Zooming Around Masdar City in Electric Pods

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates – A driverless pod that runs on a battery pack along tracks guided by magnets under the ground — That unusual mode of transport, which I rode on Tuesday, was my introduction to the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a graduate school that offers free tuition and housing to its student and is tasked with creating talent and research in energy and sustainability technologies.

During a tour of the institute, I rode one of the pods, which are built by the Dutch firm 2getthere, and are part of the “Personal Rapid Transit” pilot project to test this mass transit and see if it’d be a good fit for the rest of Masdar City. Masdar City is a highly-touted government initiative to build a new town powered by renewable energy and developed around green technologies, including public transportation. The institute is the first set of buildings that rose from the land dedicated to Masdar City.

The PRT pilot project began running last November, and it ferries people from a parking lot to the institute, which started classes two years ago and is co-developed with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Several pods waited at individual bays in a sleek station when we arrived, and a touch-screen kiosk allows users to summon them. Each pod seats four people and comes with a screen and a voice-over system to tell riders where they are headed. It also comes with an emergency button if you need to stop its operation on the track.

The pods can go can go up to 40 kilometers per hour, but they run at 25 kilometers per hour to go the short distance between the parking lot and the institute. The ride was a little bumpy, and I could hear the motor sound from underneath. We zipped around the ground floor of some structure to arrive at the institute, a 2-minute ride that covered 800 meters. There are also pods designed to carry freight.

Masdar City planners initially envisioned having a PRT network under a raised street level throughout the city, but that doesn’t seem to be the plan anymore. Since the government announced the Masdar City project in 2006, advancement in electric vehicles has prompted the planners to look at other types of electric rides, including buses, so how big a role PRT will play still remains a question. Masdar folks have talked about putting in a light rail system before as a primary way to transport lot of people at once.

The PRT is one of many ideas for creating low-carbon mass transit system for urban areas. Another idea that has gained popularity is the car-sharing network. Companies such as Zipcar have been expanding their service in the U.S. and other countries, though the cars in the sharing network have tended to be gasoline-powered or hybrids.

Research institutions such as MIT also have been coming up with newfangled designs for personal transport that can fill the last-mile gap in public transit by taking people from a subway station, for example, to their final destination. Google (s goog), too, has a keen interest in low-carbon transit technology and recently invested $1 million in Shweeb to develop a human-powered monorail system.

(Disclosure: I’m attending the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, a trip paid for by the emirate).

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