by Joshua Zev Levin, Ph.D.
It was the end of the first day of school, Wednesday, September 6, of the year 2017. A large crowd of boys, and a few girls, were gathered around the principal’s new car. It had a strange nameplate – Ronkonkoma – the name of a nearby lake, as well as a village near the lake. The principal’s son, Oliver Belfort, was explaining his father’s cool new “wheels”. His sister Mary, younger by a year, was standing quietly next to him.
Ollie talked about modular cars. “This idea was first shown as a concept car by General Motors, but I was just two years old then. That idea was for a two-piece car. The undercarriage, or chassis, had the drive train and all four wheels, and you put the car body on top of it, but you needed some special equipment to do that. Now, we use a three-piece car, with the front wheels and most of the car’s brains in the front undercarriage, and the rear wheels and most of the car’s batteries in the rear undercarriage. The car body is kind of on top and in between the undercarriages, and you can do a ‘chassis swap’ at home, right in your own driveway.
“Now, there are fewer than forty thousand modular cars – they’re still fairly uncommon. This car has a body made by a couple of old motorcycle guys in the village of Ronkonkoma, and they thought the name was pretty ‘funky’, as those old guys say, so they use it. They just built the car’s body. They use the very efficient system originally developed by Amory Lovins. They can download the designs of body panels from the web, program them into a big machine called a ‘custom molder’, and kind-of snap them together to get a car body shell. LeviCar added something – if these guys design a new car body, they can upload the design to LeviCar, which will analyze it for safety and durability, and, if they like it, make it available to other small shops across the country, for a royalty fee, of course, with some money going back to the original designers.
“There is a big aircraft company that developed a way of ‘spinning’ an entire composite-material airframe, and they are now also making car bodies that way. They aren’t earning so much money from making airplanes any more, so this kind-of makes up for it.
“The undercarriages were built by DCX, under license. Dad leases them from another company, and they take care of all the undercarriage maintenance, making sure the car’s always roadworthy. We can have each undercarriage move out from under the car body, one at a time, and go under another car body, like a minivan. The undercarriages have almost all the ‘guts’ of the car – the propulsion system, brakes, heating and air conditioning, steering and control. The car body doesn’t have to have much in it, so it is light and roomy – you can even walk around in it when you’re at a red light, just as long as you’re back in your seat and belted in by the time the light changes.”
Ollie’s friend Bill Schwarter asked, “Where’s the steering wheel?”
“This car doesn’t have one. Modular cars just about have to be drive-by- wire, where all the controls are electrical, and many drive-by-wire cars are controlled by an electronic console, called an ‘X-Drive’, but most cars have steering wheels because that is what people are used to. The X-Drive has a fancy joystick that controls both speed and steering. Dad likes it that way. Besides which, if you take it to a country where they drive on the left, you can switch it to the right side of the car. Actually, you can also do that with modular cars that have steering wheels, but it’s more work to change them.”
“I heard that these things are heavy,” commented another boy.
“Yeah, they are heavier than a regular car, but the weight is concentrated in the undercarriages, so it has a low center of gravity. Good handling. The added efficiency more than makes up for the added weight. Besides which, if you ever drive off a bridge or something, you can jettison the undercarriages, and the body will float like a boat, so you won’t drown.”
Peter Belfort, the school’s principal, was “the first on his block” to get one of these off-brand bodies. Ollie continued, “Dad told me that there’s little room for small companies in the chassis business, with all the stringent safety requirements, or so the big boys want you to believe. Uncle Ned told me that even though this car body was made by a small company, some of it was built by large companies, particularly the sophisticated airbag system, and also the electronic controls that guide the car.
“Bill, if you look over here,” he said, pointing to another nameplate on the car body, “and you’ll see that this is more than just a modular car!”
Bill looked at it, and read out “Lih VEE kar?”
“They like to pronounce this ‘LEH vih Kar’,” Ollie corrected. “A LeviCar has a car body that can ride on the RobotRail MagLev network.” RobotRail (pronounced “ROH-boh-Trail”) is a magnetic-levitation rail network that carries streamlined freight containers at high speeds across the country. Each container rides on its own detachable MagLev ‘bogie’. There is no one on board – no driver, engineer, or motorman. It is entirely automatic – hence the name, Robot + Rail.
“About three years ago,” he continued, “they started allowing passenger vehicles on the network, large forty-passenger buses they call ‘LeviCoaches’. Still, these have no driver, although each has an attendant to make sure the passengers are comfortable. If you ride these, you still have to use some other means get to your starting station, and get from your final station to your destination. Then last year, they introduced even smaller LeviVans, similar, but with only 12 passengers, and no attendant, although there are cameras and microphones for security.
“Earlier this year, they finally started allowing private LeviCars – modular cars with certain special features – to travel on parts of the RobotRail network. Well, come December, this car body will be going to Florida, with my whole family in it, using the LeviCar system, using that new MagLev link. They’ll take the car body off from the undercarriages, and mount it on a MagLev pallet, called a ‘bogie’, and then zip down to the Sunshine State at 300 m.p.h. We’re going to spend Christmas in Jacksonville with my mom’s Uncle Jimmy, and then go down to Orlando for the theme parks.”
Mr. Belfort then came, greeted the students, and asked them to stand clear of the car, except, of course, for his own Oliver and Mary. After they piled into the car, it slipped out of its parking space, and silently headed towards home. Well, not always silently. When a student got too close to the car, a low rumbling proximity warning sounded automatically. Silence is not always golden, especially when you’re driving close to a crowd of young pedestrians.
This car’s undercarriages have an all-electric drive, with both storage batteries and nanotech ultracapacitors. The original plan was for modular cars to be powered by hydrogen fuel cells, but advances in ways to efficiently store electricity outpaced hydrogen technology. The promise of rugged fuel cells and leak-proof hydrogen pipelines and storage tanks didn’t come through. That’s too bad, because a lot of hydrogen infrastructure was built for both transportation and non-transport use. In fact, Mr. Belfort had no way of knowing this, but his car’s rear undercarriage originally had hydrogen fuel cells. The fuel cells kept on wearing out, or just plain shorting out, so finally the leasing company salvaged the frame, wheels, wheel motors, and some other stuff, and replaced the fuel cells and hydrogen tanks with batteries and ultracapacitors.
Mr. Belfort told his children, “My brother Uncle Ned called me today. It wasn’t such a good day to call me because the first day of school is always so busy, but, anyway, we promised to address an assembly about LeviCars. I think you’ll find that to be fun.”
Oliver asked, “So are we going to Florida for Christmas? I’ve been boasting about it to all the kids.”
His father answered, “I sure hope so. Uncle Ned said that, if we have any problems making the arrangements, he can pull some strings.”
“Are we going to take this car?”
“Probably not – it’s too small. Your mother’s car is not rated for LeviCar, but the van is, and it can hold you two, mommy, George, and Cyndi, and all our junk, too. Let’s not hear about taking any of your friends, either. If I let one of you take a friend, then I have to let the other three take friends. Besides which, we’ll be seeing so many relatives for Christmas.”
“What’s wrong with mom’s car?”
“It has those old-fashioned rear-view mirrors – not fiber cameras. It isn’t streamlined enough, and its windshield wipers might fall off at high speed. Also, maybe it can’t take the stresses of high-speed travel. Besides which, it is too small to hold all of us. Even if we did use a dome, it wouldn’t be worth it.” A “dome” is a streamlined fairing that can attach to the MagLev bogie and covers the car body, for high-speed running.
A few minutes later, the car has slipped quietly into the driveway, right next to “Van Go IV”, a sleek minivan body perched on its static supports, without any undercarriage. It looked small for a minivan – but it was quite spacious inside, because of the modular architecture and the small size of the undercarriages. Some car bodies have small electric “trolling” motors and can move on their own, but this isn’t one of them, so it cannot be legally parked on the street.
Mr. Belfort greeted his wife, his two younger children, and the dog, grabbed a bite to eat, and then headed back to school for another two hours of administrative duties. Things were still hectic for an administrator during the first few days of school, even with downsizing.
When he finally came home for dinner, Mrs. Abigail Belfort was frantic. Mary was no where to be found. Just then, George came home from a friend’s house, and checked Van Go for a soccer ball he had used at camp, but had not seen since. Well, his big sister Mary was in the minivan, with her computer and disc player, reading for a school assignment. All she wanted was a little privacy. She was as quiet and studious as Cyndi, the youngest, was loud and gregarious.
Uncle Ned’s assembly was over a month later, on October 12. It was nice to have the entire student body of 790 students in one assembly – it made for a sense of community. Gone were the days of the 3500-student “comprehensive” high schools. With modern computer-aided instruction, teenagers could get a complete education in a smaller venue, closer to home.
The assembly started with a few brief announcement, a reminder to everyone “Don’t forget your jacket when you leave in the afternoon,” and the marching band doing a Sousa medley, or at least trying to.
Principal Belfort then introduced his older brother to the students. “Dr. Edward Belfort was one of the second generation of pioneers in Magnetic Levitation rails, and was there at the dawn of the LeviCar. He will tell you the exciting story of how it came to be, and where we’ll go from here. So, without further ado, is my brother, Dr. Belfort.”
“Young ladies and gentlemen, let’s go back about fifty years. Two scientists at Brookhaven National Laboratory, practically up the road from here, invented the superconducting Magnetic Levitation railroad, called ‘MagLev’ for short. They made a lot of progress over the next thirty-five years, but there was little public interest.
“Now, let me explain how a Magnetic Levitation, or ‘MagLev’ railroad works. Conventional railroads have steel wheels that ride on steel rails that are usually four feet, eight and a half inches apart. All the weight of the train is concentrated in the wheels, and then on to the rails, where it is spread out again through the cross-ties and the gravel bedding and down to ground. This is somewhat inefficient, in that structural members have to be very strong where the weight is concentrated, such as at the bearings between the axles and the wheels. Also, sometimes things would break, resulting in a derailment, when the train actually went off the rails – often very dangerous. To distribute the weight more evenly, monorail systems are used where the train rests on a single, wide rail. There may be many wheels on this one rail, each bearing a small part of the weight of the train.
“MagLev takes this one step further, but, instead of wheels, magnets are used. Some older systems use magnets that attract each other, with part of the train hanging over the monorail, and magnetically attracting the bottom of the monorail. Now, anybody who has played with magnets knows that the closer you put the magnets, the stronger the attraction between them. Therefore, if the train ‘hits a bump’ of any sort, it might be thrown into the rail, and the magnetic force increases as it gets closer, and, if it weren’t for an active, electronically-controlled feedback system, the overhang from the train would crash into the rail. Ouch! Also, if the magnets get too far apart, they would break the magnetic levitation, and the bottom of the train would hit the top of the monorail. Again, the automatic feedback systems prevents this from happening. These systems would work with a very small distance between the magnets.
“The original inventors of superconducting MagLev prefer a repulsive system – where the opposing magnets repel each other. It is quite easy to see how a repulsive system can be much more attractive than an attractive system. There is no overhang of the monorail by the train, and the train is generally above the monorails. If it hits a bump and gets further from the rail, gravity will just gently push it down. If it gets too close to the rail, then the increased strength of the magnetic field should gently push it up. Also, the gap between the magnets is much larger in this system, ten centimeters or more, which means much more tolerance for irregularities in the rails, or for small pieces of debris.
“Now, let’s fast forward to the early years of this millennium. At that time, this country was burning an inordinate amount of fuel, a lot of it for transportation. There was a call for more fuel-efficient vehicles, including hydrogen. Also, some engineers at General Motors had been working on a modular car, first called ‘Hy-Wire’, then ‘AUTOnomy’, ‘Sequel’, and finally ‘Duenna’ – the first production model – with a detachable chassis under the car body. Then they figured out it would be even better if it were powered by hydrogen fuel cells. That was fifteen years ago, in 2002.
“Now, hydrogen is, in many ways, an ideal fuel. If burnt, it burns clean, leaving only water vapor as its combustion product, although it might form a small quantity of other pollutants. If it is combined with oxygen in a fuel cell, then it is totally clean, with only water vapor coming out.
“Since then, there’s been a lot of trouble using hydrogen as a fuel. It could be formed from water by electrolysis, using electricity, but that is inefficient. It would leak terribly, escaping into the air and making a mess of the ozone layer. The fuel tanks are hard to make. People wanted to have some other propulsion system to be a stopgap while hydrogen was being perfected. Leading the pack was pure electric drive, using storage batteries, ultracapacitors, and even flywheels to store the electricity. Other proposals included compressed air and non-hydrogen fuel cells, mostly ethanol and methanol. Some people wanted to use exotic internal-combustion engines, such as Wankels (already proven in Mazda cars), turbines, flat-fours, adiabatics, and even some engines that used reciprocating pistons that directly generated electricity, or even hydraulic or pneumatic power. Of course, these engines didn’t have to work on gasoline – they could also us other fuels, many of which could be generated from biomass, such as ethanol, methanol, and biodiesel. The could also work on natural gas, propane, or even – would you believe! – hydrogen. The idea was that, when fuel cells were perfected, the chassis-leasing companies would gradually replace the other technologies with hydrogen.
“In the meantime, engineers figured out better ways to generate, store, and transport hydrogen. The ZECA system gets hydrogen from coal and water, while permanently sequestering the resultant carbon dioxide in mineral form. The United States has a lot of coal, as do many other large, industrialized countries. This coal can be converted into hydrogen, other fuels, or electricity.
“Anyway, pretty soon we will not be dependent at all on foreign sources of energy, except for some trade with our immediate neighbors, Canada and Mexico, just to make things more efficient.
“So, here it is, 2017, and hydrogen has failed. The hydrogen equipment in a lot of older chassis and undercarriages is being removed, and replaced all-electric systems and their associated hardware. Still, having individual cars was less efficient than, let’s say, mass transit, such as buses or trains. But, we Americans love our cars, and the convenience and individual control they provide.
“Now, when this was all starting, the magazine Scientific American published an article about the AUTOnomy concept car in 2002. One bright guy read the article and got the idea that you could take the upper module – the car body – and put it on a MagLev railroad. You get a much lighter vehicle, going at a much higher speed than you can get on the road – about 300 m.p.h. – and without the danger of a human driver making a serious mistake and causing a fatal accident. Best yet, in contrast to air or train travel, you get to keep your vehicle with you with far fewer hassles.
“It is interesting how this idea was presented to the general public – as a science- fiction story on the internet, which was later turned into an action-adventure movie. (It turned out that one of the author’s mother’s girlhood friends was the mother of a major Hollywood producer.)
“The original statement of purpose was: ‘To combine the privacy and convenience of a personal automobile with the efficiency of a railroad, with door-to-door speed competitive with that of a jet aircraft for distances of up to 2000 kilometers, using power from stationary sources.’ This was later shortened to: ‘The speed of a Jet Plane, the efficiency of a Train, and the convenience and privacy of your own Car.’
“This generated a lot of interest. Originally, people had thought that MagLev would just be another railroad, except faster, but not quite as fast as a plane. Still, you would have all the hassles of driving to the station in time so as not to miss the train because another won’t be along for hours, parking, worrying about the security of your car, lugging your luggage, checking in, getting on a vehicle with a lot of strangers, going somewhere fast but not fast enough because you had to stop every hundred or so miles, and arriving at your destination at some odd hour, lugging your luggage again, and then renting a car of unknown mechanical condition, and arriving at your destination tired.
“Well, even conventional trains weren’t really always that bad, and MagLev trains would be better. Due to automation, trains could be smaller and run more frequently. Use of station skipping and yet smaller local MagLev units would mean fewer stops on the way. Still, people had a hard time conceiving of spending taxpayer money on such a system.
“However, when people saw that a MagLev system could transport ‘whole’ cars to whatever destination is desired, with all the passengers and luggage, interest grew. No hassles. No lugging luggage, sharing space with strangers, stopping all the time, or driving someone else’s car to your final destination. Not only that, total travel time was competitive with jet aircraft! Public support skyrocketed.
“Then what happened? Well, the first MagLev lines were built, but technological problems kept the LeviCar concept from reaching full fruition. However, the MagLev lines became very popular for moving freight. They called this RobotRail, because it was entirely robotic – no drivers, just freight and its containers. MagLev bogies for 40-foot containers were made, complete with aerodynamic fairings, and more and freight went by MagLev. Now, we have new containers that are built to be aerodynamic, and containers and bogies are available in several different lengths. Local opposition to MagLev lines forced them to be built in out-of-the-way places, until people began seeing highways free of ‘big rigs’ – that is, huge, scary tractor-trailer trucks – in those areas that had MagLev lines. What also helped was that almost all MagLev lines are elevated, so that they can run above a farm without cutting the farm in two, and can run across roads and highways without expensive and dangerous grade crossings.
“Who paid for these? Well, federally-insured bonds got the first MagLev lines built, with the guaranty-trust fund being paid by fuel and carbon taxes. Since then, revenues from existing lines, supplemented by import tariffs on oil, have paid for construction of the rest of the still-growing network.
“The original North-South line was called the Jacksonville Line because it ran from Jacksonville, Florida, already a big transportation hub, through Jacksonville, North Carolina, and on to a terminal near Jacksonville, New Jersey (that being LeviCar’s test site), north-east of Philadelphia and right off the New Jersey Turnpike. It generated a lot of revenue, and was soon extended north-east to New York and New England, and southward to Florida’s citrus country. It is now but one part of a maze of MagLev lines serving the East Coast.
“More importantly, many of the safety issues that dogged the developement of LeviCar were solved in these freight systems. Things like vehicle spacing, collision avoidance, and convoys versus trains, and switching were all perfected. The original test LeviCars of five years ago usually traveled by themselves, with big spaces before and after them, not in today’s close-traveling convoys.
“Now, we have operational modular cars, most of them LeviCar capable. Many places are now encouraging installation of MagLev tracks, especially if they’re elevated. A tunnel directly linking Brooklyn and Bayonne, New Jersey, was started in 2008 for regular rail, but was modified later with dual-use tracks – both MagLev and regular steel-wheel on rail, and it opened for business late in 2013. They’re now installing two full-MagLev lines on the lower level of the Verrazano Bridge. You can now ride your LeviCar to your Florida vacation.
“May I have some questions?”
Ollie’s friend Bill asked, “What is the difference between a convoy and a train, when it comes to MagLev?”
“That’s a good question. First, both trains and convoys consist of several cars traveling together, and this results in much less air resistance, requiring less use of energy and allowing higher speed. A train would have several cars physically linked. They cannot be decoupled except by stopping them, and then physically detaching them. A convoy consists of several units that travel together without being physically coupled, so that they can break apart and reunite fairy easily. We have the cars magnetically coupled.
“We selected the Danby-Powell MagLev architecture because it can switch trains, and cars, from one track to another without any physical movement of the tracks. Normally, trains and bogies ride on a monorail. However, when switching, the central rail of the monorail mostly ‘disappears’ and the vehicles go on two ‘virtual’ rails that can overlap each other. Danby and Powell are the two guys I mentioned earlier who first invented superconducting MagLev.
“I see another hand raised.”
Henry Orshavsky asked, “I noticed that some LeviCars use one chassis, and others use two – one in front, and one in back. How come?”
“GM’s original modular car has a ‘skateboard’ chassis, only a few inches thick, running the entire length of the vehicle. The car body would sit atop the chassis, forming a two-part modular car.
“Well, one of the selling points of modular cars was that, if the drive train needed repair, one could simply lift the car body off the chassis, replace the chassis with another one, and then drive off. This is facilitated if the chassis are leased, so that the ‘old’ chassis can be returned to the leasing company, in exchange for the ‘new’ one.
“Unfortunately for GM, their two-piece modular-car concept made it too difficult for people to easily separate the chassis from the car body without a large piece of specialized equipment. That is why most modular cars have two-piece chassis, with a front part and a rear part, so you can do a ‘chassis swap’ at home, in your own driveway.
“Same boy – I see you have another question?”
“I’m confused. I’ve heard so many different names for the chassis. Is it chassis, or undercarriage, or what?
“Everyone is confused, young man. The basic term for the underparts of any modular vehicle is ‘pallet’. This can be anything from a self-propelled skateboard chassis, to a flat-bed truck trailer or rail car, to a boat hull.
“For automobiles, the people who use the one-piece skateboard pallet prefer to call it a ‘chassis’. The people who use a two-part pallet like to call the parts ‘undercarriages’. However, ‘front undercarriage’ and ‘rear undercarriage’ are mouthfuls, so some people called them ‘frontcee’ and ‘backcee’, y’know, like ‘front-c’ and ‘back-c’, where ‘c’ can mean either ‘chassis’ or ‘carriage’.
“For railroads and MagLev rail, the pallets are called ‘bogies’, using a traditional railroad term. Other available pallets include boat hulls and airframes. This is where the ‘multi-mode’ concept comes in.
“For many years, engineers have been pushing the ‘dual-mode’ concept, whereby an automobile can be driven in the regular road mode, four wheels on the road under the control of the driver, for local travel; and it can also run in an automatic mode on a special highway. This idea must have been around at least a decade before LeviCar emerged. When on an Automated Highway System, or AHS, a car could travel at 95 m.p.h. only inches from the cars in front and the cars behind. This would reduce aerodynamic drag and increase road capacity in terms of vehicles per hour. The automated system would supposedly enhance safety by eliminating human error. Some proposed systems would have cars run on their own wheels, others have the cars ride atop pallets. Some systems would have the AHS for special inner lanes of regular superhighways, other have cars on dedicated lanes or rails separated from the regular highways. Most would have the cars enter and leave the system when they were moving at fast speeds, some have you stop the car, or at least slow down to near-walking speed, when you transitioned from manual to automatic mode and back. The expectation is that the car would enter and leave the AHS twice a day, that is, four transitions each weekday, or twenty per week.
“In contrast, LeviCar requires you to completely stop the car, and perform some major surgery on it before continuing in the automatic mode, with the expectation of maybe four transitions per week, not twenty. LeviCar also helps ensure safety by having its rails in a closed, automatic system, whereas with some dual-mode systems you have both regular-mode and automatic-mode cars sharing the same lanes at some points. That can be hairy.
“If you add LeviCar to dual-mode, you get a three-mode system. If you consider that a LeviCar can run as an airplane or boat, that makes five modes. If you consider that there may be three kinds of small boats, plus ferries, and two kinds of airplanes, that’s more modes. If you add super- high-speed evacuated-tube transcontinental MagLev, even more. So we just call it ‘multi-mode’ to be most general.
“It is obvious that there is a gap between regular road mode and LeviCar, and that some sort of AHS is needed to fill that gap. There are some problems with AHS. If you have a palletized system, there is the effort of adding and removing the pallets, and the wear-and-tear that may cause to parts of the car. Also, the linkage points between the car and the pallet can get dirty and may not work right. For a non-palletized system, the active parts on the bottom of the car may likewise get dirty.
“Then, there is the question of which automatic unit controls the car – the central system, or the car’s on-board computer. If it is the central system, then you better have a very good and reliable communications system. If it is the car’s own computer, then it has to have the latest software, and be 100% reliable. Most systems, actual and proposed, have most of the decision-making in the central system, with the car’s on-boards being backup for it. That is, the system’s computer and the car’s computer have functionally identical software, so, with he same input data, they’ll both react the same – at least in theory.
“So far, there are only three AHS systems in the country. LeviCar runs one of them – the EBAR line in Pennsylvania – that is, Easton, Bethlehem, Allentown, and Reading. It used what we call a semi-palletized system. The front and rear undercarriages each have a permanent partial pallet, called a ‘slab’, that consists of magnetic material and some coils of high-temperature superconducting wire. Some regular cars can also be fitted with these slabs. A slab’s bottom is solid – no dirt can get in. Trouble is – they weigh 300 lbs. each, for a total of 600 lbs per car!
“To get onto the EBAR line, you have to drive through something like a toll plaza. The underside of the car is washed, and the partial pallets, radio-frequency communications links, and the car’s drive-by-wire system are all checked. If there are any problems, the car is sent to the local parking area you would be informed of the problem, and then you can drive onto Interstate 78 or 176, or choose a local road. However, if everything is OK, then the car travels on a highly-modified Danby-Powell system at a bit over 100 m.p.h. – we hope to get it up to 125 eventually – and is sent to its destination parking area miles away. The reason to stop the car at the end of its AHS segment is to make sure the driver is alert and knows that the AHS ride is over. It’s inconvenient, but safer.
“We are still not sure which AHS system will win out – EBAR, or the competing systems on the east coast of Florida in Texas – San Antonio to Austin. We have plans to build the next one right here on Long Island starting next year. In any case, a lot of the experience we gained from LeviCar has gone into the design of these AHS systems, including hardware, software and algorithms, and communications systems.
“OK, yes, young lady in the back – question?” he asked, as he unwrapped a throat drop.
Trisha Zink asked, “What do you do for LeviCar? What is your job there?”
“Besides being a generalized idea man, I build the artificial-intelligence algorithms that guide the RobotRail units and LeviCars. It was not easy. I came on board during the depths of the ‘dot-com crash’, when there were many computer programmers out of work, including me. I was about to get married, and it was quite a shock to be out-of-work. So, I closed the book on internet-related work, and revived my grad-school interest in AI/OR – artificial intelligence and operations research. Fortunately, I managed to hook up with the LeviCar people, and I’ve been with them, through thick and thin, ever since.
“Some of the early algorithms for controlling LeviCars and RobotRail vehicles were pretty hokey, and resulted in huge spacing between vehicles, and a lot of delays. That is why I invented the convoy concept. The current algorithms support large traffic volume, and allow for about 8% higher average speed – that is, 25 m.p.h. more – than the algorithms of just five years ago.
“Are there any more questions?”
Paul Weller said, “I know that most people lease their chassis, as you had just mentioned, and I understand that is because they are paying for the ‘service’ provided by the chassis, not the material chassis itself. Can you buy your own chassis?”
“Yes, you can, and some performance enthusiasts own theirs, and make modifications to them, and some even race them. In standard car racing, race cars make ‘pit stops’, where they refuel and change the tires, and give the car a brief checkover. Modular car racers do a very quick chassis swap at pit stops, which is more like a long-distance bicycle racer changing bikes. They prefer one- part chassis – they have the equipment to swap them quickly.
“Okay, it was a pleasure talking to you. Those of you in Mrs. DeBaker’s AP economics class will have a chance to speak with me next period.
“Lastly, I just want to say that my company is in the competition for the design of the new Space MagLev system to be built in New Mexico. You heard it here, first! This will use MagLev technology to accelerate payloads to fantastically high speeds, for launch into outer space, to other planets, maybe even to other solar systems. Maybe in the future, they’ll have an even bigger one in northern Mexico. A vehicle will start its journey near the city of Durango, and it will accelerate across four Mexican states before its final ‘ski jump’ up the western side of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains. They’ll need to have the vehicle ultra-streamlined, because it’ll be going plenty fast at launch.
“I even envision a Space MagLev system for the moon. There is plenty of solar electricity to be had there to power that system, especially now that we can make solar cells in space. Also, horizontal launch from the near-vacuum of the moon gives a lot more flexibility to designing spacecraft.
“Of course, these things will be going far faster than the 300 to 325 m.p.h. of earth- bound MagLevs. You won’t be able to take your own car to the moon, or beyond, but the cost of interplanetary space travel will be considerably reduced.
“The escape velocity on the moon is much less than that on earth, and we will want to accelerate the vehicles to speeds much higher than the escape velocity. That means that such a Space MagLev system must first use a repulsive system to counteract the Moon’s feeble gravity, and then use an attractive system to overcome the centripetal force – or am I getting too technical?”
Glancing at his watch, he concluded, “Just one final point – never be inflexible about your career goals. Get a good, broad-based education so you can move from niche to niche as technology evolves. I was fortunate enough to have a fallback skill. Don’t get over-specialized, whether you work in technology, or anything else.”
After the talk, Principal Peter Belfort asked his brother Ned, “There is an indicator on the control screen that says that my car is not LeviCar-worthy. There is also a whistling sound when I go about 45 m.p.h. Seems to come from above. Any connection?”
“Sounds like a problem with the roof hatch. Have you been messing with that? It’s supposed to be an emergency escape.”
“Yeah, I’d been showing off the car before football games, standing up, sticking out the hatch, with the control panel on the roof, right in front of me, circling the field. On the last game, someone from the other school threw an egg at me. I’m not sure if the party in question dislike my football team, LeviCar, or both! I think some of it got caught in the hatch gasket. You think that if I clean it out, it’ll be OK?”
“You could try. If that doesn’t work, I’ll have somebody look at it. You don’t want it to keep you from going on your Florida vacation!”
The young, single, tall science teacher came up to the Belfort brothers and asked, “Dr. Belfort, would you like to see the MagLev model I set up in the physics lab. My students and I just finished it!”
The principal said, “Ned, this is Mr. Cooperman. I believe I had told about him.”
“Oh, yes, all the girls want to be with him, and all the boys want to be like him.”
“No, I mean about his using MagLev in the physics curriculum.”
“Right,” said Dr. Belfort. Turning to Mr. Cooperman, he remarked, “You don’t really finish building one of our MagLev model kits. We want you to play with it, and maybe come up with some good ideas. If you do, and we can use, them, there might be some money in it!
“I can see you after next period, if you’re free. I have a class to talk to, first.”
Principal Belfort left, saying, “I have to run. I’m teaching ‘Classical- Language Appreciation’ next period. Pray for me – I’m trying get teenagers to actually like ancient Greek and Latin.”
After quaffing some his super-strong ice tea, Dr. Belfort went to talk to thirteen of the brightest students in his brother’s school – Mrs. Edna DeBaker’s Advanced-Placement “Eco” class – also known as “DeBaker’s Dozen”.
“Just bear in mind that I am not an economist, just a technologist who has seen and observed a lot,” he started.
“I’m here to talk about some of the non-technical aspects of LeviCar and RobotRail. Some of these things are just as revolutionary as the technical innovations. As an example, we almost reinvented the patent process. Back in those days, in the early part of the new century, a big thing was open-source computer software. Now, software is well-suited for open source, because almost all the cost is in design, and the costs of ‘manufacturing’ and distribution are negligible – less that what it would cost you to process any payment. The volunteer participants would contribute their efforts for the fun and pride of it, without compensation. Other people started to apply this concept to other areas. However, hardware is a lot different than software.
“LeviCar adapted ‘open-source’ by maintaining blogs among registered member inventors, and by automatically keeping track of who made what suggestion when, and regarding each of these as a ‘claimlet’. (They wanted to call these ‘micropatents’, but that term was used in other contexts for other things.) When they have enough claimlets to file a patent, including the blog discussions, then they’ll file a patent with several dozen co-inventors, each with a small share of the patent. The patent office seems happy to let us do most of the patent-examination work – less work for them. The inventors don’t have to pay for the patent, but do receive royalties if the claimlets are used. And, if it happens that someone else has already thought of the same idea, the inventor – or reinventor – knows this right away and does not have to expend thousands of dollars just to find that out – this saves people a lot of grief.
“In exchange for this convenience, inventors give up their right to sue for things like patent infringement, and all disputes are settled by arbitration. You have to be a bit of an idealist to do this, but a lot of our people are in Generations X, Y, and Z. They can be inspired by their desire to save our planet. They are not ‘paycheck players’ who work only for the money. They are really ‘into’ what they do. And they usually don’t cheat or swindle, because that is not robbing the company, but robbing from Mother Earth herself.
“Oh, yeah – another thing that happens – and this is inherent in any open-source system – is that you have a lot of unlikely collaborations, often with people thousands of miles apart. Somebody in San Fernando has a bright idea, but is ‘all thumbs’ and can’t build a prototype, much lest test it. Another guy is a tinkerer in New Hampshire who can build things, but is looking for good ideas on what to make. Alone, they are lost souls; together, they’re genius! Also, the computer often introduces potential collaborators to each other, without any other human intervention.
Clarisia Morten asked, “Other than open-source software, what inspired you to have such on open system for patent ideas, one in which the inventors can actually get paid?”
“Aren’t you one of the musicians in the ballroom-dance band?”
“Yes, I fill in, sometimes, on weekends. I’ve seen you coaching the dancers there, [whispering] including our own honorable madame le professeur.”
“I think you’ll be interested in one of the things that influenced us – ASCAP – The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. They’ve been around over a hundred years. What they do is to make it easy for any musician to perform a piece written by someone else, and pay the royalty, through ASCAP, very easily, and make sure it gets to the author, or at least the copyright owner. And they do this for over a quarter of a million members.
“Next. That young man in the sport jacket and tie.”
Lenny “YR” Caplan asked, “Why do you have such an open system for patentable ideas? Aren’t you exploiting the inventors by taking their ideas, and then giving them only a fraction of what they’re worth?”
“Let’s consider Wilbur Wright, the senior of the two brothers who invented the airplane. They put a lot of effort into protecting their ‘intellectual property’ rights. The Wright brothers made trip to Boston, in 1912, to defend their patents against Glenn Curtiss, one of their principal rivals. Wilbur apparently ate some bad oysters there, and died of typhoid three weeks later.”
“That wouldn’t be a problem with me,” Lenny interjected.
Dr. Belfort continued, “After that, Orville couldn’t carry on alone, and that was pretty much the end of the Wright influence as a creative force in aviation. Taking this as a lesson, the LeviCar people decided that there will be enough royalties – that is, money – to go around, so why not make this an open process?
“The inventors are well taken care of. Most of them are overcompensated for their petty contributions, and the few that have made major contributions – well, they get so much money they don’t mind. Of course, all financial arrangements are open and transparent.
“Y’know, young man, you kind of got me started, here.” Dr. Belfort pulled one of his business cards from his jacket pocket, and started reading what was printed on the back. He said, “The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to give out patents, and copyrights, by stating that it has the power ‘To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries’. What happens when people abuse the system? I remember the Blackberry near-fiasco from 2005 – or was it 2006? – and how simple greed almost set back an important young technology, as well as almost inconvenienced a lot of people. What we’re trying to do is to make sure that we really do ‘promote the progress of science and useful arts’!
“Anyway, let me hand out these cards,” he said as he gave a bunch to the closest student. “Just pass them around, and you can take more than one, if your parents or friends could use one. Sorry, I meant to hand some out at the assembly, but I forgot. However, I do have a swag for each of you, especially for you.” He reached into a jacket pocket and pulled out a bag with fourteen ballpoint pens, each with a clear casing, and containing a miniature monorail with a teeny LeviCar, on its bogey, that can slide the length of the pen.
Trisha Zink said, “It is I, again, and I hope you don’t mind answering another question about your job.”
“Well, there seem to be a lot of different business entities in the LeviCar Community. Some are for-profit, some are not-for-profit, some are tied to colleges and universities, or even community colleges. Why is this? And what type of entity do you work for?”
“That’s a lot of questions, young lady! Hmm. Well, the people who started LeviCar – and RobotRail – realized that they weren’t just starting a company – they were starting an industry. The Wright brothers were trying to invent the aeroplane, and didn’t consider airport terminals, Jetways, lost luggage, or stewardesses – or ‘flight attendants’ as we call them now. The LeviCar people tried to consider all aspects of the new industry they were founding.
“Besides which, if we had a monopoly, eventually the Federal Government would break it up. So – why bother? Start out already broken into small pieces that are used to working together. Then we won’t have to go through the heartache of the breakup of AT&T, the phone company. I hope you’ve already studied that . . . .”
“Yes, we have,” piped in Mrs. DeBaker.
“The founders of LeviCar also realized that their success was very important for the future of the world, not just the United States or Western Civilization. Rather than trying to squeeze the last possible cent of wealth out of it, they resolved to serve mankind and earth, our home, on the assumption that they would be adequately compensated for their efforts.
“To prevent any appearance of being a monopoly, they established this ‘polypoly’ [puh LIH pa Lee].” At this point, Mrs. DeBaker wrote, on the blackboard, “POLYPOLY, from Greek, POLY (many) + POLEIN (sellers), coined by Ragnar Frisch, Norwegian economist, co-winner 1st Nobel Econ. Prize.”
He continued, “However, your teacher informs me that what we established was more of a ‘Perfect Competition’ – which sounds very good to me, but in some cases it’s ‘Monopolistic Competition’. Forgive me, I am merely a technologist who knows a little something about economics.”
“What I understand,” said Mrs. DeBaker, “is that some products, like undercarriages, which are generally bought by companies that then lease them out, have only a little bit of product differentiation as far as the final consumer is concerned, so we have something very close to perfect competition for those. The leasing companies themselves boast about their reliability, low rates, and quick service, and try to build brand loyalty, so they have ‘Monopolistic Competition’. Likewise for the manufacturers of car bodies, who distinguish themselves by comfort, electronic accessories, and somewhat by exterior styling, except it’s hard to make that different when everything has to be extremely streamlined.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I hadn’t quite understood those distinctions. Now, let’s see, I was going to talk about the hundreds of Patent-Holding Companies (PHCs) and Patent-Holding Foundations (PHFs), many of the latter being associated with colleges.” At this point, the teacher disappeared into her prep room. Dr. Belfort went on, “There are thousands of manufacturers in the LeviCar Community, many of which existed before LeviCar got started. These range in size from General Motors, down to small one-person auto shops. Also, there are the many state and regional RobotRail/LeviCar operating authorities and chassis-leasing companies.
“There are various arbitration boards to allocate the competing claims of the many inventors, to allocate royalties from the manufacturers to the inventors, and to manage interchangeability and fees among the various operating authorities. We also have a social-action foundation to help those economically displaced by RobotRail and LeviCar – this being ably led by my friend, the economist Dr. Seymour Armenfreund.
“And, of course, coordinating everything, is the LeviCar Foundation, which is the entity I work for. As far as my software efforts, they are all open-source, so there are no royalties. Royalties are for hardware.”
Quentin Avery asked, “How does your patent-sharing system differ from traditional cross-licensing?”
“We start the patent collaboration as the ideas are being formed. Most cross-licensing is done after the patents are granted, when one company lets another use its patents either in exchange for using their patents – although this can be used by big companies to coerce small companies. Also, one company can license a patent from another, for a reasonable fee. Patent infringement is when one company uses another company’s patented ideas without a licensing agreement, and often the infringed party sues for a lot more than the licensing fee would be.
“There was the famous, or rather infamous, case of the Selden patent. George B. Selden, a patent lawyer as well as an ‘inventor’, tried to patent the automobile, and helped established the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers (ALAM). He tried to force some accepted manufacturers to pay royalties, and to exclude other less desirable guys – LeviCar accepts, as members, entities of almost any size. Oddly enough, at one point, Selden himself was so rejected! Henry Ford challenged this system, and won in court. Since 1915, automobile manufacturers have successfully used a patent cross-licensing system.
Lenny asked, “So is LeviCar above doing any political shenanigans?”
“Yes and no,” answered Dr. Belfort. “Some of our people helped get national health care enacted, which also happened to help out General Motors and the other big American car companies, by relieving them of the responsibility for health care for their workers, former workers, and retirees, and saved them billions of dollars. I like to think it made them inclined to invite LeviCar into their patent pool, and we set up a special provision so that not all of an older company’s patents must be under the LeviCar’s patent rule, but the company can still participate in the LeviCar Community.
“Now, there are other companies, which are not members of the Community, that have patented stuff we commonly used. A good example is Michelin. They make the tweels – non- pneumatic tires plus wheels, that are so common on all sorts of cars, now. They make them, we buy them. I hate that name, but I love the product.”
Lenny then stated, “I was trying to get you to talk about having a ‘favorable regulatory environment’.”
“Oh, that. Any industry nowadays has to be subject to some sort of government regulation. In the beginning, we wanted to make sure we had such a regulatory environment that would let us grow, in order that we could provide safe, clean, and responsible transportation, without getting bogged down with inappropriate regulations. One of the first things we did was to have the government pass a law that declared that RobotRail was not a railroad, but rather an ‘automated conveyer system’, and therefore did not have to have any people on board to operate it and to look for safety problems – we could do that remotely, quite well, with cameras and other sensors. The railroad unions hated us, but we offered them jobs on a preferential basis, on par with the truck drivers, and they went quiet.
“Also, other industries have, in the past, thrived under regulations that maintained a ‘shared monopoly’, and then have had problems when they were ‘deregulated’. We hope to avoid that by knowing, in advance, how the regulatory environment is going to change and evolve over time. Remember, our industry, as represented by the LeviCar Community, exists not to maximize profit for its members, but to provide a public service while giving our members the opportunity to realize a reasonable profit.”
Quentin then asked, “What if an inventor does not cooperate with you, with LeviCar?”
“Then we give him, or her, a hard time,” Dr. Belfort said sternly. Then, in a lighter tone, “Everyone knows you always get a fair shake from the LeviCar Community.”
Quentin repeated an oft-heard aphorism, using a robotic monotone: “We are LeviCar. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”
“I thought that was Microsoft,” blurted Simeon Jackson.
“No,” replied Dr. Belfort, “it was originally was from the Borg on Star Trek.”
“Sounds Swedish,” commented Trisha.
“Not Swedish,” corrected Dr. Belfort, “but rather they were a race of Cyborgs, beings that are part biological, and part cybernetic – that is, computer-based. The had a collective intelligence that included all the knowledge they accumulated from every sapient being they assimilated into the Collective. I know you may say the LeviCar works that way, too, but there is a big difference. We don’t make you over into something else, as the Borg did.
“Rather, we want to continue a lifestyle that so many Americans are comfortable with, but make it a lot greener. This is important: LeviCar is not against the movement towards small, self- contained, walkable communities. We have one way of helping the environment, and they have another, and the two are quite compatible; we’re a bit better at preserving existing residential infrastructure in the suburbs, and they are probably the ‘wave of the future’ when it comes to new housing. Likewise, we don’t object to people developing non-electric energy systems, even though we use electricity almost exclusively.
“Now, young lady, your silly comment about the Swedes is eerily similar to one made in a Star Trek Movie.”
Tom Andropolous piped in, “By the character Lily Sloane, played by Alfre Woodard, in Star Trek: First Contact.”
“Thank you. I’m sure we all wanted to know that,” remarked Dr. Belfort, sarcastically.
Simeon said, “When I was young, my uncle lost a lot of money in a high-tech venture. They tried selling the company, and then merging with another company, but nothing worked, and they failed, and some good inventions were never implemented. What happens when one of your LeviCar companies goes under?”
“We don’t let that happen. Walt Disney is credited with saying, ‘No good idea is ever allowed to die.’ Then again, we’ve poured plenty of money into what we thought were bad ideas, and sometimes they turn out to be good ideas, so it was worth it. When a company starts to fails financially, the LeviCar Collective – I mean Community – will merge the company and its assets, including its patents and claimlets, with another similar company, or divide it up among several companies, and pretty much guarantee work to most of its workers – but not any slackers. The only exception is when fraud is detected, but that only happened once, and I hope nobody tries that again.”
“What really galled my uncle,” continued Simeon, “was that other companies with similar ideas later made a fair amount of money, after his company failed.”
“Well, it’s the pioneer that gets the arrow in his back, or it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese. But that does not happen in the LeviCar Community. Maybe the first mouse won’t get as much cheese, but it will be more than the second mouse gets, which is more than the third mouse, and so forth.
“Now, yes, you over there, giggling – what’s so funny?”
“Does LeviCar really stand for ‘Levitating Electric VehIcle Carried on Automatic Rails’?” asked Bud Wexler, the youngest member of the class.
Dr. Belfort, feigning annoyance, said, “Just like Fiat stands for ‘Fix It Again, Tony’, and Ford stands for ‘Found On Road, Dead’ or maybe ‘First On Race Day’. No, just simply ‘Levitating Car’, with a nod to the last name of one of the founders.
“Actually, I should not be ripping into the Fiat group – they have been the most cooperative European auto maker as regards LeviCar.”
He noticed Clarisia pulling out a flute. “Young lady, what are you doing?”
She said, “I was hoping that you and Mrs. DeBaker could show off some ballroom- dance steps. Please!”
Dr. Belfort explained, “There is not nearly enough space in this classroom.” He turned around to see Mrs. DeBaker in her dancing dress with an uneven hem, and dancing shoes, with a broad grin on her face; and he knew the present discussion about LeviCar was over. He whispered to her, “Do they know about us?”
“They all know we used to be dance partners – your brother has pictures of us, dancing, in his office.”
“We never danced in his office!”
“You know what I mean, you silly boy. Most of them know we used to be dance partners, many of them know you introduced me to my husband, and maybe a few of them know the rest, but let’s not tell them.
“Ned, I think that we have enough room to do one of your fancy dips. Bertie isn’t nearly as tall as you, and can’t do it, or, at least, can’t do it well.”
“OK,” he said, “it’s hard to refuse such a pretty girl as you.”
So, the chairs were moved aside. Then, while Clarisia played a Latin dance tune, the two grownups showed off a very fancy ending for a dance – a dip – in which she went under his legs, around to the other side, and wound up in his arms. She then whispered to him, “I’m so glad we can still be friends.”
He responded, “So am I, after all we’ve been through. This class has some interdisciplinary approach – Economics, High Tech, Music, and Ballroom Dance!”
Then, he said aloud, “Thank you oh so much, Clarissa, for the music. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you play solo before. I didn’t think the flute was that versatile an instrument, but, in your hands, it is!”
“You’re welcome,” responded Clarisia, not bothering to correct his mispronunciation of her name.
’Twas the day before Christmas, or at least the day before Christmas break, Thursday, December 21. The official school calendar, that the Belforts had printed on their home computer in August, said the next day was a “snow makeup day”, even though there is rarely a significant snowfall before Christmas, with global warming being the probable cause for that. Maybe, with the LeviCar and other modern transportation advances, things will cool down – globally. After all, LeviCars would mean fewer planes in the sky, and fewer contrails, so less cloud cover, and less greenhouse effect, and less global warming.
Mr. Belfort told his wife, Abigail, “Honey, I know you like to get things done in advance, but that calendar is obsolete. We changed the schedule before Thanksgiving to make tomorrow a vacation day. Please reprint it, so we’re up-to-date.”
Abby asked him, “Why did you change it?”
“Well, weather forecasting is much better that when we were kids. I remember when they had a tough time getting an accurate forecast for three days in advance. Now, we can get good forecasts for eleven days, and general trends for a whole season. By November, we knew it would be a warm and somewhat dry winter, even though, as it turns out, today will be rather cold, but still dry.”
The children were joyous that this was the last day before break, but the building engineer, Mr. Jakob (known as “Yahkie”), was nervous – the automatic controls on the hydrogen-powered heating system were acting up. He wished they had stayed with natural gas and not converted the heating system to an unproven technology. Principal Belfort was worried – he wanted to do the chassis swap on the cars, but he had to man the phones to get the right repair people to come over before the vacation. Ollie and Mary had to take the school bus home.
It was after dinner, and Mr. Belfort still was stuck in the office. Some things you can’t delegate to subordinates – like yelling at the engineers at the school district to give Mr. Jakob all the help he needs. It looks like Ollie will have to do the chassis swap, ably assisted by younger brother George, just as, in the past, Ollie had assisted his father in doing chassis swaps, until Ollie could do it himself with his father watching. Ollie had done it solo twice before, but now it was dark and bitterly cold. Even the old dog, Homer II (affectionately known as H2), stayed indoors.
All of the Belforts’ modular cars had two-piece chassis. The front undercarriage, or “frontcee” had the two wheel assemblies, each with a wheel, a “hub motor” in the wheel, plus independent steering and suspension. All of the Belforts’ undercarriages used flexible plastic “tweels” rather than pneumatic tires. The distance between the front wheels is adjustable, and can be made larger for a big family sedan or minivan, or smaller for a sportier car. This frontcee also has most of the brains of the car, plus the heating-ventilation-air-conditioning (HVAC) system, and some electric-storage capacity, and a third wheel that folds up underneath. For some reason – perhaps its resemblance to a baby-stroller wheel, or maybe its diminutive size – the fold-up wheel was called a “baby wheel”, or sometimes just a “baby”.
The rear undercarriage, or “backcee” was similar but simpler. It has the two rear wheel assemblies, each with a hub motor, but no steering, and with the distance between them still being adjustable. The fold-up wheel, however, is steerable. The backcee also contains the bulk of the electric storage capacity. Some backcees have limited steering – these are popular in big cities where people often have to parallel park. The idea is that the frontcee has more things that can break, and so many service problems can be solved simply be replacing only the frontcee.
The car body has two rods protruding from its front, and another two from the rear. These rods are part of the body’s composite-material frame. They connect to extended sockets, one for each wheel assembly. The body also has four “card-table-legs” that can support the body when it has no undercarriage, and a fold-up wheel that can be positioned either fore or aft of the center of gravity. This wheel is often called a “super baby”, like Clark Kent in diapers. Some other car bodies have no legs, but three babies, two non-steerable wheels in back, and one steerable wheel in front – and if the latter has a small trolling motor, then the car body can move, albeit slowly, even without an undercarriage.
Ollie needed to remove both undercarriages from his mother’s car, and put them under Van Go IV. They were supposed to have used the undercarriages from Mr. Belfort’s car, because the frontcee was almost due for a checkup, but he was stuck at school, and their reservation for the LeviCar station was for eight o’clock. It was a good thing the Belforts had some pull with the local LeviCar operating authority.
The minivan was in the garage, front in, and was fully loaded with the luggage, but was sans undercarriage, and Mrs. Belfort’s car was right next to it, also front in. Ollie was holding the remote-control unit, which had already been programmed for the full chassis swap from veh1 to veh3, as that car and the minivan were called by the home network. He first made sure it was set to control veh1, and then slowly backed the car out of the garage and into the driveway. He then lowered the car body’s “super baby” wheel in its rearward position, and also lowered the backcee’s fold-up wheel. He then made the backcee separate from the car, by having a voltage applied to the two mechanical connecting rods coming from the rear of the car body, causing a myriad of nanotech piezoelectric grabbers to withdraw into the rods. Another connector, called the “third lug”, on the rear wall of the car body, was also disengaged. He gingerly moved the backcee, at ¾ m.p.h., towards the rear of the minivan, still in the garage. As it was traveling, the distance between the two wheels increased slightly, because the minivan is wider than the car.
When the backcee and minivan body were about a foot apart, he put it in automatic mode, and the backcee and the minivan docked automatically. After they were docked, the voltage on the rods was released, and the grabbers stuck into the rods’ sockets, creating a firm mechanical link, and the third lug was also engaged. There were also electrical power and signal connectors. The minivan’s “super baby” wheel was lowered in the forward position, and the four card-table legs were withdrawn into their sockets in the minivan body’s bottom pan.
He used the remote control to turn the car around and back it into the garage, with George providing an extra pair of eyes. The car’s card-table legs were deployed, and the “super baby” wheel was raised, He then switched modes and pulled the minivan straight out of the garage – it had to go in a straight line because it could not be steered. He followed pretty much the same procedure to get the frontcee off the car and onto the minivan, except that steering was done by two main wheels, not the fold-up. Steering was necessary because the frontcee had to turn 180º, and George helped out here, too. There were also ventilation ports that docked, in addition to the electrical connections. It took all of six minutes to do this – it would have been faster had it been light out, or if Ollie and George had more experience doing this. All went well, though.
Finally, Mr. Belfort came home. Mr. Jakob had the help he needed. Mrs. Belfort packed up leftovers for her husband, and, after grabbing his personal bag, he, and all the family, piled into Van Go IV for the trip down south.
However, they started the trip by driving north, towards the LeviCar station right outside Brookhaven National Lab – the closest one. There were two other cars ahead of them. The first one was a convertible, already mounted on the MagLev bogie. They watched as it was covered with a plastic-composite dome. The travelers in the convertible had to pay a bit extra for that. The original domes had some reliability problems. Once, one fell apart, and all the LeviCars in the convoy, from the one with the failed dome on backwards, had to slow down and be sent to the nearest station. Some of them had surface damage, but there were no injuries. The new domes should be much more reliable.
Then, the minivan, with all its seven occupants and luggage, was detached from the undercarriages and placed on the MagLev bogie, in thirty five seconds, not the six minutes from before. The undercarriages were legally returned to the leasing company that really owned them, to be soon either given to another one of their customers, or sent into the shop for maintenance. The leasing company liked to get each undercarriage back every once in a while for maintenance, and doing this at the LeviCar station saved the customers the trouble of bringing the car in for a chassis swap. Before modular cars, people were often too busy, or sometimes too cheap or too ignorant, to properly maintain their cars, something called ‘deferred maintenance’. It is in the best interest of the chassis-leasing companies to make sure the chassis are properly maintained, there are fewer road accidents because of deferred maintenance.
After a hundred yards or so, the minivan came to stop within a wind tunnel, where it was subjected to winds equivalent of what it would experience while traveling, while sensors checked for proper wind flow and for excess movement of any parts. The van passed with “flying” colors.
Then it was westward ho! The LeviCar, this being the Belforts’ personal minivan body mounted on a bogie owned by one of the LeviCar operating companies, was gliding above a MagLev monorail, through the relatively flat land of the south shore of Long Island. George was looking out the window, and noticed that they were going backwards! Ollie explained that this was for safety – in the rare event of a collision and sudden deceleration, the passengers were better off being pushed into their seat backs, rather than straining against the seat belts.
As they went past Kennedy Airport. Mr. Belfort joked, “Look at the planes coming in while you can. Pretty soon, there won’t be any – everyone will be taking LeviCars!” Ollie then pointed out “Not so fast, Dad. You can’t take a LeviCar to Europe or Asia, and it is still faster by plane to the West Coast.”
“At least LeviCars don’t use up any precious petroleum!”
“Look,” yelled George, “that plane seems to be going backwards, just as we are!”
“That’s because we’re going faster than the plane,” explained Ollie. It’s coming in for a landing, and probably going less than 200 m.p.h., while we are going, let’s see . . . .”
“297 m.p.h., according to the display panel,” answered George.
After that, they were gliding eighty-five feet above Brooklyn, and then into a tunnel directly to New Jersey. What might have previously taken two hours or more (because of heavy traffic on the parkways) now took about fifteen minutes. In the future, LeviCars would be traveling on the lower deck of the Verrazano bridge, which affords a much nicer view than the tunnel. You can see the 1776-foot Freedom Tower in lower Manhattan, and usually midtown’s Empire State and Chrysler buildings, if it isn’t too foggy.
They then continued onto one of the north-south MagLev lines serving the east coast. They actually took a far inland route, but, it was night, and there wasn’t much to see, anyway. Back at the turn of the millennium, an airplane flight down to JAX would have involved seeing the lights of Atlantic City, Newport News, VA, and some other places, but these were over the horizon for a LeviCar flying only a few yards off the ground.
Of course, nobody on board needed to know exactly where they were. There was a display on the control panel showing their location and speed, and the time to the one rest stop they had scheduled. The parents wanted to see All the President’s Men II, but kids decided to watch another movie available through the datalink – a one-hour TV show based on Star Wars. Natalie Portman played descendant of her original character in Star Wars I. Meantime, Mrs. Belfort and Mary braided each others’ hair in the same style of Ms. Portman’s character – Cyndi wore her hair too short for that. The MagLev system has its own dedicated communications links, with backups, to achieve fine control over its operations, but any spare bandwidth is available for data communications for the passengers, including entertainment, telephone, videophone, internet, game downloads, etc.
George still liked to look out the window, observing all the vehicles whizzing by them in the other direction, and also all the freight convoys passing them on separate monorails. With their far larger mass and only twice the frontal cross-section of LeviCars, MagLev freight trains could go about 25 m.p.h. faster. He liked to keep “track” of what was going on, and noticed, from the control-panel display, that there usually three monorails in this “line”. There were originally supposed to be seven monorails in each line, but that proved too expensive. The redundancy of having extra rails is provided by having the lines about twenty miles apart, so, if, one line is over capacity, some of its traffic can be sent to a close-by parallel line. At MagLev speeds, twenty miles is not that much. Many lines usually had two monorails, and some, in very- low-density areas, usually had only one. We say “usually” because any line would have extra monorail “sidings” at stations or switching areas, so, with proper scheduling, vehicles can pass each other.
A trip of this length usually included one rest stop, where you can take care of your business, as well as stretch and walk around a bit. This activity could prevent deep-vein thrombosis – a life- threatening condition that plagues travelers who sit in a confined position for too long. Families generally prefer the rest stops, but many who travel with only one or two people in a LeviCar skip the rest stops and use an on- board commode. Most MagLev bogies had the lower portions (the bowl and tanks), but not all cars had the commode seat, controls, or privacy curtain. People who have the on-board commodes often also have some kind of on-board exercise equipment anyway. Some of them have exercise ‘bikes’ that run generators that help power the on-board accessories, and also let their users claim to have pedaled all the way “down to Florida”, or whatever their destination is.
The rest stop had the Robotic System for Vehicle Parking, called R.S.V.P. to make it seem classy. The Belforts got out of the van right in front of the entrance. An automated voice reminded them to take the “smart card”, which would be later used to retrieve the van. It then quietly slid off to its parking space. This system was a smaller version of what they would see later at the Orlando theme parks.
George noticed more than a few two-seater LeviCars on smaller bogies. His mother told him that not all people can telecommute over the internet as she does. Those who must travel for business often economize further by having smaller cars than a family would need.
The rest stop had a restaurant, but the Belforts had decided to save time and not use it – they had some snacks in the vehicle, including cantaloupe and honeydew “smiles” in the built-in refrigerator. The rest stop also had twin walkways, a quarter-mile each (although they were listed as 400 meters), for those who wanted a little exercise. Mr. Belfort and H2 used the third walkway – for those with dogs. A robot pooper scooper would clean up after H2.
Mrs. Belfort summoned the minivan, and the family piled back in. H2 went right under one of the seats. The internal infrared (IR) detection system, that is normally used to detect passengers to control air-bag deployment in the unlikely event of a crash or sudden deceleration, also counts the passengers to make sure no one is left behind. This time, it didn’t see the dog, and gave a “missing passenger” alert. This had happened before. George picked up the dog, and then let him loose. H2 was a bit bewildered, but the IR system quickly corrected its passenger count.
Ollie remembered a little experiment that Mr. Cooperman wanted him to do. He set a glass, one-third filled with water, on a small shelf. As the van accelerated to 300 m.p.h., the water remained level in the glass, and the glass did not slide. Mr. Belfort asked, “Hnnh. Why is that? It isn’t tilting over, as it would in an ordinary road car, and it’s not spilling?”
Ollie answered, “It’s because the MagLev bogie, underneath, tilts the car forward so that the ‘gravity vector” always points straight down. That is why it feels more like an elevator when we accelerate or decelerate.”
On the second leg of the trip, they decided to watch The Making of LeviCar Unlimited, which is a movie about making the movie that helped get this all started. Like most movies with content not suitable for some viewers – in this case, some very violent scenes – one could specify which parts to remove, and still get a coherent-enough plot line. Mr. Belfort specified that the sexual content (what little there was) be entirely removed, and the violent content be toned down. The resulting movie was 48 minutes long. It contained interviews with the people who started LeviCar, and how the original movie was used in developing some of the hardware used in LeviCars. Nine patents were developed from efforts involved in making the original film. This was a deliberate case of life imitating art. The only downside was that the movie studio owned 49% of those patents, and was still making money off of them.
The original movie also had an action-adventure plotline involving the hijacking of a MagnaBus – similar to the LeviCoaches that were developed to ride the RobotRails. The heroes of the story jiggered the GPS and Galileo systems, and, under cover of darkness, moved the vehicle to a testing facility and made the hijackers believe they were going to where they intended to go. This was done with secret transmitters in the bogies, that can produce false radio signals, mimicking both GPS and Galileo. The good guys then deployed some diminutive “MonkeyBots”, who never heard of Isaac Asimov or his three rules of Robotics, to disarm the vials of some deadly disease that the hijackers claimed to be carrying. The whole thing was a bit hokey, but the public loved it. It also led the LeviCar system to install some security features, some based on the movie, others different, and all being kept rather secret. Too bad that the Belforts, for the most part, half slept through the showing, due to the late hour.
It was almost eleven o’clock when they finally got to the Jacksonville Downtown West station. An alarm was sounded ten minutes in advance so that the driver would be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when it came time to actually drive the car again. The coffee maker had just finished brewing a fresh cup. The display panel showed a map of the area, and the route to Uncle Jimmy’s and Aunt Selma’s house. Mr. Belfort promptly phoned the hotel to make sure the reservation was confirmed for very late arrival.
At the station, the minivan body was lifted off the bogie, and placed on a pair of road undercarriages nearly identical to what they left behind on Long Island, from the same leasing company. If a pair had not been available from the same company, cross-leased undercarriages from a different company would have been provided, if available. Sometimes, a different undercarriage model would be given to LeviCar customers, which might be more or less powerful than the one specified in the lease. All the docking interfaces were standardized, but some bodies were just to heavy for some undercarriages.
It was a short drive to Aunt Selma’s house, in an older section of Jacksonville, mostly built in the 1920s, with a variety of houses, ranging from bungalows to brick apartment houses. A bit to the west, there were large colonials that would look right at home in Queens, NY, plus Spanish haciendas, Bauhaus houses, and ranchers.
This particular house was a two-story brick house, but most of the neighboring houses were one-story. Even though it was late, she and Uncle Jimmy warmly greeted the visitors from the North. And it was warm – much warmer than Long Island, in the lower fifties at night. They say that North Florida cannot make up its mind whether it is North or Florida, often experiencing overnight plant-killing hard freezes in winter, but this night was quite pleasant, at least to northerners.
Due to the late hour, other relatives who had already come to Jacksonville had already gone on the their hotels, except for six college students, who were bunking at the house. These were some of the Belfort kids’ second cousins.
George took charge of the dog, while his siblings and parents grabbed the gifts they had for aunts, uncles, and cousins. H2 practically pulled George into the house – something must have smelled interesting! It turned out to be a box containing three kittens, a boy and two girls, that a neighbor lady had brought over, hoping they would be adopted when they are old enough. George quickly pulled the dog away. H2 was really very gentle, but the kittens didn’t know that, and they could be frightened.
Cyndi cried, “Can we have one?”
“I think we can,” replied her father.
“If we got one, who would take care of it while we’re in Orlando?” asked her mother.
“Oh, they’re not old enough to be adopted yet,” said the neighbor who had brought the kittens over. “Y’all will be back up north by the time these kitties are ready.”
“Then how’d we get them?” asked Ollie. “Send them up north on a LeviPet?”
Uncle Jimmy, overhearing the conversation, came over and said, “Actually, there is a service named MagLev Animal Transportation Service, or MATS, that can take care of it. I won a gift certificate last month, and you can use it if you want it.”
Turning to the neighbor, he said, “Ilexia, I would like you to meet some relatives from up north. Abigail Belfort here is Selma’s niece, and Peter is her husband. Oliver and Cyndi are their oldest and youngest. I’m not sure where the others are. Belforts, this is my neighbor, Ilexia Gunn.”
“Nice to meet y’all.”
“Nice to met you.”
“The Calico kitty is a girl, of course. So is the black one with the white streaks on her forehead. The orange tabby is the boy. There are two other girls, but they’re already spoken for. They’re back home with their mommy.”
By this time, Mary broke off flirting with one of her cousins, and came over and said, “I always wanted a kitten! What will we name her?”
Ollie stated, slowly, “Well, if Homer II, a.k.a. H2, stands for hydrogen, and the hydrogen economy is kaput because electricity is so much better, then let’s call her . . . .”
“Electra!” shouted Mary, realizing where her brother’s thoughts were leading.
George came back, after giving the aforementioned dog his dinner in the kitchen, and securing his leash to a table leg. They recapitulated their conversation for him.
Cyndi said, “I want the black one.”
George, ever the caring, loving brother, opined, “I think she looks like the Bride of Frankenstein.” Cyndi was about to hit him on the arm, but a glaring look from their mother prevented her.
“That’s perfect,” said Ollie. “It was electricity that brought Frankenstein’s monster, and his bride, to life, so it would be good to name this kitten Electra.”
Their mother warned, “As long as you don’t start calling her ‘Mrs. Frankenstein’.”
Mary said, “I promise we won’t. She’s too cute for that, anyway.”
“What about when she misbehaves?”
“It’s settled, then,” said Ilexia, “you’ll take the black kitten, and I’ll start calling her Electra, so she’ll get used to it.”
After that, Uncle Jimmy showed the guys some pictures of the transportation museum he works at, including their prized exhibit, a steam-powered “Decapod” locomotive. Uncle Jimmy joked that it was so heavy, it would sink into Jacksonville’s sandy soil.
Aunt Selma was not her usual talkative self – she was teething. She was undergoing neodontia, a new treatment that allowed an older person to grow a whole new set of teeth, rather than getting artificial crowns, implants, or dentures. Don’t think that this is cheap – between hormone injections, mineral supplements, space maintainers, and weekly monitoring with sonograms, costs added up, and Medicare doesn’t cover it, yet. But, the results are good-looking, ‘natural’, and should last the rest of one’s life. There are also occlusional problems, in that the new teeth are generally taller than the worn-down old teeth they may be adjacent to. Uncle Jimmy was thankful for the quiet, but realized it would not last for more than a few months.
The Belforts took their leave, and drove on to their hotel.
Friday and Saturday, and part of Sunday afternoon, were spent seeing the sights. They rode on the primitive monorail “People Mover” from the 1990s. They visited the museums, and took a side trip to historic old St. Augustine, about thirty miles to the south. They could have gone there by MagLev, but the distance was too short to bother with a chassis swap.
On Saturday, they visited the new Transportation Museum, where Uncle Jimmy worked part-time, on the northside of Jacksonville. They saw a special exhibit on Pullman cars. George wondered why anyone would want to sleep on a train, until he was reminded of how slow trains were in the late nineteenth century, through the twentieth century. There was also a chart showing the fastest form of human travel for different epochs in history, starting from running in cave-man days, to earth re-entry from Apollo moon missions. Nowhere on this list was anything powered by the now-nearly-obsolete gasoline reciprocating engine. A parallel chart showed the fastest speeds available to common people at an affordable price for the purpose of transportation, culminating in the Concorde II, even though that was yet to fly.
Just as they were about to leave, Uncle Ned showed up at the Transportation Museum’s own LeviCar station. He had not one, but two vehicles. One was his ultra-streamlined sports car, nicknamed “Air-O-Doodle II”, which he can convert into an airplane. The other was the cargo pod of a Self-Propelled Trailer (SPT), filled with a new MagLev display, courtesy of the LeviCar Foundation. This display was to be installed right after the Christmas show was to end, in early January.
“Well,” exclaimed George, “that is what an SPT looks like!”
“It’s not really an SPT until it’s mounted on an SPT chassis,” explained Uncle Ned, climbing out of Air-O-Doodle. “But, look at the corners – it has rear-view cameras that show on the car’s rear-view display instead of the car’s own rear-view cameras. On the MagLev system, they each ride on a bogie, and should travel together, or at least arrive at their destination station together. On the road, they each have a chassis or a pair of undercarriages. The SPT follows the car, automatically. The car controls the SPT’s motor, lights, and steering. If you need to park in a regular parking lot, you can put the SPT in one stall, and the car in another that might not be adjacent to the first.
“Back in the ’80s and ’90s, until the oil shocks of 2005-6, people who occasionally had to haul a lot of stuff would buy, instead of a car, a luxury truck called an SUV – Sport Utility Vehicle. They were big and really wasted gasoline, but people prized them as status symbols. Now, in our more- enlightened age, we have SPTs if you need to haul a lot of junk, and the LeviCar is the status symbol.
“I had heard that the term ‘pods’ came from a company called ‘Portable On- Demand Storage’, but they started out with conventional tractor-trailer trucks using flatbed trailers. They’re still in the same line of business, but they use RobotRail now.
“One company is working on what it called a ‘double-hatch’ vehicle, that would fit in between a regular car or minivan body, and the backcee. It could expand the freight-hauling capacity of a personal car, without increasing the number of wheels or undercarriages. We’ll see if people like this better than SPTs.”
“Why do you call your car ‘Air-O-Doodle II’?” asked George.
“That was Uncle Jimmy’s idea. When he was a kid, there was a children’s show about a cowboy marionette – I’m not making this up – named ‘Howdy Doody’. They had a strange flying machine called the ‘Air-O-Doodle’ that was a combination of a steam ship, a steam locomotive, an airplane, a helicopter, and a car. It was a wonder it could even get off the ground. Anyway, Uncle Jimmy said that the LeviCar was like a modern day incarnation of the Air-O-Doodle, but this time, it is practical.”
Ollie was particularly fascinated with the SPT pod. Uncle Ned took one look at him and said, “You look like you’re about to invent something. What is it?”
“What if you have someone who doesn’t drive, but has to move a boatload of stuff from where she is to where she’s going? Couldn’t she go along with it inside the pod?”
“It sounds like you’re talking about someone you know, who had this problem.”
“Yeah, it was Elizabeth Schwarter, Bill’s big sister – Bill’s the guy who asked you about the difference between a convoy and a train. They took her to college upstate this past fall – actually, it was still August – and it was a lot of driving, both going up and coming back on the same day, and Bill’s dad felt like he was going to have a heart attack.”
“So,” mused Uncle Ned, “let’s say the college campus has a LeviCar station. OK. You have a pod with a passenger seat, mounted on a SPT. You drive to your local LeviCar station with the SPT right behind you. When you get there, you put one passenger in the pod, put the pod on the MagLev network, and set it to go to the college. At the college, the MagLev system branches out to small stations at each dorm. You send it to the right dorm, the pod is unloaded, and then it gets back on the MagLev network and returns to the pod storage area. OK – that might work. Good idea. Shoulda thought of it myself.”
“Uncle Ned, I think you just did.”
“No, Ollie, we both did. That’s call synergism.”
Sunday was Christmas Eve, and Monday was Christmas, both days devoted largely to religious observance. Midnight Mass was at Good Shepherd Episcopal was followed by some exchange of gifts. The Belforts spread out the gifts giving through all twelve days of Christmas, and into the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day, so as not to overload one day with too much commercialism.
On Tuesday, December 26, Uncle Ned was planning to fly to the Bahamas. Mr. Belfort and Ollie went with him in his streamlined sports car to a local airport, Ollie being scrunched up in the miniscule back seat. The plan was for Ned to fly the sports car to the Bahamas, while Mrs. Belfort would pick up the other two later at the airport in Van Go.
Uncle Ned gave his brother and nephew a play-by-play description of what was happening. “Just as I’m certified for flight as a General-Aviation pilot, so is my car body is certified for flight – it could be mounted upon an airframe, thus forming a modular airplane. You already know that a LeviCar- certified car body must be streamlined for 400-plus m.p.h. for MagLev use anyway. For a flight certification, you must also have windshield wipers that can work at high speeds, and tighter tolerances on certain parameters, particularly on the docking interfaces; and you cannot use a dome, at least not yet. The controls were already drive-by-wire, so an aviation control panel could be easily plugged into the interior to substitute for the road controls. And, unlike LeviCars on MagLev rails, this does not fly backwards.
“Previous attempts at making a ‘flying car’ often fell apart, literally, in mid-air, often killing their inventors. That was because they would attach the ‘car’ part below the aerodynamic surfaces. The top part would be pulling up because of aerodynamic lift, the bottom part would be pulling down because of gravity, and so the connectors were under considerable stress. If they broke, the two parts would come apart. This new system, which I had a big hand in developing, has the car part above the aerodynamic surface, pushing down into the aerodynamic part, making it much less likely that they’d come apart.
“I’m planning to fly to the Bahamas to show off this ‘flying car’ to some international backers. Right now, those technicians over there have my car body on a test rig to see if it’s airworthy. Uh-oh, they don’t look too happy. I better go see what’s going on.”
Ollie turned to his dad and said, “I think I see some red lights on that control panel.” His father replied, “Well, son, these guys are very careful, and they won’t let anything go wrong. Too many good people have died trying to show off new technology that was not quite ready yet, and my brother is not about to join them!”
Uncle Ned came back, his face a bit red. “They found too much ‘play’ in one of the mechanical docking rods. Maybe there is a microscopic crack or something. Those rods are really part of the car body’s composite frame, and they’re not cheap to replace.”
Mr. Belfort asked, “Well, what are you going to do now?”
“I’m supposed to be there later this morning – this was to my ‘Boxing Day’ gift to these businessmen. I don’t think I can have it fixed right away – there are only three repair facilities in the whole world, one near Seattle, one back up on Long Island, and one about 150 miles south of here on the Space Coast. Just as each of these flying car bodies is a unique construction, so is each repair job. It’ll probably take them two or three days to fix it, and, because of the holiday, not everyone will be there.
“I may have to go by boat. Maybe I’ll get a ‘boat pallet’, or maybe I’ll take the hydrofoil ferry. If I can rent a hydrofoil boat pallet, that would be the best of both worlds. Pete and Ollie, could you check the ferry and boat-pallet places? I’ll give you the phone numbers and web links. Pete, you might call Abby and tell her we’ll be running late. I’ll call the fellows who can fix it.”
Five minutes later, the three Belfort guys were on the way to the boat docks, as were Mrs. Belfort and the rest of the family. The ferry was just leaving, but there was one hydrofoil pallet left. Uncle Ned’s car body was removed from its undercarriages, and placed on a hydrofoil boat pallet, which could speed to the Bahamas at 90 m.p.h. when in open water.
Ollie asked, “Uncle Ned, I saw a whole bunch of undercarriages near the ferry dock. It’s such a short trip – why don’t they just take the whole car?”
“Pete, you have a smart kid here,” Uncle Ned replied. “First, they want to save weight on the hydrofoil ferry, just like they like to save weight on the LeviCar system. They still use the old-fashioned 180-volt system on the islands, while the U.S. has pretty much switched over to 42 volts.
“Also – another thing – notice that I don’t need a different control panel, like I would for a ‘flying car’. The car’s control panel works just as well for a boat.
“One last item – when you get to Orlando, make sure you get to see the new ‘Bobb Sledd’ ride – that’s with three Bs and two Ds – I think you’ll get a kick out of it!”
Just then, the rest of the Belfort family arrived after a morning of shopping. George went along because he needed a new hat and some swim fins, but really spent most of the time playing virtual-reality video games. Uncle Ned went off to the Bahamas, and the rest of them went to the Church to avail themselves of the swimming pool. Tomorrow, they’d be going to Orlando!
The Belforts packed up the van, and drove to the LeviCar station. After transferring onto the MagLev system, Mr. Belfort told his family, “That was the last time we were driving on a road chassis until we get back to ‘Lawn Guy-land’. From here on in, it’s all MagLev. Van Go IV will be a LeviCar for the next several days. We’ll be staying at the Eichelbaum Lotel.”
George was looking at the brochure for the “Lotel”, and commented, “It sure is a weird looking place. Its got all these things circling around it. What are they, Dad?”
“Those are MagLev lines. Look down there on the ground – hardly any parking lot. It’s almost all gardens.”
“So where are we parking?”
Ollie then asked “How far is this from the theme parks?”
His father replied, “Twenty three miles.” Before Ollie could reply, he added, “But it’s a quick 23 miles, all MagLev!”
Forty-two minutes later, they arrived at the Lotel. Instead of parking, checking in, and then lugging their baggage to their rooms, their LeviCar went directly to their suite, parking it its own special niche. Registration was handled electronically, and unloading was a snap. The only thing that had to be done in person was checking in with the Lotel’s animal steward the next morning, to arrange H2’s midday walks while his people were away at the theme parks.
For the next week, it was theme parks, restaurants, games and Christmas gifts, interspersed with some homework for the children, as well as for Mrs. Belfort, who worked part time monitoring biology experiments for Cold Spring Harbor Labs. You could do almost all brainwork from anywhere, using Internet III. Mr. Belfort also kept up on his correspondence, including with Mr. Jakob. The school’s heating system was just fine, but Yahkie still wanted to change it back to natural gas.
All of the major theme parks, and many of the smaller amusement parks and restaurants, had R.S.V.P. parking systems for LeviCars, although some of the smaller places shared them with neighboring facilities. Some places also had R.S.V.P. for car bodies mounted on road chassis, or for conventional cars – as long as they were drive-by-wire and had the proper radio-interface devices.
Each trip to a theme park was done by MagLev. The van, with all aboard (except the dog), traveled to the theme park from its niche at the Lotel suite, directly to the front gate. It then was parked automatically. At the end of the day, either Belfort parent could summon it back to the front gate, although sometimes it was necessary to do so fifteen minutes in advance of when they wanted it.
One of the theme parts had a the new Bobb Sledd ride that Uncle Ned had mentioned. The family went to check it out. They were surprised to see a MagLev Logo on it.
George explained, “Ollie and me looked this . . . .”
“Ollie and I,” his mother corrected.
“OK, we looked this up on the web. It’s really a crazy-good ride – you get to go 94 m.p.h., just like a real bobsled, but it can’t go off track. They use some MagLev-type technology to keep it on the track and prevent it from crashing.”
Ollie added, “And that isn’t real ice, so it won’t melt in the Florida sun. The track is made from some kind of super Teflon, and the runners are coated with it, too. They just have to replace the track every year or so, so it doesn’t get grooves in it.”
Uncle Ned showed up Friday. The presentation in the Bahamas had gone well, even without the flying car – the hydrofoil turned out to be very impressive, too. The car was “in the shop”, and Uncle Ned tagged along with his favorite nieces and nephews. He had been engaged four times, but never married, LeviCar being his true spouse.
George, being ever inventive, bounced proposals off of Ollie and Uncle Ned. He asked, “Why not have a MagLev roller coaster which uses your own car?” Uncle Ned explained, “If you did so, then the sudden movements and high g-forces would trigger the airbags, and that can get very expensive. There are airbags all over the inside of the car. There are also infrared sensors that figure out where people are and whether they’re standing or sitting or whatever. Then, should a crash happen – and it hasn’t yet on the MagLev lines, thank God – the computers figure out which airbags to use, and when, to cushion the people inside. It even works for pets – the computer just considers them to be smaller people.”
“Uncle Ned, I was just reading about the Amish in school, and they use horse buggies. You think there can be a ‘LeviBuggy’?”
“Would they take their horses along with them, or would they lease a new horse at the destination?”
“I didn’t think of that.”
“You don’t seem to understand that the Amish believe in self-sufficiency. Each family is self-sufficient to the maximum degree possible, and beyond that, they rely on the local community. They don’t want to deal with strangers unless they absolutely have to. It’s not that they reject technology – they accept whatever technology does not conflict with their beliefs.
“However, they will travel long distances by rail to visit friends and relatives in other communities. They let their friends drive them around in their buggies when they get to where they’re visiting. Lately, they’re switching from railroads to small LeviCoaches called LeviVans. These were originally meant to take people to coastal airports for overseas trips, and for other people who want to travel but can’t or won’t drive.
“Now, did your studies tell you about why the Amish buy tractors?”
“Yeah, Uncle Ned – they use them to run generators, to generate electricity, to charge car batteries, which they use to power reading lights and running lights on their buggies. They don’t use the tractors to plow their fields – they use heavy draft horses instead.”
“Right. Those are some ways they are self-sufficient. However, many of them don’t use tractors like that any more. They use multi-stage catalytic converter to take agricultural waste and turn it into hydrogen, and then use fuel cells to generate the electricity. Some Amish men work in the small, local factories that make these converters. This is one part of the hydrogen economy that does work – because there is no need to store the hydrogen, or transport it for long distances. This is a lot like what they say the Amish do with their hogs – they use every part of the pig, except the oink.
“It is ironic, though. People known for eschewing technology – are the ones using the latest high-tech!”
On the way back to Long Island, everyone was resting, mostly individually listening to music. Mr. Belfort used the main communication headset, with a microphone, merely because there were only five regular headphones in the car. Suddenly, his music stopped, and he heard his brother’s voice.
“Pete, just say ‘Hi, Ned!’ in a cheerful voice.”
“OK, I know it’s you. If anyone else seems to be paying attention to you, say ‘What’s up?’” Dr. Belfort was trying to make it sound like a normal conversation. Principal Belfort looked around, and remained silent.
After a pause of three seconds, Ned continued, “Don’t talk now. I am calling through the encrypted line. It’s happened again. Some terrorists have tried to discredit LeviCar, for the third time! And on New Year’s day, of all times! They say they have a dirty bomb on the Turkish ambassador’s car. We cannot detect any evidence of this, but we isolated the car, got Ambassador Ertegun to safety, and have moved the car to one of our special remote stations, this one in West Virginia, using the false GPS signals so that any bomb won’t go off. Your car is not going anywhere near there, so you’re OK.
“They’re going to keep this one quiet, just like the other two incidents. Of course, if the terrorists start talking about it, so will we. We want to frustrate them, and to keep our methods secret. The ambassador agrees with this, and so does Homeland Security.
“I’m sorry we have to keep this so quiet. I remember when former President Schweitzer first came up with this idea of secrecy in case of a failed terrorist attack, and we were all against it – it is against LeviCar’s nature not to be open. But he’s been our guardian angel, and we felt we owed it to him. It has worked out well.”
Ned ‘signed off’ with: “We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming,” and the music in his brother’s headphone resumed.
The Belfort’s LeviCar, “Van Go IV”, continued to the Brookhaven South station, and everyone arrived home safely, ready to tackle school the next day.
The old year of 2017 was the first year, since the early ’70s, in which more than two-thirds of the oil used in the U.S. was from the U.S. – production had declined, but demand had declined even further. The new year of 2018 saw further declines in the international price of crude oil. OPEC had played this trick before, trying to discourage us from developing alternative energy, but the Western countries were not buying it. High tariffs and taxes on oil and gasoline had lead to obscenely high national surpluses, a lot of which financed construction of the RobotRail network. One of the basic premises of RobotRail and LeviCar was that, if we are getting rid of oil and using electricity anyway, we might as well do it in such a way that penetrates all energy-using segments of the economy, including high-speed transportation. LeviCar may be saving the country, or at least revitalizing the economy.
The Third Millennium had been off to a rocky start, with terror attacks and such. They say that the best revenge is to live will, and it looks like Western civilization and Western Values were doing just that, while at the same rendering nearly worthless the petroleum owned by those that disdain us.