Google recently invested a million dollars in a futuristic transportation system called Schweeb (possibly named for the sound it makes). Schweeb mixes a user-powered bicycle setup with the old-fashioned pneumatic tube pods– in this case, for people instead of interoffice mail. Users zip around a monorail as their energy spent pedaling is accelerated by the track. Despite testers’ giddy response to the New Zealand prototype, the technology raises a question: why should we care about Schweeb when we can’t even get a high-speed rail in place? Another way- considering how radically we need to rethink transportation to address climate change, is “cool” enough to justify investment?
That Dog Don’t Hunt
Like nuclear energy, hydrogen fuel cells and carbon sequestration, futuristic public transportation has seduced scientists and environmentalists for decades. But also like those technologies, futuristic public transportation has failed to gain the political traction required to finance its construction. Transportation models like Schweeb are not at all new. Group rapid transit and personal rapid transit have both tried to take advantage of the monorail idea before, with little success and great cost. So far, monorail has only been successful as actual rail, like BART, that has the scale required to make the economics work. Even with millions of passengers, BART -like many public transportation systems in the US- operates at boggling deficit absorbed by taxpayers. It’s unclear how Google’s throwing more money at new configurations of the personal transportation pods on a monorail cliché is going to resolve the a) inefficiency of moving one person at a time and b) the problems raised by building a monorail in or over dense urban development.
Why is Google Funding Schweeb?
Given the dismal record of prior monorail projects, why would Google fund Schweeb? Unfortunately, there are no clear answers, only the burning desire to have been a fly on the wall –or a Google VP with a prospectus in hand- during Schweeb’s pitch. Like nukes, hydrogen and carbon sequestration, there’s an obsession and romance in academia with such technology without the support of real world success, which is the only kind that matters. VCs that started in academia must find it difficult to resist doing something about their fantasy technology … all to say, the investment may be less than rational. Alternatively, Google may be struggling to find sufficient projects to invest in. Thirdly, they may know something we don’t know about how it will work this time, and Google thinks the financing is wise. Fourthly, nepotism? Just kidding unless it turns out to be true.
Better places for Google’s capital
America has a lot to thank Google for. Its innovation is legendary, and many of the projects it is investing in, for example related to energy, are set to resolve the most pressing problems of the industry. However, Google could make a much greater impact by solving more critical public transit problems. For example, how do we make a cheap high-speed rail? How can we reorganize public transit to be profitable? How do we get people out of their cars in the first place? Investing in Schweeb, while neato, is very “been there/ done that/ didn’t work” to transportation planners. Which is unfortunate, as Google has the potential to seriously innovate transportation by perfecting less sexy fundamentals, like getting buses to arrive on time.