Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Saying 'hi' to the vehicles

I attended the 11am group today to pay visit to the ULTra station. My camera's the good-old Canon EOS film model, so no pics online from me. Yet.

They are beautiful, the vehicles. Absolutely gorgeous, and they seem instantly to have a character to themselves. Sneaked the first sight through a door opening to their 'stables' and it made me feel to say something. To them. The feeling is gracious, and even more so when seeing them in action. They are whisper-silent (unlike the WRROOOOMING planes above us).

In my opinion, ATS has gone a good job on the vehicles. They are iconic, and I imagine driving them will be pure pleasure. Most likely people would like the journey to go on longer than the short trip from parking to T5.

We took some pictures, sat inside the vehicle for a while. Saw a video and moved on.

The only negative thing that I noticed is entering them. You enter from the side doors (there are doors on both sides, but I doubt that would be needed; 2GetThere vehciles are only having doors on one side) and while entering, it is difficult to see inside the vehicle, to make sure it's actually empty.

I bet most city-people have grown to doing that kind of check-my-back, at least in public transport. At least I instinctively check the people within a subway carriage for potential hazards (though they've never happened to me). I want to enter the vehicle seeing it all, and select my seating so that I can observe others. I don't want to have someone messy right behind my back.

Surely ULTra has cleared this (the phenomen even got a name in Dr. Paul Firmin's presentation later today; 'podlurking') but still it's important to feel confident about such new vehicles. If the doors opened more, or maybe with better lighting one can give a better view of the empty cabin for passangers about to enter.

As to Dr.Firmin, the presentation was a Thrill and would have deserved to be taped for Youtube. It was a nice mix of mad scientist, objective evaluation and nail-on criticism of the PRT concept, or implementations, or both. Nothing new, really, but rather stating the known hazards to be considered in implementations that are to-be. Social things, s.a. visual intrusion, possible criminal use of the pod network, etc. etc. (sorry Paul E. I don't remember them all).

Dr.Firmin had made a Google search on "PRT" and "social study" (or something) and said he'd only found the paper he'd prepared for this meeting! (Not sure if this is true; anyways he'd probably be delighted to get such studies for comparison so mention here if you know of any?).

The rest of the people are cruising river Thames. I'm at the hotel and intend to start making a JavaScript-based PRT simulator.

One more thing.

I saw through the Vectus presentation again just now, and truly, what's wrong with us PRT people? The concepts we're drawing are not believable. They don't convey a truthful and working image.

Please see through the video once now.

- Why only one vehicle? the tracks are clearly underutilized
- Too clean. Add dirt. Makes the video more believable (video games suffered from this a while back, but No More)
- Why does the camera dive into the vehicle over and over? I feel like crushing into it.
- Dark mask like Darth Vader's. Use some dummies inside.
- Narration: "..that turns a train into reality." I thought trains _were_ a reality?
- "Brave new world". Gosh. I'm sure the people hadn't read the book, since it's not really a world one would like to be in. At the least this gives mixed signals to people who've read it.

- 1. Vectus style. Don't start with design. That just needs to be there, but it's NOT a selling criteria. Like quality either. Both are expected, so keep shut. People will either realize your design is good, but saying it is is irrelevant.

I could go on and one and on. In my understanding, this kind of concept art only keeps PRTs further away from being reality in people's minds. One more thing I want to say about the video, though:

- At one point, there's a lot of cars in traffic jam and two lone Vectus pods supposedly providing a better service? Really? :) Don't they realize the mixed signal of this: if 6 lanes of cars can't take the people through, how could 2 pods. An easy fix would be simply to FILL THE TRACK with more pods. Make Things Realistic.

- "Aerodynamic Designed Vehicle". Really. That's not your selling argument, and actually you're not even aerodynamic (have a look at Porche and compare). So keep quiet about it.

- Use better background music. And remember: you're not selling to car shoppers, you're selling to architects and city planners. What convinces them of the benefits? Use numbers. Use sample cases. Be real. Please stop marketing Utopia.

If you're from Vectus, have a look at this:

13 Killer Differentiators: Strategies to Grow your Brand


Avidor said...

So did you get to take a ride on the ULTra carts? What was the quality of the ride?

When Vectus debuted, they didn't let anyone ride it.

I read somewhere that the the Raytheon PRT felt like a rollercoaster.

akauppi said...

For safety reasons drives to the public (including conference visitors) is not allowed. They will open the operations in late 2009 it seems (Oct-Nov).

We did see employees driving the vehicles around though, presumably doing some tests.

Vectus has gotten clearance for test runs (including visitors); meaning anyone interested can book a time at Uppsala and have a go.

Or wait a year and visit Abu Dhabi.

Avidor said...

Thanks for the report.

Gaius Julius Caesar said...

I'm curious how apparent the design compares to standard London taxicabs, for example, particularly to stand up to wear and tear.

In the U.S., taxicabs are generally standard large V-8 sedans, and are usually totally beat up and worn after 100,000 miles or so (160,000 km). To make economic sense, the Ultra vehicles would have to last several years, and be able to withstand the "duty cycle" of being available most of a 24-hour day.

akauppi said...

The lifespan of the vehicles is surely multiple years. The current operating contract seems to be 10 years, for the service itself.

As to comparison with taxi cabs, I would not see much resemblence. The London cabs are always kept in fine shape, and I believe the same would happen to ULTras as well (don't worry).

Batteries are 100% recyclable and they do get recycled after was it 4 months of use (only). Other than that, I would say its mainly regular cleanups of the interior that shall be required.

If they were made in the U.S., would the color choice still be that certain brown, which is scientifically tested to show dirt the least? :P If you're from the U.S. you know what I mean.

Mr_Grant said...

Julius' taxicab comparison unintentionally makes things easy for ULTra: London taxicabs have to operate on roads of varying condition, and can bash into other road vehicles. On the other hand, ULTra pods have the opportunity to be long-lived since they will operate on their own specifically-designed guideway.

Mr_Grant said...

I haven't forgotten about you, Ken Avidor! Here's my question for you in this thread:

Do you stand by your report about ULTra's Cardiff test facility? Care to predict when the postponed bulldozing will finally happen?

Avidor said...

Was PRT guru J. Edward Anderson invited to Heathrow? You just don't hear about him anymore.

I remember him saying PRT was a "disruptive technology" back in 2004.

Hilarious prediction.

Mr_Grant said...

Oh Ken. You've forgotten what I taught you about the definition of economic disruption. So sad.

A Transportation Enthusiast said...

I think the point about entering the vehicles is valid, you want to verify that the vehicle is empty before entering. I think better lighting and perhaps a well-placed convex mirror (like the ones they have in the corners of narrow hallways) would solve this. This is precisely why they are starting *small* at Heathrow, because these little usability quirks can only be discovered once masses of people use them.

Regarding the wear-and-tear issue, there are several differences between PRT pods and city taxis:

1. pods are much simpler in their mechanical design - no engine, no transmission, no fuel system, etc. Probably the majority of maintenance cost will be cleaning and maintaining of interiors. Consider commercial airliners: the fuselage and major components may last decades, and the components requiring regular service and replacement are relatively minor.

2. Controlled operational characteristic. As others have pointed out, pods operate under much more controlled conditions: no hard stops or starts, no sharp turns, no potholes, no fender-benders.

3. Regular preventative maintenance. The pod maintenance schedule can be made a part of the system design so that (e.g.) a pod will automatically go to maintenance when a part requires regularly scheduled service.

4. Design for longevity. The tyical automobile is generally designed for a 100k-200k operational lifetime, but if longer lifetime is required, this is certainly achievable by using higher quality components. Designing for longer lifetime would add incremental costs, but the longevity benefity would likely far outweight the costs. Most automakers don't do this because the majority of the car-buying public would not be willing to pay extra cost up front for reliability they will likely never use - most new car drivers will sell long before 100k.

Re: Vectus: I agree that PRT proponents probably need to resist the urge to "oversell". I think the lesson from the ULTra/Heathrow success story is that ATS did a great job managing expectations AND demonstrating that PRT can still thrive even with the most conservative of expectations.

High expectations only serve to fuel the critics, who amplify minor failures to ridiculous levels in their never ending effort to taint public opinion.


- When your competition (i.e. other modes of transit) is getting ridership that is significantly less than 5%, you don't need to say "30%" for PRT because the more conservative 10% is still a huge leap.

- When your competition requires a 70% operational subsidy, you don't need to predict profitibility for PRT; simply demonstrating near-break-even operational costs would be a huge win for cash strapped transit agencies.

- When your competition only operates 14 hours a day, and even then operates at frequences that would average 20-minute wait times, you don't need to guarantee "no wait" - you can say "you can ride any time of day, and waits will be no more than 5-10 minutes at any time".

- When your competition carries less than 10,000 passengers per *day* per line, there is no need to push "multiple thousands per hour per line" PRT capacity, especially if that forces you assume aggressive headways.

Years ago I didn't like ULTra because I viewed it as aiming WAY too low. But now I realize the wisdom in their restraint, because that restraint disarmed critics and allowed ULTra to be the first to crack an almost impossible market. Critics still mocked it as a "glorified golf cart", but they really couldn't call it "infeasible" because the technology was so simple and familiar that there *was* no rational argument for infeasibility. Other efforts (Raytheon, Aramis, Taxi2000) were crushed under the weight of their ambitions; ULTra kept it simple and found a niche.

Avidor said...

I was wondering when the deranged Transportation Enthusisast would show up.

"crushed under the weight of their ambitions"HIlarious!!!

In the case of Taxi 2000, the would-be pod-vendor was apparently crushed under the weight of lawyers fees after the company sued their founder and former CEO Ed Anderson whose nasty emails were retrieved from the hard drive of the wacky professor's company computer.

An insider told me Taxi 2000 is a "dead company", which is interesting becuase they still retain lobbyist Ed Cain.

Ed Cain is also a pal of MIchele Bachmann

A Transportation Enthusiast said...

Show of hands please: who hear gives a lick about MINNEAPOLIS LOCAL POLITICS?

(a lone hand raises, belonging to our friend Mr. Avidor).

OK, it's settled then: thanks to Ken for that gripping politial commentary from your neighborhood, but news flash: NOBODY ELSE CARES! This is a discussion about advanced transportation, not "Corrupt Minnesota politicians and the bloggers who stalk them"

akauppi said...

This is a bit off-topic, but:

Funny that you mentioned the US legal system, Avidor. I've long thought that each continent is plagued with its own nuisance. Traditionally, it's been taxes and 'welfare' in Europe (which does not mean people feel well, actually). For USA, it's been the legal system.

I wonder if the current crisis does something about that in the States. You really should press 'reset' on the legalistic power those people have.

Google seems to have a fresh take on this, actually. I signed the Maps API last night, and they told in Clear English what the fine print is all about. Salut to them on that!

Gaius Julius Caesar said...

A "Transportation Enthusiast" said:
"Designing for longer lifetime would add incremental costs, but the longevity benefity would likely far outweight the costs. Most automakers don't do this because the majority of the car-buying public would not be willing to pay extra cost up front for reliability they will likely never use - most new car drivers will sell long before 100k."

In my imperious way, I took a look at the "ULTra" (sic) specifications; their automated golf carts have a structure similar to unautomated golf carts: aluminium frames. Harumph! I say!

I presume the designers propose to get at least 500,000 miles (800,000 km) of service out of these vehicles before being replaced. But with such relatively light construction--and a material, aluminum--much more susceptible to strain and cracking than properly forged steel, to get such mileage and several years of service is as likely as a slave revolt crushing my legions, particularly after their great victories in Gaul! My great legions certainly don't use aluminum swords instead of much more effective forged steel! Plebians!

Even the royalty of small motor buses, the "Sprinters" put out by Mercedes Benz of Germania, have been designed for around 200,000-300,000 miles (300,000-500,000 km) of service before being replaced. And the Sprinters have STEEL frames...

Imperiously yours...

A Transportation Enthusiast said...

Gaius, these ULTra vehicles are less than half the weight of that Mercedes bus, will never be exposed to more than about 0.15g acceleration in any direction, will never be involved in an accident, and will never hit a significant pothole. I don't have any specific knowledge of ULTra vehicle lifetimes, but I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that the discussed reliabilities *could* be achieved in such a controlled environment, even with an aluminum frame.

Perhaps someone from ULTra could chime in?