x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The future of travel - and it is arriving here next summer

Driverless, rail-guided pod cars running on clean energy? It may sound like the kind of whimsical contraption better suited to the futuristic cartoon world of The Jetsons than the UAE.

Heathrow Airport, above, is about to employ a Personal Rapid Transit system but Masdar City is likely to be the first to use the pod cars for urban transportation.
Heathrow Airport, above, is about to employ a Personal Rapid Transit system but Masdar City is likely to be the first to use the pod cars for urban transportation.

Driverless, rail-guided pod cars running on clean energy? It may sound like the kind of whimsical contraption better suited to the futuristic cartoon world of The Jetsons than the UAE. In Abu Dhabi's Masdar City, though, the transportation fantasy is set to become a reality with the first of its pod cars due to arrive next summer, and other communities are following suit and exploring how to build their own PRT (personal rapid transit) networks. In the foreseeable future, cities around the world will realise what was once only a dream.

"Here's the idea," said Luca Guala, one of the engineers advising Masdar's transportation authority. "You call the vehicle, it comes and picks you up, you tell the vehicle your destination on a user interface such as touch-screen, and it goes on a fixed route without making intermediate stops." No drivers necessary, no need to worry about traffic, and no prowling around for a parking space. Travelling at a moderate speed of about 40 kph, the four-passenger pod cars planned for Masdar City would zip around on rails or magnetic sensors on the ground level while pedestrians, Segways and cyclists would mill about on a surface slab five or six metres above.

An alternative for existing cities might be to build a guideway suspended above the roads, similar to a monorail track. Aside from reducing congestion and accident rates, pod car advocates point out that the vehicles offer environmental benefits, such as a reduction in the use of fossil fuels and consequent emissions, as well. They are also more energy-efficient than traditional mass-transit systems such as buses.

"The Masdar system will be running on batteries, so it's going to be electric," said Mr Guala, who works for Systematica, a transportation planning firm. "They're very advanced batteries that allow for a long range and a short recharging time, and batteries would give us maximum flexibility. So if you want to change the route of a vehicle, you don't have to demolish a rail." The batteries would recharge while paused at stations along the route and when in storage at depots.

Summoning the vehicle could be much like pushing a button for a lift, with a line of cars sitting in a loading dock ready to depart. Plans are that 50 per cent of users will wait no longer than one-and-a-half minutes for a pod car and 90 per cent will wait no more than three minutes. Unlike traditional modes of public transport, travelling by pod car would be a beeline trip every time. "If there is a pod in front of yours at its station, your pod does not stop," Mr Guala explained.

"It just turns to one side, enters the station and overtakes the one ahead. Basically, the number of stations does not hamper the traffic." Designers for the system have come up with two options for commuters to map out their trips. Either people can enter the station and touch a map of the zero-carbon and zero-waste district to select from one of about 100 planned stops, "or you can board the vehicle, sit comfortably and do this procedure while you're in the vehicle," Mr Guala said.

He declined to disclose the number of pod cars planned for construction, but added that passengers next year would be able to decide their route inside the pod cars to navigate around the first completed phase of Masdar, travelling from the gateway to the university and back. He estimated the longest trip would be 3 kilometres. "There is a lot of interest worldwide because the PRT system is a promising way to replace the car," he said.

The first vehicles in Masdar City will be up and running in August, 2009, which corresponds to the arrival of students for the 2009-2010 term at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. Along with Abu Dhabi, the industrial town of Hofors in Sweden is reportedly testing a similar system. Companies in Poland and South Korea are also running full-scale tracks to check the feasibility of introducing pod car networks.

In the US, a fleet of 15-person cars has ferried West Virginia University students in Morgantown, West Virginia, since the 1970s. And the upstate New York college town of Ithaca has studied the possibility of converting into America's first pod car city. The group Connect Ithaca has mounted a campaign supporting the project, which is estimated to cost $100 million and could take five years to get up and running.

According to a report in The New York Times, a fare for one trip would cost between 50 cents and $1.50. While it has not yet been confirmed how or whether Masdar's pod car system would charge passengers, Mr Guala said that if a fare system were imposed, a swipe-card option would suit the district best. In the meantime, Heathrow Airport outside London plans next year to unveil a pilot pod car system to connect travellers from the car park to Terminal 5.

"This is in competition with Masdar for being the first true PRT system in the world," remarked Mr Guala. "Both Masdar and Terminal 5 will open their PRT systems in 2009, so let's see who will be the first." The notion of pod cars was science fiction a decade ago, but that was before major developments in computer technology. "Pod cars in theory have been around for a long time," Mr Guala said. "But until very recently, the problem with a control system had not been solved. Computers 10 years ago hadn't reached a level in which they could handle a large number of vehicles on a complex network."

As for what the vehicles themselves might look like, Mr Guala said: "Imagine a small European car, like a Peugeot 106, and remove the engine bay." The air-conditioned cabin would be symmetrical, with four seats face-to-face, and room for luggage or wheelchair accommodations, he said. Seat belts would not be required - rail travel, in general, is considered to be ten times safer than travelling by car - and although the pod cars would be travelling in a PRT corridor and light tunnels, they would emerge to pass through some green spaces for a more scenic ride.

Ultimately, however, convenience is a more important consideration in a car-free city. "Maybe you don't want to travel on public transport because you're squeezed with other people, or you don't want to walk 500 metres to the starting stop, wait 10 minutes for a vehicle to arrive and then walk another 500 metres to the destination," Mr Guala said. "You just want to go from your starting point to the destination in the least amount of time possible. The pod car promises to do this."

Mkwong@thenational.ae