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At 83, Cape Cod Entrepreneur Still Focused on the Future of Transportation

Posted by Scott Kirsner  July 22, 2009 12:43 PM

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For more than a half-century, an East Falmouth entrepreneur named William Alden has been thinking about car-sharing and electric vehicles, traffic jams and pollution, parking headaches and distracted driving.

cronkite.jpg
Walter Cronkite even paid Alden's company a visit in 1966 for his CBS series "The 21st Century." (That's Uncle Walter in the car, Alden standing. The inscription on the photo reads, "For William Alden -- and his exciting concept.")

But even now that we've entered the 21st century, Alden's ideas about "personal rapid transit" haven't been widely adopted (yet). At 83, though, he's still trying.

Alden sent me his Cronkite photo earlier this week, and I called him to find out more.

He's an alumnus of the Harvard Business School who founded his second start-up, Alden Self-Transit Systems Corp., around 1955. The idea was to design electric vehicles -- the Alden StaRRcar in the picture -- that you'd drive from your home onto a guideway, at which point you'd be driven automagically to your destination, via computer-control. It was a Jetson-esque vision where traffic jams and car wrecks would become vestiges of the past, and you'd simply sit back and peruse the morning paper in the comfort of your very own car.

Alden's technology was licensed by Boeing, as part of the creation of a people-mover system in Morgantown,West Virginia which links the three campuses of West Virginia University. It opened in 1975, and still carries about 16,000 riders a day. (Unlike the original concept, the cars hold a dozen people -- and cannot be driven off the guideway.) At one point, his company, which also built some of the components of the Morgantown system, had 85 employees. (It was variously located in Westboro, Bedford, and Milford, MA.)

But after Morgantown, interest in the systems "dried up," Alden says, and he shifted his company's focus to selling computer-assisted manufacturing technology to customers like Corning. He sold off that company, Alden Computer Systems, to an employee in 1983. After a stint in Hollywood trying to produce movies, Alden retired.

But "I got a little restless in full retirement," racing Sunfish sailboats on Martha's Vineyard, he says. (Alden would occasionally bump into Cronkite on the Vineyard.)

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So now Alden, at 83, has reunited with some of his old colleagues to form a new company: Alden DAVe Systems, and he is once again pitching personal rapid transit systems. (The DAV stands for "dual-mode autonomous vehicle," meaning it can either be driven by you, or the computer can do the driving.) He has been in active discussions with local universities and one of the companies trying to build a movie studio in Massachusetts.

From his marketing materials:


    DAVE is a truly personal means of transportation, but it goes far beyond the capabilities of the Morgantown and other, present Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems.

    Users can call a DAVe to their location with a mobile or landline phone and activate a DAVe with a credit or debit card. A DAVe follows a virtual map in its computer.

    The DAVe can go from any one point to any other point on the “DAVeWay” routes. DAVe has sensors that allow it to operate among pedestrians, vehicles and other obstacles. For safety and security, a DAVe also has 360-degree cameras which record people and activity within and around the vehicle. Like the automobile or taxi, the DAVe goes from where and when the passenger wants directly to where she/he wants. The central computer...provides safety redundancy and maximizes the utilization of the inventory of DAVes.

It sounds sort of like a Zipcar controlled by the HAL 9000.

There's no Web site for Alden's new company, but there is this YouTube video.

"I have a real sense of mission," Alden says. "The federal government is spending hundreds of millions on electric cars and hybrids. But if you electrified every automobile in the country, you wouldn't solve the problems of congestion and accidents."

I asked Alden, somewhat gingerly, about starting a new venture in his 80s. He basically ignored the suggestion that he should be doing anything else at this stage of his life. "I start companies, gather teams, and raise money," he says. "It's what I do. So I thought, why don't I give it a whirl again?"

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1 comments so far...
  1. For more on Personal Rapid Transit, everyone's welcome at www.prtstrategies.com.

    Posted by PRT Strategies July 22, 09 02:31 PM
 

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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