The World Needs Maglev Auto Highways

Increasingly, internal-combustion cars are giving way to electric autos and rail is giving way to the possibility of smart “auto trains”. Why not create a Maglev Automotive Highway, which would reduce the need for heavy battery packs and reduce charging times, while reducing rolling resistance many-fold. Such a system would be expensive, but scalable and much cheaper/more energy-efficient in the long run.

Volkswagen is developing a Maglev auto prototype

Electric smart cars are the rage, while Maglev rail systems are the dream of futurists everywhere (especially overseas), and like chocolate and peanut butter…they could (and should) be combined. This would theoretically reduce the need for heavy battery packs and charging (as the power and/or battery charging would come from the Maglev rail system). The Maglev vehicles would be “hybrid” in the sense that they would have tires for local roads (not on the Maglev system) that would retract when on the system (so as to reduce rolling resistance and wind drag). This system would be costly to build, but would greatly reduce energy consumption by autos (by reducing resistance), plus increase the viability of electric cars. Computers would control the placement of autos, combining them into high speed “auto trains”, which would reduce congestion and increase highway speeds (Maglev systems are capable of travel up to 300 mph, but let’s say autos would keep it to 100 mph for safety reasons)

This concept is usually discussed within the context of rail travel, and indeed there are several Maglev rail systems in operation in Asia (chiefly China and Japan) and Europe (Germany and the UK). However, rail travel is losing favor in light of the rigidity of routes, expense of land purchases, the need for costly grade separation (tunnels and bridges), and the dangers of crime and transmissible disease. Meanwhile, autos solve many of these problems, especially if they morph into smaller “mobile living rooms” that automatically guide us to a destination while we relax, eat, or entertain ourselves. Computerized auto systems could possibly mimic the efficiency of trains or buses, while providing protections (including possible seamless door to door transit) that both lack.

China is interested in developing a “floating car”

The expense of laying rails within lanes would be partially offset by the savings in road paving costs. Currently, many highways are made of asphalt concrete (aggregate with heavy oil) and last around ten years. Some are made with concrete, which lasts for around 40 years under roadway wear and tear. With a Maglev roadway system, there would be no need for a paving surface, except as an emergency surface (in case the Maglev system was down), and presumably the Maglev carrying surface would be concrete, which might last 100 years with less vehicle usage.

A system of this type would include Maglev magnets (to both elevate and move the cars), while helping the car’s induction motor (used for local roads) to recharge the onboard batteries . When on the highway system, the built-in Maglev rails would activate, working with vehicle magnets to allow it to “float” on a thin cushion of air. Meanwhile, the induction motor would derive electrical energy from the rail, running “backwards” to charge the onboard battery pack. When not on the Maglev system, the retractable tires would lower, and the induction motor would power the car just like an ordinary electric car. If the car in highway mode was disabled for any reason, sensors would activate and the car would be guided to safety, in some sort of shoulder. (Whyte,2016), (https://www.goudsmit.co.uk/maglev-cars-fantasy-or-reality/,2017)

The system would be scalable in the sense that it could start as a kind of “diamond lane” (suitable for both Maglev and ordinary cars), and evolve into an exclusively Maglev system (once users and auto manufacturers were fully onboard). At any time, traditional vehicles could use the system (as the magnets would not activate for a regular car). Traditional vehicles might need to be in a special lane (with slower speeds and perhaps taxed for the privilege, since they would be a drag on highway efficiencies).

Countries such as Japan are utilizing Maglev trains at a high rate, and developing a great safety record

Of course, there would be substantial start up costs for a system of this type, and pilot projects would need to be built, either by the government or adventurous entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk. A substantial retooling would be needed by the auto industry, but not a massive change beyond the current conversion to electric cars. The major change would be onboard magnets (deactivated when on local roads so as to not interfere with metal objects) and a elevating/lowering chassis system. Net energy savings (considering a 20x improvement in rolling resistance) might pay for the startup costs within 10 years, assuming an automatic “pay per mile” billing system (similar to that currently used by bridges and toll roads). There may even be no need to enter a filling or charging station, and perhaps auto insurance premiums might drop.

It should be said, however, that maglev systems have had their share of accidents and are not foolproof. In 2006, a Maglev train hit a maintenance vehicle in Germany, killing 26 (this was not related to the fact that this was a Maglev train, except that it was made worse by the train’s high speed). Also in 2006, a fire broke out on a Chinese Maglev train, on a faulty onboard battery (no one was killed). The speeds of the proposed auto Maglev system would be considerably lower than Maglev trains (300 mph+ vs 100 mph+-) and improvements are being made to battery technology to prevent fires. Presumably, a Maglev highway would have many sensors that would lower the possibilities of accidents, and might improve greatly upon human error. Cars would have to be kept in good condition to use the system (one set of sensors may not allow cars that didn’t meet maintenance requirements) and if magnets failed, the cars would always have the tires as a backup, presumably “slowing” the entire system to allow for the exit of compromised vehicles. Issues such as foul weather would ordinarily not affect a magnetic system (it would actually be much safer than for the “vehicle with tire” scenario). (Landler,2006),(BBC.com,2011)

As in Maglev train systems, there is energy efficiency in the fact that rails selectively supply energy to vehicles on demand, meaning that no energy is used when vehicles are not present. Presumably, the “magnetized roadway” would have to be friendly to regular cars (at least initially) as a kind of hybrid system. This might mean that the regular cars would need to be demagnetized in some fashion. Another possibility is to have non Maglev cars travel in separate lanes. Volkswagen is currently working on a Maglev auto prototype, to be developed in China, called the “People’s Car Project”. (automoblog.com, n.d.)

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Vern Scott

Scott lives in the SF Bay Area and writes confidently about Engineering, History, Politics, and Health