Masdar City Abandons Transportation System of the Future

O, vehicle of the future, why have you eluded us? While other industries such as communication make enormous strides every year, it seems that transportation technology can only inch along, lumbering to barely get into the 21st century. Sure, modern cars have gone electric and contain a bunch of microprocessors sensing just about everything in and around the vehicle, but as many a comedian has quipped, where are all the flying cars we were promised? High-speed rail has been successful in many countries, while the US continues to drag its feet on the nearly 50-year old technology, something even Bill Nye ‘The Science Guy’ says Americans should be “embarrassed” about. While automakers, governors, and the US government push back and forth on progress, a transportation system of the future was slated to roll out in the United Arab Emirates. Masdar City, outside of Abu Dhabi, currently under construction as a net zero carbon footprint urban utopia, was hanging its transportation hopes on a multi-tiered, networked public system that would leave the six-square kilometer city a car-free pedestrian zone. But alas, in cost-cutting measures aimed at reducing the initial proposal of $24 billion dollars to develop the city, the Personal Rapid Transit system has been shelved, yet the prototype remains in place. Though the project is now filed as just another failed attempt at a personal transportation system, it had the potential to become the envy of oil-addicted countries around the world.

Sounding like something out of a Robert Heinlein novel, Masdar City’s integrated transportation plan involves four initiatives, but it was the podcar system, designed by the Italian company Zagato and developed by Dutch firm 2getthere, that held the most promise. The plan proposed a driverless fleet of 3,000 free-moving, electric vehicles that could transport 2 to 6 passengers between 85 to 100 stations, tallying up to 135,000 trips a day along preprogrammed routes. This system of podcars was basically a replacement for taxis, providing privacy to passengers without the congestion common in other urban centers. A wi-fi network would maneuver the podcars through obstacles in real time as magnets along the path continuously pull the vehicle into alignment with little variance: if one is missed, the podcar continues but if two are missed, it comes to a stop. Ultimately, the podcars were to be powered by solar panel arrays on top of buildings (which was also axed from the budget) and thermal energy-storing molten salt technology allowing the vehicles to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Today the 13 initial podcars in the prototype continue to shuttle students along an 800-meter stretch between a station and the post-graduate university, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, that is at the hub of the city plan. The air-conditioned vehicles have a maximum speed of 40 km/h and run on a lithium-phosphate battery, which can last up to 60 km on a 1.5-hour charge, or between 30 to 40 trips, before making quick stops at a terminal for recharge or parking overnight for a full recharge.

The initial goal of Masdar City was to have a “street” level that was a large vehicle-free pedestrian zone. Ultimately, the high cost of building the entire city on top of a platform to accommodate the podcar system was too costly. With the passing of Masdar City’s solution to personalized transport, another of the three initiatives dies as well. Masdar City’s plan involved using the same dedicated guideways to run two-pallet flatbed vehicles as part of a Freight Rapid Transit program. The entire system was designed to run up to 5,000 trips per day, with each of the 810 vehicles having a maximum payload of 1,600 kg, delivering all necessities to residents and businesses.

So what remains of the transportation system of the future that was aiming to ensure public transportation was always no more than 150 meters away? An underground metro line and a Light Rail Transit system running through the center of the city. Both of these lines are part of larger systems in and around Abu Dhabi that also links to the nearby airport. Unfortunately, that is hardly a look into the future and demonstrates that financial hemorrhaging of 2008-2009 was a global affair that is still having ramifications even for a nation with one of the highest per capita GDPs.

Masdar City, once planned to be fully operational in 2020 but pushed back to 2025, may be an urban planner’s dream come true as well as a playground for tech companies around the world, but the future of transportation? Unfortunately, no. The closest we are to seeing real personalized transport in operation is the underwhleming ULTra system at Heathrow airport now servicing a 1.9-km point-to-point guided track between Terminal 5 and the N3 Business Car Park.

Why doesn’t someone just modernize the 131-car Doom Buggy system that operates continuously in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion?

David J. Hill
David J. Hill
David started writing for Singularity Hub in 2011 and served as editor-in-chief of the site from 2014 to 2017 and SU vice president of faculty, content, and curriculum from 2017 to 2019. His interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but he'll always be a chemist at heart.
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