The year 2009 was a watershed moment in the history of mankind. For the first time ever, more than 50 per cent of the world's population lived in cities, according to the United Nations.
By 2030, it's expected that over 60 per cent of people on our crowded planet will make their homes in urban areas, a percentage likely to rise to 70 per cent by 2050.
The pressure is growing to solve a key problem: How to move people about efficiently in congested, polluted and densely populated cities.
Canadian transportation giant Bombardier Inc. is moving to solve that problem with a proposal for a fully integrated, contactless, electric public-transport system.
The company claims that having a full fleet of all types of electric public-transportation vehicles – not just streetcars – is a great advantage, because they can share the same infrastructure. Scheduling, ticketing, maintenance and other functions should be that much easier.
Called "Primove," the system uses wireless technology that allows vehicles to recharge their batteries from cables embedded underneath the street and the track.
The first trials were conducted on a Bombardier low-floor light-rail train in Augsburg, Germany, last year. The goal of the pilot project was to demonstrate the technical capability of the system under actual conditions of daily operation. Measurements were taken of how efficient the transfer of power from the source to the receptor was at different speeds. There can be a loss of energy in the transfer, but the Augsburg tests indicated an efficiency rating above 90 per cent.
More recently, in the Flemish town of Lommel, Belgium, Bombardier and university researchers laid down 125 metres of road with an embedded conduit line, providing power to a bus equipped with a receiving system on the underside. The project, co-funded by the Flemish government, will eventually be extended to include a Volvo C30 electric car.
Conventional technology uses stationary charging stations where vehicles plug into an outlet and charge up for hours at a time. The Primove units charge the vehicles as they move, using revolutionary contactless energy transfer.
The system is activated only when the vehicle rolls over it.
Among the advantages: the end of unsightly overhead lines that power streetcars in conventional configurations, such as in Toronto, and no long waits to charge batteries.
It's an idea that grew from an initial effort to test the feasibility of supplying energy to streetcars without the unsightly and high-maintenance electric wires crisscrossing the skyline, says Jérémie Desjardins, the Bombardier Transportation executive overseeing the Primove project out of its head office in Berlin.
"We wanted to design catenary-free energy. Now we have taken the technology to buses in order to bring them into the operations," he says. Tests on other vehicles, such as cars and trucks, are in the works.
"This does seem a very innovative solution to urban transit concerns such as the environment and congestion," says Martyn Briggs, a transportation and automotive expert with London-based consultant Frost & Sullivan. But the downside is the price. "Cost is at the forefront these days as governments wrestle with budget cuts and the like." The company forecasts that it will cost over $9-trillion worldwide for new transport infrastructure over the next 20 years.
Offsetting that concern is the high degree of compatibility between the distinct modes of transport that Primove offers, Mr. Briggs said.
"That's a competitive advantage. From a city's perspective, it gives the authorities the opportunity to better manage the transportation infrastructure as a whole."
A recent study by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University found that the average commuter in 2010 endured peak-period delays adding up to a total of 34 hours. It estimates the national cost to commuters of traffic congestion at more than $100-billion (U.S.).
The Primove system for streetcars is estimated to cost about 30 per cent more than conventional catenary technology, but Bombardier qualifies that by highlighting what it says are significant energy and maintenance cost savings – such as on the wear of parts and components – that allow the investment to be recovered within six to 10 years.
Mr. Desjardins says there is huge potential for Primove in North America, where more and more cities are exploring the viability of new light-rail networks. The absence of messy overhead power lines is a big selling point.
Still to be proven over the long term is how well the system holds up in tough weather conditions, such as Canada's brutal winters.
"This has the potential to be a game-changer but I don't know how feasible it is in our winters," says David Jeanes, president of Transport Action Canada in Ottawa. "It sounds good but most of the major manufacturers are working on competing technologies," he adds.
Ultimately, to prevail Bombardier will have to clearly demonstrate over the next few years that it has the most reliable, cost-effective and low-maintenance technology.
Mr. Desjardins is betting that the 2020 zero-emission targets of many cities around the globe will help win over converts.