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Long Range Plan for Transportation Technology is a more recent article by the same author. 
His more up-to-date and complete works can be found here.




The Future of Cars

Current Surface Transportation Challenge

Growing urban vehicle congestion, emissions pollution and vehicle fuel economy are related personal transportation issues that various Administrations have sought to address for decades. Measures taken have included CAFÉ standards (Corporate Average Fuel Economy), higher federal and local excise taxes on gasoline, subsidies for alternative fuel vehicles, and even taxes on luxury cars. Nevertheless, vehicle congestion continues to grow through America’s major urban centers, with commuter trips in some areas now approaching 2 hours a day.

The Clinton Administration focused on fuel economy and emissions, most notably in their public/private venture with the Big Three automakers to produce a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) capable of 80 miles per gallon of gasoline. However, well before such a vehicle could be produced in America, Honda and Toyota brought to market hybrid cars that meets many of the PNGV objectives. The failure of this enterprise may foreshadow a larger problem within the U.S. automotive sector—it’s inability to compete at cutting edge of automotive technology—and certainly does nothing to address the issue of congestion.

On January 9, 2002 , the Bush Administration announced a new initiative, called “Freedom Car” that again focuses on fuel economy and pollution. In its press release, the Department of Energy reaffirmed its commitment to public/private partnerships to improve surface transportation, provided that such R&D efforts:

·        Aim at longer range goals [than the PNGV initiative] with greater emphasis on highway vehicle contributions to energy and environmental concerns;

·        Move to more fundamental R&D at the component and subsystem level;

·        Assure coverage of all light vehicle platforms;

·        Maintain some effort on nearer term technologies that offer early opportunities to save petroleum; and

·        Strengthen efforts on technologies applicable to both fuel cells and hybrid approaches; e.g., batteries, electronics, and motors.

These guidelines should be broadened to include joint ventures aimed at reducing surface transportation congestion, especially in large urban areas. France, Japan, Denmark and New Zealand have far more imaginative R&D programs than has the Department of Energy or the Department of Transportation.  Moreover, most American politicians remain fixated on yesterday’s mass transit “solutions” such as bailing out Amtrak, or investing in local light rail services. 

Regrettably, none of these initiatives address the personal transportation needs of the American public—overwhelmingly, people rely on personal cars and light vehicles to shop, drive to work, travel on vacation, and take their kids to school. And therein lies the dilemma: Having too many of these vehicles on the road at the same time is both a personal benefit and social curse, gridlock.

Predicted evolution of cars

Multiples of current roadway capacity will be needed to keep traffic flowing smoothly, not only on highways but also on city thoroughfares. The Transportation Research Board produced a report in 1974 that gave substantial coverage to congestion alleviating dual-mode vehicles able to platoon on guideways, but also drive like normal cars. Developments during the 1990s suggest the outlines of a progressive evolution towards multi-mode vehicles with:

  1. Ordinary car mode

  2. Platoon mode

  3. Driverless mode

  4. Guideway mode

A brief look at each of the latter three modes will help define the best approach to building an effective new surface transportation infrastructure.


Platoon Mode

Decreasing the following distances between cars using electronic, and possibly mechanical, coupling can greatly increase road capacity without building additional lanes. Of value at traffic bottlenecks, this capability would allow many cars to accelerate or brake simultaneously. Instead of waiting after a light changes to green for drivers ahead to react, a synchronized platoon would move as one, allowing an increase in lane throughput of up to 3-5X.

Implemented first on major congested thoroughfares, platoons will require priority lanes and electronic signaling, and intersections outfitted to provide automatic warning of dangerous conditions (such as cars running red lights), but not major roadway reconstruction. Drivers would need a special license endorsement on account of the new skills required and the added responsibility when driving in the lead, but platoons would offer substantially shorter commutes during peak periods, the main incentive for purchasing platoon capabilities in a new vehicle, or possibly retrofitting existing ones. A secondary benefit is that on longer highway trips, vehicles could be mostly unattended while in following mode.

See also: automated highway system


Driverless Mode

Automatically driven vehicles can already operate under certain constraints. Driverless vehicles that can autonomously join/leave platoons and safely park in designated “taxi-stands” would be able to offer service to non-drivers on major routes, at a cost comparable to bus service. The capability will inevitably progress to door-to-door service, particularly useful for the elderly, children and package delivery.

See also: smart car


Guideway Mode

Long platoons can travel very safely at high speeds on guideways that eliminate surface interference. Such guideways could carry 10,000 vehicles/hour at the current speed limit, five times more than a highway lane, and more at higher speeds. Elevated guideways would first be placed next to major thoroughfares and railways in congested areas. Both higher speeds and fuel efficiency can be achieved due to the much lower aerodynamic drag possible with platoons. On-demand and door-to-door travel at an average speed of 100MPH would be faster than air travel for trips of at least 300 miles, and vastly more convenient. Once built nationwide (see footnotes), the marginal costs would be low and at least 1/3 of airport traffic, all buses and passenger trains would be eliminated.

Off-line Maglev with switching remains unproven but is much more likely to be economically viable for individual vehicles than for station trains because of up to 100X greater utilization of the expensive track. In the open air, speeds would still be limited to approximately 200-300 MPH, but marginal energy use and operating costs could beat domestic air on any overland route. Maglev sleepers could go coast-to-coast in 10-15 hours, and they would really be a great way to “see the country”. However, it seems most probable that the first national guideway system will use mechanical support, and that Maglev would come in the subsequent generation.

Whether magnetic levitation or wheels are used, guideways would supply propulsive power, eliminating the need for vehicles to carry large energy stores and the means of converting them. Hydrogen fuel addresses propulsion only, while guideways also improve speed and safety, and use of the available rights-of-way more efficiently.  .


Role of Government, Industry and Citizens

While private concerns will construct the new generation of vehicles, and might even capitalize the infrastructure, the government’s role is to create the opportunity. Stages two and three can be attained with legislative help but relatively little public money but new laws will be needed to re-regulate liability and license drivers. Stage 4 guideways, especially Maglev, will require infrastructure expenditures that will cost on the order of one trillion dollars in the United States over twenty years, or about 20% of the cost of vehicles bought during that period.

All governments and private industry need to take a more imaginative approach to building surface transportation infrastructure for the 21st century. Current “mass transit” approaches are woefully inadequate, both because they ignore the average citizens' daily dependence on a personal transportation vehicle and the new technologies that could sharply decrease congestion related delays. Public and private attention is focused only on enhanced fuel economies, fuel-cells and limiting air pollution. What is missing—and solely needed—are joint public/private R&D efforts that advance efforts to take advantage of the electronics revolution. If the surface transportation infrastructure is properly developed, future Americans will join ad hoc “trains” that form and disperse on an as-needed basis as people “drive” to work, travel to another city, or go on long-distance vacations. This will continue the long term trend of increasing mobility described by Jesse H. Ausubel and Cesare Marchetti in The Evolution of Transport


Major Links


Humongous thanks to Professor Jerry Schneider, University of Washington for the ITS web site, and Tom Kirlin, Center for the Study of the Presidency


[1] Elevated guideway costs for one prototype ( are estimated at about $7 million per route mile in Los Angeles . Conservatively figuring actual costs at $40M per average metro route mile, and using a rule of thumb (100 critically congested route miles – only half of which are now covered by freeways - per 2M inhabitants.  The New York and LA metro areas have 20M people and need about 1,000 miles of guideways; the SF Bay Area has 8M people needing 400 miles, Boston has 4M and needs 200 miles) yields a cost of $2B / million, or $2000/person. For approximately 200M major metro area residents nationwide, 10,000 route miles at $40M/mile would cost $400B. There would still be almost 44,238 less 5,000, or about 40,000 miles of interstate to upgrade for speed and safety. At a more economical $10M/mile for non-urban areas, this would double the cost of a national system, which would then be approaching $1T or $50B/year or $165 per person per year during 20 years of build-out.


 © 2002-2005

Revision History
10/23/05    Correction per Futurismo at discussion site.

2/24/2003    Retrieved from Wikipedia owing to licensing incompatibility; Wikipedia links preserved.
3/10/2002   McHenry, Michel Parent, Karl Hedrick, Francis Reynolds: added sentence about Maglev more likely in subsequent guideway generation; more petition-like.
2/6/2002    McHenry: corrections & revisions to evolution blueprint
2/1/2002    Tom Kirlin, Center for the Study of the Presidency: added government policy context
circa 1/2002
, 1/14/2002    Bruce A. McHenry