Batteries and passenger trains

Batteries and passenger trains

Would installing Tesla battery packs in passenger trains make any sense?

Amtrak currently runs some Northeast Regional service on overhead power where that's available, and then swaps locomotives to diesel for the New Haven CT to Springfield MA segments and the Virginia segments.

Why not have batteries in the trains that would charge from the overhead power lines where they're available and then power the trains where no overhead power is available?

There also seems to be some debate about what level of structural rigidity is appropriate for bringing the next generation of high speed trains to the US. If you install a Tesla battery pack in the floor of every passenger train car, will that improve crashworthiness?

Also, the typical commuter train may have a short enough run to make battery power for the entire trip practical.

GeekEV | March 16, 2013

Something like what you propose is in the works, for light-rail trains anyway. My brother is an engineer for one of the manufacturers and was just telling me about this very thing.

Joel N. Weber II | March 16, 2013 and suggest that at least Kawasaki has had something like this for light rail vehicles but with NiMH batteries since about 2007 (perhaps only as a prototype, though).

Having enough battery power to get light rail / subway trains to the next station in a power outage (such as when firefighters demand the power be shut off to a large section of a system) would be a useful safety / reliability improvement.

TeslaRocks | March 18, 2013

Eventually, I think batteries will come to power a lot of vehicles that can have daily access to electricity, especially those where fuel costs are significant and acceleration is the major power use. I think buses will come first, fairly soon after the affordable Bluestar, especially very local buses with their constant stop and go and relatively low speeds. I think there might be an opening after that for transport trucks, where fuel costs are huge, but it is far from clear when Tesla will be able to manufacture all that. Battery passenger and even freight trains might come next, if batteries are cheap enough by then, because rolling resistance and air resistance are small compared to acceleration of the large mass, which can be recycled with a battery. But I think cars will be the topic for still a long time. My 2 cents.

FLsportscarenth... | March 18, 2013

Passenger cars are the most practical wide application for the next few years, followed by vans and small delivery trucks (small quantities of small delivery trucks are already made), then maybe in a decade or two larger trucks but because of their mass, CNG may be more practical for large trucks (less polluting and domestic source so still a step forward).

A few prototype battery Cessna like planes have been produced and have a big potential to make private plane ownership a lot more affordable and eco-friendly (maintence costs and regulatory burdens on ICE planes are simply ridiculous). Opening up private aviation to the middle class would be a worthy goal for Tesla, probably in parnership with Cessna, Piper or Beechcraft... Maybe in 2022?

Joel N. Weber II | March 18, 2013

Proterra and BYD are already building purely battery powered buses; it was announced that the latter were going to be used at LAX airport (by Hertz?) but then I haven't seen anything about that since the announcement tha they were about to start.

New Flyer (with Mitsubishi) is working on a prototype battery powered buses. I think one of the other major North American transit bus builders has also announced something about eventually offering batteries.

I think the interesting question is whether any of these battery systems are vulnerable to the same problems that the Dreamliner has been having.

I think long haul freight trains and Amtrak's long distance network are going to be difficult to operate entirely on batteries in a way that's time competitive and cost competitive with diesel. And if personal automobiles convert to electric in large qualities, that will drive down the cost of diesel and reduce the potential economic incentives.

I'm also wondering what's going to happen with cargo ships. You probably don't want to have enough batteries to cross an ocean anytime soon. Cargo ships did use wind power before they switched to fossil fuels, but is there a practical way for partial use of wind power to make a comeback? What about solar, with limited battery backup?

TeslaRocks | March 19, 2013

For cargo ships, the current innovation is giant kites deployed at sea to reduce fuel cost by 25% or more I believe. It was invented a few years back and is apparently gaining ground very rapidly. Makes sense since the crew you may need from time to time to handle the kite is already on the ship, unlike for wind turbines, so the cost is very low. There are at least two companies doing this.
Beyond this, I don't see any other big innovations in shipping in the next while. They'll keep burning the dirties and cheapest fuel they can find, simply because they can. Maybe someday solar power and kite combination will make sense, seeing how cheap PV cells are getting, but I don't see that coming too soon. Battery power for ships without PV panels or some other source will probably never be practical, given how far they go. What may work is even larger kites that may reduce fuel costs by over 50%, combined with reduced ship velocity.

I think you're right that New Flyer or some other company already in the bus business will probably do electric buses first and claim that domain, since they already have most of what it takes. I just feel that it would be very satisfying to ride a bus designed and built to Tesla's standards... so maybe Tesla could provide the power-trains or even license the technology, which might make more sense, especially considering the Dreamliner battery risks as you say. It seems to me that an EV bus using Tesla technology might be possible for a comparable price range (no more that 2x standard diesel bus), but the lower fuel and maintenance costs will allow overall cost to be similar or less over period of a few years. Just think of the fuel savings if you could recapture 80% or more of the kinetic energy of this big massive bus that is wasted in the case of an ICE, plus the higher engine efficiency overall. Of course, ultra efficient motors would be helpful, some are as efficient as 98%. Maybe a flywheel or ultra-capacitor will be better than the battery for holding the energy of the last stop, to avoid wearing out the battery prematurely. Power from last stop stored using other method would be used first before new power is drawn from the battery.

Thinking further about it, I don't think there is much appeal in a battery train. I don't think it is wise to build a train right now, at least before we find out about the hyperloop. I think it will be a glorified vacuum tube shaped in a loop so that air is really pushed along in circles instead of just sucked out, but maybe it will be even better. Either way, I think the next passenger train-like invention should require almost no energy compared to other transport, be very fast (including no wasting time at airports and checkpoints), be available on demand or almost, give passengers an option to sleep in comfort and wake up at destination whenever they wish as long as they "check out by noon" like in a hotel (no sleeplessness due to arrival anxiety), and the ultimate is if you could also bring your car or other large possessions with you at low cost and with great simplicity. Sounds like the hyperloop could do all that, and it would have a low incremental cost because the pods would just be dumb boxes with bumpers and maybe some electronics, but no motor or batteries or driver even. All traffic would be handled mostly by software at the network level, mostly to make sure there are no accidents or bottlenecks and that each pod goes where it should go, once there are multiple destinations in the network. Elon should just clone himself already and have one of him design that project, so it will be done right. Imagine driving your Tesla to the nearest hyperloop portal, renting a pod in which you will strap your car and take a nap in the bedroom behind it, the pod goes into the loop moments later, the pressure differential accelerate it to supersonic speed as you look at the scenery through the pod's and hyperloop's transparent walls if you can't sleep because it's your first time, then you arrive maybe at the other end of the world, ready to drive where you want moments later, and it just cost you a small fraction of a plane ticket. Only problem is some people might think it's a roller-coaster and want to ride it all the time, just for fun. The best thing might be to have two portals near each other on each side where a border between countries must be crossed, so people can pass the border on foot or in their car and hopefully not slow down the hyperloop traffic too much.

TeslaRocks | March 19, 2013

What will happen to freight when a freight-ready hyperloop arrives? Trains and to some extent trucks will become obsolete when you can ship at lower cost through hyperloop because of potentially insignificant energy cost, little or no staff, tiny rolling stock capital cost, no hooking up and unhooking cars, much simpler logistics because it will be completely automated (doors or even just changing air flows will direct each pod to its proper destination). The hyperloop could change everything and the world will catch the hyperloop fever. Elon let me know if I can help.

evpro | March 20, 2013

There are already some light rail vehicles that opportunity charge at each stop then use batteries or super caps to reach the next station.

Heavy trains using the same system could dramatically cut the cost of full overhead electrification. Catenary sections could be placed at sections requiring acceleration from a stop and on uphill grades.

We need to get our rail network off the diesel habit. We use imported oil to power trains hauling coal to ports for export to China. Makes no sense.

frmercado | March 22, 2013

@FLsportscarenth. Regarding your last idea: "Opening up private aviation to the middle class would be a worthy goal for Tesla, probably in parnership with Cessna, Piper or Beechcraft... Maybe in 2022?"

I think that is great forward thinking, although I wish it could happen earlier and maybe start with sport aviation instead of private aviation. TM could partner up with Icon Aircraft, after all they are also a an innovative California Company which puts a lot of emphasis on design and pushing the design boundaries. It would be nice to see something different besides those Rotax ICE engines powering that amazing aircraft in the future!