New Transportation Options – A Paradigm Shift

CyberTranBy Rob White

This week was marked by the announcement that Elon Musk (of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX fame) announced that he is making significant plans to explore a new high speed transportation option that could result in a 30 to 45 minute trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco. As explained yesterday to Bloomberg Businessweek, the Hyperloop is a “a solar-powered, city-to-city elevated transit system that could take passengers and cars” between major cities in very short periods of time. The technology also “immediately poses a challenge to the status quo-in this case, California’s $70 billion high-speed train that has been knocked by Musk and others as too expensive, too slow, and too impractical.”

The Bloomberg article goes on to further explain that “the Hyperloop would avoid many of the land issues because it’s elevated. The tubes would, for the most part, follow I-5, the dreary but direct freeway between L.A. and San Francisco. Farmers would not have swaths of their land blocked by train tracks but could instead access their land between the columns. Musk figures the Hyperloop could be built for $6 billion with people-only pods, or $10 billion for the larger pods capable of holding people and cars. Altogether, his alternative would be four times as fast as California’s proposed train, at one-10th the cost. Tickets, Musk says, would be ‘much cheaper’ than a plane ride.”

And even though the Hyperloop is an exciting departure from the ideas of traditional transportation, Davis finds itself in the middle of a similar opportunity. A few weeks ago, the City Council approved the support of exploring a proposed test track for high speed testing of the CyberTran International’s Rapid Ultra Light Rail Transit (ULRT) system.  As a result of the action by the Council, staff are working with CyberTran to further explore transit technologies that would further achievement of transportation, climate action, and economic development goals.

CyberTran is not the only technology in the personal rapid transit technology space, but City staff finds the CyberTran technology to be more fully developed than many proposed ULRT systems. Additionally, the CyberTran technology was developed at Idaho National Lab, they are already partnered with another jurisdiction (Richmond) which means Davis does not need to pioneer the municipal relationship requirements, and they are working with UC Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, and other Bay Area transportation and research organizations.

To quickly explain the CyberTran ULRT technology, the proposed build-out of a system would be comprised of a grade separated electrified track used to convey extremely light rail cars and an awning covered with solar to generate power for the system. At an average of 15 to 18 feet above street level, it would effectively be out of the sight line and can be hidden behind (or above) buildings and in alleyways when in a downtown environment. The trackway would be comprised of precast concrete and steel track sections ranging up to 50 feet, held in place by spread footings on centers that can range from a few feet to 50 feet separation. You can see a video simulation of the technology on the CyberTran website (cybertran.com)

None of this is particularly revolutionary technology, but CyberTran gets its distinction from six primary areas:

1) Extremely light car weight of about 10,000 pounds carrying up to 20 passengers;

2) Use of “off track” (or sidelined) stations so as not to slow the progress of cars, thereby creating the potential for eliminating station stops between destinations;

3) Ability to traverse grades of up to 10% and span distances between columns that would allow tracks to move through and between buildings (both existing and new);

4) Very inexpensive as compared to traditional heavy or light rail technologies (about 15 to 20% the cost per mile of light rail and about 10 % of heavy rail/BART solutions);

5) Same vehicle and tracks can be used in both low and moderate speed environments and have been tested at speeds up to 65 miles an hour; and

6) Ability to be assembled and then removed and redeployed for current and future demand, which current fixed rail solutions are unable to accomplish.

In August 2012, the City of Davis partnered with the i-GATE Innovation Hub and CyberTran International to sponsor a ULRT Symposium with the purpose of providing an opportunity for community members, researchers, local elected officials, and State and federal representatives to learn about the technology. An outcome from the Symposium was to discuss the options to support a proposed pilot test track somewhere in the region to demonstrate the CyberTran technology in a speed environment of 65 to 120 miles per hour. The CyberTran technology has been tested virtually and at 1/32nd scale, but a full sized test track would be needed to demonstrate that the technology could become a local and regional solution using the same tracks and cars.

As a result, informal discussions have continued with an objective of pursuing this pilot test track for Rapid ULRT. Davis staff is meeting with CyberTran executives today in Davis to discuss funding options, including the potential for foreign investment. CyberTran representatives recently returned from China and Davis staff is also working on making these potential investment connections.

If a Rapid ULRT was demonstrated to be effective, then a CyberTran ULRT network could connect Yolo County communities to Amtrak, the capitol, Sacramento Metro International Airport, The Port of Sacramento and other transportation networks. And as I mentioned earlier, this technology has already been adopted in Richmond (through the General Plan) as the preferred linkage between BART and the new 2nd Campus for Lawrence Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley.

So, imagine for a minute if Elon were able to make the Hyperloop a reality for high-speed intercity transport. The Hyperloop would be great to go from Sacramento to San Francisco in 10 minutes, but what happens when you get to either side? What if ULRT connected the Hyperloop terminal, to SMF, to UCD, to Amtrak, to…? And what if in the nearer future we could use ULRT to connect Davis Amtrak to UCD, to West Village, to Sutter Davis, to North Davis, to East Davis, to the 2nd Street Innovation center, to South Davis/Interland, to…? What if getting downtown was a simple ride on a small car train that went directly from six or seven stations around Davis to downtown. Or what if it connected Amtrak to Woodland, or West Sac, or Downtown Sac? I think you get the idea.

And with cheap, flexible track alignment, they could be deployed in the areas of most need and then rearranged as we grow, change or need connections to the centers of greatest need. Why can’t we dream about the many possibilities and explore the options for a high speed test track? If Elon can make the Hyperloop a reality (which does remain to be seen, but he has a good track record), why can’t we work hard to make ULRT or some similar technology as that of CyberTran a reality in Davis? Richmond is already leading the way, so why shouldn’t we work to explore these options as well?

Have ideas, thoughts, or opinions you want to share with me or the City? My email is rwhite@cityofdavis.org.

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14 Comments

  1. Growth Izzue

    [quote]The technology also “immediately poses a challenge to the status quo-in this case, California’s $70 billion high-speed train that has been knocked by Musk and others as too expensive, too slow, and too impractical.”[/quote]

    Are you reading this David?

  2. Don Shor

    The Daily Show 8/14 had a LOT of fun with this topic.
    With communication technology making business travel increasingly obsolete, it seems the “paradigm shift” we need is about the belief that it is necessary to travel faster. These technologies are sounding like the Concorde: just ways to make it possible for rich people to get places faster.

  3. Rob White

    Although I am sure Elon’s ideas have often been lauded as ‘outlandish’ or ‘fanciful’, I think the point isn’t should we have Hyperloop, but that our mindset about transportation needs to change yet again. Human’s have progressed from walking, to riding animals, to wheels/wagons/bikes, to trains, to cars/motorcycles, to planes, to spacecraft… It’s now time to rethink our cost/benefit ratio on trans options and look for new solutions. I don’t have the answer to what that next trans option is, but it seems like cost, flexibility, rapid deployment, demand, service, and speed are all factors that should be compared and contrasted as we look for cheaper regional solutions to our need to connect our jobs, communities, and transportation hubs.

    Besides, I am sure no one was laughing at him when he repaid the $465 Million loan from the DOE last May… that loan that looked like it was just another example of bad investment by the feds, especially on the heels of the Solyndra debacle (http://business.time.com/2013/05/23/loser-no-more-tesla-repays-465-million-u-s-loan/)

    Few people are laughing now… and as a result, we have a growing industry of electric vehicles being rapidly deployed and truly engineered to meet today’s needs. Battery technologies have been revolutionized, product and materials design have been revolutionized, and we have benefited as a society from yet another entrepreneur working to force the disruptions to entrenched industries to make our lives better. It’s not a perfect system… but it is hard to argue against the impact of people like Elon, forcing us to think differently as a society and challenge our norms to find a better way.

  4. Growth Izzue

    The CA bullet train is a joke, the only ones that defend it are die hard Democrats that won’t admit it’s a terrible idea because of political partisanship.

  5. Don Shor

    I think we will all benefit from his ideas, and this is the kind of partnership for which the DOE is actually very useful. I think we’ve probably passed the point of cost/benefit improvement in transportation within California.

    It is very amusing to watch news anchors on this story saying things like ‘can you imagine traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 30 minutes?’. Sure I can, since it only takes 75 minutes to fly between those two cities right now. I don’t think a 45 minute travel time improvement would really pay off the development costs. Now if Mr. Elon can get us through the airport faster, he’d be a hero.

    What we need right now is better connectivity in existing urban/suburban areas that aren’t presently served by an efficient rail system. Bus service on a regular basis between Davis and Dixon would be a great thing to have. But it would take a regional effort. High speed rail in California? Waste of time and money.

    As I noted, modern communication technology means that business people really don’t have to fly to meet each other, even in large groups. I sense that a lot of this technology is like building a faster, more efficient, really impressive new telegraph line. The principle is getting obsolete just as the technology improves. But as you note, the ancillary benefits, often unrecognized at the time, may be there.

  6. Rob White

    And here is another article from Fast Company showing that the idea isn’t new, just new to Elon’s vocabulary. http://www.fastcoexist.com/3015704/futurist-forum/how-much-did-this-hyperloop-lookalike-inspire-elon-musk

    If he can push new payment systems that have now been adopted by most every bank (I just used Chase QuickPay last night), can get us to think that all electric cars don’t need to be compact and cramped (Tesla Roadster and now the S Sedan), and can get us to think that the commercial/business world can deliver space travel (SpaceX and X Prize)… then maybe he can help push a new surface transportation solution. A system that solves our regional congestion, challenges the need for fossil fuels for long-distance hauls, and creates a whole new industry (meaning research, jobs and investment)… and part of that equation can happen right here in Davis. If we want it to.

  7. Davis Progressive

    “The CA bullet train is a joke, the only ones that defend it are die hard Democrats that won’t admit it’s a terrible idea because of political partisanship. “

    that’s a silly comment. it ignores the history of high speed rail. it ignores the fact that it works very well all over the world. if you want to take issue with how the california hsr project has been implemented, you will get no argument from me. but the idea is not a joke and not partisan.

  8. Growth Izzue

    [quote]that’s a silly comment. it ignores the history of high speed rail. it ignores the fact that it works very well all over the world. if you want to take issue with how the california hsr project has been implemented, you will get no argument from me. but the idea is not a joke and not partisan. [/quote]

    Well, that’s what I’m taking issue with and if you read I said the CA bullet train, not high speed rail in general. I’ve travelled much of Europe so I know how high speed rail can work. But this CA plan has been a JOKE from the beginning and it’s only been because of the Democrats that it’s still stipidly being put through.

  9. Growth Izzue

    Yeah, but the Democrats could’ve killed it in session, but they chose to go with it even though the critics had spelled out what a total disaster it would be. Now the Democrats won it.

  10. Don Shor

    [quote]… maybe he can help push a new surface transportation solution. A system that solves our regional congestion, challenges the need for fossil fuels for long-distance hauls, and creates a whole new industry (meaning research, jobs and investment)… and part of that equation can happen right here in Davis. If we want it to.[/quote]
    That would all be good news!

  11. Ginger

    DP:
    [quote]you also have that pesky voter initiative[/quote] If I’m not mistaken, didn’t that legislation require the bullet train to AT LEAST cover it’s own costs? Nobody pretends that is happening anymore.

    I’m thinking that Musk is just trying to figure out a quick and easy way to get to Paypal founder Thiel’s nation island. Count me in. 😉

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