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Your On-Call, Electric Taxi: Personal Rapid Transit

While electric vehicles are the most environmentally friendly transportation solution of today, there is one start-up that thinks further ahead. What might sound like a futuristic idea borrowed from a sci-fi movie will soon become reality in some cities.

I’m talking about personal rapid transit, a system somewhere between mass transportation such as metros and buses, and more private transportation such as taxis. The Finnish start-up BM Design has the solution to our transportation needs of tomorrow.

Asko Kauppi, Founder of BM Design and among the several hundred people who invented personal rapid transit, describes it as “packaged routing of people.” The idea itself is nothing new and has its roots in the 1960s and 70s. However, a company still needs to present a viable commercial solution for PRT.

The advantages of personal rapid transit include this: Instead of you waiting for a bus or metro to arrive, the PRT vehicle — a lightweight, battery operated vehicle seating two to three — is waiting for you. Check in at the passenger-friendly ground level station, let the computer know your destination, and it takes you there without stops. Traveling times will always be the same, and with a vehicle waiting for you there’s no more running to catch the bus or metro.

A first attempt at personal rapid transit is being undertaken by ULTra PRT at Heathrow airport in London, where a line of “urban light transport” should go live this spring. The company describes its system as “sustainable,” consisting of “small, lightweight, computer-driven electric vehicles running on slender, special-purpose guideways.”

But the real competition for personal rapid transit? The means of mass transportation we use today, including bus, metro, tram and taxi.

Despite favorable research about personal rapid transit for mass transport, people remain timid to adopt it.

Their timidity comes from the associated risks of being the first mover, and costs.

BM Design plans to make it easy for communities to make a purchasing decision, as they will offer their patent pending personal rapid transit solution on leasing terms.

Also, instead of doing everything –- from building and maintaining the tracks, vehicles and planning the track network -– BM Design concentrates on what they do best and outsources the rest. It has its partners lined up, and the response to the company was “very positive,” as Kauppi described presenting it at the Transtec Conference in Delhi last week.

India and China are very interested in personal rapid transit because it is cheaper and faster to build than metros, and it can handle their growing urbanization and associated transportation needs. There’s no more digging immensely expensive metro tunnels or laying tracks for trams. The installation of the PRT rails is quick and they have a low-key visual impact on the cityscape.

Kauppi plans to have a test track installed by the end of 2012, which would go live to the public in 2013. It is not a laboratory track in a closed environment, but a real track with real commuters using it.

“This way we can collect data in an authentic environment and tweak the interface accordingly,” Kauppi said.

The plan is to be sales ready in 2014 after a year gathering feedback. To get the test track ready, Kauppi is looking for funding, seeking 2 million euros initially. And ideally, investors should share the vision and bring connections and knowledge into the company.

“I have a talented team of eight people ready to start working as soon as funding is secured,” Kauppi said. To contact him, check out BM Design on the ArcticIndex as their website will go online at the end of May.

I am very excited about BM Design and PRT. While public transportation in Finland is ranked the fifth best in the world, I personally think it still has a lot to improve. Bus operators drive like they’d be sitting in a rally car, trains are usually late, metros are packed. And while patience is a virtue, waiting for a bus to arrive is such a waste of time, that a waiting vehicle which brings me straight to my destination is a salvation.

I strongly believe that personal rapid transit will be the future of transportation, and BM Design will be one of the leaders in its proliferation.

The article was originally published on ArcticStartup.

photo: BM Design