PRT- Self Driving Travel Pods On Demand
Small Scale Rapid Transit:
In a previous post, we reviewed Light Rail and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) options. In comparison to larger heavy rail systems, Light Rail and Bus Rapid lines each can be less capital intensive, more people friendly, and spur nearby development. The Los Angeles Times featured a great piece about the quiet success of LA’s Orange Line Bus Rapid. When given its own right of way, Bus Rapid can perhaps even make more sense than a car on increasingly congested highways.
Autonomous and personal.
But wait… there’s more: What would it take to get the really dyed in the wool car lover to try a new commute?
The trip to work is “private time” for many- The personal auto commute is considered a needed break between the responsibilities of home life and pressures at work. The car is an island, a sanctuary. No one to bump up against… no one to interact with. Just you, listening to favorite music, having a phone conversation. From your home to office – one uncomplicated ride. The personal car is there where you need it, and when you need it. So- In a world with increasing pollution, congestion and strain(s) on infrastructure, can we still accommodate the need for an on demand, nearby and semi-private travel mode?
One of the current near-term solutions is creating more HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes- In HOV, the car is still yours, but a passenger or two is required to help lighten the burden and speed the ride on a congested highway.
In Washington DC, drivers routinely pick up strangers, (in a rather odd ad hoc carpool program), in order to qualify to drive on the HOV. The locals call it “slugging”. Hopeful travelers await pickup by HOV bound commuters in a “slug line” . It’s not a pleasant term but, the practice of slugging has made one thing clear: People like to travel in small densities, point to point and on demand -even if it necessitates traveling with a stranger.
Whether it’s the car’s relative comfort or its point to point capability, it’s clear that some prefer seated, uncrowded travel with fewer unknowns. So then, what to do for an Airport planner that is faced with gridlock and smog on nearby access roads? How to get travelers from a congested terminal to far away parking and back without adding expensive heavy rail systems or tolerating scores of new surface vehicles? Enter the concept of coordinated, yet personalized transit, an idea which has been kicked around, toyed with, and sporadically implemented for some forty-plus years.
Back in the late 60′s, The US Department of Housing and Urban development released a series of reports featuring some “blue sky” notions designed to address the issues of sprawl, and car dependence. Many people were leaving the inner cities, causing a flight of capital, and leaving behind areas of blight and decay. To address these concerns, a focus became the improvement of intraurban mass transit. Small potential improvements in the existing systems were identified, such as better vehicles, passenger information systems, and the creation of early “dial a ride” services. However, one could only go so far with the structures already in place: A larger, more imaginative, more comprehensive system was proposed-The PRT.
Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) was envisioned as a system of small, “People Movers” which were to be there when needed, and travel where needed. No waiting! The process was to be automated, and, over time, the high capital costs of such a system would be paid for by lower labor costs. On the promise of PRT President Nixon said: “If we can send three men to the moon 200,000 miles away, we should be able to move 200,000 people to work three miles away.”
As pert of this effort, there were some early government funded PRT experiments and, in Morgantown, West Virginia, an early personal rapid transit line from that time is still in service.
Later, to improve downtown access, larger automated “People Mover” systems were created . Systems in use today: Detroit’s as well systems in both Miami and Jacksonville. There is also a small People Mover system in Irvine Texas, (although it’s no longer automated)
In one of the more advanced People Mover deployments, passengers travel atop a cushion of air, rather than on rubber tires or steel wheels. These “guided hover craft”, are in now use in the Detroit Airport , as well seeing use in both the Cincinnati and Minneapolis St Paul airports.
The traveling public is becoming much more familiar with the 70’s and 80’s People Mover concept- small, low density automated cars which offer somewhat more frequent service than their larger manned bus and rail counterparts.
Yet People Movers are not PRT‘s, The People Mover vehicle and stations are each rather large, and the cars carry many more people. They generally stop at each station, whether needed there or not. The infrastructure for People Movers must also be quite robust. The few similarities People Movers and PRT’s share are that they are each automated, and operate on a fixed guideways,
With modern equipment, and new processing /dispatch power, what would a truly inviting personal rapid transit look like? Is it possible to build an on demand travel pod that arrives and departs as needed without waiting for additional passengers to make a trip effective?
Enter the Ultra PRT, Heathrow Airport’s answer to the question of why PRT has foundered. No waiting. No crowding. A vehicle purposefully designed with a small capacity, to serve only one or few travelers, but do it often, and on demand.
In Abu Dhabi’s experimental sustainable city of Masdar- small, automated electric travel pods (similar to those at Heathrow)were planned to carry four to six people up to up to 25 mph. They would have traveled underground and followed magnetic routes embedded the pathways. Due to political and economic issues, the PRT, and many other Masdar City sustainable experiments, were cancelled.
Can small projects like the “Ultra PRT” at Heathrow, or the successful new South Korean Suncheon Sky Cube (each shown here) be replicated world-wide?
Can such solutions be scaled up and used as a replacement to the daily commuter car? In the late 60′s planners thought it might be possible. However, given the challenges faced in Masdar city, a city-wide PRT effort, even with today’s technology, may not be feasible.
On Street and On Demand
In the 21st Century, personal, on-demand now means a conventional car dispatched by services such as and Uber and Lyft. Each is planning on enhancing its current on demand taxi services with robotic vehicles. Lyft is partnering with GM on self driving cars, and Uber has announced its own autonomous car program
A small car that drives itself (and is perhaps electric)- a vehicle that picks you up when called, drops you near or at your destination- automatically. This does seem like what was long ago envisaged for the PRT.
With Google building robotic cars, and Uber and Lyft dispatching them on conventional roads- What is the future of a conventional fixed route personal rapid system?
The skyTran: A light, magnetically powered pod suspended over traffic and obstructions. The technology was developed in partnership with NASA.
As quoted in GovTech,com, Chris Perkins, vice president of government affairs for SkyTran, outlined the things that make his firm’s approach unique:
“It doesn’t have wheels [or] a diesel motor. It doesn’t belch fumes…It’s essentially an all-electric, linear motor system that uses magnetic levitation so there’s no wheel contact. There’s no wheel noise as the vehicle is traversing our guideways. What SkyTran’s PRT offers is “point-to-point, nonstop, on-demand service, which is just like a car,” except better. “It’s the kind of car we all want,” Perkins said “You get in the thing, you go where you want to go and then it just disappears. No possible parking tickets to pay, no insurance.” … A single guideway is equivalent to three lanes of traffic potentially 11,000 passengers per hour…”
At this point the technology is simply in the prototype stage. There, however, is a partnership with an Israeli firm to build a skyTran system as a pilot project.
Clearly the notion of small, responsive vehicles zipping around on command is an appealing one. Will more of us, one day, be comfortable traveling in small driverless PRTs? Perhaps. Even the state of the art Hyperloop proposals (although larger and faster) have similar features: they too are autonomous, feature very frequent service, and have few passengers per pod.
The takeaway? The future of travel is on demand and at your service.
Car ownership not required.
For more on advanced transit ideas and prototypes- Try our (very detailed!) article- A Jet Set Hyperloop