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While robotic vehicles out on the open road move forward in prototype form, a system of driverless electric podcars with dedicated tracks is now operational at London's Heathrow Airport. The system, which has been operating on a trial basis since April of 2011 and is entering regularly scheduled service this summer, connects Heathrow's Terminal 5 with two stations in parking lots 1.2 miles away.

So far, the transport pods have received positive reviews from passengers who say the driverless coaches whisk along the dedicated pathways smoothly and without making a peep.

ULTra-PRT, the firm behind the podcars, says the system has 21 vehicles and makes the 1.2-mile journey in less than six minutes. In a capacity test, the podcars have made 164 trips in less than one hour. When pods arrive at a station, they stop off the track, meaning others can pass by. With traditional rail, trains typically get backed up at stopping points.

The electric-powered pods replace diesel-fueled buses that used to run the route between the terminal and the parking lots. A spokesperson for Heathrow Airport says the podcars' efficiency gains stem from the shift to electric and the on-demand nature of pod transport. The spokesperson says the pods use 50 percent less energy than diesel-burning buses.

For another look at driverless vehicles, check out the VIPA.


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  • 13 Comments
      Marco Polo
      • 3 Years Ago
      High above Denmark, Bond settled back in his seat and fingered the stem of his martini glass. It had been an odd assignment, and from the beginning Bond regretted accepting such a trivial mission. But with the cold war long since over, and Bond not getting younger, he couldn't afford to turn any assignment down. He mused over what had gone wrong. Bond had been summoned to M's office, who explained that his services were being loaned to the Danish Tourist Board. It would appear that the Danes were anxious to 'terminate with extreme prejudice' a local Troll who was destroying the good name of Denmark as a haven of sanity. The Danes were squeamish about the double 00 concept, but thought the situation so extreme, that a few favours called by the Danish security services, and the UK agreed to supply Bond. Bond's sense of foreboding had deepened when he learned that the operation was to be carried out during a model aircraft club exhibition day in Ørstedsparken park. 'Q' , had explained bond's cover story was as a journalist for 'The British Model Aircraft Enthusiast'. 'Q" equipped bond with a suitably nerdy Anorak concealing the triggering device, and a really naf model air-plane, containing a single explosive bullet gun. " It's really light and aerodynamic"!, enthused the excited 'Q', demonstrating to Bond how to align his target with the small aircraft. Bond drained his forth martini, closed his eyes and recalled the unforeseeable incident that caused the missions to "Fail". Everything had gone according to schedule, he had successfully mingled unnoticed among the other model aircraft enthusiasts, and located the target easily, standing near lake where children fed breadcrumbs to ducks. The Troll was easy to identify, close set eyes, intense stare, loudly giving totally unsolicited advice to one and all, in a hectoring, arrogant tone of condescension. Bond, always the professional, surreptitiously checked the photo of Fredrickson D, and sure of his target, launched the model aircraft, skillfully manoeuvring it into the perfect firing position, count down...perfect! Bond squeezed the trigger and expected to see the troll lying face down. So what had gone wrong? Sheer bad luck! Crown Princess Mary, was showing her twins how skillful she could fly a Boomerang! The Boomerang had accidentally struck the 'light and dynamic' aircraft amidships, completely destroying it ! The Tolls instincts kicked in, years of being thrown in ponds by his school fellows, stood him in good stead, and the duck pond provided him a convenient method of hasty retreat! Bond, shook his head, finished his seventh martini, and planned the next meeting, this time the troll would not ....... 'Excerpt from "A Trolls Exit" , James Bond, soon to be a major motion picture, Eon Productions."
      Dan Frederiksen
      • 3 Years Ago
      have you noticed it has a funny face? :) other than it could be more aerodynamic and lighter : ) it's a pretty cute system. I like the idea of more personal transport in a robotic platform. more dignified and ready all the time unlike a bus. it could be a lot faster and smoother though. it seems to bumble along (which you can see if Eric includes the videos I sent him, otherwise search on youtube). the whole airport experience is an exercise in inefficiency already. would be nice with a change. in the extreme case you could imagine the same concept extended to flight. personal robotic vehicle that flies you to wherever you have to go. could easily be done today. if people like me were in charge..
        atc98092
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Dan Frederiksen
        As an Air Traffic Controller, I can say that in the US this couldn't happen, at least with existing tech. We have plenty of room in the sky (although if you look at a screen that shows the entire country in real time you might wonder) but there's only so much runway capacity. The major airports are already operating near capacity, and the logistics of trying to use personal aircraft in the existing airport infrastructure would be near impossible. Nice idea, but highly unlikely until we get something like what George Jetson used to scoot around.
          atc98092
          • 3 Years Ago
          @atc98092
          Well Dan, I can certainly envision the day that automation completely replaces my ilk. But it isn't going to happen in anywhere the near future. First, I personally wouldn't trust the automation currently available to do it safely (and that is the most important word in the sentence). Second, personal aircraft using any sort of straight smooth path as a runway is a very poor idea. With existing aircraft, your wingspan is much too large to have deployed while driving to/from your launch area. This means they have to be folded up to keep a narrow profile. So, how would you deploy the wings? Navy aviation has powered folding wings, but the complexity is huge, as is the cost. If you pull over to do it manually, then you need dedicated space for such action. That also means exiting your vehicle under existing weather conditions. What if it's raining? You can't hurry such an important task. We already have a lot of automation in ATC, both in monitoring what we do and in the aircraft as well. Perhaps you've heard of TCAS. It tells a pilot if another aircraft in your general area has a potential to be a confliction. But the software doesn't know the other pilot's intent. We climb aircraft under another with instructions to stop below, but TCAS doesn't know it, so it issues an alert to the higher aircraft. Future improvments will improve this, but we aren't there yet. And it's going to cost billions of dollars to do so. And that's only one small piece of the whole picture.
          Dan Frederiksen
          • 3 Years Ago
          @atc98092
          highly unlikely perhaps but not because it couldn't be done but because people can't imagine it. as an ATC you should first of all appreciate how insane it is for humans to direct traffic. once we had people direct phone calls too. that went away. second, there would be no ATC people nor would I use existing runways. a small personal craft could take off from a very short section of road. imagine off ramps everywhere in cities and robotic ATC. easy. the idea of driving a long distance to a very inefficiently laid out airport where you wait a few hours while being molested by fascist idiots, it's quite retarded.
          Ele Truk
          • 3 Years Ago
          @atc98092
          The Terrafugia Transition® roadable plane folds up it's wings: http://www.terrafugia.com/
          atc98092
          • 3 Years Ago
          @atc98092
          Ele, absolutely correct. What they dont' specify is if a visual inspection is required after extending the wings. I believe the Navy has someone inspect the wings on the aircraft prior to launching from the carrier. Not something you want to risk a faulty indicator display, would you? :) Plus, you still need an area off the "road" to perform the deployment. I would be shocked if they allowed the wings to move while the car is in motion.
        Chris M
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Dan Frederiksen
        Ahhrg! As much as I hate to admit it, for once Dan is right - the ULTra vehicles ARE heavier than they could have been. Unlike most other "Podcar" designs that have vehicles powered by the guideway, the ULTra vehicles are battery powered, making them heavier and more expensive than guideway powered vehicles. As for aerodynamics, it could be slightly more aerodyamic, but it doesn't matter much at the speeds this operates at. Still, I'm glad that someone like him isn't in charge. Dan is the type that would remove seatbelts and airbags in his zeal to reduce weight.
      EV News
      • 3 Years Ago
      Aside from all the press releases it would be interesting to hear how reliable the system is. I lived in London when the driver-less docklands light rail first opened. A train full of passengers getting stuck in a driver-less train on an elevated track was almost a daily event for a long time. They had to put a staff member in each train to reset it each time it stopped. If one train stopped they all stopped. It would be nice to hear independent reports that this system has been fully debugged before being put into public service.
      Ziv
      • 3 Years Ago
      They may be using less energy than the diesel buses because they are going half the speed. Around 5 minutes travel time to go 1.2 miles? With one apparent stop en route? What is this, a top speed of around 18-20 mph?
        Chris M
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Ziv
        No stops en route - it goes directly to the desired station, bypassing intermediate stations. The fact that it waits for customers instead of having customers wait several minutes for a bus means few delays, with average travel time less than a "faster" bus system.
        squngy
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Ziv
        "ULTra-PRT, the firm behind the podcars, says the system has 21 vehicles and makes the 1.2-mile journey in less than six minutes. In a capacity test, the podcars have made 164 trips in less than one hour." (164/21)*1,2= 9,37 average mph of all pods. So I guess the only question is, how long are the stops?
      sola
      • 3 Years Ago
      It is really commendable how the Heathrow operator (BAA I believe) has managed this project. Not very They have vision, you have to give them that. If they continue building out the UltraPRT network around Heathrow, most of the nearby hotels, shopping centers and terminals will be part of it (according to plans). The pods are not very fast but they still beat the bus in this scenario because it is a continuous service. (when you arrive to a station, in most cases, you can immediately board a pod and go)
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