A computer-controlled, driverless vehicle that blends science fiction and fact has begun a one-year demonstration project in Cardiff, the capital of Wales, where it’s hoped that it will form the centerpiece of a transportation system that will help to reduce traffic congestion by providing an environmentally friendly alternative to the car.
“This will have enormous benefits to the traveling public and give Cardiff something totally unique,” Cardiff Deputy Mayor Christine Priday announced during a public demonstration of the vehicle in January. “Successful cities innovate and position themselves at the forefront of developments in technology and knowledge.”
City officials believe the system could help to boost the profile of Cardiff, which has been undergoing significant redevelopment in recent years. Home to Britain’s largest sports stadium, the Welsh capital has engineered a turnaround in recent years after a decline in coal production, formerly its economic mainstay.
The battery-operated ULTra (Urban Light Transport) vehicle, which can carry up to four passengers, follows a series of magnets embedded in a dedicated guideway. At the January demonstration, the ULTra was shown to stop at precise locations and to ascend and descend a steep grade on a test track.
Under a long-term plan for commercial implementation, more than 90% of the guideway will be elevated. The track is approximately 60 inches wide with a metal grid down the center that gives passengers an emergency exit on foot if there is a malfunction of the vehicle on an elevated portion of the guideway. At-grade sections will not intersect with auto traffic.
The ULTra is being tested on a half-mile guideway, both on the ground and elevated. The trials will last about a year, with examination of passenger comfort, mobility access and reliability. Cost of the one-year project is nearly $4 million, which was provided by various governmental sources in the U.K.
Cardiff politicians are supporting the project in hopes that it can be developed into a three-mile loop supported by 30 vehicles and eight stations. The loop would connect the city’s central area, civic center and bay area. Target date for the commercial implementation of the ULTra is 2004. Two extensions to the loop are planned at a later date.
If successful, another phase of implementation would boost the fleet to 160 vehicles. Total cost of the proposed development is estimated at $60 million. Backers claim that developing a transportation system based on the ULTra can save taxpayers from 30% to 50% of the cost of building an equivalent light rail system.
The futuristic transportation system is the brainchild of Martin Lowson, an aeronautical engineer who worked on the U.S. moon landing program. Lowson developed the system with a team of researchers at Bristol University. Advanced Transport Systems Ltd., a company spawned from the Bristol collaboration, is the developer.
The vehicles, which will be monitored from a central control station, can travel at speeds up to 25 mph. Although the vehicles are not yet equipped with fare collection systems, it’s expected that passengers will use smart cards to pay their fare and instruct the ULTra to stop at any of the eight stations along the loop. Each station would be equipped with closed-circuit television cameras for passenger security and deterrence of vandalism.