Pod Cars: Autonomous Vehicles vs. Personal Rapid Transit


The age of the pod car might be upon us, but not necessarily as the long-envisioned Personal Rapid Transit. Good for amusement parks and Google’s main campus, as well as small newly-built cities or airport shuttles, PRT systems have too many limitations in dense urban areas. The real future for the pod car, like it or not: Autonomous (Self-Driving) Vehicles.

pod cars, Personal Rapid Transit

Flyway Gotgatan, a Personal Rapid Transit system envisioned for Sweden, will not necessarily be coming to a city near you. But watch out for those pod cars… Photo By Hans Kylberg.

These Pedal-Powered Pod Cars Travel Above City Streets, So You Can Avoid Traffic

By Adele Peters, Published in Fast Co.Exist

Why drive to work when you can arrive in your own pedal-powered pod car, far above traffic? That’s the vision of a Canadian company called Shweeb, which hopes to soon begin installing what it calls the “most sustainable form of public transit” in cities around the world.

Hanging from rails up to 80 feet above the street, the Skysmart system uses a series of personal pods that run on either solar power or pedaling from the passengers inside. Unlike a train or bus, users can hop on immediately without waiting on a platform.

“It can move 10,000 people per hour with tremendous efficiency,” says Stephen Bierda from Shweeb. “What happens with conventional transit is it’s not on demand, so you have to plan your arrival at the station, and there are a lot of stops. That means your average speed is slower.”

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Pod cars [also know as Personal Rapid Transit or PRT] 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.  — Dave Demerjian, Wired

Skysmart is also designed to provide a little exercise on the way to work. “You don’t have to pedal,” Bieda says. “But we want to gamify this and incentivize people to stay fit. We’ll let people pay less if they pedal, and allow people to travel six miles an hour faster. It’s a pretty good bonus to get people to interact on the pod.”

The pods come in different sizes that can hold two, five, or 12 people, and can also be connected to carry packages or other cargo. The guideways that hold the cars can also double as carriers for power lines and cables. “We’ve envisioned the guideway that the pod runs on to become a conduit for all things electrified,” Bierda says. “It’s a multi-purpose piece of infrastructure.”

As more people use the PRT system, it becomes less able to accommodate individual demand for destinations, which renders it more of a traditional rail transit system—but without enough capacity to handle rush-hour crowds. Meanwhile, the direct-to-destination element still can’t beat the door-to-door service offered by taxi networks. In other words, personal rapid transit reproduces modes that already exist in the city, only less effectively.  — Eric Jaffee, CityLab

Cyclists can throw a bike in the back of a pod, and ultimately, the company believes that the system will make it easier to bike on the ground by getting cars off the road. “It’s 3-D transport,” Bierda says. “That leaves the surface level—streets and sidewalks—for people to walk and cycle on.”

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.  — Wired

The system is at least 30% cheaper to build than other mass transit infrastructure, and fully renewably powered. It can also be tied to the grid to feed excess electricity back to the city. “We envision this as a public utility,” Bierda explains. “If it’s run like a utility, that also helps secure the air rights to build over streets, and parks, and parking lots.”

STORY: Electric Streetcars: Back to the Urban Future

Once autonomous vehicles learn to navigate cities, they will offer every advantage of personal rapid transit without any of the limitations. In fact, cities that might once have deployed personal rapid transit have already turned to driverless cars, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Milton Keynes in the United Kingdom. An era of shared autonomous taxis is not far off.  — Eric Jaffee

Autonomous Vehicles, Self-Driving Cars, pod cars

Google’s Self-Driving Vehicle: Autonomous vehicles will offer every advantage of personal rapid transit without any of the limitations. At least, that’s what some people say.

First built for an amusement park in New Zealand, the pod car system won $1 million in Google’s 10^100 competition in 2010 for further development as a form of alternative transportation. The system will use tech from Google’s robocars to track the pods, and Google’s Mountain View campus will be one of the first to build a track. Some 22 other customers are also waiting in line.

ULTra is a battery-driven, 200-mpg-equivalent, elevated personal rapid transit system with many four-person vehicles. First deployed at London Heathrow Airport in Spring 2010.

The big question is whether something like this can really take off; planners started talking about personal rapid transit systems in the 1950s, but the idea hasn’t had much success. Shweeb plans begin building a demonstration site at Niagara Falls next year, to show cities exactly how the system can work, and then push for broader adoption.

“Transit authorities tend to be very slow to adopt, and they’re running up against a lot of political pressure to find ways to fund infrastructure,” Bierda says. “Our solution, because it’s lower cost, because it’s carbon neutral, because it’s providing human health benefits, this is the game-changer that will resonate. And we’re starting to see transit authorities looking at us as a viable way of changing the discourse on public transportation.”

The company is currently raising funds on Indiegogo to help build their first North American system.

Self-Driving Car From Google

More Info on a New Jersey Version of the Pod Car: http://www.fastcolabs.com/3034687/new-jersey-is-testing-solar-power-commuter-pods

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About Jack Eidt

Novelist, urban theorist and designer, and environmental journalist, Jack Eidt careens down human-nature's all consuming one-way highway to its inevitable conclusion -- Wilder Utopia. He co-founded Wild Heritage Partners, based out of Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com. Follow him on Twitter @WilderUtopia and @JackEidt