LONDON — Travelers passing through Heathrow Airport have an opportunity to experience the not-so-distant future of airport transportation systems in Terminal 5, where a curious row of pod cars connects the terminal’s two business parking lots.
Since Wheels featured this personal rapid transit system in September, BAA, the company that operates Heathrow, and ULTra PRT, the manufacturer of the pod cars, have completed operational testing. Passenger service began in April.
Starting from the second level in Terminal 5, I recently took the pods for a chaperoned test drive — or more accurately, they took me. The electric cars have no visible accelerator or steering wheel; rather, they are completely automated and travel along a dedicated guideway. My only input consisted of a button push, which indicated my destination.
Quiet and comfortable were my first impressions of the five-minute ride between the terminal and parking lot. Onboard, the only sound over the familiar whirr of the electric motor was the recorded voice announcement from the iPad-like control panel inside the car, assuring me that I was “almost there.”
Several pod cars making the trip in the opposite direction whizzed past. Top speed is about 25 miles per hour. Alicia Griffiths, the BAA spokeswoman who rode along with me, assured me that the system had not experienced any accidents.
From an operational perspective, BAA is declaring the system a success, according to Ms. Griffiths. Two diesel-powered buses that used to make 216 trips daily along this route were removed from service in June, and now 22 pod cars shuttle nearly 800 passengers every weekday over 2.4 miles of track. Each car can carry four passengers and luggage. The cars have had very little down time for maintenance or repair; reliability has been above 95 percent, Ms. Griffiths said.
Energy efficiency is improved not only by replacing diesel vehicles with electric ones, but also because the pods move only on demand. Rather than making constant, endless loops between the terminal and parking lots, irrespective of passenger load, the pods operate only when travelers request them.
Sharing one’s pod is optional, but I managed to climb aboard with one nattily dressed business traveler who, while acknowledging the technology’s gee-whiz factor, expressed his reservations.
“It seems to operate fine, but I wonder if this is just for PR value,” he said. “Would it work at the other, busier parking lots carrying many more passengers?”
BAA is betting it would. It has taken a financial stake in ULTra, convinced that these systems would have applications outside the airport in places like office campuses and dense residential and commercial developments. Both companies plan to continue promoting the technology to customers in Europe, North America and India, according to Ms. Griffiths.
By JIM WITKIN