While robot cars on the open road move forward in prototype form, a new system of pod cars with dedicated tracks is now in operation at London’s Heathrow Airport. The firm behind the pods is also pushing the technology elsewhere, including potentially near San Jose’s airport.
The new system, in trials since April and entering regular service this summer, connects Heathrow’s Terminal 5 with two stations in a parking area about 1.2 miles away.
So far, the transport pods have received positive reviews from passengers who find the ride smooth and easy.
Passengers board at a computer-controlled terminal where they select their destination. A pod (with a capacity for six people going to the same place) then arrives behind adjacent glass doors, and the driverless coach whisks them off along dedicated pathways toward their destinations.
ULTra-PRT, the firm behind the pods, says that the system has 21 vehicles and makes the approximately 1.2-mile journey in five to six minutes.
In a video of a capacity test, the system is shown making 164 trips in an hour. Since the cars are 4-seaters, this could mean as many as 656 passengers, though many trips are made with only one person.
The electric-powered pods replace a pair of diesel-fueled busses that previously ran a route between the terminal and the parking lot.
A spokesperson for BAA, which operates Heathrow and has purchased a stake in ULTra-PRT, told The New York Times that efficiency gains stem from both the shift to electric and the on-demand nature of the pod transport. The busses would run even when few passengers needed them.
Personal rapid transit, from which the company took the abbreviation PRT, is a decades-old idea that some transit experts believe could help solve the so-called “last mile problem.”
Though PRT generally requires dedicated tracks, they are smaller than those required for light rail or other mass transit. Moreover, a 2009 Boston Globe story notes that PRT has advantages over traditional rail (paywall).
When pods stop at a station, they stop “off-line,” meaning the track is still clear for other pods to pass by. With traditional rail, other trains are simply backed up or must employ switches and extra tracks to get by.
ULTra-PRT and other firms are pushing the pod transport technology elsewhere, and the City of San Jose, Calif., has committed
$4 million $2 million* to studying the possibility of a system for the area surrounding the San Jose Airport.
San Jose plans to release it’s economic and technical feasibility report by January 2012, said Laura Stuchinsky, sustainability officer for the city’s Department of Transportation.
Stuchinsky said the proposed system would connect the airport area with rapid transit on two sides of the airport, but details are still under study. It is clear, however, that there are several firms who can do this kind of work in addition to ULTra.
“There are quite a number of companies out there,” she told TPM.
The history of the Heathrow project, however, suggests that any future projects would emerge well into the future. According to ULTra’s website, BAA undertook a two-year study starting in 2003, and selected ULTra for the project in 2005, meaning study-to-completion took about eight years.
*The number ULTra-PRT cites on its web site is inaccurate, Laura Stuchinsky, sustainability officer for the San Jose Department of Transportation, told TPM.
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, the county’s transit agency, has allocated $4 million to this project, half of which is being applied to this feasibility study.
The remainder would be made available if San Jose moves forward with the project.
Graham Webster is a journalist, consultant, and researcher working on technology and politics in China and the United States. Now based in New York, he has lived and worked in Beijing, Tokyo, and Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter.
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