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The age of the pod car may finally be upon us.
Futurists have long predicted the day when we zip along in autonomous and electric monorail-like systems they call Personal Rapid Transit, and several projects underway in cities around the world suggest we soon may be freed from the bondage of gridlock.
“It’s time we design cities for the human, not for the automobile,” says Jacob Roberts, president of Connect Ithaca, which is trying to make the city in upstate New York the first pod-car city in America. The pod car, he says, “creates the perfect blend between the privacy and autonomy of the automobile with the public transportation aspect and, of course, it uses clean energy.”
Pod cars are autonomous vehicles that provide on-demand nonstop travel on overhead tracks. Think horizontal elevators, or of the monorail at Disneyland. They carry two to 10 people, providing a level of privacy and security not found with traditional mass transit. Such a system, advocates say, also provide the convenience of automobiles without the hassle.
It’s a cool idea that’s been around for awhile but is only now gaining steam as rising fuel prices and environmental concerns have people looking for alternatives. A five-station PRT system in Morgantown, West Virginia (population 29,361) has ferried people between downtown and the West Virginia University campus since 1979. It carries as many as 16,000 people a day and has never experienced a major accident.
As is so often the case with greener transportation, Europe is leading the charge to make pod cars the next big thing. Sweden, in particular, has gone crazy with the idea. More than a dozen cities are planning pod-car systems as part of the country’s commitment to free itself of fossil fuels by 2020.
“Today’s transportation system is reaching a dead end,” Hans Lindqvist, chairman of Kompass, the organization leading the charge to free Sweden from petroleum, told the Associated Press. “Something has to change. We aren’t talking about replacing the automobile entirely. We are adding something else into the transportation strategy.”
London is building a pod car system at Heathrow Airport called ULTra.
The first phase of the project will carry passengers between a parking lot and the new Terminal 5. Passengers will wait no more than a minute for one of the 18 four-passenger, battery-powered pods to arrive and whisk them along at 25 mph on an elevated track 2.3 miles long. Closed-circuit television will keep tabs on the pods to prevent mishaps — not that officials expect any.
Firms in Poland and Korea are running pod cars on large-scale test tracks, and there are plans to build a system for Masdar City near Abu Dhabi. Here in the States, Ithaca wants to make pod cars part of a long-term transportation program, and officials in Santa Cruz, California, have commissioned the design of a solar-powered pod system that would run between downtown and the beach.
“The vehicles are big and robust and travel at fairly conservative speeds,” Phil Smith, operations director of Advanced Transport Systems, which designed the network, told Flight Global. “And the events that could take place are incredibly benign. We have run them in all the conceivable weather conditions in the U.K. up to and including conditions when the airport would be closed.”
Not everyone thinks pod cars are the future. Critics, most of them light-rail advocates, argue personal transportation systems are too expensive and complex to work on anything more than a small scale — say, on corporate campuses or airports.
“It is operationally and economically unfeasible,” Vukan Vuchic, a professor of transportation and engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Associated Press. “In the city, if you have that much demand, you could build these guideways and afford the millions it would take, but you wouldn’t have the capacity. In the suburbs, you would have the capacity, but the demand would be so thin you couldn’t possibly pay for those guideways, elevated stations, control systems and everything else.”
He raises a valid point. It costs some $25 to $40 million per mile to build a PRT system, and in today’s economic climate that’s a price most cities or even states are not willing to spend. But compared to the $100 to $300 million per mile it costs to build a light-rail system, pod-car advocates counter, and suddenly pods look reasonable. They say it is only a matter of years before such a system is running somewhere in the United States.
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