Uploaded: Wed, Sep 4, 2013, 1:44 pm
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.
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.