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Summary:

This has to be the weirdest investment Google has ever made: $1 million to help build an urban transit system based on a pedal-powered monorail called Shweeb.

shweeb1

If you were gonna ask me what Google’s next investment would be, in a million years I wouldn’t have answered a human-powered monorail transportation system. But via Google’s Project 10^100, the search engine giant announced on Friday that it’s given $1 million to Shweeb, which makes a transportation system based on pedal-powered pods that zoom around a monorail track about 20 feet above the ground.

If that sounds like a crazy but kinda cool concept, that’s because it is. The original prototype was built as a ride in an amusement park in New Zealand, where pod pedalers race each other on a side-by-side track for a fee of $35. Google is funding the company to help it test the system as public transportation in an urban setting. Shweeb hasn’t announced the location of the planned first transit system (please make it in the Bay Area), but says on its website it will disclose the location shortly.

Here’s some characteristics of the Shweeb that likely attracted Google: It requires practically no energy other than human pedaling so it’s a fossil-fuel-free transportation, and it’s really efficient, requiring “less energy to cover a given distance than any other vehicle on earth,” according to the company. The pedaled pods are also based on recumbent bikes (the bikes where you sit back and relax), which I could imagine Google’s young outdoor enthusiast types identified with.

Some of the obvious drawbacks of the system are that it would likely be a NIMBY and regulation nightmare getting it built 20 feet off the ground in certain urban areas. On the company’s website, it paints a picture of Shweeb pods outside every second story window, where commuters hop out to a platform and pedal to work. I can picture that happening in a scene from “Inception,” but not in reality.

These types of “out-there” transportation — including the Segway — naturally have a massive barrier to getting people to embrace the technology. Commuting to work is painful enough without turning to an unproven technology.

Probably the best thing that Google could do for Shweeb would be to offer Google’s sprawling headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. as a location for one of their transportation systems. Google employees would love it and likely give valuable feedback.

About a year ago, Google launched its Project 10 ^ 100, which called on inventors and creative types to submit ideas that would help the world. Google received 150,000 submissions, and on Friday — a year later — announced it would hand out $10 million to five ideas. The Shweeb won the award via the “drive innovation in public transportation” section.

Related research from GigaOM Pro (subscription req’d):

  1. I kinda like the idea.

    “Don’t be a dweeb, take the Shweeb!”

    Next up, suspended pneumatic tubes for those quick cross-town trips, sans pedals.

    Poof!

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  2. This may be one of the silliest, most impractical ideas I’ve ever heard get funding. It can only have two stops, one at each end. It only goes as fast the slowest rider. And there’s no way to return the cars without riders. And where do you put your stuff? How about this: build a bike path. All the advantages, probably 1/100th the cost and you get all the same political challenges!

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  3. Put ‘em in touch with Gary Fisher. He’ll show them how to do it in tunnels.

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    1. ok

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  4. Short google.. Now.

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  5. Franie frurgoson Sunday, September 26, 2010

    I’ll bet it gets hot in that enclosed plexiglass case… And god help you if there are any physical exertion related gas expel events. Lol. Short google now – that’s all I got

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  6. So. It’s like a bicycle, but far less practical. Tell me how I’m wrong?

    -expensive
    -can’t pass others on single tracks
    -small rollers in tracks: higher rolling resistance than a large bike wheel

    Google- if you’re gonna waste money, go the Carmack route!

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  7. Just to be fair:
    – if it gets too hot inside depends on the design of the pod, it has to be built with holes in the front and the back. I don’t think thats a problem…
    – If its more expensive than a bike-path depends on many factors. The should be the case where land-prices are high enough to allow for benefits of the low footprint.
    – You don’t have to have just one start and one stop: Someone invented something called “switch” long time ago… Maybe the time when the first railways were built. Most of the time this helps out with such “problems”
    – small rollers have higher resistance for sure, but I’m not sure if the combination rubber/street is better than steel/steel. I’m quite sure not…
    -Not beeing able to pass someone is not as bad as it looks like on first sight: You can push him! Could be fun (At least more than pushing the car in front of you stuck in a bad traffic jam) and furthermore: switches can help solving this too…
    -definitely a bike path offers disadvantages, maybe it rains in your area sometimes – if not you’re a luke guy ;-)

    When done PROPERLY, it could have a chance. Solar driven assistance could be an option regarding the fact that you need something like 50 Watts to drive at 40 kph.
    The infrastucture seems to be made of standardized steel with very low material (less than a bike path maybe…) Should be at least cheap to maintain.

    However. I hope they choose the right location for the first implementation – Maybe a place where people are not stuck with old ideas and open for new technology (which always has benefits AND drawbacks). Seems like they are going to choose a place with high human density – a good idea btw – people stuck in traffic should quickly realize that its better to be slow at constant speed than to be potentially fast but always stuck in jam.

    Well, I’m done, throw the stones ;-)

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  8. My friends and I built that in the 7th grade, we never thought that working adults would use our invention, we laid like .5 miles of track through the woods at about a 12 ft elevation. Worked great, greased 3″ pipe donated from a local supplier was donated and given back at the end of the project.

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  9. Brian McConnell Monday, September 27, 2010

    While I appreciate Google’s desire to promote new transit concepts, this one is a real dud. The thing you need in a high density environment is capacity, which is why articulated buses and light rail win out for surface transportation. You could accomplish the same end by building a network of elevated bike paths so bikers, and pedestrians, are completely separated from vehicle traffic. Add plants etc to the sides, and it could be visually appealing to minimize the NIMBY effect.

    Then if you want to go all Woody Allen, you could add a couple bumper car tracks in the center. (One of the best stunts I’ve seen in SF was a guy who rigged a bumper car to run off the overhead Muni power lines).

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    1. Ya, except your idea:

      1. Costs 10x more to build
      2. The maintenance for your idea is much more costly

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  10. I bet this is something that will pop up at the google plex sooner or later … i’m not seeing this practically applied in a suburban or downtime scenario in a big city.

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