A British scientist who helped fire the first man on the moon into orbit believes he holds the key to revolutionising city travel both in the Middle East and around the world.
For the future of the UAE's public transport, look to Nasa's illustrious past
A British scientist who helped fire the first man on the moon into orbit believes he holds the key to revolutionising city travel both in the Middle East and around the world. On first glance, Martin Lowson's pledge seems to be a remarkable one partly because he initially seems so, well, unremarkable. Usually dressed for work in a grey suit, the wrinkled face of the former Nasa employee could just as easily pass as a grandfather enjoying retirement.
Lowson is far from unremarkable as his previous work record will attest to. He first made his mark working for Nasa on the Apollo Space Missions, where he headed a team of 50 people working on the Saturn V rocket, which blasted the likes of Neil Armstrong into space. Following his spell in the United States, he returned to the UK and worked as the chief scientist at Westland Helicopters, where he designing the rotor system behind what remains the world's fastest helicopter.
But for the past 15 years, he has been working on the driverless car. The futuristic shuttles, known as Urban Light Transport (ULTra) pods, will be controlled by passengers at the touch of the button and take them at distances of up to five kilometres around a neighbourhood. Something similar will soon be in operation at Masdar City - developed by a rival of Lowson's. But Lowson's creation could also soon be on its way to Abu Dhabi, with negotiations on with different projects there.
Lowson's creation is already up and running at Heathrow Airport Terminal 5, where it will begin ferrying business passengers between their cars and the terminal midway this year. In all, 21 vehicles will be operational at the airport, with half a million passengers a year expected to use the pods. The reason behind the original project was that Lowson had grown fed up with British transport in the mid-1990s, deeming it unworkable and, with some funding from the University of Bristol where he was working as professor of aerospace engineering, set about coming up with a system aimed at overhauling global public transport.
"It started as simply as the fact that I didn't think transport was done very well," he said. "And I felt that, if we thought it through properly, there was a better way of doing things." Lowson believes his shuttles at Heathrow and the rival ones in Masdar City are only the beginning for the ULTra pod, especially with regard to the UAE. "We've had a lot of approaches from the Middle East," he said. "There have been lots of discussions elsewhere in Abu Dhabi as there are so many new developments there and this transport system lends itself well to that and there's no need for roads, car parks and the like with such a system."
The pods created by Lowson can fit as many as six passengers at a time, a breakaway from a Personal Rapid Transport model in Morgantown in the US, in place since the 1970s and ferrying up to 25 passengers at a time. "This is very different in that it's much more personal travel," said Lowson. "We've based this on normal family-size cars. And those cars are sized for a reason - that's generally the number of people that will be travelling as a family or as a bunch of work colleagues at one time."
Each vehicle can travel up to 40kph along its own road system which, because of space limitations in existing cities, will tend to be on a line overhead pedestrians and other vehicles. They will be powered by batteries that can run for three hours and will be charged while stopping en route or at special charge points, when needed. Long-term, Lowson has ambitious plans for the project that stretches far wider than merely Heathrow Airport.
"The intention is to show that this is better than the car for city travel and I genuinely believe this will revolutionise city travel for the future," he said. Lowson points out that there are plenty of bonuses to the system. Building a system for a city requires about a sixth of the resources as building roads while he claims operating costs are 40 per cent lower than running buses and also provide a 60 per cent saving in passenger travel time.
A bonus is that the pods produce no petrol fumes and are about as green as public transport gets. The former Nasa scientist is brimming with confidence that people will begin to see the benefits and the system will be snapped up globally. "We believe it is the future for public transport in most cities around the world," he said. "The majority of cities around the world are around the half-a-million mark and it works perfectly for that number."