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U.K.’s Driverless Pods May Be Coming to the U.S.

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ULTra PRT's electric power pod

They look cartoonish and futuristic, and these petite driverless pods are now transporting people around London’s Heathrow airport, with plans in the works to bring them to many locations in the U.S. ULTra PRT, the U.K. company that makes them, calls them electric power pods, and 21 of them have replaced buses in Heathrow, bringing 800 passengers a day from their cars to the British Airways terminal. What makes them different from the buses, besides their small size, is that they arrive on call, rather than making stops whether there are passengers or not.

According to Rebecca Boyle, writing on PopSci.com,

The electric-power pods, which can accommodate up to four travelers and their bags, travel up to 25 mph along 2.4 miles of paved guideways, which can be customized to fit any path. They don’t require a special railway or magnetic field — just lines that can be used for optical navigation. The pods can even maneuver through light snow, according to their manufacturer, ULTra PRT. The New York Times says the autonomous pods have not been in any accidents.

The pods have many advantages: Passengers like them because they alleviate the need to check bus time schedules, as these vehicles go to passengers who call them; pods are less expensive than high-speed rail; and pods can eventually be used on regular roads, which will be a boon to commuters and people who are not able to drive. Passengers need to press a button to start the pod and then indicate where they want it to go. One trip in either direction takes about five to six minutes to go approximately 1.2 miles.

David Holdcroft, ULTra Heathrow Terminal 5 Project Manager for BAA (the private company that owns Heathrow), is quoted on ULTraPRT.com as saying:

This innovative system forms part of BAA’s plan to transform Heathrow, improve the passenger experience and reduce the environmental impact of our operation through the development of cutting edge, green transport solutions. It offers a completely new form of public transport — one that will deliver a fast, efficient service to passengers and bring considerable environmental benefits, saving more than half of the fuel used by existing forms of public or private transport.

According to the ULTra,  many venues in the U.S. are looking into adopting the pods, including airports in California and New York; transit systems in California, Oregon, and the Washington, D.C., suburb Tyson’s Corner, VA.; and Mountain View, CA. This blog will explore these in the future.

If one comment below the PopSci.com article is an example of future sentiment for the pods, the roads could become a lot safer, if only because people won’t have to drive when they’re tired. The commenter, “tempralstorm,” writes the following:

If I could take a commuter train to a beach town or a big city and then ride one of these to a pseudo-station around town, I would never drive again. It seems to me that a credit card scanner could even be installed in the vehicle so that they aren’t just used for free. Not to mention, when my wife asks me to drive her somewhere, and I am just [so] worn out to go anywhere, we could just ride one of these and I wouldnt [sic] have to argue with her about driving.

The following video shows a demonstration that was done last March of the pods in action:

Source: “Driverless Pod Cars Transport Passengers Around London’s Heathrow Airport,” PopSci.com, 08/09/11
Source: “This Pod Drives Itself: The Latest in Personal Transit Comes with No Conductor,” GOOD, 08/11/11
Source: “ULTra at London Heathrow Airport,” ULTra sustainable personal transit
Image by ULTra sustainable personal transit, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

 

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