Driverless ULTra electric podcars already cutting emissions at London's Heathrow Airport

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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