Someday in the not too distant future, passengers may be getting to and from the San Jose airport on a curious-looking, driverless shuttle the size of a Smart car.
San Jose, meet the pod car.
Rather than transporting large numbers of people on a train that stops frequently, the idea is to provide a nonstop ride on elevated rail lines for only one passenger, or up to six people, from the airport to nearby hotels, business centers and train stations.
"You say pod car and people say, 'Huh?' " said Laura Stuchinsky, the sustainability officer for the city's department of transportation. "Then you describe it to them and, depending on their age, they say, 'Oh, the Jetsons.' "
Transportation planners acknowledge there are big hurdles to overcome, but there's a lot of buzz behind this futuristic form of travel, in which passengers might pay $1.50 or less for transport at 40 mph.
Last month, the Valley Transportation Authority set aside $4 million to begin feasibility studies of such a system. Today, Mayor Chuck Reed will breakfast with dozens of transit planners from the Bay Area and across the globe hoping to guide San Jose into becoming just the fifth city worldwide to invest in a pod-car system, which can be built at a fraction of the cost of heavy rail or an automated people mover, the driverless shuttles common at many airports.
In October, San Jose will host an international pod car conference, a bid it won after acting Transportation Director Hans Larsen appeared as a guest speaker in Sweden as part of the international climate conference in Copenhagen last December.
Reasons behind the push toward a form of travel few have ever heard of revolve around money, flexibility and the environment.
A pod-car system running from long-term parking and the terminals to the Caltrain station west of the airport could be built for about $200 million. In comparison, an automated people mover would require tunneling under the runways and cost around $600 million.
That figure caught the disapproving eye of Reed.
"At $550 million to $600 million," the San Jose mayor said, "I concluded it would never be built at that price tag."
Many issues remain unresolved, especially over funding. The Measure A sales tax approved by Santa Clara County voters 10 years ago includes funding for mass transit to the airport — if there is money left over from building the BART extension from Fremont to the South Bay.
Federal grants and private investment are also potential sources of cash. But for now, there are more questions than answers.
"There is no current timetable or source of funding for any such system in San Jose, whether serving the airport or downtown, and the technology itself is still evolving," San Jose airport spokesman David Vossbrink said. "We are a very long way away from any specific ideas about actual routes, technology, ownership, operations, funding, costs, benefits, timetables, etc. These all still need to be hashed out."
The future of other forms of transit also may come into play. Caltrain threatens huge cuts in service unless new funding can be found, and light-rail ridership has been hammered by the down economy.
But the momentum behind pod cars is clear. A company called Unimodal Systems will begin testing a pod-car system it calls SkyTran at NASA in Mountain View in two to three years.
Pod cars, also known as Personal Rapid Transit, are computer-driven electric vehicles that run on a monorail-like loop, usually suspended above roads, with stops at major destinations. Riders would get in, punch in their destination and be taken there nonstop.
When the vehicle arrives, it swings off the main track and into a side loading and unloading area, allowing cars behind it to proceed without stopping. The system could be free to passengers, or fares could be as low as 50 cents to $1.50 per trip.
Robert Baertsch, a vice president of Unimodal, described how a passenger in long-term parking currently might wait 15 minutes for a shuttle that goes 5 mph and makes frequent stops on its way to the terminals. Here's how he described what the new system might be like:
"With SkyTran, you'd board a waiting vehicle in long-term parking. In front of you is a dashboard with a touch-screen menu of airline stops, where you tap on the button that says, for instance, Southwest Air.
"The magnetic levitation gives you the sensation of gliding as you zip to your destination. If the passenger in the vehicle in front of you wishes to stop well before Southwest Air, his/her vehicle switches onto an offline guideway, much like a car exiting a highway to get gas. Without slowing or stopping, your vehicle continues at 40 mph and takes you directly to your destination."
Pod cars began running last month at Heathrow Airport in London, the third busiest airport in the world. Projects are also under way in Abu Dhabi, South Korea and Sweden. The Heathrow system expects to carry up to 3,600 passengers per hour at peak travel times, or 60,000 a day.
The idea behind pod cars first arose four decades ago, and one line was built in Morgantown, W. Va. But the push quickly turned to light rail, a technology with which more engineers were familiar.
Yet light rail can cost $100 million a mile to build — and pod cars cost $10 million a mile. That lower cost could make it feasible to run pod cars to the Diridon Caltrain Station or the San Jose Convention Center.
"Pod cars to the San Jose airport," said Jörgen Gustafsson, managing director of Vectus, a car-pod developer in Sweden, "is definitely a viable and most likely very cost-effective solution."
Do you think pod cars can work? Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.