Sunday, April 26, 2009

Prediction: Bond driving a PRT

I would say that within the next 10 years we are seeing a Bond movie, where a chase or other action event happens with PRTs. The overlapping bridges of current Heathrow track give a certain potential to this, but so would the under-street level maze of Masdar's.

I know it is stupid to make such predictions, but this is more of a statement, really. They filmed gorgeously at the Malaysia's twin towers when those were new. And before most of the world realized Malaysia had leaped up to par with West.

The problem remains: how to make the 40km/h vehicles seem fast on the big screen. :> And since Martin said ULTra has solved the podlurking problem, are we restricting the movie directors' options too much.


Friday, April 24, 2009

Pictures are out

I hope none of the people in the pictures would object. I did ask some but not all.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Heading on...

Waiting for the plane at Heathrow terminal 5 (actually my flight is from T3, but I came here just to see the building from inside :P). It's spacious.

Bought a pen from WHSmith's to write a card to my wife. Only to realize the Parker packaging is completely impossible to open without a knife. Isn't it funny that an airport sells such packages... Hmm. :) I asked the juice/coffee counter for scissors and they "opened" (demolished) the packaging with a 30cm kitchen knife! Wau. Maybe even they are not allowed to have scissors in here?

Actually, this is prior to security checks, but still.

The last day of PRT@LHR was about CityMobil project of the European Union. Fine so far, seems they've got a more wide spread view on the field (cybercars, semiautomated buses etc.) but it makes me wonder, whether any EU project will ever really lead to anything. Maybe that is not even the intention. Maybe the intention is to "support" already ongoing projects.

As a potential entrepreneur I wouldn't hold my breath on EU funding. My understanding is any incoming money flow is more than offset by the amount of burocracy involved. Sadly, some of todays presentations did enforce that. Boooooooring... I guess EU must be?

On the positive side, the concensus across the board (of companies) seems to be very positive to standardization. Everyone seems to realize that while there's definately competition, there's also vast amounts of playfield where co-operation and common methods is the easiest solution for everyone. Such standardization was called for in the comments, and I never heard anyone stand against. As was obvious by now, the PRT movement is not only about technology but also vastly about social acceptance and community planning. If it's added as a topping on an already existing cake (as Heathrow case actually is) it has suboptimal chances. It should be part of a wider change of planning models, including architects, city planners etc.

Nathan Koren of ATS sees a parallel to how container ships pretty much revolutionized cargo traffic some 50 years back (only!). He recommends the book Box to anyone wanting to understand the mechanisms that may be very similar to PRT acceptance as well.

I think I better catch my flight now. LOTS OF THANKS to everyone attending and especially those in charge of arrangements. I'm sure next time a conference takes place, the world will again look rather different to us. Call it progress.

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

Getting out of the airports

Today's conference focus will be on the role of PRT as a general trafficing alternative.

Will grab some breakfast now, and head for the sessions.

By the way. One thing which has surprised me positively is the overall analytical approach to traffic and PRTs. In many presentations (at least Frost & Sullivan and 2GetThere), it has been emphasized that PRT's are promising in certain areas but they are no one-does-it-all solution that will transform all traffic on Earth.

I absolute agree. It is about a (rather simple, actually) complementary service to existing modes of traffic. It will change the world, but so have the modes that came before it.

Pioneer Martin Lowson (the man behind the ULTra) had a very enlightening slide on this, showing the following traffic modes on a timeline (as to when their construction in UK had occurred):

- water channels (ca. 1700)
- railroads (1800's)
- regular car-ready roads (early 1900's to 1960's, most of them)
- motorways (peaks in 1960-1980 I think)

The timeline shows a clear pattern, and he had even placed the inventions leading to the next wave on the timeline. They seemed to be at the peaks of the earlier modes. Like steam engine was invented at the peak of the channel building.

His point was that we _already_ have the next mode of traffic invented (whatever that is). And that the usage of that mode won't go well together with the earlier mode (motorways). It will get a wave of its own, and transform the society just like the earlier waves have done.

I will ask Martin for that slide. It really tells it far better than I tried here. :)

Intensive care

Now, that was an intensive day!

10am to 10pm, with a short break after the official sessions.

It feels daunting to make a fair summary of all the day's speeches and presentations. Let me phrase out what stayed topmost in my mind.

ULTra was presented in fair detail, and it seems like a wonderful system, indeed (special cleaning vehicles are used for shoveling snow if needed; an issue that always made me wonder on their design). However, the track still looks heavy and the "safety fences" are told to remain there even after construction is done. Not a delight.

Frost & Sullivan had a commercial look into the PRT business. That was interesting. They're estimating it to start booming around 2016-2020, with essential growth already in 2012 (estimated at 30 000 M$ year if I remember right). They split potential customers to various categories, biggest of which were airports, eco cities and tourist destinations (I may be a bit vague on the details here).

Vectus was presented as a "step down from regular rail". At least that was the feeling I received, and the presenter himself had worked in regular rail construction before coming to PRTs. I'm sure there's a market area for it, too, like feeding real train or subway lines. However, I fail to see why I would ride such a 4 person vehicle all by myself. For some reason it feels much bigger than the other two.

Dutch 2GetThere (Robbert Lohmann) presented their Masdar case, which seems far further than I guess most of us expected. It will be (should be) ready by the end of this year! (only one part of the track, but still)

This was the day's last presentation, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one weary at its start. But it was the most energizing one. One could notice the silence and concentration of the audience. Before that, there had been ample presentations of Heathrow, ULTra and one on Vectus. But now, it felt different. These people are all over the work itself, not doing prestudies or safety surveys.

Some details:

- By its look and measures 2GetThere's Masdar vehicle resembles ULTra
- Designed by Italian car designer (because the customer wanted so)
- Traffic in original ground level; the whole city will be elevated one story up leaving original ground level as "basement". Pedestrian level is above it and no unauthorized access to the basement level is allowed.
- 3-4 lanes wide system, with sniffer modules in the road and "leaking cable" communication from above the vehicles
- 3rd and 4th lane are used for speeding up/slowing down traffic
- rubber tires on concrete (or similar) floor
- li-ion batteries worth 60-70km (recharge in 1h)
- speed 40km/h

The use of a full "level" of transportation allowing for the wide lanes makes this a completely different kind of case as a PRT that would be confined to poles or tunnels. The authorities will use special "emergency mode" to clear the road of pods if needed and the system would be seen to carry as well freight (about 20% of vehicles) as passangers. A curiosity is having two levels of pods; regular and "vip", which would be having more expensive finishing and equipment.

The track layout has no crossings, only loops, and will eventually cover 40-50km and have 50-100 vehicles.

Freight vehicles are based on the same parts as the passanger ones; only tougher. They can carry 2 containers each 800kg in weight.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Arrived in London

Descending to the airport, I got the first glimpse of this PRT track that we're about to be shown during the conference. Is THAT it? After looking at the rather beautiful city (no smog this time of the year, or maybe pollution has been decreased) from the air, and trying to grasp the magnitude of it, here's a teeny tiny fenced bridge of concrete. Curves to the left, curves to the right. Looks actually rather hidious, due to the security fences on both sides. I just wish this is not going to be the future of Heathrow!

The first impression was that of a dog farm. The second that of a concentration camp. It's actually not the track, but those fences on both sides of it. Not good.

Outside of the hotel, the signs of climate change are clearly being visible. McDonalds' has palm-like plants on its front lawn, like in California. Cute. But.. this should be rainy England. Maybe it's actually better this way? :)

Edit: here is a video showing the track.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Going to the PRT conference in Heathrow, UK

I got interested in the emerging world of PRT's (public rapid transport) in October. What follows is a three-day trip to London, to the PRT@LHR conference.

My intention is to report the proceedings and findings during the days on this blog. The conference has an entry fee and most likely attendants are mainly from 'big' companies. In the spirit of citizen engineering, it would be welcome for everyone to know what is being planned to save our common future.

The PRT@LHR site claims:

This, of course, is not quite true. What Heathrow currently has is a (being built; ready later in 2009) point-to-point track between Terminal 5 and VIP parking lot. That hardy qualifies as a PRT track, more like automated golf carts I would say.

This is not to say Heathrow couldn't _grow_ to be a true PRT; only this time it won't be it, yet. It also shows how eager these companies are to declare something to be the first. Meaning: the following projects won't be first. Virgin problem here, eh?

My estimate is that Abu Dhabi will be the real first. Hopefully, I will learn more of that during the conference as well.