Commissioned by BAA (Heathrow Airport's operator), the ULTra PRT transportation system, which utilizes autonomous electric podcars, has been launched at Heathrow Airport. The point-to-point vehicles connect Heathrow's Terminal 5 with two business parking lots, carrying approximately 800 passengers each weekday.
Replacing two diesel-powered buses in June, the personal shuttle system at Heathrow Airport is available 24/7. Designed by UK-based company ULTra PRT, the system consists of 22 podcars, operating on 2.4 miles (3.86 km) of track. This track "consists of two lanes running in opposite directions separated by a central kerb," ULTra's website explains. The silent, electric vehicles hold up to four passengers and luggage, running at top speed of about 25 mph (40.2 kph). Passengers are carried point-to-point, to a requested destination.
Since the launch, the podcars have not had any accidents and their technical reliability has reached 95 percent, The New York Times reports. As the vehicles are used on demand only, the system is reportedly more energy efficient than the previous one, which was based on buses running in endless loops.
Heathrow's Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system is in fact not a new idea, as it resembles a similar initiative that has been trialled at Masdar City, the world's first zero-carbon, zero-waste, car-free city being constructed near Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
PRT itself is an even older concept, aimed at increasing the efficiency of public transportation systems by phasing out traditional buses or streetcars and replacing them with driver-less, taxi-like point-to-point vehicles. This is certainly known to West Virginia University faculty and staff in Morgantown, where a similar system was built as a government-funded experiment and has been operational since 1975.
BAA and ULTra PRT inked a 20-year framework contract in 2009, which could lead to further PRT system deployments. According to ULTra PRT, additional system implementations are planned for Gurgaon City, India, or Tysons Corner, Virginia.