Robert and I connected recently on LinkedIn, where he contacted me to let me know about his idea, CargoFish.
At first, I wasn’t sure I understood what ‘The Physical Internet’ really meant, but after reading more (during which my eyes grew wider and wider), I realized that what Robert is proposing is perhaps one of the biggest and most ambitious projects in history.
It’s the stuff of sci-fi movies, ‘the future’, and mega construction. I love the audacity. I mean, we live in the future already, right? We are cyborgs with mobile phones that act as electronic extensions of our personalities and abilities, we fly across continents, and we embrace an abundance of gadgets that connect us globally in various different ways.
I think CargoFish is bigger than that, because it’s not only digital, it’s enormously physical.
Whilst initially I admittedly failed to see the environmental benefits, I now agree that in the long-term, this ‘could be’ hugely resource efficient, although I fear it would only act as a catalyst for consumption.
You’ll have to get about halfway through the interview before Robert explains what CargoFish is, but it’s certainly worth the read. I warn you now, this is the longest interview in this blog’s history, so you might want to make a drink first.
I’ve invited Robert to enlighten me, to prove me wrong, and to show you how he wants to change the world. Robert, could you introduce yourself?
I am 52, and for the last 25 years I have worked at a commercial nuclear power plant, where I have been a licensed control room operator, but now work primarily in information systems in work management. Before that, I spent six years in the US Navy, serving as a Submarine Reactor Operator and Electronics Technician. My degree is in Computer Science.
For the last eight and a half years, I have devoted one thousand hours a year to the research and development of CargoFish. This includes numerous trips and presentations, several published papers, and countless competition entries. I am a self-taught machinist, and fabricate many of the parts for project prototypes myself, in addition to sourcing subcomponents from over fifty different online suppliers.
For nearly a decade now, I have been following anything and everything related to transportation by any mode and for any reason, whilst researching any and all history discoverable by any means available to me, especially as it pertains to design and implementation of CargoFish.
What was the problem that inspired CargoFish?
As far as the catalyst that launched the enterprise, it wasn’t so much a problem as an epiphany. Long before that though, I found certain aspects of transportation to be a problem, and it was personal.
One of my professors explicitly recommended that everybody read “The Long Tail”, by Chris Anderson, so I immediately ordered the book. When I read it, my particular background had me well prepared to consider the implications of what that book revealed to me. In that book was discussed in great detail the relationship between supply and demand, and the effects of distribution upon it.
Imagine being at a venue such as a beach, there are only a few beach vendors to barter with. They can only stock and make available the things that beachgoers typically spend money on. If at the beach you develop an annoying hangnail but have no clippers, you will have to either go without or make a trip at least to the boardwalk to find a convenience store, because no beach vendor can expect to turn a profit making fingernail clippers a stock item.
I recalled a specific day at the beach with my family, when my children saw the ice cream vendor and wanted the “Spongebob” ice cream stick. “Sorry kids,” the vendor said, “I’m all out of Spongebob. But I’ll be back in about an hour with some after I restock and turn around at that pier down there.” The next forty-five minutes were among the longest in my life as we waited through the wailing from the kids. I thought of that and pondered how much better the vendor experience could be if, for that vendor, fulfilment were effectively instantaneous.
Imagine a guide wire anchored from some high post back at the boardwalk, along which a little basket could zoom like a mini cable car with whatever wares were demanded. Forgot contact lens cleaner? No problem, I can have that here for you in two minutes for only five bucks! Of course, an approach like that carries drawbacks, and so I was soon wondering how portable a pneumatic transport system might be made. Lay it down in the morning under the sand. Pick it back up at the end of the day.
It was a great exercise in thinking, and a little research into pneumatic tubes revealed a much more widespread use of permanently installed systems than I had ever dreamed. Of course, even this approach has its downside, and within days I found myself considering a sort of enclosed rail system, through which flightless drones could zip along. For a variety of reasons, the drawbacks are greatly diminished, and the realization of the widespread applicability of such a system began to sink in, along with the great side effects of reduced energy consumption and more economic availability of necessities of everyday life.
Like any of us, I have always enjoyed solving problems, especially those that actually matter, and that does make it personal in a way. In fact, this has all become one of my highest aspirations, something that I may or may not manage to achieve in my lifetime, and cannot in good conscience neglect.
Ok, I think it’s time to give the reader an explanation of what CargoFish is. Can you explain?
CargoFish is like a capillary blood system for the neighbourhood. Its small diameter vessels will be tucked in just beneath the surface, and through these, each individual self-propelled rail vehicle with its single packet payload is much like another red blood cell. Except these are not hydraulically pushed as a simple fluid stream, but instead, take advantage of energized rail to supply their motors to drive their wheels. The small electric micro rail trucks are right-sized, weighing less than their maximum net payload, need batteries only as backup power for reliability, and don’t suffer the extra rolling resistance of supporting their weight on rubber tires as opposed to steel wheels. These three major advantages factor into the final product of small payload transport on less than 1% the energy intensity of any other means. This system is not just a shuttle down and back on a single line, but a network that does resemble binary digital computer design in that any line may fork from one into two, and any two lines may merge into one. Where a vessel diverges from a single path into two separate ones, there is no switch or turnout that must be set in advance as in the standard rail systems we are all familiar with.
In the parlance of developers who try to come up with such rail vehicle guidance schemes, this is known as an “onboard switch”. Vehicle traffic algorithms are distributed and cooperative, and the system upper limit on vehicle miles travelled per lane mile, a standard metric used by urban planners, is about ten times greater than ordinary cars on limited access highways, and more than one hundred times that of any pneumatic tube network system.
To recap, this is like an enclosed slot car system for autonomous rail trucks, and the entire system operates like a giant automated containerized parcel system between appliances much like vending machines or parcel delivery lockers, varying in size from very small ones primarily for receiving but also for sending, to very high capacity ones that function either as high volume fulfilment or centralized collection for reverse logistics. Each vehicle is less than four feet long and can carry one container capable of holding the design basis payload: two-gallon jugs of milk.
What is the physical internet?
From my perspective, the “Physical Internet” will be an interconnected network through which can be exchanged discrete physical standard parcel containers between any two points on the network. These points on the network will not be mobile, like smartphones. They will instead be fixed, like landlines. This network will begin with a first pilot, become known and appreciated, then installation demand will be nearly universal. Each local instance of it will be like one computer. The interconnection of instances will be like the Internet.
So, the roads will be quieter and less carbon will be used, I like that, but the scale of building something like this would be hugely resource and carbon-intensive would it not? It would take decades to recover the carbon, surely?
Actually, no, and there are many historical examples of similar undertakings. For instance, the canal boom, which had its heyday in America during the early part of the nineteenth century, demonstrated a clear case of very high capital expense infrastructure resulting in economic savings. The Erie Canal was in profit prior to its even being completed, the first sections having entered service as built. The advent and uptake of railroad technology bit into the canal market share, but it took a century to supplant canals as fully as possible, which still was not entirely.
The internal combustion engine, of course, resulted in trucks, which began as short-haul devices used at rail transport terminals, but with an expanding and improved road network, they became ever more important.
CargoFish’s return on investment can begin to accrue on each segment as it is installed, and the installation effort, cost, and energy will be saved back entirely at a rate such that breakeven is achieved in about a year, even on the first parts so long as these are in the places where their benefits will most easily be apparent. As additional parts are built and interconnected, the utility of the entirety will forever exceed the sum of the value of the individual parts. This is no different from the Internet and all the usefulness that derives from it being more valuable than the sum of every single computer independent of each other and is known as the network effect.
In the US, major urban arterials experience about 4.5 million vehicle miles travelled (VMT) per lane mile, and all are at least four lanes. So if only 10% of major shopping corridor traffic were made obsolete by operation of this approach, then 600 thousand trips per year averted with only a pair of 8-inch pipe/tracks installed shallow – just below grade.
In my state, we have about 39 thousand miles of road and 6 million households, for 153 households per mile of road. That’s the statewide average, and installation in the denser parts of the state first can yield energy savings for more than that per mile of system installation.
What stage are you at right now with CargoFish? Is there a working prototype anywhere?
Right now, I am assembling a portable system demonstrator. Over the last eight years, I have developed a series of increasingly functional prototypes that I have tested and improved upon. This sixth generation will be the first “demonstration” grade version. It is progressing as fast as can be supported by my free time outside of full-time work and family responsibilities. Other project activities, such as giving interviews and attempting to raise funds, also take time and effort. I am currently engaged in participation in the New Jersey Energy Master Plan development process, through which my ultimate goal is to secure funding for a pilot somewhere in the state.
Who would pay for CargoFish? Would homeowners pay for the installation? Would the costs be recovered from a monthly fee?
The installation will be financed up front by either commercial corporations or government entities, in a manner similar to other utilities like water, sewers, electric, gas, and the various communications networks. In order to gain a foothold, it may be necessary to entice the earliest customers.
Further along, perhaps a one or two-year contractual obligation for a fixed monthly expense will be the initial arrangement with new customers. Cost recovery will result from this and other revenue streams. Retail goods providers will want to deliver via this network and will be willing to pay, either as a percentage of sales, per payload mile, or some other mutually agreeable arrangement. The thing is, we are discussing who pays for this, when the reality is that this approach will be delivering more value than it costs, and all will save from this.
Tell me about data and finances. I want the big numbers, Robert.
The global economy is about $75 trillion annually. About $18 trillion of that is the economy of the USA. Around $5 trillion of the US economy is fast moving consumer goods capable of being handled by CargoFish, so the entire potential global distribution market is somewhere in the neighbourhood of $20 trillion US. Even if only a quarter of this market can be realized, it is still pretty big. Let’s face it. More things are small than big, and most big payloads are collections of small things. Discrete payloads cost the most to distribute, and the last leg of the journey has always cost the most.
I saw that pretty much every transport and energy authority has rejected your plans. Why do you think they have done this? Fear of change?
I’ll quote Machiavelli, “It ought to be remembered, nothing is more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to pursue, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead on the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the current circumstances and lukewarm supporters among those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises in part from the incumbents, who have the laws on their side, and in part from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long fill of them.” Truer words are rarely spoken. Today US “green” technology subsidy is legislatively steered into the wind, solar, batteries, and mass transit. The public mind believes in these because they are already introduced. CargoFish needs only a proper and thorough introduction, and nothing short of a pilot project in actual use will suffice as such. Once it is demonstrated, it will be embraced.
I could see CargoFish working on a city-to-city basis, but one for each home, I think it’s unnecessary. Am I wrong?
Well, we all need to eat, so unless the food reaches the table, we have to go out to eat, right? What about people who for whatever reason cannot always get out of their home? I don’t think it will ever reach every household, but it will find its own penetration level, which is going to be much farther than it currently is.
Thank you, Robert!
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