The city of San Jose, California, caught a lot of people off guard when it granted authorization to develop a network of autonomous cars that will travel on their own dedicated narrow 5.5-foot-wide paths. The personal rapid transit, or PRT, system will kick off with 4-person electric pods that will transport passengers between San Jose Mineta International Airport and two city central areas.
A 2019 San Jose request for information (RFI) generated 23 submissions, most of which fit into an existing and expected paradigm of buses, trams, and minibuses — with several electric and/or autonomous options. Loquacious Elon Musk even made sure his Boring Company sent along an idea to dig a tunnel between the airport and the train station for the autonomous vehicles that the CEO continues to insists are coming soon, very soon.
The question that prompted the robust San Jose response field mused, Could a a new transit connection between Mineta San José International Airport (SJC), Diridon Station, and west Santa Clara Valley cities be faster and cheaper than conventional approaches?
When discussions turn to (above ground) autonomous vehicles, it’s generally assumed that they’ll travel on the same roads as current autos. The deduction, then, is that, if widely deployed, self-driving cars will only increase congestion on regular roads.
Instead, San Jose designated officials chose a team led by developer Plenary Americas — long-term investor, developer, and manager of public infrastructure — and Glydways — a company that offers an on-demand, anytime, high capacity mobility system. The South San Francisco-based company says that their system has:
- high capacity — up to 10,000 passengers per hour
- less capital expenditure — 95% less than traditional mass transit
- a low operating expense — typically $0.25 for each passenger mile traveled
Bloomberg calls Glydways “untested,” albeit with a 7-year startup history.
The novelty, efficiency, low carbon footprint, and promised savings from Glydways appealed to the San Jose decision-makers. Glydway’s bidirectional pods operate only when passengers summon them with a smartphone app — a ride will cost about $6.
Ramses Madou, who manages the planning, policy and sustainability division in San Jose’s transportation department, told the San Jose Spotlight that it’s too early to estimate how quickly the airport connector could be built, but if the city gives the go-ahead signal in the next few years, construction on the automated guideway could begin by 2026-2028.
Proponents of the airport connector contend that this automated connection could help ease growing congestion along San Jose roads and freeways while providing riders with a swift trip to their destination. An estimated 9,000 to 20,000 passengers would ride on the airport connector daily once it’s completed, according to Brian Stanke, San Jose’s project manager for the airport connector.
The San Jose City Council has authorized what’s called a “predevelopment agreement” with Plenary Americas, Glydways, and their partners. Next on the itinerary are environmental and engineering reviews. Plus there’s a validation report in which the companies and the city will jointly review the business case.
What is PRT & Why Haven’t More Cities Adopted It?
Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT, is a public transit system of small (3 to 6 passengers) vehicles traveling automatically on exclusive guideways separated from street and pedestrian traffic. The travelers are taken on a nonstop, no-transfer trip from their point of origin to their destination station anywhere in a large urban area. The capital cost is much less than that for urban rail, and the operating costs are far below those for buses.
Original perceived problems such as safely achieving adequate line capacities with small vehicles, vehicle traffic management on large networks, reliability, guideway aesthetics, and system cost were worked out in a program of study and research from 1968-1976 conducted at The Aerospace Corporation.
Specifically, economic issues persisted as a main concern when considering PRT for a transportation solution ever since the concept was developed. Several energy architectures for PRT systems were researched, including magnetic-levitation, overhead catenary line, third conductor rail, and battery storage similar to electric vehicles (EVs). However, battery storage and third conductor rail are the only technologies, up to date, that meet Technology Readiness Level 7 in PRT systems. Furthermore, mobile pods must be of low weight. Because the PRT track is confined, the vehicle kinematics are automatically controlled, and most of the trip is carried out while cruising,with a moderate power or power density requirement. Thus, for PRT systems, the weight energy density — the energy capacity per unit mass — is most critical, pointing to Li-ion batteries as state-of-the art.
PRT today is conceptualized by an array of autonomous pods, providing shared riding service to a small number of travelers per vehicle, on a dedicated guideway. PRT is considered by many to be a travel mode that reduces energy use and emissions levels, compared with traditional cars.
Today only a few sites incorporate PRT networks, including Heathrow Airport and Dubai.
- Heathrow Airport: The fleet of 21 pods, each capable of carrying 4 passengers and their luggage, travel along a dedicated guideway, reaching speeds of up to 25 mph on the mainly elevated route. The 21 on-demand vehicles serve 800 passengers per day and and help reduce emissions by replacing a fleet of shuttle buses. The pods are battery-powered, driverless vehicles offering a convenient and novel way to travel to and from the terminal. The small footprint of the Heathrow pod system enables it to fit within the tight constraints imposed by the airport infrastructure. The pods travel a total of 3.8 kilometers of one-way guideway to 3 stations. By 2013, the system had celebrated reaching its 1 millionth autonomously driven passenger.
- Dubai: These pods are part of the city’s 2030 Dubai Future Accelerators program, with a goal of making 25% of daily transportation fully automated. In order to do this, the RTA is spending $410,000 (1.5 million dirhams) for further research and development of the pods. Emirate’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) is heavily involved in autonomous applications and says that 5 self-driving Chevrolet Bolts are also testing in the Jumeirah 1 area of the city, collecting data on Dubai’s roads and familiarizing themselves with signage, traffic signals, and drivers’ behavior.
Final Thoughts about PRTs in San Jose
The city of San Jose has offered for public review the 23 submissions. They are listed by respondent name(s) and can be downloaded below:
- General Transportation Fund
- Hot Spur
- Plenary Glydways
- Southern Illinois University
- Spartan Superway
- The Boring Company
- Ultra-MTS and Strada
- Virgin Hyperloop
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