- The Future Of Personal Transit -

The Inteli-Tube Pneumatic
Transportation System

A Proposal By Lyle Zapato

A Brief History Of Pneumatic Tube Technology

So many tubes and only one operator, if only it could be automated...
Old-style pneumatic tube system used in business.

Pneumatic tubes used for transporting physical objects have a long history. The basic principles of pneumatics were stated by the Greek Hero of Alexandria before 100 BC. However, it wasn't until the industrial age that real work was being done on applying pneumatics to transportation. The first pneumatic tube systems were originally proposed in the early Nineteenth century by George Medhurst, a London businessman. Although his plans called mainly for the transportation of heavy freight, his ideas were eventually adopted for delivering documents and parts by businesses, industry, and government agencies. Those who operated in large buildings, such as the new sky scrapers, or who had offices spread out over a city found pneumatic tubes to be an economical and convenient addition to the work-place. Their use in this area has diminished greatly in the latter half of this century with the rise in electronic communication devices, making the delivery of paper-based information somewhat obsolete. Some experiments with the movement of larger cargo (mostly garbage and raw materials,) via pneumatics were carried out in post-war Japan and Russia but never really caught on. Today the most likely places to find pneumatic tubes still in use are in drive-up banks and hospitals, institutions required to deal in the physical.

Alfred Ely Beach's experimental pneumatic elevated subway
Victorian gentlemen traveling in pneumatic luxury Alfred Ely Beach's experimental pneumatic elevated subway, 1867 (top) and a cross-section of a car from his completed subway (left).

This wasn't how the pioneers of pneumatic tube transportation imagined the future. When the technology was new, people envisaged cities of tomorrow linked by elaborate networks of tubing delivering not only mail, newspapers, and business documents, but also larger goods and, most promisingly, people. The dream of transporting people was with the field since its beginning: Medhurst's second pneumatic tube proposal in 1812 was for a passenger vehicle. Where thoughts of conveyor belt sidewalks and rocket ships to the moon were just silly science fiction, the transportation of people via pneumatic tubes was seen not only as a real possibility, but as an inevitability. At first the technology to generate the necessary pressure was not available, but eventually the abilities of science had caught up with these dreams. Subway systems, now common but usually using electric motors for propulsion, were originally conceived as working on pneumatic principles. The first New York subway system constructed by Alfred Ely Beach (only a block long and built as a proof of concept,) worked in just this way, as did his earlier experimental elevated version for the American Institute Fair and some European experiments. However various economic and political forces caused history to take another path and the dream of a pneumatic future was forgotten.

For more on the history of using pneumatics to move objects around, as well as information on current implementations, please see:

The Dream

But is this just a quaint, Jules Verne-esque whimsy? Is there any practical reason to create this dream of the past? The real question is: can we afford a future without it? The current transportation paradigm -- based on the inefficient use of polluting and non-renewable fossil fuels, and characterized by frustrating and costly waits in traffic -- can't last our society much longer. Alternatives that have been suggested have been based on un-proven technologies, would offer only insignificant improvements, or would force society to adopt new lifestyles that it is unwilling to (such as being crammed into close quarters with strangers or having to travel on a fixed schedule). A pneumatic tube network with individual pods solves our environmental and economic transportation-related problems while conforming to the desires of consumers for solitude and freedom.

Imagine a city uncluttered with paved roads, where vegetation grows between the buildings, cooling and taming the urban environment. Parkways and parking lots become just parks. Imagine animals never having to risk their lives crossing a busy freeway or interstate, the sight of road kill as unexpected as the sight of horse manure is today. Imagine goods being delivered to businesses quickly and efficiently -- even automatically when needed. Imagine never having to deal with traffic, or getting lost, or refueling your vehicle, or wasting time driving when you could be putting the finishing touches on your report that is due. Imagine every home with a tube-port instead of a garage, every apartment building with a tube-shaft instead of an elevator, allowing people to get into a pod in their home and travel to anywhere that is hooked into the tube network. Imagine the entire world networked together with pneumatic tubing.

Inteli-Tube Solution

Zapato Personal Pneumatic Tube Pod Mark IV, Including Inteli-Tube Section. Designed by Lyle Zapato. Inherent Passenger Safety & Environmental Friendliness. Rapid & Efficient Personal Transit.

The Zapato Personal Pneumatic Tube Pod Mark IV (A) featuring: a pressurized, single-occupancy cabin; reinforced nose-cones; gyroscopic stabilization; and full on-board electronics including user-friendly navigation, communication, and entertainment systems. Tapered ends, along with centralized flange placement (B), allow for handling of tighter curves than old-fashioned tubular models. The dual-purpose flanges create an air-tight seal for optimum pneumatic pressure and also contain the transceiver that lets the pod communicate with the Inteli-Tube system. The Inteli-Tube detector ring and routing computer (C) reads pod navigation information and redirects it to its proper destination. The air-pressure regulation ring (D) controls pod velocity and direction.

Based on both time-proven pneumatic tube technology and Internet packet-switching protocols, the Inteli-Tube system can make this dream a reality, moving beyond the dumb tubes of the past and towards the information-based technology of the future. Instead of packets of data, pods of people and goods are moved through a network of pneumatically pressurized tubes -- swiftly, silently, and with little pollution. (Pods will have no on-board propulsion systems; all energy expended to move pods via pneumatic pressure will be external and so can be centralized for levels of energy efficiency impossible with individually powered vehicles. Also, ambient air-pressure differentials between areas on the network may be intelligently managed to offer all-natural and pollution free propulsion.)

The Inteli-Tube system offers efficiency in the movement of people and goods. Traffic can be be routed around, thereby optimizing overall pod speeds. Mergers of traffic flows are computer controlled and globally aware which insure smooth transitions and reduces instances of back-ups. Tubes can also be bi-directional with no chance of a head-on collision, thanks to the pneumatic nature of the system. The multi-node, re-routable nature of the Inteli-Tube concept means that a break-down in one part of the system won't affect operation in another, as was the case with systems briefly proposed in the 1960's.

And because the Inteli-Tube system is transparently destination-based, it allows not only ease of use for passengers, but also automatic delivery systems of goods and parts for businesses and industry. A person selecting a destination is no different from a computer database selecting one, from Inteli-Tube's point of view. This will be a major feature, even though it is just a side-effect of how the system works. (For freight larger than a human carrying pod, a separate network of larger diameter tubes would be constructed. This should be done anyways since heavy industry has needs that are different from commuters. This freight network wouldn't need to be as extensive as the commuter/business system. A separate system would also be safer than the current mixed-use interstate freeway system, where truck accidents often lead to injury of automobile passengers.)

Since pneumatic tubes can run both horizontally and vertically along the same path, the Inteli-Tube system can not only deliver a person to his or her office building, but can also act as an elevator, taking the person to the desired floor. After debarkation, pods can either deliver themselves to a storage structure and wait until needed again for the return trip or be used promiscuously among different people, further adding to efficiency. The Inteli-Tube system can handle both private and promiscuous pod use simultaneously, employing cryptographic technology to ensure that private pods are used only by their owners.

The Personal Pneumatic Tube Pod

The future of personal transit (clothing optional)

Other alternative mass-transit systems fail because they ask people to sacrifice the benefits of their cars. Pneumatic tube pods, on the other hand, offer those same benefits plus a few that cars can't. Pods offer the privacy and comfort of a single-occupancy motor vehicle. (Actually, the privacy of a pod is greater than that of a car, since they are situated such that no one can look inside the window. You could even travel naked!) At the same time, the per capita space used is diminished to even less than that of high-occupancy vehicles via smaller vehicle size, closer high-speed spacing, and more efficient space usage.

The automatic routing of the Inteli-Tube system means that users need only select a destination and the pod will deliver them quickly and safely with no additional occupant effort. In fact, a pod can be made smart enough to wirelessly communicate with your personal digital assistant or laptop and deliver you to your meeting or reservation without even having to prompt it. Just step into any available pod and you end up where you need to be. This type of automated transit will free up time for work, rest, etc. that currently is wasted on manual vehicle operations.

Manual vehicle operations are also the root of most accidents. People are not as quick to react in emergencies as computers are. With computers in control, more precise and compact vehicle spacing is possible with even less chance for errors. This has been shown to be true in tests of computer-controlled automobiles funded by the Department of Transportation. However, even those automated vehicles are no match for the safety and efficiency of pneumatic tube pods. Since pods run in a one-dimensional space (compared to the two-dimensional space of the robotic cars,) there is even less that could go wrong. Furthermore, the inherent pneumatic nature of the system makes crashes virtually impossible since the pods have a pocket of pressurized air between them acting as a cushion. Finally, since pods contain no flammable fuels, crash-related fire and explosions are ruled out. Pneumatic tube pods clearly offer the safest form of transportation available.

In the future, when the Inteli-Tube system has become a fact of life, we may not even need homes anymore. Your personal belongings can be placed in privately owned and cryptographically secure pods that will be available to you at any tube-port on the planet -- the pods automatically following you through the system whenever you travel so that they are never more than a few minutes away. Need a change of clothes? Just visit a public tube-port-equipped dressing room and order up your wardrobe pod. At night, you can simply climb into your personal pod and drift off to sleep as the Inteli-Tube system silently carries you through the network, constantly routing you and your fellow pod-sleepers around so as to avoid bedtime trafic. These pneumatic nomads (or "pneumads") may one day even transcend national borders, waking up in a different part of the world every morning, their itinerary automated with simple visual scripting languages or intelligent agent software. As you can see, the Inteli-Tube system promises not only a new way to get around, but a whole new way of living!

Conclusions

The world of tomorrow we are creating for ourselves and our children will be one of traffic congestion, pollution, and an ever-dimmishing natural world being covered in asphalt. We need to change our transportation policies -- we all know this -- but the question is: in what way? Pneumatic tubes transporting people via individual pods, operating on Internet based protocols is, as has been shown, the best solution. This will give people their freedom and space; reduce pollution, both chemical and noise; end costly, stressful, and unproductive traffic jams; increase safety; decrease dependence on foreign oil; and, most importantly, usher in the future that technology has been promising us.

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