‘Green’ transportation innovations: Autonomous pods

This month we’re talking about where transportation might take us in the future.

When looking at futuristic modes of transportation, some ideas may be easier to grasp than others. For example, you’re probably familiar with smart cars and cars that are “electric-powered” because you see them—or at least hear about them—all the time.

But what about autonomous cars that can think and drive for themselves? In some parts of the world, the future is now thanks to science! With the introduction of the autonomous “podcar” system, driverless cars could be a reality in the coming years, and one town is guiding the way for this new model of transportation.

New developments

This city in England is taking the autonomous pod one step further by bringing it to the streets.

Milton Keynes, a city near London in Buckinghamshire, England, will introduce autonomous transit pods to their city streets by mid-year 2017. The catch? These pods will be used in areas that pedestrians are also currently occupying. Before now, driverless pods have only been used in smaller, more controlled environments.

The pods were unveiled to the city for a demonstration in October 2016, marking the first trial of a driverless vehicle in a public space. Testing for these vehicles began less than a year ago, and even more data has recently been gathered to allow these podcars to run autonomously. By 2018, the city expects to have about 40 pods in use, ideally serving the functions of a taxi like a driverless Uber car.

Better yet, these vehicles pods will be electric. One goal behind the project is to make a positive impact on the environment by reducing congestion and emissions. In theory, with a large enough fleet of pods, one group of pods could charge while the others were in use.

The city could be at the forefront of changing the way we think about transportation. The head of transport innovation for the Milton Keynes Council says the pods and driverless cars will revolutionize the way people get around the city; MK Council’s UK Autodrive project will be testing driverless cars with companies like Ford, Jaguar, and Landrover in the next year.

Where it all began

So why are these driverless vehicles so groundbreaking?

Although driverless, autonomous pods have been used for transportation before, they have always run on some type of guided railway along a predetermined route.

There are many different personal rapid transit networks in cities all around the world. Personal rapid transit (PRT) pods were originally conceptualized in the 1950s as an alternative to the metro system. The idea was that smaller towns and cities—which couldn’t afford mass transit—could possibly afford PRT as an alternative.

The idea was eventually tested in Morgantown, West Virginia, with a government-funded system that put the concept into motion. Originally deemed a “white elephant” or useless project, the Morgantown system opened in 1975 and proved to be a reliable, low-cost transportation innovation.

Personal rapid transit system in Morgantown, West Virginia. Photo from Flickr user philethier
Personal rapid transit system in Morgantown, West Virginia.
Photo from Flickr user philethier

Between 1975 and 2005, the PRT system operated with 98.5 percent reliability and is still in use today. The PRT system in Morgantown is the oldest and most extensive in the world, but as you might expect, its technology has since been adopted and improved.

Guiding the way

So, what other kinds of PRT systems are there?

PRT systems now serve as public transport in the Netherlands, United Arab Emirates (specifically Abu Dhabi), United Kingdom, and South Korea, with other systems in the works across the globe. These PRT systems differ from the proposed podcar system in Milton Keynes because they operate in relatively small areas with close supervision and guidance.

For example, a PRT system has been in use at London’s Heathrow Airport since 2011. It has 21 four-passenger vehicles in operation and runs 2.4 miles long to connect Terminal 5—an international hub designed to accommodate 35 million passengers a year—to the business car park area. It travels at top speeds of 25 miles per hour (mph).

Rapid transit pods at London’s Heathrow Airport. Photo from Flickr user Deric Hello World
Rapid transit pods at London’s Heathrow Airport.
Photo from Flickr user Deric Hello World

A similar model of driverless vehicle can be found in Masdar City, a planned “clean technology park” in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, that uses 100 percent fossil-fuel-free methods of transport. The podcars seat either four or six passengers and have collectively carried more than 1,000,000 people since 2010 when the system opened.

Driverless vehicles in Masdar City. Photo from Flickr user Masdar Official
Driverless vehicles in Masdar City.
Photo from Flickr user Masdar Official

Again, unlike the project in Milton Keynes, these autonomous podcar systems in Masdar City, London, and elsewhere are confined to pre-designated routes and wouldn’t hold up to the “cut and thrust” of real world driving on the streets. But the only thing that separates these systems from freely-moving autonomous systems is more advanced technology.

A work-in-progress

Most futuristic transportation technology is still in a work-in-progress, but some things like the maglev, electric cars, and autonomous pods are already in use throughout parts of the world.

Elon Musk, tech magnate and inventor, says that someday soon autonomous cars will be as common as self-service elevators. Would you believe it? Can you envision it? Better yet, could you invent it?

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References

By Hannah Postlethwait, Go! Staff Writer