Thinking Tech

Google invests in a human-powered monorail

Google invests in a human-powered monorail

Posting in Cities

Shweeb gets $1 million to develop this Futurama-like transportation system.

Shweeb looks like an impractical idea, at least to me -- a series of pedal-powered pods suspended from rails 19 feet above the ground that would wind through the city or the countryside (once they're built).

But if engineers in China can build a passenger bus that straddles cars on city streets to cut down on traffic and pollution, why not Shweeb?

Shweeb's inventor, Geoff Barnett, says he came up with the idea while living in Tokyo and cycling in and around that crowded city. He was also teaching a class at the time and discussing transport solutions with his students.

"The idea of riding above the traffic jams on multi-level rails seemed to me the only possible way that Tokyo’s millions of residents could move around the city quickly and safely," he writes. "It had the added advantages of being environmentally friendly and offering an aerobic workout...To me this was a project that I could, if I put my mind to it, make happen.”

I can't tell how much of Shweeb's technology isn't imaginary, but the company claims that it's building the most energy efficient transportation system yet, with stations as small as five car-parking spaces and almost no presence on the ground. (Thus freeing the ground for other uses).

From Shweeb:

Shock absorbers protruding from the front and the back of each vehicle supply a 1200mm (4ft) buffer zone between vehicles. This allows vehicles to come together at speed differences between 0-30kph (19mph) without harsh jolting. Shweeb transit pods are geared to move at 5 – 25kph (3 – 16mph).

There is no need for an overtaking lane. When two riders come together, the dynamics change completely. Riders travelling separately are held back by the high pressure zone (the ‘headwind’) pushing against their nose, and the low pressure zone (the vacuum) pulling on their tail. When vehicles come together, these resistances are halved.

The front rider loses their vacuum and the rear rider loses their headwind. In effect they become one vehicle with two engines. The front rider simply changes up a gear to compensate for the higher speed.

Just as tandem bicycles always travel faster than two single bicycles, two Shweebs travelling in a train always travel faster than either of them could travelling solo.

It is for this reason that the bullet shape is most efficient. Although an aerofoil (‘teardrop’) shape would be faster for a solo rider, its reduction of tail vacuum makes it less effective as a train segment.

The public had a hand in getting funding for Shweeb -- Google asked for ideas for its 10^100 Project to change the world by helping as many people as possible and got 150,000 submissions. It put 16 of them to a vote, and the public picked five. Google managers then selected the five organizations they thought were best prepared to tackle those ideas. (For the other four winners, go here.)

Only the fit will be able to ride Shweeb. But that's OK, the company says, because "a sedentary lifestyle is now understood to engender a host of problems (obesity, heart disease, etc). Opportunities to exercise are harder to attain, leisure time is shrinking, and open space is diminishing. Thus the Shweeb adds value to your commute by giving you mobility and fitness simultaneously."

Shweeb is also offering to develop "Adventure Cluster sites" in New Zealand with the providers of other daring activities, like bungee jumping. Everybody in the promotional video below looks -- of course -- like they're having a great time.

Share this

Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure