David Zax

A View from David Zax

Can Driverless Pod Cars Solve the 'Last-Mile Problem'?

The cars, which already shuttle passengers around Heathrow airport, might come soon to the U.S.

  • August 18, 2011

A New York Times correspondent recently went for a whirl in driverless “pod cars” that are connecting parking lots to Terminal 5 in London’s Heathrow Airport. The small, four-seater automated cars, manufactured by the company ULTra PRT, move along a track like a rollercoaster, and are environmentally friendly in two key ways: they’re electric, and they run on demand (as opposed to the on-constant-loop systems familiar to most airports).

An ULTra PRT on a test track in Cardiff. Credit: ULTra PRT.

The Times gave the experience a rave–“quiet and comfortable,” fast, simple, and elegant, with a sleek, iPad-like control panel running the show (all you have to do is press a button with your destination). It’s safe, too; BAA, the company that operates Heathrow, said that there have been no accidents, and hardly any maintenance work has been necessary so far. Passengers are so delighted by the pods (which ferry 800 people along 2.4 miles of track daily), that a whole subgenre of YouTube video has spawned depicting the journey.

What’s most intriguing, though, is the suggestion that ULTra PRT (those last letters stand for “personal rapid transit”) could soon be branching out beyond the airport–and on this side of the pond. The company has proposed systems similar to that at Heathrow for 10 cities in the United States.

The City of San Jose has already committed $4 million to a study evaluating whether the system makes sense for the region around San Jose Airport. Santa Cruz is interested in seeing whether a PRT system could alleviate the traffic jams that beleaguer Highway 1 on the weekend, when everyone heads to the beach. Cities from Ithaca, New York, to Raleigh, North Carolina, to Hillsboro, Oregon, might all see a PRT system in place, if ULTra PRT has its way.

What ULTra PRT thinks it’s offering is a solution to the “last-mile problem,” a constant headache to urban planners. In many American cities, mass transit does a great job connecting the areas where people work to the areas where people live. With one tiny caveat: it roughly connects those two areas. Maybe the rail will take you 95% of the way–and then leave the last mile or two up to you. And often, people individually choose to solve the problem of that last mile with something much less environmentally friendly–a ride in the car parked at the rail station garage, for instance. Some have proposed things like Zipcars and Segways as solutions to the problem–but others, according to a report in Good two years ago, think that personal rapid transit might be the way to go.

ULTra PRT is certainly one of those evangelists, probably the leading voice among them. Want to learn more? Spend some time on ULTra PRT’s site, which has enough material–environmental screeds, history lessons, white papers–to base a dissertation on.

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