Are personal pods the next wave of urban transit?
We may soon be hailing driverless electric pods instead of cabs.
Morgantown is a small city of about 30,000 permanent residents nestled in the rugged, tranquil mountains of West Virginia. But every year in late August, the population nearly doubles with the arrival of the West Virginia University student body.
That's when you'll start to see something peculiar – a seemingly random network of small, lone rail cars, clad in the university's signature gold and blue, zipping around campus with no driver. It's called the PRT – Personal Rapid Transit. The system started out in the mid-1970s as an experiment in a new wave of public transportation. WVU's students, faculty and staff use their ID cards at stations around campus, summoning the electric cars, which take them to their destination with no stops in between – for free. It's had an almost-perfect reliability rate in its four decades in existence.
So why hasn't any other U.S. city done this?
It's a question Jerry Sanders, CEO of SkyTran, a California- and Israel-based next-generation transportation company, has been asking for years. It's also an issue he's been trying to address head-on, through his smart technology that he hopes will revolutionize public transportation.
Similar to Morgantown's PRT system, Sanders' SkyTran pods comprise a network of personal, driverless cars that can be summoned with the press of a button, or a swipe of a card. The difference, Sanders says, is that his cars are levitating from a rail overhead, using technology called magnetic levitation (maglev). It's an essential shift, he says, in how urban planners design cities – by building up, not out.
"You're either going to build a subway that costs billions of dollars and takes decades of work, or you're going to have to build above traffic," Sanders told From The Grapevine. "There's simply no more room on the surface for additional transportation systems."
SkyTran is planning several projects around the world, including Israel and France, to bring Sanders' vision of personalized, elevated and environmentally clean public transportation to life. In Tel Aviv, Sanders announced last year he'd be launching a SkyTran on the campus of Israel Aerospace Industries, slated for completion at the end of 2015. Travelers trigger the service via their smartphone, key in their destination and are picked up in short order. Phase 1 of that program will see cars traveling 70 mph; in subsequent phases, pods will be capable of traveling twice as fast.
What's more, SkyTran pods weigh only 300 pounds, which means they require less electricity than today's hybrid cars. And unlike a traditional subway, the SkyTran (like the PRT) is personal – it only stops at the location you need to go to.
"Transportation will recede into the background of our lives, as something that just happens automatically," John Cole, SkyTran's chief technology officer and director, told CNN. "I think about where I want to go, tell a computer where I want to go and it just takes me there – seamlessly."
SkyTran's leaders insist this is more than a futuristic marketing venture. It's a comprehensive mission to end gridlock and avoid futile efforts to build, widen or expand roadways. After all, studies show that building more roads often does nothing to ease traffic, and may actually worsen it.
Morgantown, as an example, was never a high-traffic city in need of relief. It was simply a testing ground for faster, cleaner, more efficient transportation. But Sanders wishes more cities had followed suit – if so, he says, we might be seeing fewer traffic jams and less pollution today.
"If Morgantown is the first generation, and People Movers in the airports are the second generation, then we are the third generation," Sanders told From The Grapevine.
For more on Sanders' plans for cleantech transportation, here's a TEDx talk he gave in India.
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