“Foodtubes” and the future of freight

December 3, 2010

Dear Homies, sometimes you just gotta be excitable and shout-out for the heck of it:

I present to you “Foodtubes” (link1 link2).  The idea has legs, for anyone who figures out How to Actually Do It.

Over time, perhaps just this one block of efficiency alone could keep our economy from tanking.  This is why I care.

Aside: And why do enthusiastic engineers have to have such absolute-complete-utter-shit copy-and-paste-only communication skills?  I mean really, it’s embarrassing.

The idea is an “internet of stuff”: a network of plastic pipelines where little capsules boogie around like trained rats, point to point.  Amazon Fresh and UPS boxes full of eBay trinkets are a dead giveaway, for example.

The contents aren’t even packed in cardboard boxes.  Not even that.  Just plastic bags, plunked into the capsules.  No muss no fuss.  Even if it’s ripe tomatoes, they’ll come in capsules with built-in air-inflated packaging, suspended bruise-free like little princesses.  Wha-bam.

It’s hilarious that they illustrate these things coming out of a regular grocery store.  Idiots!  They’d come from an Amazon Fresh warehouse with no windows and inconvenient parking in a crummy neighborhood.  This would be a stick of dynamite to bricks and mortar, and you know this.

Does UPS even need sorting facilities if every parcel is point-to-point?  Exactly.

And for Next Day Air, do the little buggies roll RIGHT up into carbon fiber tubes in the freighter jets like Pringles into a can?  Yes they do.  And disgorge at full speed out the back at the end of the runway after landing?  Exactly.

And likewise into/out of specially-engineered tube-containers dockside for two-dollar UPS Ground to China?  You guessed it.

What’s also brilliant, but also easy to miss, is that it doesn’t carry people, so there’s no one to kill when engineers/programmers mess up, and no one to worry about “The Terrorists” screwing around.

They’re idiots for saying the capsules should be six feet long and three feet wide.  Make it more like a Howitzer shell or A-Fresh box and I’ll believe it.  99% of what I buy can fit into that form factor with a little creativity.  (Could Ikea sell a sofa or coffee table that packs into boxes that big, Your Parents Put it Together?  You bet your butt.)

Also, if they’re nice and small, then no one worries about human trafficking.  That and they’re easy to single-file through automated bomb scanners.  Exactly.

The keys to this will be figuring out:

  • The actual pipe, motor and switching technology, like down to the last detail  (Plastic pipe?  Really?  It won’t wear out?)
  • How to lay all those damned pipes, like for real (Mad-crazy automation & brilliant interfacing with municipal authorities)
  • Whatever mobile networking it takes to let multiple people/groups share a terminal (Your sandwich will arrive in 18 seconds, 17, 16, 15…)
  • The micro-UPS business model that “splits out” a terminal to everyone on a city block?
  • (Getting it into China without being ripped off.)  (Or rather, accepting getting ripped off and making the best of it.)

And finally, consider that this is an obvious real estate play, which is where the REAL money is, just like with trains 150 and cars 60 years ago:  Apartment buildings and other facilities can be built around this that are on real estate that was OTHERWISE cheap, because it was inaccessible transport-wise.  Work “local”/from-home and you’re set.

And then you can get really crazy, like imagining tanks of clean/waste-water coming and going this way, or compacted slugs of trash or sewage, or whatever, and you can build cities absolutely anywhere.

Interesting.  So I’m using this to imagine a world where smaller-than-a-breadbox stuff flows ultra-freely, easier than today, but bigger things and human bodies are LOCAL.  Hm.  I’ll buy it.

Let the scheming begin!

Act like you know.

(Damn I’m hot today.)

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4 Responses to ““Foodtubes” and the future of freight”

  1. craigrmeyer Says:

    (Damn I’m into this. Coffee is amazing.)

    This is how cities become walkable/bikeable. When the trucks are gone, there’s more road left over for people and bicycles. It becomes easier for cities to grow their no-car-zones, because they’re not forcing their truck drivers to start work at 2am.

    (Uh, because the truck drivers were all forced to find other jobs!)

  2. craigrmeyer Says:

    Also recycling:

    When my old busted (or just the wrong color) microwave has to go, I plunk it in the junk capsule I ordered with my iPhone 9GS. Whoever bought the microwave new was forced by government rules to pay for this return trip when they ran their debit card at Best Buy.

    (Of course he/she was just an idiotic American consumer, like me, and didn’t/couldn’t read his receipt, so we all just take it for granted like everything else. We assume the microwave is imbued with the magical power/desire to conjure up this junk capsule and return to its maker. ‘Like how a faucet has the near-magical ability to manifest hot and cold running water, as if out of thin air.)

    The microwave has an RFID chip in it, and therefore “knows” exactly what it’s made of, and thus finds its way to that one person, surely in China or Vietnam somewhere, who is The Expert at disassembling that particular kind of microwave and recycling everything in it “but the squeal” (as we say back home about butchering pigs). They even buff the paint off because they know exactly what kind of paint it is, because it was all registered (forced by regulations) in the database the day it was made. Etc.

    This is a colossal business waiting to happen because everything that’s manufactured has to be disposed of too. For every factory that makes Widgets there’s another one that decommissions them. Maybe next door, or maybe across the world. Talk about jobs!

    As someone smart once said, “in nature, waste is food.”

  3. craigrmeyer Says:

    You know, it occurs to me that if City A and City B both have this, then we’d immediately have semi trucks full of tubes that fill up at the last minute, right before the driver pulls out of City A, and disgorge when he backs into City B.

    This is exactly how I was describing the freighter jet planes for Next Day Air, but instead from city to city (or neighborhood to neighborhood?)

    Of course they’d eventually be made obsolete when our Chinese Overlords write a check to lay long-haul tubes between City A and City B (down the median right-of-way of the highway we can’t afford to drive down anymore), but you get the idea.

    In fact, that’s a whole ‘nother topic of pontification: New business models for re-purposing interstate highways when driving cars goes the way of riding horses.

    Of course people still want to go places, but that’s what trains, high speed rail, 737’s and maybe-someday monorails are for. They run on windmills and get better Wifi anyway, so ‘hell with driving (as if we could afford it anyway).

  4. craigrmeyer Says:

    What’s still unclear to me is how to START.

    How small a system can get Metcalf’s law over the hump?

    It won’t be in the USA or Europe, sadly, ‘cuz We Broke.

    That leaves the Middle East (who hate their Pakistani truck drivers) and China China China (who have awful traffic). Booya either way.


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