Friday, December 31, 2010
It has been said, “History is written by the victors.” Well it appears that the victor, in the war of competing PRT standards, is the ULTra/2Getthere steerable design. It is reasonable to assume that the systems will work as advertised… well enough to get some new contracts while continually improving. Therefore:
“PRT” now means automatic, driverless cars that travel on pavement. It doesn’t really matter anymore that PRT started out as something different. PRT is, and will be, a short-range automatic shuttle service for airports, campuses and the like. PRT will require snow plowing, battery charging and replacement, and will compete for space with cars, bicycles, golf carts, or pedestrians. Get used to it.
The fact that some of us have tried (or are still trying) to craft PRT as a next century transit solution is beside the point. That is not what PRT will be in the minds of most people a decade from now. As the folks at ULTra proudly point out, they have more people working on “PRT” in their company than all other PRT companies combined. To those of us who see PRT’s potential as a means to a more environmentally sustainable and efficient future, I can only say we had better retool our message, and do it fast.
Of course Masdar and Heathrow will have one beneficial effect. They will demonstrate the viability of computer-directed traffic management for small, automated vehicles. At least that is one hurdle out of the way…but honestly…was that outcome ever in doubt?
Our goal will be, then, to widen the discussion to include less pavement, not more, higher speeds, longer distances, more efficient ways to deliver power to the motors, much larger scale networks, etc. It will be hard to talk about it, though, because the term “PRT” has switched from being overly inclusive to being downright misleading. Now discussions about PRT deployment for a city will logically begin with providing ground-level right-of-way, similar to mapping out potential bicycle lanes. Discussions about elevating significant portions of this “track,” I predict, will end pretty quickly, as the logistics become apparent.
I think I like the term “microrail PRT.” (Not to be confused with “MicroRail,” a small gauge train from MegaRail Transportation Systems Inc.) It is reminiscent of the word “monorail” but obviously refers to something smaller. Remember, most people have no idea what PRT is, and it takes a while to explain. Say “microrail PRT” and they might get a picture of a tiny monorail in their heads. (or maybe something on a roller coaster track) Either way, it’s minimal and elevated. PERFECT!
I think PRT, as it was originally envisioned, was really a multipart invention. It synergistically combined the concept of many small computer-controlled vehicles with the concept of an electrically powered light rail system that could be economically run above street traffic.
The cost of free-spanning, beam-like support structures, you see, is reduced exponentially (I’m using the term informally) as their weight bearing requirements are reduced. It’s like fleas jumping 200 times their body length. Some things are possible only at smaller scales. The lightest human-carrying vehicles are in a weight range where a single-beam track can be almost ridiculously cheap, especially when compared with the other options in densely populated areas. It is true that access-for-the-disabled laws, or any scheme that enables capacity much beyond the average (110kg for autos) occupancy greatly increases track costs. That was a clear lesson of Raytheon’s PRT debacle. Nonetheless, carefully designed vehicles can still allow track costs that would enable a true transportation revolution… of that I am convinced. This is both the challenge and promise of PRT… er… microrail PRT…hmmm… microrail podcars? Automated Microtrack Transit? Autonomous Minirail Transit? HELP! We need a new name!
Happy New Year!
Posted by Dan at 9:21 PM