Scenario: It's the year 2025. Oil has become effectively unavailable. Bio-fuels are $8/gallon equivalent, and the product of all thermal depolymerization plants is fully subscribed for lubricants and chemical feedstocks. But we have wind power at 3¢/kWh and solar PV from micron-thick polymorphous cells at 7¢/kWh (adjusted for inflation). We have Toshiba-style Li-ion batteries at $100/kWh storage. They can be recharged in 5 minutes; modern vehicles are full of them.
The high expense of motor fuel has led a resurgence of rail. Steel has gone back into abandoned rights of way, and the lines which were stripped to single tracks have gone back to doubles and triples. Yet for all the rail, most of what rides on it is not conventional trains; the Bladerunner dual-mode truck led this as a fuel-saving measure, and it snowballed. As rail grew beyond the old rights of way into the medians of divided highways, more types of vehicles became rail-capable. The California Air and Noise Pollution Initiative of 2011 forced most trucks onto the rails, and electrified the rail system with overhead power wires; the program spread to the entire east coast by mandate, and then nationwide as truckers demanded to be able to run on the cheaper electric power. Diesel roar and clatter has become rare, reserved for high-value oversize loads, the military and routes far from the beaten (or hot-rolled, in this case) path.
Such a high investment in infrastructure needed users to pay for it. After the freight haulers, private vehicles took to the rails in droves, drawn by the combination of low energy costs, quiet operation and no need to actively drive. Electric power and automatic cruise control meant a peaceful journey between any two points on the network; this pulled in customers driving vehicles from buses down to pickup trucks. Among these came thousands of motorhomes: creatures of summer holiday weekends, streamlined and electrified descendants of Winnebagos and Airstreams, most black-topped with solar panels. Somewhere along the way, you joined them.
One summer evening you pull out of your driveway in your Ecostream Sunflower. You and the kids are packed, the fridge is stocked, and its 100 kWh battery [corrected, see comment 3] is fully charged; that's enough for 100 miles of off-network cruising
, and charging stations are not hard to find. The drive to the rail terminal 20 miles away doesn't take long. After a short wait while you confirm your route reservation with the network, you pull onto a rail siding, lift the mast for the overhead brush and engage the bogie jacks; you start drawing power from the overhead as steel wheels lift most of the weight off the road tires. Electricity flows from the wire overhead through the brush to the rail below, charging the battery; you serve dinner.
After a wait for scheduling and blocking, your motorhome gently starts up and slips into place in a train of vehicles moving nearly nose to tail. None of them are running engines; there is the click-click of metal wheels, the hum of motors and the buzz of air conditioning fans. You start a video for the kids as the landscape slides by. It gets dark; you put the kids to bed. The train cruises 50 MPH most of the night, slowing gently for termini where some vehicles drop onto their tires and slip out of line like cars going off an exit ramp. During the night you go through a couple of "exchanges" where your motorhome splits off one line and gets onto another. The cruise control, auto-steer and network manager handle this; you don't even wake up.
7 AM, and dawn finds you 550 miles from home. You've had a good night's sleep and not burned a drop of liquid fuel; every kWh you've used has come from wind farms and waste-to-energy plants, and it's cheap because you've been travelling at night during off-peak hours. Your cost is less than you would have paid for regular no-lead in 2004
At 10 AM you've covered 675 miles and you're nearing your exit. The train slows over a section where the steel is flush with pavement; you pull up your rail wheels, slide to the right and disengage the cruise control. The mast for the overhead brush folds itself against the roof. An hour of driving on back roads puts you at the campground on the lake with a quarter of the battery left, and you're fully rested. During your week at play, the panels on the roof recharge your batteries; when time comes to go home, you slide out with a soft hum and a crunch of gravel. In a minute it's as if you were never there.
This is just a mental image with some supporting numbers, but it ought to put the lie to the idea that the end of oil has to mean the end of fun, let alone everything. Who says we have to choose between living cleaner and living better? We can have plenty of both... if we decide to do it right.
A motorhome might get 10 MPG at 50 MPH; if the engine is 25% efficient, this is roughly 0.84 kWh/mile at the wheels. A 100 kWh battery would allow 100 miles of driving plus some extra for accessories and such. [Note: Original, erroneous numbers were 1.7 kWh/mile.]
0.84 kWh/mile * $0.10/kWh retail = 8.4¢/mile. A vehicle getting 10 MPG on $2.20/gallon fuel burns $.22/mile. With the added value of cruise-while-you-sleep and other features, rail operators could probably command a substantial premium in tolls over and above the markup on electricity. [Note: Numbers also corrected.]
2010-06-09: Comments closed to prevent further spam.