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There’s a Secret Way to Try Out Driverless Cars at Heathrow Airport

By Matthew Phenix


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The future of urban mobility is playing out in a corner of London’s biggest airport.

Courtesy of Ultra Global PRT

The future of urban mobility is playing out in a corner of London’s biggest airport.

Not far from Terminal 5, there’s a free carnival ride masquerading as a humble parking lot shuttle.

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It seems that autonomous vehicles are all over the news these days: driverless bubbles and self-driving concept cars and robotic race cars—and driverless-car crashes, too. But unlike renting a Segway or a personal submarine, getting up close with our driverless future is a bigger challenge. For travelers with a little layover time on their hands in London, however, there’s an easy—and free—way to go for a robotic ride. 

Tucked away in Terminal 5 (home of British Airways), there’s a quiet little transit station with a row of sci-fi glass doors, through which await jellybean-shaped vehicles with facing bench seats and no steering wheels. These are the Heathrow pod cars, which the airport installed to take the place of diesel-powered shuttle buses. The pods have quietly and autonomously followed their 2.4-mile closed course since 2011, but unless you use the Business Car Park, they’re easy to miss.

And make no mistake: These are bona fide driverless cars that self-navigate a narrow, two-lane roadway, not a track. Built by U.K.-based Ultra Global PRT (for Personal Rapid Transit), Heathrow’s battery-powered pods have rubber tires and space for six people and their bags. Each one is 12 feet long, five feet wide, and six feet tall, and T5’s fleet of 21 pods carries upwards of 1,000 travelers per day. 

Heathrow’s pods can accommodate six people and their luggage.
The pod track was imagined as a modest experiment in futuristic mobility, but its success has been a good deal greater than the airport expected. The pod network has reduced per-passenger carbon emissions by 50 percent compared with diesel-powered buses and by 70 percent compared with cars. And unlike a shuttle bus, the average wait time for a pod ride is less than eight seconds.

The experience itself is suitably Jetsons-like: Quieter than a refrigerator, the pod hums along at 25 mph, and the trip from terminal to car park, crossing seven roads and two rivers, takes just five minutes. Operation is as simple as getting in, picking your destination (there are only two, one at each end of the parking lot), and hitting the “close doors” button followed by the “start” button, whereupon your pod backs out of its little parking space and whizzes away. When you reach the other end, hop out and grab another pod back to the terminal.

Five minutes later, you’re back from the future, with time left over to browse duty free. 

Heathrow's battery-powered pod cars charge up in the station between rides.
>>Next: How E-Bikes Are Changing the Way We Travel

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