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Driving from Vienna, Virginia to Washington, D.C., you notice a Metro train broken down in the median. Poor slobs, packed in like sardines with nowhere to go, you think to yourself as you sip your travel mug and turn up NPR. Just then a blue pod races past you on an elevated guideway at 190 kilometers per hour–inside it, there’s a car just like yours. You look over just in time to glimpse a woman in the driver’s seat, a newspaper spread out against the dashboard. You’re not certain, but she may have even been catching a nap.

If Krishnan Ramu, director of the Center for Rapid Transit Systems at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, has his way, commuters in northern Virginia will have it that easy. They won’t have to choose between trains or highways–Ramu wants to provide both, but without the crowds and congestion. For about 30 cents a kilometer, they’ll enjoy a rapid, personal transit system that will glide them along inside of their own cars using an electromagnetic levitation system–all without even having to even look at the road. When they get to their destination, they’ll be able to drive off and head straight to the office garage, having enjoyed the speed of mass transit without sacrificing personal space.

“The current mass transit systems are not an American solution,” says Ramu. While high-speed trains have carved out a niche in countries like Germany and Japan, he says, in the States “people want to go door to door.” In other words, Americans love their wheels too much to leave them at home.

Saving Wear and Tear

The Personal Electric Rapid Transit System (PERTS) that Ramu envisions transports cars inside of pallets above a steel guideway. A 1/50th scale prototype is displayed in a Virginia Tech engineering building. The pallets are levitated and guided magnetically, and the system is propelled by adding positive or negative current to a coil (also called a winding) below the pallet. Injecting a positive charge to the coil magnetizes it and pushes the pallet along as it is attracted to the guideway.

The university has licensed the technology to co-inventors Ramu and university provost Leonard Ferrari. The pair have set up a Blacksburg-based company to develop and sell the systems, which they maintain would reduce gasoline consumption, smog and overall wear and tear on cars.

Ramu estimates the cost of building PERTS at about $22 million a kilometer, compared to $66 million a kilometer for constructing a four-lane highway. He says a system able to handle 55,000 cars a day on a 30-kilometer stretch connecting the northern Virginia suburbs to the nation’s capitol could debut within three to five years, if the state of Virginia comes through with funding. To turn a profit, says Ramu, the system will have to serve 15 percent of area commuters.

On and off the Road

The process is simple: You leave the highway, drive up a PERTS entrance ramp and stop at an ATM-type machine. Enter your destination and pay a toll. Then tool over to a loading area that uses a conveyor to place cars onto a pallet-or “pod.” The loading works in parallel, processing many cars at once to avoid long queues. Once you enter the pod, a computer-controlled clamp or steel belt secures a front wheel. The system takes over from there, and you can do whatever you like while being whisked to your destination. Once you arrive, the same conveyor system unloads everyone simultaneously and you simply drive off a ramp.

Other personal rapid transit systems, such as Taxi 2000 and SkyTran, have been proposed. While these systems also transport people through urban areas in small, car-sized pods, they require folks to leave their own set of wheels at home. Ramu is betting that the winning system will be the one that lets you bring your car along for the ride.

While it all sounds good, not everyone thinks a blue pod will be shuttling you and your Audi to work any time soon. Jack Norton, principal of transportation consulting firm Lea+Elliott, Inc., says various technological hurdles need to be overcome in order for the system to be cost effective. It’s also important to keep in mind that none of these systems has yet been built. Says Norton, “I think it will happen, but it’s going to take some time.”

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