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  • Writer's pictureGebler Tooth Architects

Connected & Autonomous Vehicles - Part 2

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

2020’s the PRT decade

Chengdu Tianfu International Airport - ADP (Aeroports De Paris) architects -

Implementation phase

PRT is entering a new phase of confidence with schemes proceeding into production: the 2020’s have opened as the implementation decade. Leading the first wave is the new airport scheme for Chengdu Tianfu in Sichuan province in southwestern China. Due for completion later this year the U-MTS[1] licensed ULTra system will connect pairs of terminals to parking, campus hotels and commercial hubs as part of the $11bn 90mppa scheme to make Chengdu the #2 airport hub in China. With design, construction and operation being funded and undertaken by the state authority U-MTS hope Chengdu will establish a standard to be rolled out across China with Beijing (#1) following next.

For now it is sovereign wealth funded major airport hubs in the middle and far east that are in the vanguard with others following Chengdu. Late 2018 UltraFairwood[2] signed contracts for Jiling province in northeast China and were in advanced negotiations with Ajman in UAE. It remains to be seen where will be the first urban application and whether private investors will follow the lead via PPP or similar. Fairwood has energetically promoted BOOT design build own operate transfer transferring after 20 years and Design, Build, Finance, Operate and Maintain (DBFOM) models.

Capacity and journey times

If the guideway seemed an encumbrance set against a fleet of driverless Ubers ready to use existing tarmac – PRT came back into its own as cities and airports realised the key objectives were to improve journey times, add capacity and reduce emissions. Road traffic congestion has become a significant issue around airports and Heathrow estimate their Pod so far removed 70,000 bus journeys off the road. It has made the car park (formerly called N3) popular with premium business users who appreciate both the reduced journey time and the improved certainty. However smart a leather-upholstered minibus service may be it can still get stuck in traffic.

In the 2014 Fairwood Amritsar [3] study the business case was built on capturing up to a 1/3rd of tourist and pilgrim footfall to the historic city and its temples. 8km of elevated guideway, 7 stations and 200 Pods promised to serve up to 100,000 fare-paying passengers per day and cut 30 minutes off journey times – recognition from the local authority that the historic street network had ground to a halt and even the auto-rickshaws were gridlocked. Fares were to be competitive with the rickshaws which raises its own political considerations. It is not known whether the case was put to the rickshaw drivers union that any solution to the network capacity problem might help them get more fares as they spent less time stationary in gridlock, nor whether a higher price, lower volume model might have been viable that did not compete so directly on the street. The scheme undoubtedly delivered on the capacity and journey time objectives critical to supporting the city’s growing tourist income but in retrofit and especially in urban situations land ownership, rights and easements and sustained political will become key factors. On ULTra-MTS’s work with the US city of Birmingham when the incumbent mayor was not re-elected in 2017 his pet project was put on hold too.

Political fortunes aside such retrofit solutions are eminently feasible. The 2m wide light-weight guideway developed for the ULTra system readily stacks above existing roads or verges and the foundations are modest. Illustrations indicate 2GetThere’s equivalent PRT Pod (called CyberCab at Masdar) could deploy on a similar elevated guideway and Swedish developer Vectus have their Ecotrans vehicle at a similar scale albeit on rails. The 2014 40-car scheme at Suncheon Bay in South Korea was installed on a heavy concrete sub-structure more like urban rail but the test installation in Sweden is very light.

PRT addresses the ‘last mile’ problem that larger scale and longer distance public transportation modes leave unanswered: that they never get people quite where they want to be. Jacksonville Florida’s 1989 monorail never quite solved the problem and now half of its 10 Bombardier trains are out of service with unsupported parts shortages, the city authorities have speculated about replacing it with PRT vehicles that would be capable of ‘proceeding beyond the rail’. The ability to drive off the end of a mono-rail sounds complicated! But for conventionally wheeled vehicles like ULTra and CyberCab proceeding beyond the end of their segregated area or guideway is a simple matter and was always part of their future.

Campus promise

PRT can thread its guideways through urban and campus environments with a lot of station/stops all ‘offline’ so every journey is personal, on-demand and point-to-point, not waiting on anyone else to get on, drop off or cross at intersections. But having got there by guideway avoiding traffic the vision had always included the promise of driving off the end of the guideway. Certainly for ULTra it was a critical and first criterion of the concept that the car would be autonomous. Apart from the technical matter that for rail systems it was always the power pick-up that failed, the car needed to be independent for that reason. Founder Professor Martin Lowson used to say the trick was not to try to solve all problems at the same time. As well as breaking the back of the journey segregated guideways answered a lot of safety questions and limited the number of technologies that needed to be proven in the early pilots. It was simply a matter of bolting on additional ‘situational awareness’ modules to enable the Pod to leave the guideway and deliver not just to a station in a car park but to the customer’s car. Likewise if the guideway delivers to an airport terminal it was not a great further leap to imagine it arcing across the check-in hall like the walkways in JFK TWA or why not continue off the guideway and drop passengers to their gate?

GATEway project (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment) funded by the UK government Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, InnovateUK and DfT put the ULTra vehicle into the hands of specialist car developer Westfield[4] and autonomy software developer Oxbotica to run in various campus conditions and guage public attitudes. It is a testament to the timeless vehicle design by Michael Rodber and David Gordon of Jones Garrard Move[5] that the ULTra vehicle continues to front the press releases for each new wave of development basically unchanged and still looks state-of-the-art. Meanwhile 2GetThere’s ParkShuttle people mover or GRT (G is for Group) at Capelle aan den Ijssel in Netherlands has been navigating controlled ‘at grade’ crossings with pedestrians and other road users since 2006. If autonomous vehicles are not ready for mixing at speed on roads they are demonstrably ready for low speed interactions on campus extending car-free connectivity and mobility to a lot of new places. Opportunities extend beyond the passenger transit use case. Oxbotica have trialled a small single-pallet freight Pod airside with IAG Cargo at Heathrow and a similar Pod delivering groceries with Ocado at Greenwich.

Controls and population density are relevant factors. Moving from sparsely trafficked parks in Capelle or Greenwich to busier spaces like an airport terminal raises new questions. Would you want your Pod to trundle across a station concourse or airport check-in hall at grade? If there were one every 15 minutes? And what if there were a lot of them coinciding with peak mass of passengers on foot? Probably not. Apart from anything else they would lose their point: it is a rule of thumb that AVs in mixed traffic are only as quick as the slowest other traffic. But that does not eliminate the opportunities, it just means smarter integration: lanes with varying degrees of segregation, vertical, horizontal, geofenced or timed and speed-dependent. Where you need to maintain pace over distance full segregation will continue to be the preference and acceleration and deceleration ramp distances provided for. The more the technology develops the more integration becomes paramount and for many prospective applications exploring the integration challenges at the earliest stage of validation will pay dividends.

The integration challenge

Level 4 autonomy or campus transit off the end of the guideway holds a lot of promise but it does not mean less of an infrastructure challenge. In many ways the opposite. A Pod stop that is a terminal has its own challenges of layout and orientation to create smooth arrival and departure, great sight lines and intuitive onward wayfinding but one that includes feeder lanes linking deeper into the ‘host’ building is a new integration challenge. It does mean new opportunities and for places that want to establish brand differentiation there are new firsts to be established. Perhaps like Saarinen’s iconic TWA terminal some aspects of the building will take shape around the key transit flows and nodes.

The software, odometry, suspension, steering, situational awareness, comms, in-car CCTV, management system, controls, charging … as all these technology challenges have been incrementally solved so PRT has become the stable product it is now. The more effectively PRT has become commoditised the more the integration challenge comes to the fore. The 3rd dimension is critical and in PRT’s first decade of full scheme implementations solving the integration challenges will shape its continuing success.

2getthere artists impression elevated station Vector Suncheon City

Gebler Tooth artists impression ULTra Heathrow T1

[1] Ultra-MTS is an incarnation of ULTraPRT. Originally Advanced Transport Systems Ltd a Bristol University Aerospace Engineering dept spin-off founded by Prof Martin Lowson. BAA invested in ATS to develop the Heathrow schemes then acquired ULTraPRT in 2009. In 2011 ULTraGlobal was formed 77% owned by Heathrow Enterprises Ltd and owns the IP and licenses the system for promotion. Ultra-MTS is run by Prof Lowson’s original early partners Thomas Clarke, Trevor Smallwood and Chris Cook. U-MTS now operate under a license to promote the system alongside others (Heathrow, Fairwood and Westfield). ULTraPRT was sold in 2015 to Fairwood’s Ranbir Saran Das. [2] India based Fairwood promote the ULTra system across the middle and far east trading as UltraFairwood and UltraPRT [3] [4] [5]


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