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Google Invests in Bike Powered Pod Transport… Why?

| Thursday September 30th, 2010 | 10 Comments

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.


▼▼▼      10 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Nathan

    “why should we care about Schweeb when we can’t even get a high-speed rail in place?”

    Perhaps because high-speed rail serves an entirely different purpose, and costs 4-6 orders of magnitude more? Your question is akin to asking why we should care about commercial air travel when we can’t even go to the moon. Or why we should care about influenza when we can’t even cure cancer.

    As for “innovating” by “getting buses to arrive on time” — conventional transportation has been incrementally “innovating” along those lines for a century, and this has done essentially nothing to boost its share of the market vs. the automobile. Clearly, outside-of-the-box thinking is necessary, and I applaud Google and Schweeb for attempting to do so.

    • Amelia Timbers

      That is not what my question is akin to, those analogies are hyperbolic. What purpose are you thinking of? If the objective is efficient public transportation, and it is, I’m right on.

      • Nathan

        High-speed rail is for inter-city applications, for journeys spaning tens to hundreds of miles, with relatively few destinations (so as not to slow down the line speed). It also costs tens of billions of dollars. Schweeb is clearly designed for intra-city trips of less than 10 miles, at low speeds, with many destinations on the network. It also costs somewhere between a thousand and ten thousand times less. Entirely different purpose, and VASTLY different scales.

        So no, my examples were no more hyperbolic than yours — that was my exact point in making them. Comparing Schweeb with high-speed rail isn’t like comparing apples and oranges: it’s like comparing apples and brewer’s yeast.

        Don’t get me wrong: I love high-speed rail; I enjoy it tremendously when I’m in Asia or Europe, and I think it would be great to bring it to America. But a million dollars is only about one ten-thousandth of a fairly modest high-speed rail project. If that’s all the budget you’ve got, then something on the scale of Schweeb is as ambitious and as valuable as anything I can think of.

  • Billy Lewis

    I think what Google is going for here is to provide an alternative to the short trips people make by car. It is well known that most trips by car are less than 5 or 10 miles, and so the obvious solution to me is bicycling, but to many others for whom bicycling is dangerous, dirty, and inconvenient, I think an idea like Schweeb is prime. The amount of effort put out is minimized (as compared to bicycling where it’s all you), the danger factor is almost completely removed because you’re not mingling with car doors or stupid right turners, and the convenience factor is akin to the public transit systems we have now. Here’s what i’m excited about: since there wouldn’t be bulky trains on the tracks, the system would not need to be so infrastructure-heavy. I mean the rails would be smaller, the terminals smaller, the cars smaller….so it could go so many more places. Innovative ideas that are scalable and “triple pundit” get me real excited :o

  • cmfseattle

    “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?”

    I suggest reading “Optimization of Transit System Characteristics” by Dr. Edward Anderson.

  • BART Simpson

    It’s woefully inaccurate to say that BART “operates at boggling deficit”. 53% of all costs are covered by the farebox, and another 15% are covered by parking, advertising, and retail space leasing. That leaves less than 1/3 of its cost to be covered by taxes, and that’s right on target.

    BART could easily run sans deficit if desired by raising fares a few dollars, but it has benefits to society (such as less pollution and less traffic for everyone else) that continues to justify it (to the majority of voters) as a taxpayer subsidized enterprise.

    Long story short, it’s not a flaw of BART that it receives some taxpayer subsidies to cover less than 1/3 of its costs… it means the design is working as intended.

    • http://www.zacharyshahan.com Zach

      also, consider the subsidies that go into roads.. they are far greater than what goes into transit

  • BART Simpson

    I would also like to point out that the car and highway system is far more government subsidized than BART. The gasoline tax does not pay for anywhere near the cost of maintaining highways and bridges. Federal subsidies help California with roads but including all levels of governemnt, BART is far closer to subsidy-free than the nation’s highway system.

    • http://www.zacharyshahan.com Zach

      ooops, looks like Bart Simpson already got this point.

  • http://www.zacharyshahan.com Zach

    Amelia, a lot of this has been covered in different ways above,.. but perhaps from a different angle, here are some more thoughts…

    I do see some good points in your piece, but wouldn’t say this is a tried and failed model & that’s that. i got my Master’s in city planning, almost specializing in Transportation Planning, & think innovative personal mobility options are still hot topics. they are a different solution to transportation issues (in a variety of different settings) than buses and trains, as mentioned above.. see some of the differences via the Shweeb people here: http://www.shweeb.com/index.php?m=vision&al=a (note: i wouldn’t consider this chart perfect or the intro to it)

    and, again, i wouldn’t say this is perfect, but the list of application options show a few places where it could be used (http://www.shweeb.com/index.php?m=vision&al=c).. there are limitations to biking and walking (Very important transportation options) that it could help to address…

    but you do raise some good questions and maybe you are right & could have helped Google out a bit by being on their investment team :D

    we’ll see…

    i, personally, wouldn’t write this off as a wasted investment, though