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Podcars: Death to the Automobile?

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If a group of urban planners, activists, and students has its way, the college town of Ithaca in upstate New York could be the first  community in the United States to ditch cars in favor of automatically controlled "podcars."

As reported by CNN, podcars are "driverless, computer-guided" cars that have the advantage of taking 2-10 people exactly where they want to go, unlike mass transit that follows a preset course and stops at every station regardless of passenger load or desire. Ithaca has a history of progressive thinking where transportation is concerned, having recently begun a community-wide car sharing program.

Also known as PRTs (Personal Rapid Transit), podcars would operate "almost like an elevator, but horizontally," according to Jacob Roberts, president of Connect Ithaca, quoted in the same CNN article. He adds that the podcars would use only clean energy and serve stations located every block or half-mile. Riders would enter the podcar, punch in their desired location, and relax as the podcar delivers them, stopping only to drop off other riders to their requested destinations. The podcars themselves typically run along rails or an elevated guideway, but also have the ability to run at street level. A scaled-down version of this concept was used in 1975 in Morgantown, West Virginia, at West Virginia University. Those 15-passenger cars are still in operation today.

The point of podcar is twofold: reducing urban congestion and improving air quality. It is a popular concept in Sweden, where more than 12 cities are planning podcars as part of a commitment to be fossil-fuel-free by 2020.

Detractors like Vukan Vichic, professor of transportation and engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, feel the concept isn't workable. He claims in CNN's story that while cities would have the tax base to pay for such a project, there simply wouldn't be enough podcars to meet the needs of hordes of urban commuters. Conversely, he feels that podcar capacity would not be a problem in the suburbs but that low demand in those areas would never result in the kind of financing that would make building a podcar infrastructure feasible.

Nonetheless, the CNN story quotes capital costs of $25 million to $40 million per mile for the podcar, versus $100 million to $300 million for development of subways or light rail (numbers from Stockholm's Institute of Sustainable Transportation). So if public transportation is one way to solve the increasing costs of automobile ownership and the looming nuisances traffic congestion and air pollution, perhaps podcars are a legitimate consideration.

Frankly, we shudder to think of cars where we are not allowed to do the driving. Gas/electric hybrids are already sadly lacking in the driver involvement arena, and the idea of podcars replacing the automobile entirely is the stuff of nightmares.

Not to worry--IST CEO Magnus Hunhammar claims that podcars are just one part of future transportation strategies, not an attempt to completely replace the automobile. With any luck, podcars will clear the roads of all the bad drivers and left-lane hoggers, freeing the tarmac for those of us who love to drive and do it well.--Colin Mathews
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  1. Yet another revolution that will see the end of the Car? Think not. Though is at least sending urban public transport in a better direction. For those that can't afford a car or are crap drivers this may be a solution and as Colin says if it gets the crap drivers off the street and leaves them for those of us who love to drive all the better.
     
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