Autonomous vehicles and personal transportation pods featured quite heavily in our recent round-up of the Top Ten railways of the future, and the JPods concept from Bill James has both. At the center of the scheme is a driverless, on-demand electric four to six seat vehicle suspended beneath an overhead rail structure, which is topped with photovoltaic panels. A user would let the JPod know the desired location via a touchscreen interface and the vehicle's networked computer system would determine the best route and motor there without further input from the passenger.

They may well have become economic linchpins that heavily influence our cost of living but unfortunately, as much as many of us might like to believe otherwise, both coal and oil are finite resources. James is of the opinion that an oil famine is just around the corner and that the time is ripe for a radical shift to sustainable transport. His solution: the JPods system.

The JPod is described as "a 500 pound (226 kg) vehicle that can carry 1200 pounds (544 kg) of people and/or cargo at about 260 passenger-miles per gallon (0.90 l/100km)." Similar to subway trains, the computer-chauffeured pods pick up power from a third rail using brushes. Encoders in the wheels and sensors in the track allow for each vehicle to be programmed to avoid close proximity to one another.

The design has the potential to offer similar levels of mobility as cars without wasting all that valuable time sitting in congestion or trying to find a parking spot, and the computer system removes the need for users to work out exactly how to get to a destination by automatically handling any route planning.

Unlike the Pininfarina and Vectus PRT system and the ULTra PRT electric transport pods we covered recently, JPods will be suspended underneath the rail track structure. The main advantage with this idea is that the 4-m (13-ft) wide upper surface of the structure is available for the installation of PV panels, predicted to provide between 5,000 and 30,000 vehicle-miles of power per mile of rail per day. At JPod stations, the width of the PV panels would be increased to between six and 10 meters wide (19 - 32 feet).

A short rail working demo unit has been built to demonstrate various operational aspects of the JPods concept and, while it may not be the most attractive prototype in the world, it is functional. James admits that "aesthetics really matter, but function and getting started is critical. Things made in a garage look like they were made in a garage. They work." It features two 1-watt motors fitted to a bogie that sits inside the overhead rail. He told us that production JPods are likely to have motors of 700 watts to 6.5 kilowatts, depending on need, and will run at speeds of up to 30 mph (48 km/h) in both directions, using about 200 watt-hours of energy per mile.

"The ET3 provides personal on-demand mobility between cities in a high speed network that uses one fiftieth the energy of cars, passenger trains, buses or airplanes," he said. "JPods provides personal on-demand mobility in commuter-range transport of people and cargo using one tenth the energy of car, passenger trains and buses. JPods cut the cost from about 56 (US) cents a mile for cars to about 4 cents a mile."

For JPod users that need to get to a location that's not covered by the rail infrastructure, James proposes developing vehicles that can operate off-rail, perhaps by clamping the chassis onto a drivetrain "similar to how containers attach to railcars and trucks."

The JPods concept is, for the moment, just that: a concept. James is looking to start with small construction rollouts at shopping malls, universities, theme parks, airports and the like, and once the technology is seen to have proven itself (although the various technologies necessary for solar-powered rail networks have already been in use for some time), it's hoped that larger installations will follow. He believes that the "barrier to implementation is central planning, not technology."

"JPods are simple, unbelievably simple," said James. "But we can scale simplicity. We are pretty well set to build. There are always things we can learn, but the drawings we have are good to 110 mph (177 km/h) winds, earthquakes and the normal stuff you have to do for best practice behavior. I have a database of 35,000 service academy graduates I can call. Many will rally to build in their communities. We have a very scaleable approach that will support a pretty significant rollout."

James told us that a JPods system would operate round-the-clock and initially be powered from the grid and natural gas generators but the long term plan is to convert and store the solar energy as synthetic gas, as part of a move away from centralized supply to distributed power networks.

In the meantime have a look at the following video, in which James suggests using something like ET3 for extended travel and JPods for local transport needs.

Source: Bill James