Podcars inch from myth to reality

Podcars inch from myth to reality

Summary: Personal rapid transit (PRT) has seen its fair share of political strife and skepticism, particularly in the U.S.


Personal rapid transit (PRT) has seen its fair share of political strife and skepticism, particularly in the U.S. where a few projects are stuck at the planning stage. But this novel way of getting around appears to have a good shot at flourishing overseas.

Two PRT systems in development are on the brink of large-scale testing and deployment. One of them is in Masdar City, a futuristic urban development in the United Arab Emirates, while the other is at Heathrow International Airport, near London. Both demonstrate that with the right applications, technology and funding, PRT can be an attractive alternative to other forms of mass transit.

PRT systems offer on-demand, driverless private vehicles (usually seat four to six passengers) that run on a network of sensors, not rails, providing non-stop transportation. (How these generally work was covered in this blog a few years back).

The system at Heathrow, called ULTra is being built by Advanced Transport Systems, based in Bristol, UK.  According to the company, recent progress includes the completion of the guideway phase of construction, which includes an Automatic Vehicle Protection (AVP) system that’s similar to those used in the rail industry. The operators expect the system to open to airport users later this year.

Credit: Advanced Transport Systems Ltd.  - www.atsltd.co.uk

Credit: Advanced Transport Systems Ltd. - www.atsltd.co.uk

A Dutch company, 2getthere, is building the system in Masdar , and their approach is similar but with a few differences, such as more-advanced batteries made of lithium iron phosphate (ULTra uses lead-acid). The podcar network will be larger and have more traffic as it's an integral component of the zero-carbon city, and was part of the plan from the ground up.

A recent article in Technology Review compares both PRT implementations, while details of the system in Masdar City and an interview with one of the city's designers is available at Treehugger.

Credit: Masdar

Credit: Masdar

Podcar Politics

Supporters of PRT say that the systems combine the convenience and privacy of a car with the environmental benefits of mass transit. Many opponents think that cost-effective PRT is a myth since the traffic, actual or potential, may not justify it.

In a PR release last December about the global emergence of PRT systems, consulting firm Frost & Sullivan said, "Today we are seeing a huge growth phase of European Transportation and we will continue to see this growth in the coming future; especially in traffic management and passenger flow transport systems."  They made no mention of any progress specific to the U.S., which ironically is the home of the first operational PRT system dating back to the mid-70's in Morgantown, West Virginia.

In the U.S. personal transit innovation exists, but it runs on age-old infrastructure. So we have hybrid and electric cars, shared vehicle services like Zipcar or City Car Share, and, well, Segway, to point to as signs of recent progress.

If successful in the U.K. and UAE, will personal rapid transit spread to other cities?  Add your opinion below.

Topics: United Kingdom, Networking, Privacy

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  • And Apple will sue anyone

    who dares call them a [b]Pod[/b]car.
  • Interesting concept, but . . .

    Interesting concept, but:

    -Will people be able to have their own personal pods, or will all pods be owned by the state/company?

    -How does this work when one of the endpoints doesn't have access to the system yet? Will there be a car rental nearby?

    -What about vandalism? If we're not allowed to own personal pods, will I have to deal with graffiti or torn up seats?

    -How do maintenance costs compare to roads and automobiles?

    -What happens when something breaks and pods need to reverse and reroute?

    -What happens to the automobile [b]culture[/b], especially if people are not allowed to own personal pods?

    -How does it handle oversize transport, including goods?

    -If people are [b]not[/b] allowed their own personal pods, how does it handle lost items? What happens if somebody accidentally leaves their bag in the pod?

    Lots of questions need answers still.
    • It's just an automated car..

      CobraA1, answers to questions;

      This pod can be a car preferably with electric proplusion. It is automated to drive on dedicated lane or manually on normal roads.

      Any body can own or even rent it. The advantage is that it can use the dedicated roads and it drives by itself.

      For public use, vandalism can be prevented using cameras.

      Maintenance is like car's except for the extra automated gadgets.

      For breakdown, like car, just tow away.

      Basically it is meant for public use like lateral lifts to move people and light goods.

      There are many benefits with automated vehicles on dedicated roads - like you are free to do your other work as no driving is required; public vehicle means no car park problem; pay as you use.. The rests you can figure out when you don't need to own car and have this lateral lift get you to places.

      • The Metrorail has cameras

        The interiors of the trains are still covered in stains, graffiti, spilled food, etc. And this is in the MD, DC, VA tri-state area.

        Public transit = public waste bin
      • So it can be both public and private?

        So it can be both public and private? Some pods are public, some can be private?

        That would be acceptable, I think. There may be the issue of where to park privately owned vehicles - could tracks be made all the way to houses, or would that be too expensive?

        I can see the benefits, yes - although it should be noted that this may be competing for other automated systems (such as automated cars for roads) in the future. Even regular vehicles are being outfitted with some automation of cruise control, braking, and lane departure.

        I could especially see automated vehicles being useful for people who have disabilities (or simply age) that prevent them from driving right now.

        I can certainly see the benefits of such a system - but it will have competition, and drawbacks should be considered.
  • RE: Podcars inch from myth to reality

    TriTrack answers the concerns about personal cars on guideway. It can be operated as pure PRT but it can also be operated much like now except no more traffic jams and 5 cents per mile energy cost. Since it is your car you will probably take care of the upholstery. The guideway provides the safety and very high speed in the city. Since there are no stations and the guideway is triangular measuring 14.5" on a side it can be built for $170,000 per mile at 3 mph. It is truly aerodynamic with a drag coefficient of .07 in the solar ready version. It would end our nation's dependence on foreign oil, clean up the air so we don't need cap and trade and it eliminates traffic as we have come to accept it.
    • I've seen that concept . . .

      I've seen that concept before - and I think it's a bit too unclear as to ownership and large freight. I had to DIG to find out that the company is okay with personal ownership of the vehicles.

      -They may want to be prepared that the system may have a larger variety of shapes and sizes on it - the first design is nice and aerodynamic, but I certainly think customers are going to want a lot more variety. They may have to deal with accepting a some aerodynamic loss to allow for a larger variety of body designs.

      Nobody wants to drive vehicles that have no variety, and it is a mistake to think that a "one size fits all" solution will work for our transportation. Truth is, our needs vary a lot, and that has to be accounted for no matter what the new system is.

      -They especially may want to consider being open to more "hybrid" designs allowing for vehicles to travel highway speeds on regular roads for the first generation of this design.

      The railways will take time to build, and until then, people will expect to still be able to use the highway system until the rail system has enough coverage.