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Saturday, October 25, 2008


An idea from John McCarthy's very valuable site.

Automated home delivery systems.

An automatic delivery system is a system for the transmission of material objects between homes, stores, offices etc. with as much as possible of the convenience of the telephone system....

An apartment or home or a department of a store or an office has a port into which an object may be put (perhaps in a suitable container) and a push button system for dialing destinations. After a while the object arrives at its destination.... let me say that I have in mind a mechanical system that will transport things through tunnels under the streets.

I can send an object to a friend, and it will arrive at his port in a time comparable to the time required to deliver it by car..... I can order an object at any time of the day or night and have it delivered immediately.

I can send and receive mail by the system. Long distance transmission gets switched to other modes of transportation at suitable places.

I can get rid of trash by sending it to the trash place.

.....Home delivery of cooked meals and return of dirty dishes will be much more feasible than it is today....

First of all, we shall try to devise a system that will work with present buildings. Something that requires new buildings will be quite hard to implement.
Therefore, imagine the following: The ports are mounted in outside walls or in windows like air conditioners are today. This requires minimal modification of buildings. The carriers do most of their travelling under the streets on continuous belts or suspended from cables, but are independently powered by rechargeable batteries between the under street system and the ports. They move from the under street tunnel to the building through feeder tunnels and climb the outsides of the building to and from the ports. There are several ways this can be done having different divisions of the investment between the building modification and the carrier. If we want to put the investment in the carrier, then the building is equipped only with ``handholds'', and the carrier climbs the building with two suitable arms. If we are willing to mount cables or rails on the building, the carrier can be simpler. On the whole, it seems to me that the ``handhold''system is better, because it is more routinely adaptable to a variety of buildings and it will make the minimum change in the appearance of the building. Any version of the system requires an elaborate system for switching the carriers at the right time. This can be done by a a computer in the carrier which communicates with the central computer controlling the system.

An important characteristic of the system affecting its utility and cost is the size of object that can be transmitted. A reasonable size carrier might be rectangular with dimensions 16"x16"x48" having an internal space 12"x12"x36". The carrier would change orientation as it traveled so the contents would sometimes be upside down and accelerations of say 3g might have to be tolerated. It would be desirable to design the system as a whole to accommodate a range of sizes of carrier and so that parts of the system could be upgraded to allow larger sizes. One would probably want a lot of quite small carriers for mail and single small items, but the size mentioned above probably should be provided for in any case.

.....The system is obviously most cheaply constructed for a city full of new apartments, but it looks feasible even for present suburban areas, though at greater expense.

How can we estimate the expense?
A few man years of mechanical, civil, and electronic engineering could produce an estimate accurate within a factor of two with an uncertainty of a few years in how long it would take to get a system working and an factor of five estimate of the development costs. Clearly it won't be cheap, but I think we will be able to afford it in the next ten to twenty years. (Except for specifically designated 1995-96 notes, this essay was written in the 1970s.)Here are some very rough estimates.

The carrier is perhaps the easiest to estimate, because it can be compared to a car. It is much smaller than a car, and it spends most of its time riding. However, it will need a more complicated control system than a car. Therefore we estimate its cost at $500 taking into account expected large reductions in the cost of electronics.

The port. Adding a port to an old building, we will guess at $500 for an old building and $200 if put into a new building. The cost of the handholds will depend on the height and shape of the building but shouldn't be more than $200 per port. The cost of the feeder from the street to the building, we estimate at $1000 to $3000 depending on the need to tear up sidewalks and streets.

The communications cost is estimated at $100 per port assuming it piggybacks on the telephone system.

The central computer cost for a city at present prices might be $10,000,000, but this will go down. [1995 note: It went down. If only the political problems would go down.]

The biggest cost is likely to be the under street system. It includes a tunnel whose size determines the possibilities for expansion in size of object and volume of flow. It has to provide for two way traffic and to carry this traffic suspended from a cable, on a moving belt, on cars on rails, or simply to provide a right of way for the carriers if these are independently mobile. We shall suppose that the carriers contain the information and computer facilities for deciding when to switch paths.
The cost ought to be considerably less than the cost of the streets themselves in new districts since the carriers will be more efficiently loaded than the cars that now provide delivery services. Suppose we guess $1,000,000 per mile, but a civil engineering cost study could make this more precise.....

How can an automatic delivery system come into existence?
The system will be a public utility and a natural monopoly like the telephone system, electric power, gas, water, sewage, and roads. It could come into existence either by a sequence of engineering studies by the government and establishment of a government operated system or it could come into existence as a regulated utility operated by private enterprise. No important public utilities have been established recently, so it will be a new political issue. As I see it, it is more important to society that the system be built than who builds it. However, it seems more likely to be built by private enterprise, because if it is to be built by the public, there must be overwhelming agreement that this is the right way to spend government money, and such agreement will be hard to come by in the current competition for public money. The older utilities were built by private enterprise, because they thought people would be willing to pay for the service. This requires giving or selling franchises to companies formed to provide the service. It is not clear that private enterprise is as adventurous as it was in the nineteenth century. The development costs are likely to be hundreds of millions, perhaps even a few billion.

Note that if the central tunnel/cable/monorail system were made human sized (& the programming was run to keep cars the same way up & not accelerating at above 1 g) we also have a door to door personal transport system. Indeed Professor McCarthy does develop this as well;

Throughout the city there are poles a few hundred feet high. I don't know the best height. Between the poles are strung cables. Hanging from the cables are wires capable of carrying 400 kg. There are motors capable of moving the wires along the cables and up and down. Mechanisms are provided for transferring a wire from one cable to another so it can travel about the city. Hanging from the wires are carriers; the most obvious kind is a cabin that can hold two to four people, but there are also one person open carriers. The whole system is computer controlled.

A person wanting to travel requests a carrier with his cell phone. When the cabin descends at his location, he or they get in and enter the destination.

While the cost of retrofitting current buildings & cities would be high, probably 2 or 3 orders of magnitude higher than cabling for TV they would be very much lower if installed as they are being built. I can therefore see that if new towns or arcologies are being built that is the place to try it out. I would suggest that an X-Prize for introducing the first such systems would kick start the process. Also that a legal right to, I suggest, 50% of any postage paid for delivery to places (100% if posted within the area served) using automated systems should be established which would ensure investors of a minimum calculable return.

Banks with a drive up window already use a simple system where a small cylindrical container 3' x 10' is shot through plastic pipes using compressed air. This type of system already has the switching problems worked out, since I saw such a switched pipe system at Home Depot several years ago. A compressed air switched pipe system could be scaled up to carry cylinders that are 12' x 36' which would mean most small packages could be shipped that way.
Good point.
I remember having seen such a system many years ago though only as point to point system. All that is needed is the automated switching gear which did not exist at the time but does now.
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