Totally Tubular Transportation System Could Take Trucks Off the Street

It's a mini-Hyperloop and it's not just a pipe dream.

Pipedream in pipe


Years ago, New York City and Paris had pneumatic tubes running under them. The Paris system, which ran until 1984, was particularly extensive, with 265 miles of pipe delivering mail to 130 offices. New York's system was not as big, with only 27 miles of tubes. But it could carry bigger packages and even deliver sandwiches. According to Untapped Cities, on its third trip, it carried a black cat in its cylinder that was 24 inches long and 8 inches wide at 30 miles per hour. The cat was fine.

Now, a new company with the surprising name PipeDream wants to bring back delivery in tubes. But it's not just a new pneumatic system. Instead, it has sort of a tiny electric tractor pulling a pod through 12-inch PVC pipes—the same kind of inexpensive pipe used to deliver services now.

What can it carry? According to the PipeDream website: "Literally anything! Well, anything that is 10” in or less in diameter and less than 16” long. This cargo volume accommodates 85% of non-furniture e-commerce purchases, 95% of grocery items, and most prepared food items (pizza is one of the few exceptions—though we are working on it)."

They are not planned to run between cities at this time. But perhaps someday they may even deliver burritos through a new version of the Alameda-Weehawken burrito tunnel that apparently ran between San Francisco and New York.

The Singularity Hub notes that carrying vast numbers of packages in trucks isn't particularly good for the environment, and we have complained about how bike lanes are turned into loading bays. Chief Technology Officer Drew Bellcock noted in an interview last year that it would be energy and space-efficient compared to drones or robots.

"Drones can’t be the backbone infrastructure for delivery because if you think about the volume of things being delivered, the skies would be literally covered with drones," said Bellcock. "Also, it costs 25x more energy to send something using a quadcopter versus driving it in a small robot on the ground. Once you understand that, you realize ground transportation is obviously how things have to move around."

But he also notes robots on the ground could cause congestion and safety problems. This is something we have complained about on Treehugger. I wrote: "I, for one, do not welcome our new sidewalk overlords, and suspect that they will take over the sidewalks the way cars took over the roads, that soon a few more feet of pavement might be taken away from pedestrians to provide space for robot lanes, and that once again, pedestrians will get screwed by the new technology."

Photograph shows the Pennsylvania Terminal Post Office (General Post Office Building), now called the James A. Farley Building, located at 421 Eighth Avenue, New York City.
A pneumatic tube at the New York City's Pennsylvania Terminal Post Office.

Library of Congress / Flickr Commons project, 2011

Just as burying services, telephone and electric lines make sense in cities, so does this. It's not an evil plot like Hyperloop was, which was a way for Elon Musk to kill transit and infrastructure investment. It is a sensibly sized system that takes trucks off the street. The old delirious Pneu York system was purportedly delivering sandwich subs via pneumatic tubes from a renowned subway shop in the Bronx to downtown postal stations. Imagine what this could do at 75 miles per hour.

PipeDream doesn't go to post offices, but to little terminals that could be located around the city. It is encouraging to hear them say: "Our robots can’t fall from the sky, drive off the road, or block a sidewalk. Terminal locations will be selected and designed with safety in mind (much like an ATM), and will also be user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing."

Eventually, they would like to have the portal come right into our homes. There is a logic to this but the burrito is not a necessity like water and electricity. And a water pipe gets smaller as it moves closer to home; the PipeDream has to stay at 12 inches, which gets expensive for a single house. This system is no different from any other transport system in that it works better at higher densities where people live in multifamily dwellings. But having one of these in every apartment building mailroom would be a nice amenity.

Ordering online has become part of our lives, but that last mile is incredibly expensive, inefficient, and carbon-intensive. There is a real logic to this and it could be more than just a pipe dream.