back to article NASA works on robo-podcab scheme

NASA software boffins have partnered with a Californian firm to work on a "personal rapid transit" system which would operate using a system of automated two- or three-person taxi-style "pods" travelling on overhead magnetic rail networks. Concept of the Unimodal SkyTran system in use in Dubai. Someone's had a little …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Not quite flying cars, but...

    A vision of the future as seen on the covers of all 1950s Sci-Fi magazines etc

    Paris, cos there isn't a flying car icon.

  2. Lionel Baden

    attached to buildings !

    yeah that will do the brickwork loads of good !!!

    how many tonnes of metal do you want hanging off the corner of your wall !

    more importantly how they gonna program it to drive and what sfety precautions are there in a accident ege if there is a break in the line how will the computer know and stop etc etc etc

  3. Mobius


    "You know what this town needs..."

  4. Paul Slater

    Public transport

    So instead of encouraging people to leave their cars at home and catch public transport instead, this system will replicate the road system, but a bit higher up, and have travellers boarding little "cars", moving the traffic jams vertically by a few metres. Great.

  5. Martin 19

    It's amazing how many times I've seen this guff

    whereby somebody says "we need small, personal vehicles, that do point-to-point journeys on demand.." .. they're called CARS, FFS.

    Is it just the idea of personal ownership and control that these people abhor?

  6. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

    @Lionel Baden

    The Toytown Express works fine:

  7. AlgernonFlowers4
    IT Angle


    A better iPod than Apple? Just think of the fun they could have with a BSOD people carrier system!

  8. Anonymous Bastard

    I love it!

    But I think it's cool for the sake of cool and have to ask; What problem does it solve?

    For the question of "how to move lots of people into and out of a city centre" the answer is underground railways. Each train can carry hundreds of people in a small space, rapidly, and doesn't have to go around buildings.

    For the question of "how to move a few people to a specific location" we have taxis.

    Podcabs cannot carry as many as a regular train can. They cannot stop anywhere like taxis can. Instead they seem to solve the problem of "how to charge someone for moving a short distance in a straight line?".

    After travelling on undergrounds in a number of cities I would guess more time is spent on escalators and in lifts and queues than on the actual train. When you get to your destination you then spend more time in lifts going up to your floor! If there is a problem without a solution it must be "how to get people from underground to high above ground?"

    The podcab needs to have the ability to travel along roads and then climb skyscrapers without asking people to get out and walk to the next stage. A bit like in Minority Report. But without Tom Cruise please.

  9. The First Dave


    Actually, the software to control a one-dimensional system is not going to be that hard, not compared to say Air-Traffic control, which is pretty close to full 3D

    The biggest problem I see is that this system is going to need a reliable switching system (to use the American parlance) or points as they are known in the UK

    These are a major problem on any high-speed line, and generally only used at places where the trains are travelling slowly anyway, ie at stations. That isn't feasible here - the design calls for the pods to get up to speed, THEN join the main track. Oh, and did I mention that it is even harder to build a good set of points for a mono-rail?

    Small electric vehicles? Good.

    A new kind of tram? Doubtful - just ask anyone in Edinburgh!

  10. Alex Hawdon


    So basically like the concept of pay-as-you-go cars, with the following differences:

    PAYG Cars

    Pros: No infrastructure investment other than the vehicles; better range due to fact taht return on investment will drop off massively after the main roads have been monorailed-up.


    Pros: No 'traffic jams' if properly controlled; ability to automatically re-locate vehicles to accomodate demand; self-drive=less accidents; better fuel economy (probably...)

    Sounds like a win to me. IF you can pursuede someone to fork out for the initial investment. So no then.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    @Mobius - you beat me to it...

    Seriously though - A monorail with wheels will probably use far less energy than maglev. Maglev is knocked about as an idea because it sounds cool and futuristic, but in reality that oldest of inventions - the wheel - uses far less energy. I can't help thinking that a combination of taxis, trams, trolleys, underground trains, overground light rail, overground commuter rail, busses, coaches and inter-city trains may already have this one sewn up.

  12. Kevin 6


    heres why I always though this to be completely impractical beyond the reasons others have stated above.

    If you look at the artist rendition where do the un-used pods get stored?

    if they are at the station till used how can other people get off or leave for that matter?

    This kind of transportation although cool on paper and in the imagination is kind of impractical when you try and figure it out. Also how long will the pod traffic jam be when you get into areas with tons of skyscrapers and thousands of people starting at the same time. Honestly to handle any real volume in a urban area (seeing one pod can carry 3 people) you would need hundreds of lines going down most streets one to two will not cut it.

    NOW this might be feasible in more rural areas where the buses only carry a handful of people. But chances are they wouldn't have the funds to build and maintain it.

    Only place I can see this actually working is in NASA itself to shuttle their employees from one area to the next.

  13. Mike Richards Silver badge


    As in what's the...

    A huge problem for any monorail is switching traffic from one line to another. Any indication how they plan to do this without having huge chunks of metal swinging too and fro over people's heads?

  14. Sean Timarco Baggaley

    Monorails & switches.

    "The Simpsons" is a *cartoon*, not a fucking documentary.

    Yeah, it's so effing hard to do monorails right and have proper, reliable switches on a technology that has been used FOR FORTY F*CKING YEARS IN ASIA.

    Japan has seven monorail systems alone, most of which are proper metro lines with junctions and branches, just like any other metro, with similar capacities and frequencies. Those switches / points *have* to be reliable, so yes, it's been done. Repeatedly. And that's just Japan. Check out this list——for Asia. (And before you ask, no, I'm not a member of that site. I just don't dismiss *any* technology.)

    @Mike Richards: please re-read the above again, just in case you missed it. You are wrong. Demonstrably so. The traditional rail industry has its own agendas and even its fanbois, just like every other industry.


    Personal Rapid Transit is arguably a much better fit for medieval cities like London. (Imagine doing this——down Oxford Street, Peckham High Street, or Charing Cross Road.) A fully suspended transport system, be it monorail, PRT, or whatever, would keep the new network above the road, leaving it free for traffic. (Unlike cities like Rome and Paris, which are blessed with wide, arterial roads, London has rather fewer diversionary route options.)

    While the use of maglev might seem over the top, it's not as mad as it sounds: you pay a bit more for the energy, but you save on maintenance as there's very little friction. You also get better acceleration and deceleration. The pods themselves are also much quieter and lighter as they don't have to carry a motor with moving parts around: the maglev track *is* the motor.

    (That said, there's much to be said for the "Monometro" concept currently being trialled in the Middle East. This would be much closer to a light rail system and might be a better fit for London's tourist areas.)

    Finally: artists impressions, incidentally, are just that: impressions created by *artists*, not engineers! That there are elements missing is hardly surprising.

    When the London Borough of Lewisham held an exhibition a few years ago for their redevelopment proposals, I noticed that the two rivers through the town centre were shown about six feet higher than their actual level, suggesting that these would have nice, shallow, photogenically gentle slopes forming grassy riverbanks. Their large model and glossy images showed people sunbathing, casually walking alongside the Ravensbourne and Quaggy rivers, etc. In reality, they'd be sliding down a very steep bank into a river at the bottom of a bloody great ditch.

  15. Monty Burns

    soooo last year....

    T5's business parkings about to go live with something very similar (it sits on the rails instead of riding them)

  16. Niall Mac Caughey

    Wht is,eels


    Tram wheels are expensive wear items. They have a specific composition (nope, I can't remember what it's called) and they have to be replaced very frequently, in some cases they last less than 12 months.

    When you take into consideration the energy required to cast a tram wheel, the maglev alternative makes sense.

  17. IR


    All the advantages of this system would be better done by computer controlled cars, using the existing roads and infrastructure. The cars can tailgate each other, increasing the road capacity by two, three, or more times. You'd need a system with GPS on each car connected to a central computer wirelessly, and some good error-handling, but it could be introduced more slowly, allowing people to upgrade from manual cars when they can, maybe leaving them extra space.

  18. Harvey Trowell

    @ Kevin6

    "If you look at the artist rendition where do the un-used pods get stored?

    if they are at the station till used how can other people get off or leave for that matter?"

    The drop-off point's right there at bottom left, Eric, but remember there are no stupid questions, just stupid people.

  19. James Hughes 1

    @all the FAILS

    Come on people, show a little imagination/intelligence. Most of the questions you ask are already answered by the article, or the image shown, or by other comments above.

    As for 'underground is better. Not quite. The costs of digging a new underground system would be massively more than a monorail such as this (Maglev or otherwise), and may not even be possible in some of the desert cities. The capacity of underground would be higher, but a completely computer controlled pod system could have them running very close together, so on average, not that much less than the underground which has long gaps between trains (and human drivers).

    As for comparison with cars - cars are great for point to point, until you get too many of them, like in, oh, I dunno, cities. Which is why you have underground/trams/buses. Trams and buses suffer from congestion and having to cope with all the other human controlled transport, so by definition are less than optimal. Monorail (or indeed any computer controlled above ground system like DLR) avoid all these problems.

  20. Matt D 3


    After twenty years of research, eight public inquiries, an intervention by the EU, seven health and safety lawsuits after workers drop things on their own feet, a protest campaign against its construction by environmentalists, another protest campaign IN FAVOUR of its construction by other environmentalists and a sex scandal involving two of the twelve transport ministers who served during the process, an out of work actress and a small horse, the British version would look like this:

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Its easy really to sort out congestion and transport problems in towns and cities, if you have the political will. The solution doesn't require expensive new systems or monorails etc. Quite simply just ban cars. But there's little political will to do this - so we are left phaffing about looking at more and more ridiculous "congestion charge" schemes (unpopular and never raise enough cash as people mysteriously stop using their cars), traffic "calming" (which adds to pollution and has increased the death rate) or expensive options such as this. Bring on the revolution, thats what I say....

  22. john 154

    Am I missing something.... store the pods a robot arm can 'lift' them onto the track, to the reverse...


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