ABU DHABI // The row of cars sit in their glass stations like cute, caged bunnies in the window of a pet store, waiting for someone to walk by and notice them. They look so odd and futuristic that they elicit giggles and wows from anyone seeing them for the first time, but the autonomous Personal Rapid Transport (PRT) system at Masdar City represents a view of the future of transportation - except that you can try it out today.
The system has been in place and running since November 28, and the man in charge of its implementation can't hide his enthusiasm for the pilot project.
"The perfect thing with this is that, unlike other systems, it operates on demand," says Robbert Lohmann, the manager of marketing and sales for 2getthere, the company that installed the system. "Buses carry on with a route, even if there are no passengers; here, if there is no demand, then the vehicles don't drive, and no energy is used."
Mr Lohmann is based in the Netherlands, but he is in Abu Dhabi for a monthly visit and joins me as we put the PRT cars at Masdar City to the test.
We press a button on a pedestal, both the glass doors to the station and the car's doors slide open in unison, and we crouch to walk inside and sit down.
"People ask, 'what is the best feature you've designed on this car'," Mr Lohmann says. "And I say, 'the height of the roof'. Because you can't stand inside, you are forced to sit down, so that helps safety. And that means we can go a little faster, which increases the efficiency of the system."
We sit down on the leather seats and push another button to close the doors. With a warning beep, the car begins to glide out of the glass box backwards and stops, then starts forward, gaining speed along with an increasing whine from the electric motor. It softly accelerates to its top speed of about 25kph along the smooth concrete pathway, following a well-worn path of tyre marks. But it is not guided by these; the marks are simply a result of how accurate the guidance system is.
"We calculate how far the vehicle has driven by counting the number of wheel revolutions and the direction," Mr Lohmann says, his voice rising against the noise that fills the cabin. "But there is always a discrepancy; depending on the number of people in the car, the tyres may be a different diameter. So to compensate, there are magnets every two metres in the road, and every time we come over a magnet we measure the position, then we take our calculated position and measure the difference. And then we correct just half the distance; we never correct the whole distance because then it would be very jerky for the passengers.
"The driving accuracy in corners is within five centimetres, and on the straights it's within two centimetres."
It's a strange ride at first, especially knowing this car is thinking for itself. Despite the calculations Mr Lohmann talks about, it does sometimes get jerky, although overall it's pleasant. The noise from the electric motor is slightly higher than the level of a normal road car. But that doesn't stop Mr Lohmann from going on in detail enthusiastically about the system, describing the obstacle sensors that control the brakes or the fact that the PRT has far fewer operational problems and passenger delays than other systems around the world, such as bus or train routes.
The cars can be summoned on demand, he says, and it is an eerie sight standing on the station pad and seeing a passenger-less car come to life on its own and leave.
We come into the station and the car slows to a stop, parking perfectly in the glass box and opening its doors; I can't help but be in awe at experiencing something so futuristic.
Masdar's original plans for the PRT included multiple stops, but the company scaled back to the two that we ride to and from today. But Mr Lohmann remains proud of his company's accomplishment with the pilot project.
"We'd be happy if there's an expansion of the system in the future. If there is not, I'll be happy to operate what we have here and show the world how unique the system is, and what the capabilities of the system are.
"But for us, this is not testing. For us, this is a fully operational transportation system."
Give me a V8 Mercedes to test any day
It starts like many other cars today – with the push of a button. But instead of the satisfying growl of a V8, there’s … nothing. Then, the doors swish closed, and the PRT begins to move backwards out of the station with a whine that increases in volume.
And this is where a true driver will start to be disappointed with the PRT. As the car begins to move forward, the whine grows louder and fills the cabin, and there is a definite lack of control to driver input; it’s disappointingly unresponsive and seems to have a mind of its own during the trip. In fact, the steering wheel and pedals are inconveniently absent from the cabin, which severely limits a driver’s skills. There’s little feedback, and forget about tail slides or smoking the tyres, which the PRT seems utterly incapable of.
But the car stays flat in the corners, and handling seems to be good, with no understeer or oversteer, although it seems to be affected by a very low speed limiter.
Inside, the seats are firm yet comfortable in soft leather, but visibility is outstanding with tinted glass everywhere that gives the cabin a very open feel. Features and amenities are few, though cupholders are mandatory.
The bottom line is, though passengers will find their time in the PRT enjoyable, the true driver will wish he was back in his Mercedes.
* Neil Vorano