A Question on the Neglect of the Private Property Concept in Single Mode PRT Systems

Alain Vaillancourt

Montreal, Canada

I did not wish to get into the debate of dual mode versus mode PRT system. But since these pages have an academic origin it would be bad form for me just to say that I have ended up on the single mode PRT side for reasons which I do not wish to discuss. The problem is that I really have no original elements to add to that particular debate, and what I really want to do is go and ask the question of private or multiple corporate ownership of a certain proportion of single mode vehicles and stations. So, if you have heard all the arguments for single mode versus dual mode too much already you should skip the next three paragraphs, and go to my question about the strange neglect of the concept of private property, within single mode PRT systems.

Several proponents of single mode PRT have convinced me that the dual mode system which had originally attracted me is unworkable, except in some highly cosmopolitan and ultra civilized societies like Denmark or the Netherlands where 99% of car and truck drivers are perfect ladies or gentlemen. Fragile vehicles and pedestrians are safe there. Many arguments have won me over to the single mode PRT system but the most important one for me is that a dual mode vehicle must operate in two radically different environments. Within that argument there is the question of the ultra light weight and relative fragility needed of a PRT vehicle, as opposed to a normal car, and the question of the nearly absolute reliability required of all of the running and control systems of any vehicle that gets onto PRT guide ways as opposed to the "just good enough" reliability that is expected of both our normal cars and our normal streets and highways.

A "normal" car is festooned with redundant signaling systems, monster bumpers, roll cages and door reinforcements in order to protect the occupants from a wide variety of accidents. A "normal" car rides on a wide variety of roads, many of which are fairly good but a lot of which have every defect imaginable from potholes to brine-filled corrosion-inducing depressions. Finally, there is no such thing as a "normal" maintenance regime for a car: Some owners lovingly work on their engines and other mechanical components but neglect the chassis and the rest. Others keep the car looking perfect but neglect the suspension and other essential elements. Still others neglect everything. Even very careful dual mode owners might not notice a road incident which could impair some aspect of their guideway systems, and drive onto the guideway with a dangerously defective vehicle. A single mode PRT vehicle does not have to share a road with SUVs or delivery trucks, and (in most system designs) there is no risk of it rolling over so it can be of ultra light weight, thus using minimal quantities of energy, giving a very small inertia to the vehicle and requiring relatively light concrete or steel infrastructures. It does not need to visually communicate a thing to other vehicles so external lights would be placed for esthetic reasons only or not placed at all.

A single mode PRT vehicle travels on a nearly perfectly predictable guideway: It will have faults but they can be planned for and their effect on each vehicle can be well calculated. The same can be said of the maintenance necessary to keep the system running: All the vehicles can return automatically to the same maintenance facilities for the same quality of maintenance, at exact preordained periods. If or when there is an accident on the single mode guideway, such as falling trees or seismic activities, all the vehicles that have passed through the defective part can be tracked and called in for inspection that very night.

Now, where do you make the compromises for the dual mode vehicle? You can't, in both a safe and economical manner with the current technologies. You could end up with a fragile shell that will be beaten up in normal traffic and road conditions and be responsible for a sharp rise in accident statistics, and repair bills, while often stalling at the worst possible times on the guideway. Or you could invest in massive guideway structures to support the typical reinforced subcompact in a guided PRT mode. You would also have to invest in a thorough and expensive prevention program to see to it that very few ill maintained dual mode vehicle ever drive on from the road to the guideway.

The situation is like that of "carplanes" or "aircars". For more than fifty years we have had the technology and have built prototypes of airplanes that convert into cars by folding their wings once they have landed, and setting the motor to power road wheels instead of the propeller. In all these cases we have ended up with fragile vehicles which do not meet normal road safety standards, and get slowly pounded into pieces if they are used regularly on typical "just good enough" road surfaces. The conversion from normal car to plane is even more ludicrous. In theory you can make anything fly, given large enough wings and powerful enough engines, but in practice nobody has bothered making a prototype of a really roadworthy car that can get off the ground and comply with North American vehicle safety laws at the same time .

I do not wish to convert the dual mode enthusiasts to the single mode PRT camp, at least not this time. Neither do I wish to be converted back to the dual mode camp. I can convert myself alone, thank you, and might do so one day since I am watching the dual mode projects closely. Right now I am content with looking at what the dual mode camp is doing and stealing those of their ideas that could be applied to single mode PRT systems

Yes, there is something about the dual mode system, a certain "non-technological" concept which could be or even should be profitably transferred (it seems to me ) to single mode PRT systems, but which is apparently avoided by PRT advocates. I wonder why this is so.

This is the idea of private property. Why is nobody considering the ownership of a certain portion of the PRT vehicle fleet or individual vehicles by private individuals and by corporations (or non profit organizations) other than the PRT system owner? Why is there no consideration of the possible private ownership of some PRT stations?

North American society is based loosely on the idea of a meritocracy linked to money and hard work. At worst this leads to crass materialism and over-emphasis of objects over humanity. At best it gives the occasion for individuals to work hard and buy decent goods and services for family or community oriented goals in order to be recognized as good, successful citizens within a consumer society. By neglecting the concept of private property in single mode PRT systems I have the feeling the worst is stamped out completely at the expense of the best, or the simply good.

Making it possible (but not mandatory) for individuals and families, for corporations big and small (or very, very small) to actually buy single mode PRT vehicles and /or buy PRT stations for private or shared use would give the occasion for status and esthetic expression, good or bad, for a significant portion of the population. People wishing to shun a consumer society (or not having the means to become part of it) could always get on their bicycle and take a public system-owned PRT vehicle at one of the regular public stations on the system grid.

Professionals and upper middle class families who pay architects to design their homes or to add a tasteful pool house could logically want an architect to design their private PRT station. Or they could be thinking of getting an architect to cleverly integrate their PRT station in their new mansion in the same way that they had a normally ugly three car garage tucked in nicely or set apart in the bushes. For the urban types there could be the possibility of a "luxury" apartment house or condo building having a dedicated PRT station, closed off to those who are not tenants there, or are not invited by the tenants.

Why would these people be interested in using a PRT system, assuming they did have their own PRT vehicle or station or both? Because a limousine or a BMW can get just as clogged in a traffic jam as a battered Honda Civic while the PRT vehicle above them simply glides ahead. Because it might take hours in a car to get to the airport where your first class seat to Paris awaits you (and you might even miss the plane if the jam is really worse than usual ) while a PRT vehicle will always amble over there in time. For some buying a PRT vehicle would be the occasion to show social status and tech know-how by equipping them with entertainment electronics facilities like LCD TV screens and assorted audio support. They would taste in style the usually "forbidden fruit" of watching TV while using point to point transport. The extra cost of buying lighter and less power hungry versions of current home theatre systems would be another status element. Others still would "show off" their emphasis on family values by investing heavily in customizing their vehicle interior and functions to accommodate small children and teenagers.

I would not expect most of these consumers to completely abandon their private cars for private PRT vehicles any more than I would expect them to abandon their snowmobiles or sailing cruisers for their motorcycles or their in line skates. Having arrived in life, being considered a success in a consumer society means having a wide array of transportation choices at your disposal, and preferably all in your garage at the same time. Neither would I expect all of them to both buy or build a PRT station and/or buy a PRT vehicle (single mode always). Many would consider only the private station to be a status symbol (when designed by the right architect) and actually use a public system-owned PRT vehicle to get from their home to the airport. Others, for monetary or lifestyle reasons would prefer not to own a private station and would be quite content in walking to the nearest public PRT station to embark in their private vehicle or vehicle(s), after saying hello to their neighbors and complaining about the weather.

In a sense the privately owned single mode vehicles would never leave the system, unlike a dual mode vehicle. The guideway segments in private hands would be identical in quality and build to the public guideways and in most cases vehicle "running gear" maintenance would be done not by the private owner but by the vehicle manufacturer dealership or the PRT system maintenance staff. At preordained times, probably at night, once a week or once a month (depending on vehicle or system technology and age) the private vehicle would go off by itself to the inspection and/or maintenance shop, and return by itself to the private station or to the common parking siding. Owners who would prefer doing their own running gear maintenance would have to pay extra for more intensive and more regular inspections by certified corporations or system staff because of the home craft nature of their maintenance, like the builders of home made airplanes have to pay FAA staff for inspections of their work.

These automatic and common maintenance procedures and standards (which are relatively easy to set up in a single mode system) would make it possible to avoid the problems caused by the unpredictability of private vehicle quality typical of most dual mode systems. The idea would be to give owners a range of choices within their option of personal ownership of some vehicles. Of course, the "habitat" or "passenger compartment " part of the vehicle could be as neat and tidy or as sloppy and repulsive as the owner would want it since the uniform system maintenance would only touch the communications and running gear sections.

I would like to stress here that I am not favoring a particular single mode system. Right now I am particularly interested in the British ULTra system, but at times I have found the Texan Microrail system more attractive, and at others it was the Norwegian Sportaxi, and still others the Swedish Flyway. I am very wary of PRT projects which aim to replace the car or other modes of transportation completely. For me the car and the truck might eventually get diminished roles (and not necessarily because of the coming of PRT systems) but I do not see them disappearing since boats, ships, canals, railroads (in which I include subways), and bicycles have not disappeared despite the onslaught of newer forms of transport. Note that all these modes of transport often have a very private, very personal monetary aspect to them, which has not been explored yet in PRT projects.

The idea of a privately owned PRT vehicle and station(s) combines some attributes of the private railcar, and some attributes of the time shared vacation condo or the rented vacation chalet. Like a private railcar (of which a few hundred are still in operation in North America) a private PRT vehicle would have to conform to the PRT system norms and be inspected regularly by the system staff or inspection machines. And like most private railway cars, they could be rented out to other individuals or corporations when the owner does not need them. Some people rent out their vacation homes. Others buy a time shared vacation condo. A lot do this individually but many go through a rental company which ensures the selection of responsible tenants and sees that the property is returned in good condition after use.

The occasion for actually making money out of an individual's private PRT vehicle or vehicle(s) during off-peak hours could be great if the system were built for it. It would be an incentive for acquisitive types to have a "three PRT vehicle family" instead of, or sometimes in addition to having a filled three car garage.

Have you noticed that most PRT vehicles are just the right size for handling a single ISO standard freight palette? It struck me when I saw the German cargo-only "Cargocap" proposal. Using the typical PRT passenger vehicle would not be a good idea for all types of pallet cargoes since some of them can be up to a ton in weight and six feet in height. But there are several categories of shippers and their customers who use pallets (both the old wooden 3 by 4 feet types and the newer ISO 100cm by 120cm plastic ones) for much smaller and lighter cargoes. I was even more enamored with the idea when I saw the detailed photos of the ULTra vehicles with their swing-up seats. There would be no need to modify such vehicles: An automated cargo station could flip up the seats and insert a pallet with a gentle touch and the reverse could be done at the other end.

I have seen the now "standard" grid of PRT loops overlaid on many downtown city areas, but have you ever wondered how this could be made to fit on an industrial park?

I suspect that different kinds of companies already involved in some form of "custom" transportation would be the ones most interested in renting or leasing individually owned vehicles during the night or off-peak traffic hours and ensuring a high standard of cleanliness after each use. Car rental companies would certainly be interested in being able to offer rentals by the hour for things like city to airport rides. The prospect of tying into their rental system people who usually took taxis would be alluring. But I have the impression the biggest customers for "off-peak" rental would be courier companies like UPS, Purolator, Fedex and their competitors. They could service their big customers without even having to use a driver, if those big companies owned private PRT stations for both employee use and parcel delivery. No traffic jam in the downtown area or on an interchange to the airport would ever stop or slow down a delivery. In fact they could even offer faster or more frequent service. Both the car rental companies and courier services would probably also want to own outright fleets of PRT vehicles, in addition to renting the ones belonging to individuals, in off-peak hours.

An interesting aspect of private ownership would probably be getting the big car companies involved or interested in selling the PRT vehicles they would be making directly to consumers. If the big car companies would not be interested at first (or ever) in this kind of market other consumer vehicle makers (such as boat manufacturers with experience in lightweight fiberglass reinforced mass production techniques) could be interested, in the same way that some bicycle makers of the late 19th and early 20th century eventually became car manufacturers and airplane innovators. Coach and buggy companies and steam locomotive companies were not interested in making motorcars.

Private ownership gives the occasion to seduce some of the consumers into getting into a transportation system. Right now most PRT systems are about as seductive as a keg of nails and a stack of plywood. Techies who read Popular Science or Wired are just about the only persons who might give a second glance at a PRT system.

When railroads came along in Europe they seduced everybody into using them by having different sections and services for first, second and third class passengers. At the time this was not necessary in egalitarian North America, but when air transport came along the concept of a better "first" or business class service was used successfully to get people flying in all the countries of the globe. The Danes invented charters (and the rest of the world followed) for those who wanted still another class below "economy". The parallel between different classes of air travel and different classes of PRT use is also germane because like airline seats there should be at a given period a limited number of access slots or total number of PRT vehicles possible in a given grid.

The parallel with land based phone systems is better in a way: Anybody can buy the phone or answering machine or fax machine of his or her choice at whatever price or status level desired, but there are always a limited number of phone lines. Most persons do not notice this but in expanding communities people who have just moved in the area must sometimes wait quite a bit before the phone company activates the phone jacks that are already in their homes. Sometimes it is just a bureaucratic matter, but at other times it is because the phone company judges (by making very sharp statistics) that the current switch capacity is not enough to handle normal peak load. In the same way that PRT guideway and control system functions have to be planned and financed the incredibly costly phone switching "machines" have to be planned and financed. Customers grumble but somehow the phone companies manage to slowly add capacity and cope with individual ownership of private phones and corporate ownership of PBX systems and phones. Why is it that a PRT system could not? There are different ways of coping with this, why are they not discussed, debated?

I do not believe for an instant that even with the best of all PRT systems everybody would want to or could have direct private access to it. But is that a reason for shunning that part of the population which would be ready and willing to express social status and values by buying discrete parts of it?

The message from the single mode PRT community seems to be that everybody and absolutely everybody has to walk to a communal station or have someone drop them off there, and then take a system owned vehicle. It is a very good communal goal in a way but must it be the only one? Why not have both? Why not look also at the positive aspects of owning the "family PRT vehicle". Why is there so little consideration of individual or family ownership? I see an obsession for total control sometimes, which reminds me of the bad old days of centralized computer systems in the times before the Personal Computer and the Web. A private individual or a small business owning a computer? Out of the question! Connecting that small private computer to others and to a network of big systems? Go away!

At least, that is the impression I have.

Now, am I missing something here?

I know that I am missing a lot in the sense that once you open the gate to private ownership of some parts of a system all kinds of new, unpredictable opportunities appear and then vary wildly in different societies. For instance, in libertarian minded communities or in places where the free market view is popular the limited number of system access slots (for the private PRT vehicles) would probably be sold on the Web in eBay-like auctions, with the prices fluctuating over the years and the execution of extensions or densification of the grid. In other places where a sense of fiscal equality reigns it would probably be illegal to sell your system access slot if you did not move out of the area or sold your private PRT vehicle along with it.

But is there something fundamental about single mode PRT systems that makes private or corporate ownership of single mode vehicles and/or stations totally impossible?

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Last modified: February 03, 2003