Santa Barbara plans an 'electric' street to keep its buses humming

State Street, running through the heart of this placid city, is scheduled to become the proving ground for a notion that could change the very engines - literally - of American society.

The street is going electric. The buses that will ply these lanes in about two years will draw their power electromagnetically from cables hidden a few inches beneath the pavement. And for every mile a bus travels along this road, it can travel a mile off State Street under power that has been stored while operating on the electrified street.

The electric buses here will be the first full-scale example of a technology that many engineers say is the most promising alternative to the internal combustion engine. The real promise of induction coupling, as this technique is called, is not for mass transit projects like this one, but for individual cars.

In fact, Republican California state Assemblyman William Leonard recently introduced a bill in the Legislature that would electrify the state highway system.

This is a $26 billion idea, by rough engineering estimates, and the technology is still too untested to win that much commitment from the state. But Assemblyman Leonard says he looks forward to hearings on the bill scheduled for this fall and whatever first steps the Legislature is willing to take.

Electric roadways would look much the same as ordinary streets and highways. The electric cables are hidden nearly four inches beneath the surface of the street. As alternating current flows through the cable, it sets up an electromagnetic field. When the bus's coil is lowered to enter that field, the fluctuating field causes current to flow in the coil, which is connected to an electric motor. The alternating current in the bus also can be converted to direct current for storage in batteries.

The system is thought to have no effect on pedestrians or ordinary traffic. But when an electric vehicle drives onto the roadway, the induction coil on its underside lowers to about 2 inches above the road's surface. An automatic steering mechanism keeps the vehicle true over the cable.

In Santa Barbara, the batteries will allow electric buses to pull over to the curb, go around obstacles, and make a long jog down Cabrillo Street, which will not be electrified.

Should the state highways go electric, cars could charge up over the main roads, then have enough stored power to get home.

Efficiency of the power pickup depends on the amount of traffic. Heavy traffic can mean almost 100 percent efficiency, says Howard R. Ross, the consulting engineer who proposed induction coupling for Santa Barbara and has helped develop the project. The Santa Barbara buses are expected to pick up about 90 percent of the power pumped into the road.

But no one really knows for sure. Most of what engineers know so far is based on computer simulation. ''There's a lot of fundamental honesty in hardware,'' says John G. Bolger, the engineer who conceived and developed the electric roadway idea. ''You flip the switch and really find out what doesn't work.''

Induction coupling is not a new idea. It was conceived around the turn of the century to power railroads. It was in 1965, while Mr. Bolger was driving in Los Angeles thinking about how electric cars could be made practical, that he hit on the notion of wiring the roads. He was able to test the concept in the late 1970 s through federal grants at the Lawrence Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore Laboratories.

Mr. Leonard's long-range goal is to electrify every state road in California. He admits the idea is radical, however, and he says he is willing to begin step by step with heavily populated areas. The point for Leonard is two-pronged: to reduce the blanket of smog that thickens with every crank of a combustion engine and to wean the United States from too much dependence on foreign oil.

For much the same reasons, the US Department of Transportation has taken an interest in the Santa Barbara project. The Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District recently won $1.3 million in federal money, and expects another $750, 000 from the California Department of Transportation soon.

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