JPods PRT vehicles to run on track under solar panel canopy


June 27, 2012

The JPods concept centers around a four to six seat electric vehicle suspended beneath an overhead rail structure, which is topped with photovoltaic panels

The JPods concept centers around a four to six seat electric vehicle suspended beneath an overhead rail structure, which is topped with photovoltaic panels

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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

About the Author
Paul Ridden While Paul is loath to reveal his age, he will admit to cutting his IT teeth on a TRS-80 (although he won't say which version). An obsessive fascination with computer technology blossomed from hobby into career before the desire for sunnier climes saw him wave a fond farewell to his native Blighty in favor of Bordeaux, France. He's now a dedicated newshound pursuing the latest bleeding edge tech for Gizmag. All articles by Paul Ridden

No matter how convenient, the carriage is not your space, nor can you leave emergency supplies or a gym bag in it to use on your way home. And God help the poor person that develops an emergency need for a toilet en route. At least on the bus you can ring for a stop at the a gas station.


PRT=Great Hanging=Stupid (expensive, complex and dangerous) Solar=Super Stupid (super expensive, Complex and Dangerous.

Must of been designed by a PRT hater

Michael Mantion

I really like the base concept, very close to what I had dreamed up.

1) 30mph is waaay too slow! Find a way to safely go 200mph for real cross country travel. Will need modern cars for this, not ones that look like they belong on a Disney Land ride.

2) No reason you could not talk to or touch the panel en route and ask for a bathroom break, and just have the pod stop at the next one. With high speed and enough stopping points, the bathroom break is really not a problem.

3) Since they are elevated, can share space with roads, railways, rail trails (leaving rail bed empty the possibility of heavy freight).


Wow, can't believe my strong reaction to this article. I know this is just a concept. But NOOOOO!!! My reaction is based on living in Southern California.

A oil shortage will come ($4/gal already), but nothing will be done until too late. Human nature. (over population another great example, we build malls on our best farm land, gonna bite us in end, but hey money now!) We love, in California, to invest in new transport systems that never get completed or work properly. Super speed train for example or mag-lev. There are proven systems in place around the world, why not use them. Like efficient light rail. In Southern Cal. we are spread wide not high or dense, which means you'd need rail everywhere or other connections like bus, or people won't use it.

Why not a electrical assisted velomobile? Its pedal powdered and it can be designed to run on rails using the third rail to power it. So at beginning and end of destination you pedal (with power assist from battery) allowing flexibility, and while on rails you use third rail power. (use some kinda of power counter for fee) They could easily go 40mph are enclosed, so all weather, can use solid tires because of low speed, so no punctures. Plus bike paths are a lot cheaper to build for outlying areas.

Right now a 2012 suzuki DR200e motorbike does over 100mpg, one guy says at lower speeds he gets 170 mpg. That's a bike with aerodynamics of a brick and isn't even fuel injected. Direct injection 2-strokes are even more efficient and have low emissions, but they only make a few because motor companies don't make as much money on them and people still think 2 strokes are "bad". 200 mpg can right now be done, but we don't. about 1/10th fuel usage that most people use right now. (Of course that would cause gas price to fall, which means everyone jumps back into a SUV, cause its cheap again!)

There is a ENORMOUS amount of things that could be implemented/done right now to save ridiculous amounts of fuel/energy. But we don't do them because we don't like change (especially in our lifestyles), feel we can't afford it, may affect our quality of living, it's inconvenient, there are laws in the way, there are potential law suits, or a whole host of other stupid reasons. Adding another idea like this article just muddies the water instead of making our choices clearer.

Sorry just my 2 cents, I'm probably wrong. And apologies for cynical take on human nature, even if I feel its true.

(dumb question, who's the guy who gets to fix the solar panels on the freeway, that would be a hairy job!)


I love the Overhead solar panels! Overhead Rail requires some extra costs but can also overcome space issues. The overheads can also have wind generators, or thermal generators.

It could be a good solution for specific locations. Eg. where roads & trains already criss cross the ways underneath.

There is a need to shape pods for maximum efficiency, instead of this love for rounded cubicles. The shape needs to be aerofoil like so that lift is generated, minimising load on bearings, etc.

Nantha Nithiahnanthan

Why don't they pay engineers instead of Starbucks hippies to design stuff like this? PRT (personal rapid transit) is the right answer but @Michael Mantion was right in that being upside down outweighs the benefit of being able to staple solar panels to the bottom of it.

We need to instead look to something more like bumper cars and highway lanes for the design. Pods can travel a decent pace when on the main line. When they get to a entry/exit station they simply proceed slower in case of accident while some of the pods exit and enter on a sort of switch track.

Pods on the on ramp can speed up to the correct speed before entering traffic the same as with cars. The pods can be equipped with a mostly simple location aware technology to prevent them merging into each other but there are multiple simple safety mechanisms that are possible like having transit pods occupy the left lane when pods are merging like with highways today, giving onboard humans access to an emergency "oh crap" button etc.

As long as you model the flow like a highway with on and off ramps even if cars bump/rub into each other they should traveling to closely the same direction and speed so impact should be pretty minimal like a bumper car.

Because the cars are independently location aware (using less technology than a cell phone), and the track is aware of the cars as they pass by sensors, there are 2 completely redundant systems so if the technology completely fails inside a pod the other pods and the track based system will detect that failure.

Both systems can be monitored by a central control center for things like congestion and track obstruction. If there is a traffic jam ahead it is trivial for the system to reroute the pods destined to travel through that location.

This is where it gets interesting. Because the system treats cars the way packets are treated on the Internet, the system can monitor total travel times (latency) of all the paths based on congestion and "load balance" traffic to longer but potentially less congested routes automatically or through some manual traffic engineering of a technician at the control center.

Another concept that can be used is if there are 10 lanes (5 in each direction) depending on commute traffic (early or late) they can be shifted around so morning could be 3 going out of the city and 7 going in and evening commute could be 7/3. This is used in some places (like bridges) now but it would be easier to do with the pod system. The main problem would be the need to pass closely with other vehicles in the opposite direction at speed would scare people but subways do this now and you can always move a divider wall back and fourth.

All in all the system allows much higher density, greater safety, and more situation awareness than normal road systems and better commute times and flexibility over large stop and go vessels like subways and buses. I would even add that you could easily bring a bicycle or segway in the capsule for the last couple blocks of your commute but people would get mad about it on a crowded bus or subway.

Since there isn't a set size, route, and/or amenities of the capsules you can cater to different user preferences. Things like toll roads, different numbers of seats, on board TV screens etc. are all possible.


How is this system any different than the Skytran system that I've been reading about for the last 10 or 15 years?


I don't get how this would work in any practical fashion. - The pod station would be a huge queue of people waiting for their pod. - The chance of more than one person to a pod seems remote, much like cars. I mean I wouldn't want to get into a confined space with some stranger who is as likely to smell bad as be drunk / high / looking to mug someone or listen to loud music. - A touch screen to pick your destination? Do you know how many kids would hit every destination and then jump out? Or pick the wrong destination? How does the pod swap tracks without everything turning into a traffic jam? Trains work so well because they go along a predetermined route at a regular time. - Speed. 48km/hr? Might be useful to cover a couple of blocks but I'd hate to try my commute to work (80km). The train I currently get takes 45 mins for a total door to door travel time of 1-1.5hr. This thing would take closer to 2-3hr. - A little pod for just a couple of people seems wasteful (even if filled to capacity) when you could just have a train that carries hundreds of people at once since most people want to go to and from the city.


While I am not a fan of mass-transit systems that have to be subsidized by the people who don't use it. Once you are using a subway or elevated track system I fail to see the problem with hanging the cars under the tracks. The only real difference operationally is the shape of the rails. Plus with a dampened hinges the cars will passively lean for the curves and if you end up stopped on a curve the car will hang level and there is a lower likelihood of there being debris on the track.

Keeping the cars reasonable full is simply a matter of charging the same rate for one passenger or a full load.

If the door closes or the fare is payed before the destination is accepted you won't have a problem with a-holes sending the cars on their way empty.

Of course if you have cars capable of limited autonomous operation (road trains and self navigating a parking lot), and building codes that require adequate parking in the building for the building most of the problems of private cars goes away.

I also doubt that the pods will run through the drive-through at the Burger Barn.


Thanks for the article and comments. In answer to some of the concerns.

Speed in cities: Buses average 8-12 mph, trains about 18 mph, cars (counting free ways, track with your GPS) about 24 mph. Being able to get within an urban network at a reliable 30 mph is a pretty dramatic improvement over current modes of urban transportation. I am always amazed when people who waste 40 to 75 hours a year stuck in traffic jams find 30 mph without any congestion a bad idea. Speed increases are possible, but at least on initial systems such as between a hotel, airport terminal and car rental, 30 mph is adaquate.

At 30 mph the big causes of inefficiency are vehicle parasitic mass and repeated applications of power (start-stops). Similar to ski lifts and cargo nets below helicopters, suspending the vehicle below the rail supports radical reduction in parasitic mass. The computer network removes the repetitive start-stops.

Start small, the Internet started at 300 baud. If your community would like to have a small system contact me. We will see where one can be privately financed.

Bill James

This concept is a lot like the MetroRail concept I entered into last years Design The Future Contest, only not as viable or taylored to the masses. No one will ride on public transport that only goes 30mph unless they're in Disneyland or deep inner-city. For it to be better, it has to improve transportation, not stifle it. My concept is designed for urban commute transport into cities and beyond, and could easily travel in the 100mph range and possibly faster. It can be seen at: The brief is lousy since I did the whole thing in a few hours.


There are six larger systems in the world today. Three are automated. The oldest one was built in 1901 in Germany and carries about 75,000 riders per day. Suspended monorails have been shown to be cheaper to install than light rail, and are far safer. In the 111 years of service the Schwebebahn in Germany has had only four fatalities. I don't believe light rail, buses or personal transportation can come close to that. The other five systems, although younger, have had no serious injuries or fatalities. The JPods are simply smaller, automated versions of earlier technologies built by Siemens and Mitsubishi. Grade separation allows for automation and hanging allows for smoother, more energy-efficient rides.


So many misconceptions, so little time to respond.

Restroom stops: This would be no different from what happens on any given subway or bus. Most NYC subway stations don't have restrooms and good luck knowing where one is near any given stop, leaving the subway, then paying your fare again after you've relieved yourself. Yet somehow millions of New Yorkers survive on the subway every day despite the lack of restrooms.

No personal storage: Just like subways and buses. So what's the problem there?

100-200mph for cross country travel: This is supposed to save energy, not waste it with ridiculous speeds that create tremendous aerodynamic drag.

Pranksters hitting all the buttons: These are computerized. Like modern computerized elevators, they would ignore spurious commands when more than a preprogrammed limit of destinations is selected. A computer knows that a four-person cab won't be going to 40 destinations in one run. Also, it would be a very simple matter to force passengers to pay the fare inside the cab using some kind of NFC or smart cards. You'd need to pay to specify a destination, which means only one destination per passenger. Better still, your payment card or device would have identifying information, so any misbehavior would be traceable.

However, one major flaw in the design is that "Encoders in the wheels and sensors in the track allow for each vehicle to be programmed to avoid close proximity to one another." That runs counter to the goal of efficiency. Designs like the Shweeb allow multiple small capsules to join into caravans for higher aerodynamic efficiency, essentially allowing multiple cabs to draft in the slipstream of the leading cab.


re; Gadgeteer

The pods need to stay far enough apart that the switches have time to operate between them, but with a centralized control system this can be taken care of only when needed.


I like the idea of an autonomous transportation system that will take me where I want to go. It seems like a great replacement for buses in many private or limited applications. For example, Disney has buses that travel around their resort areas. They follow fixed routes, typically picking up people from multiple boarding locations to bring them to, for example, the Magic Kingdom. This approach could reduce waiting for individuals while increasing systemwide efficiency, and ultimately reducing operator and fuel costs.

A train to/from the airport would be faster for the longer distance involved, but then people could transfer from the train to a system like this to get to their specific destinations. They could also check into their rooms when they get off the train and ride straight to their rooms, keys in hand--super-efficient, no bellman, etc.

In general, this sort of system could be tied into a high-speed rail system to cover the final shorter distance between the rail station and someone's intended destination, reducing the need for buses, taxis, personal vehicles, rental cars, courtesy shuttles, paid vans, etc.

This could also work well for large universities with big campuses that operate bus systems. The hanging down design would also be good for zoos and other places where having an obstructed view would be an advantage.

Lots of exciting possibilities!

Steven Cohen

Thanks for the comments Gadgeteer, Slowburn and Steven Clifford Cohen

Gadgeteer -- You are correct, there are many misconceptions. JPods objective is to be the best in the world at commuter range transport of people and cargo of less than 1200 pounds. To be the best in the world and drive a paradigm shift in our niche requires we create a 10x benefit over current modes. Cutting energy required by 90%, eliminating congestion, 24 x 7 on-demand personal service, eliminating parking, eliminating safety problems, etc... provides a 10x benefit. Focusing in our niche, we can achieve paybacks of 1 to 3 years in some early networks. Between the benefits to customers and profits to investors, the markets and capital to build in those markets will expand.

Slowburn -- JPods networks have no "god computer," no central controller. These are programmed like bees in a hive, they operate with distributed collaborative behaviors. The distance between vehicles entering switches depends on the correlation in measurements between devices. Most "switches" are mechanically fixed with the vehicles doing the switching.

Steven Clifford Cohen and everyone -- There are many niches where it is inconvenient to have a car. We think of JPods as locally networking an economic community. Networking airport communities (hotels, car rental, trains, terminal, freight forwarders, etc....), campuses, downtown economic communities, each have 10x value. As these networks touch each other or are cross connected the value jumps. A typical American family spends $10,300 a year on transportation. When networks have a density of 31% (NYC subways), families should save about $2,500 a year. When networks have a density of 70%, families should save about $5,000 per year. The ability match speed of travel of cars in cities and solve congestion, safety, age barriers, oil dependency, pollution, while increasing family disposable income by more than a car payment per month will support expanding JPods beyond the initial niches with a 1 to 3 year payback.

Bill James

Perfect for the Las Vegas airport. Would replace 10s of millions of cab and shuttle rides to rental car terminal or hotels. With sufficient pods and rails should be able to substantially reduce the time waiting. Have to beat the cab politics but the volume is there to make it practical.

Nate Ogden

nothing is ever good enough for some,but at some point we need to make changes.

Thomas Lewis
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