Sunday, December 25, 2011
Well, as 2011 draws to a close, we PRT believers have been given a Christmas present! Finally, for the first time in history, a large city with a real traffic problem is actually going to install a meaningful PRT system. ULTra, having proved its technology in its Heathrow Airport system, has partnered with an Indian company to build a 200 vehicle, 100k passenger per day system in Amritsar, India.
I know. I’ve been critical of ULTra in past posts. I have questioned if the system really can be called PRT at all – if coordinated robocars really fit the definition, especially since they do not enjoy the weatherproof speed and efficiency advantages of running on steel rails. I have worried aloud if the inherent performance shortcomings of steerable soft rubber tires on “pavement” would give PRT a bad name. But I have to say, all in all, that I’m pretty damned pleased, and I’ll tell you why.
There is one basic concept, best taught through demonstration that can promote PRT globally. It is the fact that, in an urban setting, ONLY multi-level transportation can be non-stop, and only non-stop travel makes sense in an increasingly resource-strapped world. Since multi-level roadways are too expensive and massive to deploy en masse, the most straight-forward approach is to create a new, lighter infrastructure that can be more affordably elevated above interfering traffic. This lighter infrastructure requires lighter vehicles and payloads as well. The logical way to speed throughput on this smaller infrastructure is intelligent automation - the combination we call Personal Rapid Transit. I had previously worried that a system like ULTra would end up, for cost reasons, having a great deal of track on the ground, which essentially misses the point. It appears that this is not the case.
It also appears that this venture is designed to make a profit for shareholders, with affordable fares, no less. This is obviously a huge deal, especially since every other option ends up being supported with tax dollars. I wish I knew more of the financing details…It sounds almost too good to be true.
We humans are far better at perfecting things than inventing them from scratch, so even if the world comes to believe that the ULTra design is the very definition of PRT, it won’t be long before more capable versions begin to appear. Undoubtedly such work is being done by ULTra itself.
What we will see in Amritsar is not at all what the early PRT pioneers had in mind. There are no grids of one-way track with small, evenly spaced stations. There is no attempt at blanket coverage. There are no loops; these guideways will be bi-directional. The route appears to have a combination of straight runs and a few fairly sharp turns, a combination that will slow fixed speed systems to the speed of the sharpest turn. Unlike the utopian notion of a car free city, many passengers will park their cars and take the system from there. There were the predictable protests over the track, although given the climate; I would wager that those shopkeepers will learn to appreciate every bit of shade afforded by the canopy.
The plan calls for connecting seven destinations: The bus station, the train station, two parking lots, a school (chosen because it was non-private land next to a large commercial complex?) a Bazaar, and a major tourist attraction, the “Golden Temple.” These people need more roads where there is no space for roads, more parking where there is no space for that either. There was little choice as to the routing. What you are handed is you get to work with. Sound like anywhere you know?
The fact remains that we really don’t know how the Amritsar system would compare to the same elevated track populated by ordinary motorized rickshaws, a similarly sized, common form of transportation in that part of the world. This case, however, bears little resemblance to the 1.2 vehicle occupants we are used to. They are reportedly going to pack in up to 6 per vehicle, so any driver would represent reduced capacity. What we do know is that, even though most people’s eyes glaze over when you start talking about a whole new infrastructure, some developers and some people in the Punjab government “got it,” and took a leap of faith. This is a very, very good thing. The more successful it is, the more it will attract competition and innovation.
There are a number of lessons here for PRT designers and would-be PRT vendors. One is to get big local partners. Who can dispute, for example, the (often greedy) symbiosis between real-estate development, politics and infrastructure? ULTra’s Indian partner, Fairwood Consultants, boasts 25 billion in projects under management. That opens a lot of doors.
A related issue is core competency. Ultra has never really tried to break much new ground, mechanically speaking. They use pretty conventional electric vehicles on a track that is nothing special either. They didn’t even opt for advanced batteries, but use simple lead acid ones (like a golf cart) instead. But this is not really a liability. Instead of expending energy working the bugs out of a bunch of new, experimental subsystems, they get to concentrate on creating traffic solutions with what they have. Eventually some company, with deep pockets and great mechanical engineering expertise, will see building a more advanced system as a venture with little downside risk, so long as they themselves are partnered with a company with a proven track record of implementing such systems. ULTra, by this point, will presumably have further cemented its leadership position in that role.
I think they had better not wait too long before they get such a partner however. If their system in Amritsar proves successful and they land subsequent deals, there will be imitators and competitors coming out of the woodwork. My own design explorations have convinced me that there are huge performance improvements to be had across the board, as measured by essentially every important metric. But their success can only make such a partner easier to find. I believe that there is huge amount of positive PR to be gained by any company that takes this plunge. They would be seen as agents of change, as green, and as technological leaders, saviors of the taxpayer, solvers of government debt and on and on… Again, if ULTra can handle the “behind the scenes” grunt work involved in landing deals, planning routes, working with local partners, and generally handling the logistics,(and/or operations) they will become the indispensable (although less glamorous) part of what could become a very big and profitable industry. Wouldn’t it be interesting if a future headline read, “Airbus Industrie Partners with ULTra Global to Create Next Generation Pod-Cars?” Or how about Honda? Or Embraer? Or Bombardier? Or even GM?
So, on this special day, I tip my hat to the folks at ULTra. Well Done. Yes, my friends, we have good tidings! And a Merry Christmas to all of you!