“But I have promises to keep
and miles to go before I sleep”
New Zealand is a good place to be at Christmas. And for most of the rest of the year really. But christmas is when I promised to be there, so be there I shall. It’s a long way from my new home though – I bet Robert Frost didn’t have that many miles in front of him. Of course, he was on a horse – I’ll be in a dirty great airbus and, god willing, will sleep on the way. Or numb my mind with premix singapore sling and movies – I have it pretty easy either way.
It’s never been easier to get from one side of the planet to the other, or between two cities a couple of thousand km apart (except, arguably, 12 years ago when airport security was a little less touchy). In Vaclav Smil’s typically excellent-but-heavy book ‘Prime Movers of Globalisation’ (Bill Gates gives a brief summary here) he identifies the diesel engines and gas turbines, that propel ships and planes respectively, as the two most critical enablers of globalisation – though I guess high speed communications should also be included (as the enabler of efficient ordering and payment). While globalisation has its detractors, and some definite negatives as currently executed, I think it’s a positive thing overall even if some significant tweaks are required. Whatever the future model is, I think efficient trade and global interdependency are important things for stability and prosperity.
All this speed and convenience are making a bit of a mess however, and it’s expected to get a lot lot worse. Two things matter – one is how efficient the technologies we use are, and the other is how much we use them. For efficiency we’ve been on a good trend, but we’re getting into diminishing returns for what we can expect from existing technologies. As for demand, there’s a lot more to come.
We need fast, convenient, and clean transport options for long distance travel and freight… and like so many things, it’d be good to have it soon! We can’t wait for teleportation.
Large ships are now close to their limits in terms of engine and hull efficiency. Improvements will continue with route planning and speed optimisation, but we’re squeezing out improvements of a few percent now; there are no 50% reductions remotely on the radar.
Container shipping volume is at 350% of the figure only a decade ago. The rate of growth has slowed somewhat, but it is still forecast to double again in the next decade. Another figure I found, billion-tonne-miles, is up by 65% in the last decade (growing more slowly, as this includes bulk commodities (oil, coal, grain) which aren’t seeing such high growth as manufactured goods usually put in containers).
Air freight is highly volatile, and an increasing fraction of it is being shifted to the belly hold of high capacity passenger airliners rather than dedicated freighters, so I’ll look at Air Passenger demand instead. The metric here is the Revenue Passenger Kilometers, or RPK; 4,000,000 RPK’s could be a plane with 400 people on it flying 10,000 kilometers.
The below chart shows Boeings 2010 forecasts on future growth in RPK’s. Sure, they’re an arline manufacturer with stockholders so of course they’re going to be ambitious… but for what it’s worth their similar estimates created in 2000 were LOW compared to reality.
A large fraction of this additional growth is anticipated to come from developing economies. As people get more wealthy, they tend to travel more. If Boeing’s estimates are wrong, it’ll probably be because economic growth has stalled… not a pretty picture for the world’s poor.
Aircraft are still progressing when it comes to technology, but as with shipping many of the opportunities for gain are already implemented when it comes to energy consumption. Fuel costs are the single biggest factor in an airline managers life (ok, that and passenger demand, but that’s much more stable generally unless it’s messed up by fuel costs), and the major aircraft manufacturers know this well, yet despite that the progress is slow and slowing. Older 747-100′s managed about 5L/100km.passenger. The 747-400 reduced this to about 3.2L/100km.passenger. The 747-8 seems to manage 2.8L/100km, with numbers for the airbus A380 as low as 2.73L/100km. The state of the art, boeings new 787, is quoted as 2.4L/100km.passenger… though some early reports from Japan Airlines indicate they’re not seeing such an improvement in operational use. That is pretty impressive progress… although it’s taken almost 40 years to halve the consumption since the original 747, and the rate of progress is slowing; the brand new Airbus A380 only managed a 15% improvement over the Boeing 747-400, despite arriving 15 years later and being a fair whack bigger. Maybe, with further improvements, the 787 might make 2L over the next 20 years, but it’d be a stretch and even if it’s acheived it’s still a pretty bleak outlook for my low energy trips home.
That’s pretty much the status quo in technology and demand. A lot of demand growth, and an existing solution that’s already pretty dirty and doesn’t have much remaining potential for improvement. If we want something better, let’s take a blue-sky (shudder… business talk) approach and define our dream.
Firstly, to avoid debate on the topic, let’s just agree that we’d like to reduce ‘unnecessary’ shipping and travel. But let’s also agree that in 20 years time, demand is going to be at LEAST the same as it is today (barring a major global decline of some form).
So, from the technology side I’d like the following:
Something able to substitute a significant fraction of passenger air travel that is:
Something able to substitute a significant fraction of freight that is:
Both should lend themselves to implementation with a clean energy option – probably electricity but could also be synthesized fuel maybe one day.
Woah. Am I being a fool here? I mean these are pretty ambitious targets… surely even achieving half this level of improvement would be worthwhile, or even a quarter?
Well, sure. But I’m cheating a bit, because I’m writing this article with an solution already in mind that I think (though I haven’t checked the numbers yet on the freight side) could deliver on even these goals… so why not try
The possible better lightbulb I’m thinking of is based on the maglev VacTrain concept, now several decades old. Early vactrain concepts have been proposed more than a century ago. I can’t find a consistent view on ‘who was first’, but American Engineer Robert Goddard allegedly designing concepts for a 1600km/h link between Boston and NY while a student in the 1910′s. Russian professor Boris Weinberg proposed it also in his 1914 book ‘Motion without Friction’, and allegedly later built some first concepts of the maglev technology. 40 years later, Robert Salter of the RAND group proposed an intercontinental maglev vactrain link between North America and Europe. His proposal had trains travelling at up to 15,000kph, for very short (and surprisingly/preposterously cheap) trips.
So – this is an old idea! Interest has waxed and waned from time to time – while no-one argues that the proposal is technically impossible, the huge hurdle to be overcome is cost. So it was, so it still is – even high speed trains are extremely expensive and, in many cases, unable to compete on price with aircraft. Surely doing something similar at 10 times the speed in a vacumn with magicalnetic levitation must cost much more? Well, maybe, maybe not.
The Vactrain concept I like is the one being pioneered by Daryl Oster, named ET3. Technically it’s also being pioneered by me now, since I signed up as a licensee and am writing visionary blog posts about it (and doing some other stuff when I’ve got time). There’s a good pictorial overview of ET3 here, and a a video – with some aspects that I still consider pretty speculative – here. For a quick summary, however:
ET3 uses, for the most part, fairly well understood and proven technologies. Maglev is nothing new; it’s operationally proven (last time I was in Shanghai I took the Transrapide train back to the airport, a high speed maglev (450km/h top speed) in commercial operation for several years now) and well understood technically. The drive technology is also well understood, and proven in industrial applications. Making all manner of tubes (plastic, concrete, steel, whatever) able to hold a vacumn with low losses is pretty trivial really.
For me the question is not ‘Could we make ET3′, but rather ‘Could we make ET3 cost effective and safe’.
ET3 doesn’t exist. All assertions in here are based on models and experiements by myself and others. Reality might be different – this is not a short and quick and easy solution! Hence I’ll say “ET3 is/ET3 can” when really I mean “Models and initial analysis which, in some cases, hasn’t even been peer reviewed thoroughly, suggest that ET3 is/ET3 can”. Cool? Moving on.
ET3 is REALLY energy efficient in operation. Ignoring the energy embodied in construction for now (which will certainly be significant) and considering only the incremental energy consumption per trip, my result for an ET3 trip between Miami and NY (approx 2000km), for a capsule seating 6 persons, at 2000km/h (Concorde speed) was approximately 50kWh, or around 0.4kWh/100km.person. If we got that electricty from a reasonably efficient gas cogen power plant that’d work out to around 0.06L/100km.person… or roughly 40 times less than in a 787. And I only asked for 10x reduction!
ET3 is perfectly suited to electrification by renewables. Forget the gas cogen power plant – we want clean! Can we afford it? There is minimal onboard energy storage required, most of the power can be reticulated through the track to the drive motors in the track itself. Because the energy consumption per trip is so low, we can assume ‘expensive’ renewable energy as the power source with minimal cost impact. The above trip of 2000km would have an energy cost, at 20c/kWh (now significantly more than PV power costs today), of only $1.70 per person. That’s not a typo, I didn’t mean to write $170 and accidentally hit the decimal point. Operating energy cost of ET3 is essentially zero.
ET3 could be very comfortable. Unless you’re really rich and fly in the comfy seats up front/top, flying probably isn’t something you look forward to. Aircraft design constraints are such that giving more space costs more money. A tradeoff is required, and people typically choose the cheap and uncomfortable options. With ET3, on the other hand, the capsule costs are a very small fraction of the overall cost, and space within the 1.5m diameter tube is cheap. You won’t be able to stand up (increasing the tube diameter has a large cost impact), but you’ll be able to sit in some style. I predict ET3 will be extremely luxurious compared to air travel due to the low incremental cost and high potential for differentiation as a result. Can’t wait. Aircraft first class seating would be simple to accommodate. Much more luxurious seating is also realistic due to the small impact of increased vehicle weight.
ET3 Could be REALLY Fast. The main limitation on the speed of ET3 is the minimum corner radius of the tubes considering g loading. Higher speeds mean more gradual curves, which mean less flexibility in going around hills/valleys and hence the potential for increased cost. But assuming reasonable terrain (i.e. not across the himalayas) there is nothing fundamental to stop ET3 achieving 2000km/h or even more… unlike aircraft which are limited by the sound barrier, and the potential sonic boom damage resulting from exceeding it above built up areas. If tunneling does become necessary it’s a lot cheaper to build an ET3 sized tunnel than a train or even car sized one.
ET3 Could be cheap. This is a tough one to call at this stage. It’s almost entirely a function of cost per track km, and the route demand. I’m currently using $4mil/km for the track in my calculations; twice the figure ET3 themselves use, but only around 10% of the cost for a high speed rail line today in most cases. Why would ET3 be so much cheaper? Primarily because it’s SO much lighter – by a factor of approximately 40x. This has a scaling effect on essentially every system component. What impact does this have on the price you pay? Well, for the aforementioned trip from NY to Miami I estimate a 15% IRR at a WACC of 8% assuming 50% of today’s air market between the two cities is captured, and with ticket prices the same as they are today ($240). So I think it’s realistic for ET3 to be the same price as air travel on busy routes while delivering the improvements in speed, comfort, and efficiency (and, of course, the total insensitivity to energy costs). What would be possible if we think bigger? Well, with higher capacity (like if the NY:Miami route linked up all the cities in between as well, with sharing of the tube capacity) resulting in overall demand increase of around 10x, tickets would fall below $50. Further reductions with more growth. Still further reductions with freight. ET3 can be cheap… but the track cost is the critical parameter.
Well! Fast, cheap, clean, comfortable – what are we waiting for! Oh yeah – it doesn’t exist. Stink. Nevermind, let’s build it! How hard can it be, right?
Considering the rise and fall over the last decades, it seems the answer is ‘Fairly hard’. Before I mentioned ‘safety’ and ‘cost effectiveness’, but at least as big a hurdle as either of these is the issue of ‘commercially feasible’. Commercially feasible doesn’t just mean ‘achieving a technically sound tube solution that costs less than $1m/km’; perhaps more critically than that it means ‘creating a business case surrounding ET3 that allows it to be pursued as a potentially profitable business venture, including funding for the development phases, an acceptable level of venture risk, a manageable scale-up strategy that can be pursued in a gradual way’ etc etc etc.
Safety: The safety issue is largely one of design. There are many problems to be solved, many of which probably aren’t even properly understood at this stage. However, ET3 is essentially a high speed rail system in this regard. High speed rail runs beneath the english channel. It runs through cities. It is fast and safe. Eventually realising similar performance from ET3 should be possible; the biggest concern I have right now is largely related to the headway between capsules and the need to find some safe compromise between the ‘brick wall’ stopping criteria (where a vehicle should be able to decelerate and stop safely even if the vehicle in front stops instantly) and the fairly extreme spacing proposed on the ET3 site of only 15m between 5m long capsules (potentially travelling at several thousand km/h) – this influences capacity and can have a major impact on cost effectiveness.
Cost: The issue of cost effectiveness is the biggy. ET3 is targetting an existing market, and that market is already highly competitive. The Airline industry isn’t going to appreciate some new player coming along and taking away 75% of their demand (though if they’re cut in on it – a real possibility – they might see it differently; they have competition to worry about too afterall). The biggest cost driver by far (at least up to the point at which ET3 is commercially successful beyond any debate, beyond which point the capsule cost might become significant) is the cost of developing the system (fairly expensive) and installing the tube infrastructure for a given route (really expensive). That $/km figure needs to be kept down or else it’s going to be very hard to beat planes at their own game.
Commercial viability: Is ET3 commercially viable? I think it could be. I’m focussing at the moment on an incremental approach to deployment whereby ET3 lines can be profitable even at the relatively low capacities resulting from existing demand for point-to-point routes. If the first of these routes can be proven, then it you’re running with the river. If not, and your system won’t be profitable until you connect 20 cities or whatever, then it’s going to be pretty hard to persuade an investor (even a farsighted government) to take the large technical risk associated with the project. Development costs are an additional burden, but I don’t know what these will be yet. More than a new car, certainly, but not necessarily more than a new space shuttle.
So, what are some of these early routes we might use to justify developing this awesome technology?!
After some consideration, that’s enough for today actually. Well done if you made it this far, I’ll take a look at some of the early candidate ET3 routes next time around. There’s also a far bit to be done in assessing key technical features, but like all good things (and many bad ones) it’ll take time.
 ISL Shipping Statistics and Market Review, Volume 55 No 5/6, 2011