circle the block until you need it.
Your car might not even belong to you: Uber may have fired all its “independent contractors” by then and have its self-driving cars working around the clock, since one of its stated goals is to make itself cheaper than car ownership.
What this means is you spend less time looking for parking and/or going to the store, and have time to work or read on your commute, in exchange for a massive increase in vehicle miles travelled, and a massive increase in energy consumption (gasoline or electricity).
What does this mean? More lanes of highway, more road widening, and longer commutes to farther-flung destinations. Suburban and exurban expansion like we’ve never seen it: why not commute from the Poconos if you’re not losing any productive time? So what if productive farmland and virgin forest is converted to more and more vinyl-clad “colonial” houses with white picket fences and green lawns on two acre lots; we’ve been doing it for 70 years, there’s no reason to stop now!
The real problem with self-driving cars, then, is that they will not cause a revolution. They will reinforce existing paradigms: suburbanization, isolation and sprawl. Subdivisions called “Shady Brook” whose eponymous shady brook was channelized underground to put in more colonial houses. Inefficient land-use. More lane-miles, more carbon emissions, more energy use. Driving seven miles to do all your shopping at the Walmart supercenter. Dining options limited to Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, Applebee’s and the Cheesecake Factory.
This future promised by self-driving cars is already here. It has been since the first Levittown was built in 1952 and it’s wholly wasteful and unsustainable.
The old saying holds true even for “disruptive” technology: if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Hyperloop is a massively expensive but slightly faster way to get from point A to point B. Solar Freakin’ Roadways don’t pay even a fraction of their cost. Self-driving cars will accelerate climate change and make us more disconnected from the world.
The real, sustainable future is doable now, with today’s technology, and today’s off-the-shelf systems. We don’t need hyperloops, Solar Freakin’ Roadways, or self-driving cars. We can’t engineer ourselves to sustainability with more greenfield development and increased energy consumption.
We need rowhouses, streetcar suburbs and main streets with local businesses. We need people to get out of their cars and walk or bike or take transit to work and school. We need people to live closer to where they work and where they shop. We need to invest in our urban school systems to bring families back into city centers. We need solar and wind power backed up by a strong nuclear baseload capacity. We need to put money into high-capacity mass transit instead of highways and wider arterial roads. We need emphasis on rehabilitating vacant structures and brownfield sites over demolition or new greenfield construction.
To build a sustainable future, we need, in short, to be more efficient with our increasingly limited resources. To do this, we need to redirect attention away from the “gee-whiz” miracle technologies and focus on the real, serious and feasible solutions.