His brainchild is a network of electrified roadways that would allow drivers of battery-electric vehicles to travel at up to 120mph (200kph), with no need to stop and recharge.
Jones calls the concept the Tracked Electric Vehicle Project, or TEV, because electric cars travel along recessed “tracks” outfitted with two electric rails down the middle. The EVs connect with the rails via drop-down contacts, similar to how miniature slot cars operate.
“If we can do it with toy cars, we can do it with real cars,” says Jones, an inventor, battery-design expert and founder and owner of Philadelphia Scientific, which provides products and services for industrial batteries and electrical infrastructure. “If you achieve direct contact, energy density [for battery-electric cars] goes from inadequate to infinite. It’s a magical thing.”
The argument for a TEV-like solution is compelling. The World Bank predicts that more cars will be built in the next 20 years than were manufactured in the previous 120 years. And in developed economies, passenger-transport volume is expected to grow 50% from 2010 levels, according to figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The TEV footprint would not exceed that of existing highways. The system also could be built on dedicated elevated roadways or even in tunnels, Jones notes. No large buses or trucks would travel on them, but robotic light-freight vehicles and mini-buses could potentially operate on TEV routes.
Furthermore, with minor modifications, TEV users could ride in their own electric or hybrid cars, which Jones calls “dual-mode” vehicles because they could be used on both TEV roadways or on traditional streets. Users could also ride in “single-mode” robotic TEV cars that would ply the tracks full-time.
Jones is among a handful of transportation entrepreneurs who view an overhaul of road infrastructure as the most direct way to lower vehicles’ carbon emissions. Scott and Julie Brusaw, of the US startup Solar Roadways, have covered parking lots and sidewalks in hexagonal solar panels that can send power back to the grid, or into electric vehicles via inductive charging – with eyes towards adapting the technology to roadways. TEV distinguishes itself from such projects in its emphasis on maximising vehicle density on the road. TEV achieves that density via what Jones calls “close-coupling” of cars in large, high-speed convoys.
While all this may smack of science fiction, Jones asserts it’s imminently doable, with no mind-bending technological breakthroughs required. No special cars. No development of more advanced fuel cells or batteries. In fact, Jones intends TEV to be an open-source project, absorbing the ideas and expertise of innovators, entrepreneurs and governments. “There’s nothing revolutionary here – except for the concept,” he says.
Sceptics may try to derail TEV by citing its potential expense. And at an estimated $2m per mile, it is not a cheap fix for traffic gridlock and emissions from fossil-fuel-burning engines. Then again, it may be considerably less expensive than other transportation alternatives such as high-speed rail or miles upon miles of more and wider highways.
“Of course it will be expensive,” Jones concedes. “The answer here is a public-private partnership, with tolls paid by users. There are a lot of investors who are ready to invest considerable sums of money in transportation construction projects where the payback comes from tolls.”
As a first step, the US Department of Transportation has invited Jones to make a presentation in December 2014 at a workshop held by the Federal Highway Administration’s Exploratory Advanced Research Program, which is examining solutions to surface-transportation woes.
“We have to do something,” Jones says. “This isn’t just a ‘green’ thing, it’s an everyone thing.”
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