Cure: Highway Caravans
Gridlock costs motorists in the country’s 439 largest cities $115 billion a year in extra fuel and wasted time, which translates to $808 per driver, according to the
Texas Transportation Institute’s annual Urban Mobility Report.
Traffic is a universal source of exasperation, and the problem is getting worse. In 1982 urban motorists lost on average 14 hours a year to gridlock. By 2009 that number had jumped to 34 hours.
The best cure short of building more roadways and reducing the number of cars that drive on them, traffic experts say, is semiautonomous driving. Think of it as a sort of automotive conga line for public highways. In Sweden, Volvo is conducting road tests of one such “road train” concept, called Sartre, or Safe Road Trains for the Environment. The only human driver is the professional operating the first car. The lead vehicle wirelessly transmits data from its steering wheel, brake pedal, and throttle to the rest of the cars in the train, which rely on sensors (the same ones used in existing adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warning systems) to ensure adequate separation between vehicles. Passengers, meanwhile, are free to surf the Web, eat breakfast, or sleep until the commuter line ends. So far, Volvo’s tests have been limited to three cars driving about 16 feet apart at 35 miles per hour, but five-car tests are scheduled for this fall.
In the United States, independent engineer Bruce McHenry is pushing a similar idea, only the vehicles would be physically linked like railroad cars. In his scheme, the lead car serves as the locomotive, doing most of the work so simple electric motors that deliver just enough power for tooling around town and driving to the commuter track can power the rest of the cars. In his scheme, the highways themselves would eventually be electrified, like model-car racetracks. To shuttle cars in and out of the road trains, McHenry proposes, drivers would communicate over shortwave frequencies, with cars queuing up according to size and destination and uncoupling at designated spots. McHenry estimates that road trains would more than triple highway traffic flow. And he says they would work better than conventional trains since they would not require new bridges, tunnels, and rails.
Sound enticing? The U.S. Department of Transportation is running test clinics for connected vehicles that would communicate wirelessly with each other and with traffic lights and construction zones. The DOT will decide in 2013 whether to mandate the technology in new vehicles.
Ailment: Rotting Gas Pipelines
More than half of all natural gas pipelines in the United States—amounting to more than 100,000 miles of pipe—are more than four decades old, and some are approaching the century mark. Corroded steel or cast-iron pipes are ticking time bombs, a fact that made national headlines last year when a pipeline in San Bruno, California, exploded, killing eight people and prompting Senator Dianne Feinstein of California to propose a law that would bolster pipeline oversight and raise fines for any safety violations. Pipeline leaks also release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.
The most obvious solution is to replace the problem pipes with more durable plastic lines, but such an upgrade would cost hundreds of billions of dollars—not an option in this economy. The second most obvious solution is simply to repair the pipes, but that, too, presents challenges. The majority of gas lines are inaccessible to inspectors because the pipes are buried at least two to four feet underground.
That is why utility companies are increasingly turning to pigs, short for pipeline inspection gauges, robots that slither through pipes looking for corrosion, weak welds, cracks, and other signs of disrepair. Some of the earliest “smart” pigs, developed in the 1960s, pioneered the use of magnetic flux leakage technology to detect pipeline imperfections. Simply put, the robots use extremely strong magnets to magnetize surrounding pipe walls; wherever the robot encounters surface inconsistencies, the magnetic field warps slightly, and a detector measures the variation to estimate how much metal has eroded away.
Today pigs are more akin to subterranean Swiss Army Knives, employing a wide range of novel inspection technologies. Ultrasonic pigs measure how long it takes sound waves to bounce back from pipe walls in order to gauge the walls’ thickness. Backscatter X-ray pigs, which assemble images of the inside of a pipe based on reflected radiation, can detect tiny microcracks before they develop into bigger lesions. Other remote-controlled pigs can perform internal welding or apply protective epoxy to corroded spots. Roboticist Karl Edminster, whose company, Electromechanica, specializes in pig design, has created types that can navigate the toughest of pipes; those bent at 90 degrees, for instance, or buried beneath the frost line, where temperatures can plunge to –20 degrees Fahrenheit.
But the best in show may be the 66-pound Explorer-II, arguably the ultimate pipeline-vetting gadget. Developed by Carnegie
Mellon roboticist Hagen Schempf, the Explorer-II features a remote-controlled fish-eye camera that allows above-ground operators to see what the machine does; drive-train motors that give operators unprecedented control over the pig’s direction (most pigs still move passively according to natural gas flow); and a lightweight electromagnetic coil that detects changes in magnetized pipe walls without weighing the robot down, enabling it to inspect about two miles of pipe a day.
The Explorer-II, which completed a successful 2009 trial in Pennsylvania, should allow more cost-effective pipeline maintenance. By giving utilities crucial information they need to select the most economical fixes, Schempf estimates that his system could reduce the cost of inspections by 25 to 50 percent, saving the gas industry tens of millions of dollars each year. “Should utility budgets stay the same, this will allow them to investigate more of their pipes,” Schempf says.
As the United States relies on natural gas for a growing portion of its energy mix, the newest fleet of smart inspection robots will need to be on the front lines.