From Japan and Abu Dhabi ZeroEmission Electric Transit Runs Underground CBS News

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From Japan and Abu Dhabi, Zero-Emission Electric Transit Runs Underground

Last Updated Sep 27, 2010 5:28 PM EDT

One of the great, unexploited virtues of electric cars is that they don’t produce any exhaust. As we all know from a popular method of …, running a car in an enclosed space is swiftly lethal. But designers are only now beginning to realize that EVs present an opportunity for cars to travel underground, not only operating in strictly controlled and ventilated tunnels but weaving in and out of buildings at will.

Just that kind of system is being proposed in Japan, and it’s already up and running at a new utopian city in Abu Dhabi.

It’s somewhat ironic that these utopian zero-emission visions are being proposed in countries that made their fortunes spreading internal-combustion engines around the globe (Japan) or pumping the world’s tanks full of oil (Abu Dhabi has 10 percent of the world’s reserves). Indeed, neither of these projects would be viable were it not for the ubiquitous tailpipe.

Last week at an Icelandic conference. I saw the Mitsubishi vision for electric buses with switchable batteries. In the video presentation that accompanied the talk, the buses traveled underground and arrived at an indoor station, pulling up just the same way an electric train would.

The concept is related to the dedicated busways that are already in use in Ottawa and Pittsburgh (I’ve ridden on the latter one) that attempt to recreate trains with scheduled stops and no competing traffic. But traditional busways are powered by internal-combustion engines, and face all sorts of obstacles operating primarily underground. (You need advanced ventilation systems, just as you do in long tunnels today.)

Zero emission means that the driverless electric pod cars to be used in Abu Dhabi’s utopian environmental city of Masdar will run exclusively underground. The first phase of that zero carbon city (designed by Foster Partners ) opened last week, and the first 13 of what will be 3,000 electronically controlled personal rapid transit (PRT) cars (which will run to preset destinations via voice controls) are undergoing tests.

New York Times architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff visited Masdar City last week and found it a technological marvel, but also a bit isolated from the rest of the country, like the gated suburban enclaves that surround American metro centers. That’s a good point, because zero emission for a tiny elite isn’t much of an advance. It needs to be a vision for all of us, and a thoroughgoing evolution past internal combustion.

But what economic base does Abu Dhabi have without oil?

Tazzari Zero Electric Cars

Still, as visions go it’s a pretty entrancing one. The walled city, a mile square and an estimated $15 to $30 billion of ruler Sheikh Khalfa bin Zayed Al Nahyan ‘s money to build, uses carbon-neutral systems to cool down the desert heat with frequent breezes. That allows 90,000 inhabitants who will live there by 2020 to walk comfortably about the city, using the pods for longer inter-urban trips.

No fossil-fueled cars will be allowed in the city, which should do wonders for air quality. Here’s what it looks like on a fanciful video:

The pod network is to include 85 stations, and the fleet is projected to make 130,000 trips daily. The pods themselves were shaped by famed Italian car designer Zagato . and manufactured by 2getthere in the Netherlands. The pods’ lithium-phosphate batteries will be wholly recharged with solar energy, and have a 37-mile range.

The longest city routes will take only 10 minutes of travel.

I’m presuming that the pods will be owned by the city, and residents will use them as they do the shareable white bicycles of Paris †borrow one, and when you’re done, leave it at the station. Residents can be billed monthly for services like this, but in Abu Dhabi that may not even be necessary. All that oil money, you see.

© 2010 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Tazzari Zero Electric Cars
Tazzari Zero Electric Cars
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