A series of (food)tubes

Paul Raven @ 07-12-2010

One of the biggest infrastructural components of a developed nation is the transportation network that moves food around the place… trucks and lorries, trains, that sort of thing, all pollution-heavy technologies that cost a lot of money to run. So what could we replace that food delivery network with? How about… a series of tubes. No, SRSLY:

Imagine a 1,500 kilometer underground FoodTubes ring circling the UK. The packet-switched-style network would connect all major food producers and retailers via 3,000 kilos of smart grid controlled air pressure pipe. The Foodtubes capsules, spaced one meter apart, will race about in gangs of 300 or so at 100kph. As many as 900,000 will be in circulation at any given moment, either zipping around beneath London and Liverpool or being loaded and unloaded at freight dockets.

“Really fast food,” Foodtubes literature calls the concept, with big payoffs for the economy and environment. “Inefficient food transport costs the Earth,” another presentation insists. Huge quantities of diesel are burned to move food trucks—17 billion for each 25 million UK homes, which represents eight percent of all the carbon dioxide mixed into the atmosphere.

“In contrast, we transport 180 times more weight of water than food every day (150 litres/person) in pipelines, with little pollution and no traffic jams,” the project notes. “Multiply by 5 to get the totals for the 120 million USA households.”

Add to that the traffic relieving removal of huge trucks from UK roads. 200,000 of them could be replaced by 17,000 kilos of pipelines and capsules, the group estimates, saving the country 40 million tons of CO2 each year, and the world perhaps as much as four billion if the idea was adopted globally.

That’s got to be the most Jetsons-esque bit of speculative technology I’ve seen in a long while. The FoodTubes people seem pretty confident that the actual technology side is plausible, but are also well aware that “[t]he freight industry is deeply entrenched at every level of government and commerce”. No kidding… which leads me to suspect that, plausible or not, FoodTubes is unlikely to get off the drawing board any time soon.


Post-postal: is the Iceland volcano the death-knell for physical mail?

Paul Raven @ 19-04-2010

Jeff Jarvis suspects that the ongoing and aviation-distressing plume of volcanic ash currently drifting over Europe may accelerate the demise of good old-fashioned physical mail networks:

Right now, it is impossible to get a document to or around Europe with speed. People can’t fly. Mail can’t fly. Even when the air clears, there’ll be diminished faith in the ability of the post office — not to mention FedEx, DHL, and UPS — to make speedy delivery of documents. Any company or agency with an ounce of strategic sense is creating a plan now to convert to digital. It is speedier (instant!) and more certain (guaranteed) and cheaper (free) and even earns green points (no dead trees, no fuel, no fumes). What’s not to love?

[…]

So what does this do to the post office? In Europe, it’s going to be deadly expensive. The first-class mail that supports postal services around the world will be bound to shrink. Prices will then have to rise, forcing demand to shrink more.

Meanwhile, without air freight — or with the risk of it disappearing for days, weeks, months, even more — more goods will have to be moved by train and truck, raising demand there and thus raising prices of ground transport for the mail.

[…]

When first-class mail declines, the horrendous losses at our U.S. postal service will accelerate, forcing decisions that the government — as is its habit — would like to put off for a few years. There will be less first-class profit to subsidize the delivery of media (another nail in the coffin of magazines) and advertising (another reason to jump to digital) and parcels (opening up more opportunities for private competitors).

The delivery industry could be disrupted as profoundly but much more quickly than media. I’d sell stock in FedEx. If I thought the postal service would collapse, I’d buy it in UPS. I’m not sure about Amazon. You might think that Cisco would be a big winner but I’ll bet on Skype and hope it goes public soon. Of course, short every airline. That sound you hear is dominos falling.

Hmmm. Time to start up that peer-to-peer distributed delivery network?

It’s not just a big disruptive factor for the mail industry, either: all of a sudden, Brits are being reminded uncomfortably of just how dependent on air travel they’ve become. Their response? Start comparing the “rescue” plans (mobilise the Royal Navy!) to Dunkirk, of course. How better to cope with staring down the barrel of continuing economic decline than harking back to World War Two’s fading sepia-tinted glories, right?

More seriously, this is a great time for people everywhere to start thinking hard and pressuring their governments (or themselves) to invest in sustainable mass transit infrastructure that can’t be knocked out of kilter by clouds of dust… or shortages of fuel, for that matter (different cause, very similar effect). If you wanted a sketch or case study of what encroaching Peak Oil might look like from an economic, social and political perspective, watching the UK headlines right now is the closest you’re going to get without burning your fingers. Don’t just sell your UPS shares – sell all the ones you have in airlines, too. Reinvesting in transcontinental high-speed rail might be an option, and dirigibles are very Zeitgeisty (if only in fictional worlds)… but the future don’t got a lot of (civilian) contrails in it no more, mister.

I’ve got five bucks and a slightly-broken swivel chair that says John Robb is grinning a huge I-told-you-so grin right now. Does anyone want to open a book on the odds of the UK government bailing out the aviation sector? Because they’ve got their caps in their hands already


Crowdsourcing FedEx

Paul Raven @ 30-12-2009

mail packageSometimes I think I should have more faith in my own mad ideas. While the UK postal strikes were in full effect earlier in the year, I was kicking around an plan for replacing the increasingly beleaguered Royal Mail with a sort of peer-to-peer localised mail delivery system, which everyone I mentioned it to told me was completely impractical. [image by piermario]

I dare say they were probably right, but it’s still somehow gratifying to see that it’s not so crazy an idea that I’m the only person to have had it – via Global Guerrillas comes a post by a fellow called Chase Saunders in which he describes a similar idea: UsExpress.

I have mental picture of millions of people driving back and forth to work (and other places) over and over again.  It’s almost like Brownian motion.  Even if people rarely took long trips, there would be plenty of this routine, back and forth motion to ship all the packages we could possibly want, if only there were a service that gave a percentage of these drivers the right incentives, information, and infrastructure to hand off the packages at the proper moment. USExpress could be that service.

[…]

If my father took 10 packages, 4 days a week, fifty weeks a year, that would be 120 x 10 x 200 = 240,000 package miles.  How much do you think it costs to pay for a UPS driver to carry and deliver 240,000 package-miles?  Even if we assume an average of 300 packages on board at all times, that’s probably at least a week’s salary, not to mention overhead and benefits.  The difference is, the UPS guy is not going to drive that route unless we pay him (and train him, and buy him a truck, etc.)  But my father is going to drive to work anyway. If the pickup and dropoff locations are close enough to his work and home, why not generate a few hundred — or a few thousand — extra dollars a year?

Sure, there are some flaws to the idea, but Saunders addresses some of the big ones. The major stumbling block would be getting past the largely unfounded institutional trust we have in national mail systems – the trust that parcels won’t be lost, and that they will get to where they’re supposed to go, on neither of which Royal Mail has a flawless record. But such a system might just fill the gap as energy costs soar toward the day that physical delivery becomes obsolete


Tomorrow’s world: the demise of Fed-Ex

Paul Raven @ 19-11-2009

Fed Ex vanThose of you in the States may not be aware (or even care) that the staff of Royal Mail were recently engaged in wildcat strikes as a protest against the machinations of their management. Much as a lot of us have sympathies with their plight, it’s hard not to see them supplying the nails for the business’s coffin lid in the process; for example, in my guise as a music reviewer, the last two months have seen a sudden massed move by music PR outfits from mailing CDs to using file transfer services. It’s a sad story, really, the sort of thing I dare say someone will make a movie out of; by using the only method available to him to protect his job, the humble British postman is unwittingly hastening his own demise*.

But don’t feel too comfy over there, Statesiders, because Fed-Ex won’t last much longer in the grand scale of things. Tim Maly of Quiet Babylon points out that as old-school letters are trumped by email, Fed-Ex’s business shrinks down to authenticated documents and object transfers. The former won’t last much longer:

For whatever reason, the business/legal world insists that it needs a copy of a sheet of paper with ink from a pen that I actually touched.

So it gets sent by FedEx and the guy shows up at your door with the package and to prove it was received, you sign for it. On a touch pad. Electronically. I don’t think that the signed documents portion of FedEx’s business is long for this world.

That’ll leave Fed-Ex with what you might call “molecule moving” as its last major specialisation. And while the internet can’t dissolve that as quickly as data and authenticity, the writing is already on the wall, albeit faintly:

At some point, rapid prototyping and 3d printing becomes a mature technology. It leaves the design studios and then the factories and ends up, if not people’s houses, then at least as commonly distributed as print shops or 24 photo developers (which are themselves getting to be less and less common). Just-in-time fabbing.

So many of the things that we ship are mass-produced and interchangeable. Take a look around you and consider all the stuff you might move, were you planning to move. How much of it is stuff where an exact copy would be fine? How much of it is stuff where a factory-new copy would better than fine? How much crap do you ship because it’s easier/cheaper to just ship it than to get a new or better one?

Given that I’m moving house in about three weeks, I have a close and direct sympathy with what Maly is saying there – I’m not looking forward to disassembling my furniture and having it driven 270 miles in a van just so I can reassemble it at the other end. Molecular-level fabrication may seem that little bit too science fictional to believe right now, of course, but that’s what we thought about ubiquitous consumer-grade computing back in the early eighties… [image by Dano]

And by the way, if you like the cut of Mr Maly’s jib, keep your eyes peeled – there’ll be some interesting news in the next week or so here at Futurismic. 😉

[ * Please note that I have no wish to see postmen put out of work, and I’m not the sort of person who believes that unions or striking should be illegal. However, striking in this age of social media is observably self-defeating, and as much as corruption and mismanagement have exacerbated the problem, the business model that the Royal Mail has been operating under for so long is withering away as a result of circumstance and technological change as much as malice. Or to put it another way, playing King Canute is only going to get you wet feet. It’s a sad thing, but it’s also inevitable. ]