WWF – Urban Solutions for a Living Planet

Been more than a year since the first posting. I’d like to think I’ve been busy, and I have, but startup life is often such that you meet people, have conversations and slowly but steadily progress towards what is then regarded as a “break through”. Those break-throughs don’t happen by chance, they are a combination of many chances and hard work.

This write is about one meeting I had recently, in the WWF (World Wildlife Foundation) Helsinki office. It’s a neat place, with a great view to the sea side occupied by a gigantic cone of coal. 🙂 Really. It’s a good reminder we’re still in the early stages of transition. Transition away from coal, oil and carbon based energy as a whole. But we’ve started.

Hanna-Liisa, my host, gave me two brochures concerning their work. One was handling co-operation with companies (which is great WWF is taking that approach!) and another listed 13 Urban Challenges for the 21st century that they’ve identified.

The Urban Solutions for a Living Planet brochure is awesome. It has a nice layout and it merges both the challenges + some early solutions each on a single page. It’s understandable, and positive.

What immediately came to my mind, was how the BubbleMotion service would help with the suggested issues. How many of the 13 cases would it be able to help tackle?

Here’s the list.

( I actually created a neat graphical presentation of this, but the WWF Sweden copyright people essentially spat on it. We really need to transition also to a society that is more liberal of reuse of content. So here I’m not reusing any of their visuals, but the titles, their ordering and coloring is from the said brochure. )

1. Air

  • Zero local emissions (because we’re electrical)
  • No lifting of dust

    (because we operate in the air)

2. Water

  • Natural water flow and soaking into ground (since we are 0% asphalt)
  • No rain water contamination (because we don’t drop or leak oil)
  • Minimal (or no) water to wash (centralized vehicle cleanup allows to use the latest, most eco-friendly cleaning systems under a controlled environment; also, nano-coating on the vehicles makes dust not stick)
  • Extra: night-time ‘misting’ – smart irrigation of surrounding green areas can be integrated with the track

3. Food

nothing here

4. Ecosystem services & biodiversity

  • Compatible with natural flood buffering (since we can travel over wetlands, parks etc. without changing their ecosystem)
  • Compatible with preservation of habitats and biodiversity

5. Housing & Buildings

  • Low track and station CO2 footprint (since we use 0% cement and recyclable materials s.a. steel)
  • Low construction CO2 footprint (locally producable, transported in standard containers)

6. Mobility & Accessibility

  • As fast as a subway (since we don’t do interim stops)
  • Better coverage than subway (since we are cheaper, scale down and can fit in tighter spaces)
  • Always predictable (since we are immune to road level congestion; 10 mins trip is always 10 mins)
  • Personal for everyone (since we can be travelled alone – even by blind, deaf or motion challenged people)

7. Consumption

  • Shared use of vehicle maximizes their utility value (since the vehicle is yours only during the trip)
  • Better use of city space (since space under the track is usable for pretty much anything)

8. Wastes & Sinks

  • Only applied where it makes sense (since we’re sold as a service, and easily dismantled / moved / re-applied)
  • No waste. (since we’re fully cradle-to-cradle, with modularity and reuse of components in mind)

9. Energy

  • Low wheel resistance (since we’re rail bound)
  • No energy loss in stopping (since we don’t do interim stops)
  • Minimum vehicle weight (since we don’t need passive crash protection)
  • Electric (allows full utilization of renewable energy sources)
  • Smart (energy for vehicle lifts is routed within the track, saving the vehicles’ battery capacity for actual movement)

10. Climate Change Mitigation

  • So energy efficient (-80%) that carbon-neutral operation is sensible (this is really the whole goal; multiple design solutions lead to this)
  • Scalability (since we’re using modular technology and a franchising based business model, scaling of operations to volumes that matter for CO2 is at least theoretically possible)

11. Climate Change Adaptation

  • Tolerant to extreme weather (since the track is simple, round and repairable in parts)
  • Graceful degradation of service (parts of the system can be switched off, while continuing operation on unaffected areas; i.e. switch off flooded stations but operate over such areas)

12. Governance & Citizenship

  • Operated by locals – for locals (since the franchising based business model allows this, and it makes sense)
  • Initiated by locals – together (since our track simulator will be openly available for anyone and easy to use. We’ll help take peoples’ initiatives to professional transport planners – and to reality.)

13. Resilience

  • Fully self-sustainable system (since communications and electricity for the stations is routed within the track; immune to black-outs, Internet shortages and does not use GPS satellites in operation)
  • Anti corruption (putting power in hands of locals – with transparent money flows and real ”fair trade” principles should diminish the power of corruption in societies)
  • Earthquakes are ok (since we can detect Earthquakes some seconds before, and the track has been designed to endure them).

Is that all?


There are also indirect benefits that were not listed above, s.a. the ability to sell vacant battery resources to a smart grid operator. Such business models come into play once there is an operational track and listing them here did not feel right (except for the misting case which was excused).

Also the passenger UI can be used for i.e. educational needs. But we’re hoping the above listed reasons would be enough to get strong support for the BubbleMotion project.

Are there any down sides?

Not really.

One may think of the added ”infrastructure” (tracks etc.) as a visual hindrance, but often it can be used to eliminate existing pillars (i.e. for lighting). The only alternative that has less of visual impact is restricting transportation by itself – or running it by human powered bicycles or steppers. Which we are proponents for, they are cool!

Taxi drivers losing their jobs? Not going to happen. Maybe their sons and daughters won’t be taxi drivers. And – two of the most eager proponents of BubbleMotion so far have been taxi drivers. They knew the daily transport problems best!

Self-driving cars? Sure. But they have a scalability problem, and it will take time for them to be able to drive in India, or the Finnish winter.

That’s my reaction to reading the WWF brochure.

Can we keep on ignoring plans like this? Or wish them ‘good luck’. Damn we’re a spoilt generation!

– asko


[added 9-May-2013]

One more thing.

Safety seems to be omitted from the WWF list. It is important. Transport i.e. in India kills over 100 000 people per year, also in cities. Each lost life is a lost opportunity, and waste also in environmental consideration. No people should die in traffic. Our aim is for zero passenger accidents. In practice, they should be comparable to elevator or aviation accident rates, not road side accidents. This means one or two degrees better safety above the roads than on them.

Future has enough risks already. And stress. We should be safe and relaxing.


Going (virtual) Proto in 2012!

Happy 2012, everyone!

Time to start real work on our automated PRT system. Since we’re a lean startup, here is the “Minimum Viable Product” that we’ll be focusing on during 2012 and 2013. It’s the smallest possible track that still tests all the necessary components and subsystems. The idea is to make a CAD model out of it this year.

Let’s take you to a little ride in the proto track (and explain the picture – my graphic skills are not my stronghold):


To the right, there’s a light station (picture here), to the left a parallel station (picture here) and a vehicle stack (no picture). You will be able to travel between the two stations.

Light station

The light station fits 2-3 vehicles and is shared for both inbound and outbound traffic. It’s small in size and cheap in price. Pedestrians share the floor level with the vehicles; there are no safety doors. Within this shared space vehicles move extremely slowly and are observing their surroundings for obstacles (this is akin to how street-level automated vehicles move the whole way).

There are vehicle elevators both sides of the station. These take the outbound traffic up to track level and inbound traffic down to station. Electricity needed by the station is carried within the track itself; no connections to outside infrastructure is needed in the station.

The track loop behind the station works for both acceleration (outbound) and deceleration (inbound) traffic. This helps save space compared to having separate incoming and outgoing areas. Within such an area, the vehicles have track under both left and right sides. This helps in stabilizing the vehicle during “liftoff” and “landing”. Within “cruising” sections the vehicles would normally be supported only from left or right (this cannot sadly be presented in the drawing above easily; we’ll get graphics later which show this more clearly).

The track

It’s simply a big loop. That’s it.

The vehicle is supported by the right rail within the loop. You can see this from the positioning of the bottom-most vehicle currently, not from anything else.

Parallel station

This takes more space, and provides more capacity. In the picture, there are two inbound berths (vehicle slots) and two outbound ones. In between there is a vehicle “silo” – an automated storage facility that stacks empty vehicles out of the way and helps easily feed them into the outgoing station on demand peaks.

Traffic rolls on the outside loop anti-clockwise. There is a switching area for getting into or out of the parallel station. We’ll probably not do the acceleration/deceleration here, in order to affect the track traffic as little as possible. The switching happens in full speed. Only once out of the main loop, vehicles will slow down (the corners are too sharp for this currently; the track layout must be edited; but it’s good to test this real-world issue already here).

There are no vehicle elevators. Instead we’re sliding the vehicles down and letting them climb up on the track, on the outbound side of the station. This tests our climbing ability and may be needed for very high capacity stations anyways (though our elevators can take multiple vehicles at one time and essentially work as part of the track). Anyways, we’ll do slide and climb here.

Entering the station area, there are safety doors. This forms the borderline between automated and vehicle/human mixed mode areas. Again, we have no safety doors to keep passengers and vehicles apart.

The H-formed blocks are for the little carriage bars that move vehicles aside from the track and into their berths. First you have the incoming area, where people get off.

Then there is the vehicle stack, which is depicted with the same symbol as for the elevator in the light station. That’s because essentially it is an elevator. Only one that does not lead anywhere and which takes only empty, well charged vehicles.

Then there’s the outbound part, which is exactly like the incoming part of the station.

What’s missing?

A vehicle maintenance pit is not in the picture. We’ll need one but it’s essentially just a straight section of track. The most important part of the pit is the ability to change vehicle battery packs (similar to what Better Place or Rocla are doing with cars and forklifts). We’ll have to squeeze in a pitstop section to the layout.

Another missing piece is a lift for taking vehicles off the track and back on it. A simple portable crane with 1000kg capability will be enough (including the mass of passengers; the vehicles are intended to be around 350kg only). This is needed for emergency practice and simply to get vehicles off the track they are otherwise physically bound with.


We don’t currently have any funding for this. We’ll make it anyhow.

Getting funding for the project is interesting, since on the one hand you have people who are saying “there’s one too few zeros behind the numbers” and on the other you have people wanting the budget to be smaller. This is because we’ve come to expect that things like this (“infrastructure”) are expensive. The challenge is to show, they need not be.

This is like making the Raspberry Pi of public transport (see that product, it’s an amazing credit-card size full-blown computer intended to boost a new generation of hackers).


During this year, we’re making a CAD model of the above track. We’re also making a simulation software that allows for traffic control and capacity simulations.

If that goes well, and we get funding, we’ll make the actual track within some “garage” in 2013. Seems startups are back to garages. It feels good!