News

Pod Cars have new champion in Silicon Valley

Mountain View may be alien territory for the Pod People, but the Pod Car? Maybe not.

At Tuesday's City Council meeting, there was talk of a futuristic transportation system that could reduce traffic and the number of employee shuttles in northern Mountain View.

An "Automated Transit Network," also known as a "pod car" system or personal rapid transit, is being developed as an option for cities needing to manage their traffic more efficiently, said Ron Swenson, co-founder and executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Transportation, in a presentation to the council. The system puts computer-operated vehicles on dedicated guide-ways in an effort to maximize efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

"We haven't been able to reach our mobility goals with bicycles, cars, buses and trains," Swenson said.

Swenson's group is working with academics and government officials in the Silicon Valley and Sweden to create the groundwork for such a system, which for several years has been talked about as a possibility for connecting downtown Mountain View to Google headquarters. There's interest in other cities as well, with San Jose just completing a $2 million study of a system to connect Caltrain to the Mineta International Airport.

The group also has support from San Jose State University professors, who have put more than 100 students from various disciplines to work on the idea, with some working on a solar-powered design and others in urban planning studying the impacts of such a system on the Mathilda Avenue corridor in Sunnyvale.

Swenson said the goal is to "build a base whereby Silicon Valley could be a real leader, not only in using this technology but also in producing it. We are training up to the technologists, the planners, to hopefully plug into what could be a new industry."

Swenson said his group wants to see a test track in the area, something that Unimodal Inc. once proposed for a site at NASA Ames.

"We'd like for you to join us," Swenson said. "We would like you to reach out to this group of students," who he called "a different kind of resource."

Council member Mike Kasperzak, who called himself the "pod car mayor" in 2012, said Google has hired someone from the pod car industry to work on developing its own transportation system plans. Google founder Larry Page has also spoken publicly about his interest in automated transit networks, but more recently Google has made a push for driver-less cars and shuttles.

"I don't think they are for or against" pod cars," Kasperzak said of Google. "They are in favor of trying to identify other ways of getting people around. If PRT fits the bill, that may be fine. I personally wish Google was more publicly supportive of it."

Government officials don't know how they would approve such a system, Swenson said.

"The California Public Utilities Commission is still looking at how they might approve a system like this," Swenson said.

Elected officials don't really have what you need to go out a specify some of these new things."

The Mountain View City Council passed a resolution in support of what was then called "personal rapid transit" in 2010, and a route was even proposed for a system called "Skytran" that would connect downtown, Google's North Bayshore offices and NASA Ames.

In 2010, city staff estimated that an 8.5-mile-long system with 24 stations would cost between $60 million and $130 million.

Comments

Posted by Rossta, a resident of Waverly Park
on Sep 4, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Rossta is a registered user.

Personal Rapid Transit or an Automated Transit Network or whatever you call it is where public transportation needs to go in sparsely populated areas like our suburbs. Self driving cars are a tough sell, to me, since they are still clogging the streets and interactions between them and human drivers would take years to work out. But, build a new network of transit and you can start with new rules and self-driving works - better even.

Now, a first system of a single line with lots of stops might be workable, between the transit hub downtown and north shoreline businesses. But, if the system can handle branches, so that you have an actual network in two dimensions of destinations, the value and benefit goes up geometrically!

Let's lead the way into the future, as Silicon Valley did once before!
Fund this now and get building.


Posted by Martin Omander, a resident of Rex Manor
on Sep 4, 2013 at 3:53 pm

I'm with Rossta on this: let's try it out and see how it works. The future of transportation will probably be some mix of bicycles, buses, personal rapid transit and self-driving cars. The only way to find out exactly how to make it all work is to experiment and get our hands dirty. One field trial is worth a thousand theories.


Posted by NeHi, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Sep 4, 2013 at 5:19 pm

May I suggest that the best way to "try it out" is to see what others have done. Morgantown WV has had extensive experience but suffered from BART syndrome; it went over budget and has unique, economically hard to replace vehicles but seems to work.

I surmise the appeal is that the system would live above present streets, possibly above medians. Wouldn't that be charming down El Camino or Castro. I can't argue either way about the practicality but the visuals and added flurry to our busy thoroughfares, wow!

Perhaps we could enlist Elon Musk.


Posted by Doug Pearson, a resident of Blossom Valley
on Sep 4, 2013 at 5:39 pm

What we are talking about here is, in essence, a horizontal elevator.

I can see advantages and disadvantages. The visual appearance, especially in low density residential neighborhoods, leaves me cold but, on balance, I like the idea otherwise.


Posted by tommygee54, a resident of Rex Manor
on Sep 4, 2013 at 9:08 pm

I say MOUNTAIN VIEW CITY COUNCIL, GO FOR IT!!! Let's do this.


Posted by Ank, a resident of another community
on Sep 4, 2013 at 10:27 pm

Heartening to see not only the initiatives of the City Council but also the readers' positive posts above. MV, you are being watched from across the world. Go ahead and lead the way for the world!

Your companies have become a part of daily lives of people around the world, and tomorrow your podcars will do the same!


Posted by Driverless, a resident of Blossom Valley
on Sep 5, 2013 at 12:56 am

It is Page himself who says it is easier to shoot for 100% innovation than 10% innovation. Instead of shooting for a public transport system that will be obsolete when it is finished (light rail, anyone?) why not shoot for a fleet of driverless cars in a coalition between Google, Uber, and City of Mountain View where we could summon a car at-will within the city limits and even beyond. Also, there are no interactions to be worked out - Google has over 300,000 (that's three hundred thousand) miles of driverless driving on streets and roads with near-perfect safety. All of the technology exists, what is required is money and political will to do the development and deployment.

We own that second, and third, car because we require personal transportation on demand. Imagine getting it from a system that is safe, efficient, environmentally friendly, completely flexible, economically feasible, technically feasible, and extensible - instead.


Posted by Steve, a resident of another community
on Sep 5, 2013 at 7:40 am

What a fabulous idea! Care to guess at the final pricetag? Hint: Don't believe city staff estimates of "between $60 million and $130 million".

Extrapolate from the absurd $10,000 per bicycle bike-borrow program.


Posted by Bill Hough, a resident of another community
on Sep 5, 2013 at 11:31 am

"Podcars or "Personal Rapid Transit" is an idea that's been around for decades yet never seems to actually get built or solve any real-world transportation problems. It basically combines the worst of both worlds: low vehicle capacity of the private automobile with the expensive infrastructure of a fixed guideway transit system.

This topic has been discussed at length. I recommend a couple of articles on the Light Rail Now website.

First, there's "Let's Get Real About Personal Rapid Transit" by Ken Avidor at Web Link

Avidor points out that, "PRT has a solid 30-year record of failure. Its main purpose in recent years seems to have been to provide a cover enabling its proponents to spread disinformation about real, workable transit systems. Except for the occasional laboratory-scale prototype, PRT actually "exists" largely in computerized drawings, in promotional brochures, and in cute, ever-successful animated simulations on the internet."

"The unsubstantiated claims of PRT proponents are always presented in the present tense as if the system is a proven success ... which, of course, it certainly is not. Promoters never seem to fail to bash real transit, such as light rail (LRT), as "old fashioned technology". Sadly, the media rarely check the veracity of PRT publicity and propaganda."

A longer, more technical article is "Personal Rapid Transit – Cyberspace Dream Keeps Colliding With Reality" and can be found here:
Web Link
"Despite the persistent and fervent claims of its promoters, repeated attempts to implement a working PRT system, even in very small-scale scenarios, have invariably failed. Not a single PRT plan, during these promotional efforts over the past 40 years or more, has seen successful implementation even in a small test application, much less a major, heavy-duty, citywide rapid transit application. Early would-be PRT installations, such as the AirTrans system at Dallas-Ft. Worth Regional Airport, and the PRT at West Virginia University at Morgantown, eschewed any attempt to provide true PRT-style, small-vehicle, customized origin-destination service, and were implemented in effect as line-haul automated guideway transit (AGT) peoplemover systems with some innovative features (such as offline stations)."

And finally, the good folks at Light Rail Now have put up a helpful list of links to various Monorail, PRT, AGT, and "Gadget Transit" Analyses at Web Link

Council member Mike Kasperzak and the rest of the City Council need to realize that "podcars" are the latest manifestation of the PRT fad which has been around for decades yet never seems to get built.


Posted by Steve, a resident of another community
on Sep 5, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Gee, Bill. Thanks for trying to dash our fantasy. Luckily for us, our politicians aren't concerned by any of those dumb facts!


Posted by Political Insider, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Sep 5, 2013 at 7:37 pm

some excellent comments by Bill Hough, a resident of another community. If this system made sense the private sector would provide it and not depend on huge government subsidies.


Posted by Aaron, a resident of another community
on Sep 5, 2013 at 9:17 pm

Lots of great comments!

While I disagree heartily with Bill Hough, I do believe Political Insider has a point.

This is a great idea, and Mountain View is the right place to lead. However, it should not require ANY government subsides. It should be (and I believe, will be) efficient enough to deliver people to their destination better than we do with current tech AND make money for it's owners.

Once this is proven somewhere... anywhere... we can start to get a way from late 1800s technology for our transportation needs.


Posted by Rodger, a resident of Sylvan Park
on Sep 5, 2013 at 10:59 pm

Each time I read about this concept I always thought that it seemed like a low through put system on an expensive fixed overhead track of some kind. I could never figure out how it could move many people during rush hour. For instance Cal Train would drop off many people at the Mountain View station, if a lot people wanted to go to to the north Google area there would be a long wait for pod cars.
Bill Hough writing above says it much better, thanks Bill. Anyway I hope Mountain View doesn't spend much money on this idea.


Posted by Hidden Costs, a resident of St. Francis Acres
on Sep 6, 2013 at 8:06 am

Public, Private or both, what's missing is a discussion of the costs of dedicating precious public space (streets....) to that form of transportation. Has it been studied?


Posted by Bill Hough, a resident of another community
on Sep 6, 2013 at 9:07 am

Hidden Costs raises a point good point in the post above; podcar/PRT promoters seem to downplay the size and complexity of stations. This is important from both a cost and appearance point of view. This is discussed at length in one of the articles I cite above.

The authors point out that "However, the simple logistics and requirements of publicly accessible elevated structures – particularly structures designed to accommodate large volumes of tiny-vehicle traffic – dictate minimum size characteristics which are substantial." I add: Also expensive from both a capital cost and maintenance standpoint.

LRN: "For example, ADA compliance typically requires elevators. Add in escalators for convenience and efficient public movement, plus adequate platform widths for passengers to wait safely (with room for purchasing tickets), and the spatial dimension of the elevated structure mushrooms ominously. in narrow streets and other constrained areas, the effect is to form a "lid", with the street below virtually placed in a tunnel. PRT promoters often downplay the design and visual impact of proposed stations as well as the supposedly slender, unobtrusive guideways."

Also, the guideways themselves will be wider, bulkier and more expensive than those presented in sleek architectural renderings. You have to provide safety walkways in case you need to evacuate a stalled vehicle, and you have to account for maintenance access. And, as Rodger points out, you'll have to build the system to account for peak-hour demand, when workers arrive via Caltrain and need to get to their workplaces. Small wispy little guideways and stations won't cut it and you'll also have to account for the cost of land for these stations.


Posted by Jerry, a resident of Slater
on Sep 6, 2013 at 10:41 am

I've got one word "Monorail" said in a voice like Marge Simpson.

I think San Francisco has something similar just that people ride in groups.
It's called a Cable Car but if you made 'em smaller and more automated and pod like... :-)


Posted by jerzy, a resident of another community
on Sep 6, 2013 at 11:21 am

There is lots of information on the web about operating PRT systems, one at Heathrow, another at the Masdar ecocity in Abu Dhabi and the most extensive one in So. Korea at Sucheon Bay. Trade names are Ultra PRT, located in the U.K, 2getthere located in the Netherlands and Vectus PRT located in Sweden and S. Korea. Mt. View would be a fourth, but a first in the US. Google "Innovative Transportation Technologies" for history, videos, illustrations, similar concepts and technical details. The US has a lot of catching up to do.


Posted by James Anderson Merritt, a resident of another community
on Sep 6, 2013 at 9:46 pm

Self-driving cars are cool, but they still use the same roads that every other type of vehicle will need to share, and will be as vulnerable to traffic problems as other vehicles, unless they get their own dedicated lanes, another name for "guideways."

PRT guideways are ideally elevated, so that they minimize the amount of ground-level right-of-way that is needed. I think I would rather have an elevated guideway traveled by modern-looking PRT pods alongside my house, than a city street that is choked with traffic two or three times a day, as is now the case. If a pod system could reduce traffic on that street, so much the better.

Some versions of PRT elevate most of the guideway, but allow the vehicles to "dip down" to ground level to load and unload, dispensing with the need for elevators, escalators, stairs, or long ramps. Such points need to be considered when selecting a PRT version and vendor.

The bulkiness and cost of the guideway also depend on the version and vendor selected. As far as the means for exiting a stalled pod, in many (perhaps most) cases, another vehicle can push a malfunctioning vehicle to the nearest system entry/exit point, up to 1/2 mile away. In other cases, e.g., major guideway obstruction, it would probably be better to drive a cherry-picker to the point of obstruction and haul stranded passengers down. Since the guideway is constructed as a network (ideally, a grid), traffic can be diverted around any obstruction, while blocked vehicles can back away and resume their travels via alternative routes. My point is that there can be little or no actual need for bulky infrastructure that includes escape stairways or elevators.

PRT infrastructure and vehicles don't need to be ugly. They can harmonize with surroundings much better than the roads and street traffic that might otherwise be in their place.

Optimum PRT is built around a gridwork of guideways (about 1/2 mile apart in cross-wise directions), which features many system entry/exit points, each about 1/4 mile from grid intersections on either side, rather than just a few big "stations." Because vehicles arrive quickly, on demand, anywhere in the network, the distribution of passenger loading and unloading helps make it possible to handle a lot of traffic, even during periods of peak demand, without the need for huge vehicles or stations. If one entry/exit point is busy, due to unforeseen, surge demand, the entry/exit points are close enough (for instance, at opposite ends of a park or major shopping center) that you can walk to or from a neighboring one. You can enter the system anywhere and go anywhere, no need to transfer.

PRT systems are getting built. In addition to the grandfather of them all, the overbuilt but reliable-and-safe-for-decades Morgantown WV system, there are now systems in London at Heathrow Airport, Masdar City in , and Suncheon Bay in South Korea. The system at Heathrow has proven so successful -- cost-efficient and popular -- that plans are being made to expand it throughout the airport, while nearby neighborhoods are expressing interest in having the Heathrow Pods system expand into the suburbs surrounding the airport. Actual costs of construction for these several systems (each using a different PRT approach from a different vendor) support the $60M-130M estimated cost range for a Mountain View system. If costs were to rise significantly above that estimate, I would suspect politics or regulatory compliance expenses as the culprits.


Posted by Robert, a resident of another community
on Sep 6, 2013 at 11:09 pm

As it was stated before, the whole "pod car" concept is the worst of both worlds, the drawbacks of public transportation infrastructure, and the limited capacity of automobiles. I don't personally have a problem with discussing the concept, except that it tends to detract from discussion of actual transportation solutions. Starry eyed boosters being discounted, its never actually proven itself in the real world, while buses, light and heavy rail, commuter rail, etc., have.


Posted by Betsy, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Sep 7, 2013 at 3:24 pm

What would happen if we just extended the light rail line one stop to north bay shore?


Posted by D.T.S., a resident of Old Mountain View
on Sep 9, 2013 at 3:16 pm

I used to get stoned and daydream of things like cool little self driving science fiction pod cars. But then I grew up and stopped smoking dope. Little did I realize that I could have had a leadership role in city government.


Posted by Greg, a resident of another community
on Sep 14, 2013 at 11:23 am

Lets us recall that the detractors of PRT make a similar argument that was made about the Tesla automobile, which is not a huge success. We are in a new day and age for technology and we have serious issues (like transportation) that we need to improve upon. If the system is broken give something new a try.

Also the idea is old but was ahead of its time as the electric car was. We have bullet trains working on a similar principle as proposed here, so lets alter that model to work in the way we most commonly travel. Il say it like this, it can NOT be more costly than maintaing roads, especially where you have significant weather events, and hopefully will save some lives from diving error.


Posted by Greg, a resident of another community
on Sep 14, 2013 at 11:26 am

which is now* a huge success...


Posted by psa188, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Sep 17, 2013 at 9:44 am

You cannot compare Mountain View with Heathrow Airport, Masdar City and Suncheon Bay. They are building PRT to serve specialized areas where auto use is restricted and density is higher. Many airports in this country already use people movers, but they're rare in other settings.

And I'm sure a podcar system would work from a technical perspective, but the real question is who will pay to build, operate and maintain it and would that money be better spent on more practical alternatives?

Transportation planners and their political overlords love big-ticket, budget busting projects like high speed rail, BART extensions, the overpriced Oakland Airport connector, the new Bay Bridge, Boston's Big Dig and Noo Yawk's East Side Excess. Trouble is, they often starve basic transit, which helps people who can't drive get around.


Posted by pslebow, a resident of another community
on Sep 23, 2013 at 7:08 am

PRT is the ultimate in flexibility and scalability. A blanket uniformed statement that it won't work for a particular area is either based upon a hidden motive or lack of understanding of PRT. It is meant to be part of a multi-model system. There is no other practical system, for instance, that can address the need of the elderly. You'll notice that this rapidly increasing population is hardly considered in the canards against PRT.


Posted by psa188, a resident of another community
on Sep 23, 2013 at 10:02 am

It's crazy to say PRT is necessary because "There is no other practical system, for instance, that can address the need of the elderly." Ever hear of accessible vans or paratransit which is required by ADA? If you are honestly unaware of this option, please see Web Link .

Do we want to build an expensive paratransit system that combines the expense of a fixed guideway system with the low vehicle occupancy rates of the automobile or do we want to invest our limited transportation dollars in improving low-tech but workable solutions?

PRT proponents are not addressing how the construction and maintenance costs would be paid for.


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