These days, we are continuously bombarded with announcements  of scientific breakthroughs and new advanced projects to power and add intelligence to our transportation system (i.e. – electric power, self-driving, artificial intelligence).  We are all anxiously waiting for these developments to become reality in the not too distant future to reduce CO2 emissions (LCP), eliminate traffic delays and otherwise make commuting / travel more productive.  Here is a Chinese development to quickly reduce congestion, emissions and speed commutes in large cities.

Earlier this month China unveiled concept prototypes of autonomous (concept prototype has a driver) rapid transit virtual trains with plastic / rubber tires (no rails) that can possibly run on city streets with other traffic – click here to see video of the concept .  Various sensors are put in the roadway for trains to guide on.   Even if these trains are used on dedicated roadways with no tracks (as shown in portions of the video) they will be much cheaper (Est 1/5 capital cost) to build than a rail system and also easier to change routes.

The Chinese trains are like several battery powered electric busses connected together into autonomous self-guiding unit trains.  A unit train can be easily varied in length (add compartments) to accommodate up to 300+ passengers each.  An individual unit train has a cab at each end and can travel in either direction – to do this they must have 4 wheel steering which provides many possibilities for maneuverability in making tight turns, picking up passengers at curbs and snaking through tight  traffic.  Could virtual trains have a place in big hilly cities like Seattle?

Also, several unit trains can be virtually attached end-to-end, without couplers, to greatly increase a transportation corridor’s route capacity – zero gap between trains – same as self-driving cars closely following each other at high speeds.   Individual unit trains can be detached at any time to go in a different route by itself or be switched to other multi-unit trains on other routes.  A virtual train can load passengers at a special station move to surface streets and then back to another station to unload.  Loading / unloading at street curbs may be possible as the technology improves.

The power and recharging concepts for the new virtual trains shown in the  video are already reality on the 73 Proterra electric busses recently bought by Metro King County – each bus has over 300 mile range on a charge and can be recharged at special drive-in stations with overhead electric connections.  The new  Chinese trains will be able to run 25 Km with 10 minutes of charging at special stations along routes.

This virtual train sort of reminds me of the recent tests of over-the-road diesel trucks where one truck is driven and multiple following trucks self-drive off the front truck – the minimum gap between the trucks greatly increases the carrying capacity of the roadways and reduces driver fatigue in the self-driving truck cabs.

The Chinese are building a 4 mile test track and hope to beginning virtual trains limited passenger service by end of 2018.

Steve Meginniss is Consultant & Co-Founder of Pacific Bioscience, Inc.