For years the military has successfully used of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Initially for reconnaissance they are now armed and dangerous. The ‘pilot’ is safely ensconced in a military facility hundreds if not thousands of miles away from the war theater. They operate at a fraction of the cost of conventional military, reduce loss of life to the pilot(s) and seem to deliver tremendous results. Bad guys have been discovered on their roof top gardens enjoying an evening sky and suddenly…kablam…daisies everywhere.
I obsess about the Supply Chain. Can’t help it and wouldn’t want to anyway as I enjoy the ‘science’ of how things are made, stored, ordered, filled, shipped, delivered, installed and service. Like you I drive my car and see the tremendous amount of Trucks on the road. Their sheer number and size takes a tremendous toll on the roads they use to deliver all of the various products. Additionally, there is a constant looming threat of shortages, fuel prices, dead-heading, etc. Then along came a commercial on TV by a large Railroad Company. The commercial mentions the ability to haul a ton of freight 436 miles on a single gallon of fuel.
So I looked this up and found this exhaustive explanation about all matters of fuel efficiency: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_efficiency_in_transportation. While this reference doesn’t provide the information necessary we can take a stab at a comparative Full Truck Load. Kenworth has a slick white paper that says the range is 5 – 8 MPG. Another article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semi-trailer_truck puts the weight capacity of a typical vehicle at 80,000 pounds…or 40 tons. So in comparative terms, rail can haul a ton of freight 436 miles on one gallon of fuel and a semi-trailer truck can only haul it .2 miles per ton (8 MPG / 40 tons = .2 miles per ton per gallon).
So now all we have to do is figure out how to make the Rail system competitive with the Trucking system. It obviously isn’t a matter of fuel efficiency that drives so much volume to trucks. Then my Supply Chain brain kicked in: Why not operate a rail system like the AGV’s we use in business? Why not create Unmanned Rail Cars that can traverse the network of rails already laid out in the US, a majority of which are under-utilized and compete with the speed and ‘agility’ of Trucks. This would allow individual Rail Cars to become part of a self-guided train (all it can do it follow the tracks) of other Rail Cars heading in the same general direction. They could connect and disconnect from a group of Rail Cars as they approach their ‘turn’ and then travel on to a depot where local delivery and pick up services would load and unload the Rail Car prior to sending it on its way.
This raises a couple of requirements, obviously. Each Rail Car today has no power. They work only because they are being pulled by massive, obviously efficient diesel engines. To resolve this, each Rail Car would be equipped with a Hydrogen engine. The size of the Rail Car certainly allows this oversized engine to be mounted and there are decades of experience in how to transfer the engines power to the wheels. Only having to power it, the horsepower requirements of any one Rail Car would equate to the load of it alone. When joined in a ‘train’, there must be some law of cumulative speed between all of the Rail Cars much like racers who draft consume less energy and increase their speed.
The other requirement is intelligence. I’m sure my limited knowledge of a Rail Car is lacking sufficient detail to make this statement, but I will anyway: I don’t think Rail Cars are very intelligent. Don’t let them hear that as it may hurt their feelings. But all these oversized hay wagons need is a simple GPS device and the associated start, stop, connect, disconnect, speed variation controls tied to the engine. The brain in the sky, or the control system that recognizes loads, destinations, depots, ‘trains’, routes, break point facilities, etc. can just signal the Rail Car and monitor its performance and response.
By providing the Railroads with the competitive equivalency of Trucks, which is the ability to go more places more frequently…URC’s might be able to have a substantial impact on our economy, our national security, our citizen safety and our environment. I’m not a Railroad guy. I don’t know the
horsepower capability of a Hydrogen engine. I don’t truly know that a hub and spoke URC network with local/regional pick up and drop off centers makes fiscal sense…but I suspect it does. So if anyone in that industry wants to run with this idea…go ahead. It helps my customers with their Supply Chain. Makes the consumers safer and the cost of infrastructure less expensive. Of course, I’d be happy to provide the Brain in the Sky.