Overachievers We Love

An autonomous dump truck, a cheaper maglev train and a globe-trotting solar-powered car

Hulking Hauler: Carnegie Mellon will give autonomous control to Cat’s biggest trucks

courtesy Caterpillar

Popular Science celebrates the eternal human urge to go bigger! Better! Farther! Inside, a look at three vehicles with the need to exceed.


Building on their victory at last year's Darpa Urban Challenge autonomous road race, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have teamed with construction-equipment giant Caterpillar to develop the world's biggest robotic dump trucks. The collaboration will give autonomous upgrades to the next generation of Caterpillar's largest hauler, a 47-foot-long monster that can carry 380 tons of dirt or mined goods. The Carnegie Mellon team plans to adapt the same technology used in its Darpa win to give the truck the ability to navigate around obstacles. Caterpillar is banking that the unmanned trucks will boost efficiency in remote locales, where skilled drivers might be in short supply, and reduce accidents, like collisions and drivers falling from the big rigs. The trucks are expected to start self-hauling by 2010.

Cheap Flight: A miniature FastTransit maglev train underwent successful tests last spring

courtesy Launchpoint

Magic Rails

Magnetic-levitation trains are faster and quieter than conventional trains but prohibitively expensive because of the cost of buying land and building the electromagnetic tracks that lift and propel the vehicles. Now FastTransit, a company specializing in maglev tech- nology, is offering a more affordable approach: Mount neodymium-iron-boron magnets alongside existing train tracks, and install opposing magnets on the vehicles to float the trains without any power. Small electromagnets attached to the cars keep them positioned over the tracks and shift the cars left or right at a track switch. FastTransit estimates that a retrofitted system could cost $7 million to $10 million per mile to build -- a third of the cost of rival maglevs. And that's not including the savings in real estate and energy costs. On the heels of a successful small-scale study last spring, the company is moving ahead this year on a full-scale prototype and test track near Santa Barbara, California.

Happy Trails: Louis Palmer programmed the SolarTaxi’s horn to play “La Cucaracha”

courtesy SolarTaxi.com

Sunny Travels

This month, Louis Palmer, a 37-year-old substitute teacher and adventurer from Switzerland, will complete his 18-month trip around the planet in a solar-powered car, becoming the first person to drive the 30,000-mile distance without using a single drop of gasoline. His ride, the Swiss-built SolarTaxi, is a two-seater run by a pair of fully recyclable sodium-and-nickel batteries and 65 square feet of solar panels in tow. Palmer hopes his journey will inspire more eco-friendly driving. "The technology is here," he says. "It's affordable, it's reliable, and it's ready."