Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Personal rapid transit

Posted by Danny Tarlow
I had the privilege of getting to tour the soon-to-be-opened ULTra personal rapid transit station at Heathrow airport in London yesterday. It's essentially a mass transit system that uses personal, autonomous cars as the unit of transport, rather than bus or subway. I think it is a really cool project, and there are several interesting angles.

First, it greatly simplifies transport, because you just enter the destination you want to end up at, and it will take you there -- no more listening to garbled announcements on the bus and subway to figure out if you're at the right stop, and no trying to navigate maps and transfers. If you want to go from parking lot A to terminal 5, it will just take you there.

Second, there's a real focus on efficiency -- not transporting "empty space." If you look at the normal bus routes during off-hours of the day, they'll be driving a huge bus while only transporting one person. That's a lot of extra weight and thus extra energy to be using every 15 minutes of every day of the year. The PRT car has a four-person capacity, and they'll only be driving when there are passengers inside.

Finally, the technology is just really cool. There is an elevated track that the cars have to stay on, but they're able to make turns, plan routes, and more-or-less drive themselves. It's not a full blown autonomous vehicle, but it's yet another case where they've simplified how much technology is needed for the problem (by building special tracks) while still maintaining the "cool" factor.

You can see a video of it in action here. And this isn't science fiction -- it's actually built, and about to be opened:

Then there are several more videos at the website:


James said...

Did you get to ride in one of the cars? If so, can you describe your rider's experience? Did your hosts indicate when they expected to open the system for passenger service?

Mr_Grant said...

PRT consultant Peter Muller says November. See channel comments at

See also LHR videos 3 and 4 at
Remember it's hard to hold a lightweight camera steady.