A Glimpse Into the Future: Self-Driving Pods

Sometimes I can't help but feel like I'm witnessing the real-world arrival of The Jetsons, a science fiction cartoon I watched with an embarrassing amount of regularity as a kid.

In my lifetime, huge leaps forward have been made with computers, robots, the Internet, smartphones, digital cameras, tablets, MP3 players, electric cars, monorails, renewable energy sources, and other Space Age-type products that seemed light years away when I was young. Now, there's yet another high-tech wonder to swoon over: the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system.

Talk of this has been around for some time, but it's leaving the fantasy realm this summer and becoming a tangible transportation mode at, of all places, England's Heathrow Airport. ULTra PRT of Bristol, England, recently opened and will operate the world's first commercial PRT at the busy airport. Twenty-two futuristic-looking electric autopilot pods — with room for four people and their luggage — will shuttle 800 passengers a day back and forth from parking lots to the British Airways Terminal 5, according to reports and airport information.

The pods measure 3.7 meters long, 1.47 meters wide, and 1.8 meters tall. They can reach a maximum speed of 40 kilometers per hour (25mph). Here are photos and videos of the vehicle, along with some more specs from ULTra:

  • ULTra vehicles use a laser sensor system to guide the vehicles on the guideway and in the stations.
  • Vehicles are in constant wireless communication with the control centre but can navigate fully autonomously if communications is disrupted.
  • Vehicles are charged via electrical contacts at station berths or at offline waiting points. Power is currently stored in lead-acid batteries, which allow for rapid charging (up to 150 amps) and are easily recyclable.
  • The vehicles are designed to be upgradable to future energy-storage technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells, ultracapacitors, flywheels, and different battery chemistries.

They're not likely to replace (nor have they been designed to replace) cars, trains, buses, monorails, or other road infrastructure anytime soon. However, similar projects are on the drawing board, with a fair number of them being planned within a stone's throw of Silicon Valley. According to ULTra, planners are reviewing PRT systems in several California locations, including Alameda, Cupertino, Mountain View, San Jose, and Santa Cruz. There are also reviews taking place in North Carolina, New York, Oregon, Virginia, and Alberta. In many cases, the plans would use the vehicles to link transportation hubs, parking lots, university campuses, and key commercial or downtown centers.

What does this mean for high-tech engineers and supply chain managers? The future is now, and the future of urban planning and transportation alternatives will bring with it a need for any number of electronic components and high-tech planning and management expertise. Surely, too, OEM competition will increase if and when PRT becomes a familiar household phrase (like Rosie the Robot or video phones), and qualified suppliers could make or break any of these initiatives.

Tell me if and how you've been involved in any of these futuristic-style projects, either with up-and-coming transportation systems or other urban sci-fi proposals, and how supply chain expertise has been or will be valuable.

26 comments on “A Glimpse Into the Future: Self-Driving Pods

  1. AnalyzeThis
    August 18, 2011

    Interesting stuff, Jennifer! And yes, I was reminded of The Jetsons as well…

    I watched one of the videos and it did indeed seem pretty cool… the thing is, while I do believe that we currently have the technology to do things like this and Google's self-driving cars… the big hurdle here is upgrading infrastructure to accommodate these changes.

    I live in NYC, for example. The transportation infrastructure here in some ways hasn't changed in over 100 years. In fact, if I took a time machine back 100 years (well… 94 years, to be exact), I could still get to work essentially in exactly the same way and just about as fast.

    It's really hard to displace these old-fashioned means of transportation. There are exceptions (such as airports) to this rule, but across much of America I'm afraid that our means of getting around on a daily basis won't change much in the next 100 years: none of us will ever commute to work George Jetson-style, I'm afraid.

  2. Clairvoyant
    August 18, 2011

    Good points, DennisQ, and great article Jennifer. I agree with DennisQ that it may be a long time before we see this type of transportation fully implemented, however I believe we will start to see more of these sooner than you think. There may be some cities and areas that are difficult to implement this type of transportation, but I think they will start to be used in areas that can accomodate them, and sections of cities that can support them. It may not mean that most of the population of a city can use them soon, but over time they may start to take over conventional transportation.

  3. itguyphil
    August 18, 2011

    You know what they should do (although it's sort of far-fetched btu weirder things have stuck), if you go to San Francisco, you will see the trolleys and street cars. They are 'controlled' by the magnetic connections to the vehicle. Meybe the 'start' of self-driving passenger cars could be the same.. but with broader ranges of movement. Who knows, this might help reduce accidents since 'the people' are taken out of the equation.

  4. _hm
    August 19, 2011

    What kind of testing and evaluations are required before these novel vehicles are introduced? What is human touch in this type of self-driving pods and what is its aceeptance level by senior citizens?

  5. Daniel
    August 19, 2011

    Jennifer, auto pilot vehicles are fine, where the traffic system is static. I think it’s not feasible in dynamic traffic situations, where the system may fail to think like a driver. Such vehicles are always moving in a pre determined path.

  6. Anand
    August 19, 2011

    @Jacob, I totally agree with you that this might not work in dynamic traffic neverthless its a good beginning. I think we will need lot more powerful processors to make these pods adjust to dynamic traffic.

  7. Jay_Bond
    August 19, 2011

    This is a great article with a nice link to videos of the Pods. I think this is a great idea, particularly for airports and other controlled environments. Currently I don't think this technology would work well at the moment to replace cars on the road. I do think that eventually they will be able to start taking hold in certain metro areas. The question will be how long before we see these in the controlled environment, and then with improvements move into cities?

  8. Anand
    August 19, 2011

    The question will be how long before we see these in the controlled environment, and then with improvements move into cities?

    @Jay_bond, I think this is million dollor question. In my opinion we will see such vehicles in our cities within next 10 years. I feel so  because we have all the necessary ingredients to make such vehicles work like GPS, required sensors etc. But we still bigger processors which can do intelligent decisions based on the inputs available.

  9. Anand
    August 19, 2011

    what is its aceeptance level by senior citizens?

    @_hm, I would want to expand the scope of the question, what will be its acceptance level by Citizens. Will citizens feel comfortable when they know that the vehicle is self-driven? Will they show the confidence in the such vehicles?

  10. _hm
    August 19, 2011

    Yes, that is correct. Technology demonstration is good part. But then you need feedback from citizen for the effectiveness of this technology to make their lives better. Also, there are many safety issues to deal with. I wish the project is successful.


  11. Jennifer Baljko
    August 19, 2011

    You guys hit it on the head. Right now, there doesn't seem to be any indication from the company that this will be rolled out in any large scale way any time soon. We're destined to sit in cars and in traffic for quite some time unfortunately (well, not me…I don't own a car any more and rely mostly on foot power, pedal power, and the metro when I can't bear the thought of trudging anywhere on a hot, humid August day).

    But, I think what's important to note is that there will be pockets of places and people that can really benefit from these kinds of people movers, in whatever form they eventually take shape – airports,  connecting main transportation centers, overcrowded downtowns,  and, uh, wine country tours through Sonoma or Tuscany (just kidding on the last option). They offer complimentary, environmentally-friendly alternatives to existing modes of travel.

    Sure, maintenance on existing infrastructure and related capital expenditure are major considerations for any municipal or regional transportation authority, but at some point you have to wonder when  it will be more economically feasible to invest in new technology/transportation systems than funding 100-year antiquated structures that are no longer reliable, efficient, or safe. And, yeah, I get the skittishness around the idea of self-driving vehicles… I have my doubts too…but look at how many different aspects of our routine lives fall under the “supervision” of technology already. It's unavoidable, really.

  12. hwong
    August 19, 2011

    If one day we can have a car that can drives itself and will avoid all accidents, then this world will be much more safer. Alot of the accidents on the road are due to reckless, drunk, tired drivers. If we can have an autopilot system that can detect remotely and avoid accidents, I'd be a happy camper

  13. Anna Young
    August 20, 2011

    @_hm, The technology demonstration is not only good,these podcars technical reliability is 95 percent and less energy efficient.

    I haven't been on it yet, but reports from couple of friends who have used it said it's less noisy and comfortable.








  14. prabhakar_deosthali
    August 20, 2011

    As an R & D person working in Electric vehicle project for my company, I was very much impressed by the Stackable EV , a compact two seater and 3 wheeler EV that MIT developed a couple of years back. This car could be parked in almost a vertical postion -actually stacked along with the other similar cars. MIT said that such concept will be very popular in the downtown areas where the parking space is at premium. Such EVs could be owned by the local bodies and anybody wishing to hire it could just pull out an EV from the top of stack and after use, leave it at any other such parking stack.

    We were so impressed by this concept that we built a similar prototype in our lab.


    Today any vehicle that takes less space, easy parking can be a boon to the already crowded city streets. That should be the priority rather than making robotic vehicles.


    I my self fantasize about a personal vehicle which can fly along the road . Such concept if successfully built can allow many fold increase in the vehicle density as the vehicles can use different heights along their paths. No question of intersections, or waiting at signals !

  15. t.alex
    August 21, 2011

    Wow, the photos are impressive. How about a smaller version for personal use, similar to the segway concept?

  16. Tim Votapka
    August 22, 2011

    This is fascinating and loaded with opportunities for:

    Component manufacturers

    Motion control software producers

    Independent test labs

    Touch screen manufacturers

    And Dominoes pizza since this will get a pie delivered in less than 30 minutes for sure!

  17. Tim Votapka
    August 22, 2011

    Oddly enough I just spotted this bit of history I couldn't resist sharing along this line. Today in 1902 then U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt became the first president in office to ride in a car…and electric one at that. He was on a midterm campaign tour of New England at the time, and the motorcar in question was a purple-lined Columbia Electric Victoria Phaeton; the Columbia Motor-Carriage Company was located in Hartford, CT. The Victoria's top speed was about 13 MPH.

    The Victoria, like around half of the cars in production at that time, was electric. Wish I could tell you who supplied the components, but my research didn't go that deep!

    August 22, 2011

    With the cost of fuel rising higher and higher we need to do something with public transport and I imagine pilotless vehicles are not far off in many different areas.  These small pods are cute but a bit claustrophobic last time a rode in one.  We supply interior lighting components to similar systems and the market does seem to be growing.

  19. Jennifer Baljko
    August 22, 2011

    Right – Dominoes would benefit, didn't think of them as immediate beneficiaries.

    and love the “today in history.” tidbit. who knew?

  20. Jennifer Baljko
    August 22, 2011

    @flyingscot – thanks for sharing. Curious: which markets or regions are you seeing as early adopters?

  21. JADEN
    August 23, 2011

    Thumb up! this is the power of technology to improve humanity, not like those smart grenades.

  22. Anne
    August 23, 2011

    This is really a bright future in transportation, an alternative to traffic jams, something every major city should have.  Traffic is still one of the biggest problems and this could revolutionize mass transit. Instead of waiting around for trains, buses, taxis you could hop on one of these right away and go where you need to go.

  23. Kunmi
    August 24, 2011

    Great innovation! This invention will be a great help for our cities and make the life better

  24. Craig Kaliebe
    August 24, 2011

    The best part of these driverless vehicles is that they won't require expensive rail and infrastructure costs–we can use existing roads and highways. 

  25. t.alex
    August 26, 2011

    Definitely true. Smart technology helps cut the costs extensively.

  26. mario8a
    August 26, 2011


    have you heard about DIA ( Denver International Airport ) does is have a huge underground transportation system?

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