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Podcars Could Be Coming to a Town Near You

October 14, 2008 11:25 AM
by Josh Katz
Podcars, now a possibility in Ithaca, N.Y., appear to be gaining momentum throughout the world, and advocates hope they will give conventional cars a run for their money.

Ithaca Tries to Be an American Podcar Pioneer

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“It works almost like an elevator, but horizontally,” said Jacob Roberts, president of Connect Ithaca. His group is dedicated to making Ithaca, N.Y.—the upstate community home to Cornell University and Ithaca College—the first U.S. podcar city, the Associated Press reports.

The Cornell Chronicle gives a slightly different description of podcars: “Think of a cross between a monorail and a taxi.”

Roberts asserts that PRTs (personal rapid transit) are safer than cars, more environmentally friendly, and represent the next development in the evolution of transportation. “In the podcar … it creates the perfect blend between the privacy and autonomy of the automobile with the public transportation aspect and, of course, it uses clean energy,” Roberts said.

The “electric, automated, lightweight vehicles” would be able to transport between two and 10 passengers to their destinations without stopping. Others would make more frequent stops, running routes similar to buses. The podcars would operate on a rail, not disturbing other vehicles on the road.

While Ithaca may become a podcar city, Morgantown, W.Va., has had a smaller system of podcars since 1975, used by students of West Virginia University. Internationally, PRT systems are under construction at London’s Heathrow Airport, and several European cities are in the early stages of planning. Masdar City, near Abu Dhabi, is also preparing for a podcar network. Sweden is attempting to rid itself of fossil fuels by 2020, and more than a dozen cities in the country are looking to podcars to help fulfill that goal.

Opinion & Analysis: For and against podcars

Catherine G. Burke, an associate professor at USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development, wrote an op-ed that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 8, in which she advocated building podcar transportation systems in the United States. According to Burke, the problems associated with automobiles, including pollution and high gas prices, aren’t the only reasons to look elsewhere for transportation. “We have congestion; accidents with injuries and deaths, and courts tied up with the resultant lawsuits; acres of land devoted to roads and parking; high costs to buy, insure and maintain a car; and lack of mobility for those who are unable or unwilling to drive.” For these reasons and more, Burke writes, “We will need something better than the auto—and better is here, now.”

Critics wonder about the practicality of podcars and whether they could ever be implemented successfully, especially on a large scale. Some feel that podcars might be viable for “limited-area operations, such as airports, colleges and corporate campuses,” the Associated Press reports. Furthermore, the price tag for podcars would be too high for enough benefit, they say. It would cost “about $25 million to $40 million per mile, which includes guideways, vehicles and stations, compared with $100 million to $300 million a mile for light-rail or subway systems.”

Related Topic: Aware Car

Another piece of transportation technology currently in development is the “Aware Car.” Designed for seniors, this car has built-in technology capable of monitoring a driver and alerting them, and the DMV, when they are no longer fit to drive. Researchers at MIT’s AgeLab are developing the $1.5-million car.

Unfortunately, the car probably won’t be available at a nearby dealership anytime soon; the vehicle, which will include cameras, monitors and sensors, is 20 years away.

But 20 years from now many baby boomers will be reaching an age where driving could be difficult or dangerous. Also by that time, one in four drivers will be 65 or older.

“The idea is to build a car that learns the drivers’ habits, then reacts appropriately when the driver alters them,” according to Wired. Younger drivers can benefit from the technology as well. Cameras and infrared sensors will monitor eyes, eyelid movements, breathing and even point out low blood sugar-levels, telling the drivers when its time to get off the road.

Reference: Podcars

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