RIL — Pod Taxis

RIL — Pod Taxis

  • In recent times, Reliance Industries (RIL) has shifted its focus from traditional to futuristic businesses driven by advanced technology that could improve quality of life and make the business relevant for the future.
  • In 2018, Reliance Industrial Investments & Holdings (RIIHL), a wholly-owned subsidiary of RIL, had acquired a 12.7 percent shareholding (on fully diluted basis) in SkyTran, a technology-driven company focusing on public transportation, with an option to further invest up to $25 million in convertible notes, subject to approval from SkyTran’s board.
  • Recently RIL hiked its stake in the US-based technology company SkyTran Inc taking its total shareholding in the company to 26.3 per cent.
  • In November 2019 the company had hiked its stake in SkyTran to 17.37 per cent through a subsidiary, Reliance Strategic Business Ventures Ltd. on a fully diluted basis. RSBVL acquired convertible notes in two tranches, the first one on November 29, 2019, and the second one on March 23, 2020, which got converted into shares of SkyTran Inc. on April 27, 2020, upon certain conditions being satisfied. Consequent upon this, the shareholding of RSBVL in SkyTran Inc. stood increased to 26.31% on a fully diluted basis.

About Skytran

  • SkyTran, founded in 2011, has been working on creating a high-speed, scalable transport system that is low-cost. The company has also partnered up with US’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to develop the required technology. SkyTran is a venture capital and private office company which aims to provide personal transportation systems through the use of magnetic levitation technology, aimed at solving the problem of traffic congestion globally. Road traffic has become one of the biggest menace impacting quality of life and economic development across the globe. SkyTran aims to solve the problem by developing a transport option that is high-speed scalable and available at a low cost. The proposed SkyTran network would consist of computer-controlled passenger pods running on its patented Passive Magnetic Levitation technology and would use advanced technology in information technology, telecom, Internet of Things (IoT) and advanced materials technologies to transport passengers in a fast, safe, green and economical manner. The company’s efforts are visible as it currently has eight approved patents and over 40 patents pending approvals globally, including India.
  • In fact, SkyTran has received funding from well-known names like Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, who are reputed figures in the technology space. It had received funding from the US Department of Transportation as well.
  • Then again, the SkyTran’s Pod taxi service concept is not really anything like the existing railway system. It is more like a personal cab, without a driver, zooming through the air at speeds of up to 80 km/h within the city. It also means that once the passenger is aboard, the Pod would have no stops until the destination.
  • SkyTran’s market valuation is in “single-digit billion dollars”.

Partnership with RIL

  • With the focus on futuristic technologies, RIL aims to have an exclusive partnership with SkyTran in India to develop a rapid transport system to avoid traffic congestion and change the face of transportation in the country. It will also help alleviate the problem of pollution in India.
  • RIL’s is well-poised to capitalise on its existing business portfolio and capabilities to accelerate development of SkyTran across the world and especially in India with an aim to improve quality of life.
  • Partnership with SkyTran would help RIL continue to achieve its aim of investing in future technology and making its business future relevant in a fast changing world by delving into developing India’s first pod taxi prototype, a next-generation transportation system.
  • Pod taxis are automated, a driverless personal rapid transit system that functions on overhead suspension or magnetic levitation.
  • As per the deal, the prototype will be built at the place decided by Reliance.
  • Once the pilot and subsequent trial runs are successful, the company will have to get into separate agreements with central and state governments to set up the infrastructure.
  • For the prototype, some bits will be imported from the US, while most of it will be made in India. In return, Reliance will help SkyTran with multiple technologies to run the pod taxi, including communication technology, which is an important part of the deal.
  • SkyTran would bring in its expertise in the form of passive magnetic levitation technology for the Pod taxi service.

Back Ground

  • The idea of pod taxis in India was first undertaken by Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari back in 2016.
  • In the EOI called in 2016, the government had received responses from four companies out of which three won the approval. These were Ultra Global PRT, SkyTran and Metrino PRT, all forming joint-venture with the Indian companies. However, New Zealand’s Metrino Personal Rapid Transit, one of the three international front runners chosen for India’s first pod taxi project has decided to withdraw and called off its joint venture with an Indian partner.
  • Ultra is the only company whose technology has been tested and is in commercial use at Heathrow Airport in London, and runs at 45km/h. The skyTran technology is at the testing stage while Metrino has developed a prototype that was tested in 2007 in Poland but which is yet to be commercially operated or tested. The pod vehicles of Ultra are made of steel with rubber tyres that run on specially made tracks, while those of skyTran are magnetically levitated and Metrino pods are suspended from overhead rails.
  • Subsequently, in January 2017, a NITI Aayog panel had cleared the ministry’s proposal to test three rapid transport systems using pod taxis.
  • There were, however, some prerequisites set along with the approval. The conditions mentioned that the transit system should be piloted on a 1 km stretch first, the cost of which will be borne by the bidder itself.
  • The testing site should also be expandable to a 15–20 kms stretch post a successful run. The success would also account the comparison of the energy consumed per km with the existing modes of transports.
  • The ballpark figure for the prototype was decided as Rs 100 crore per km for tracks running in both the directions. Comparing this cost with other modes of transport, a report by former Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu dated back to 2015 had mentioned a cost of Rs 100–140 crore for the construction of 1 km of high-speed railway tracks, back in 2015. As per the report, this was around ten times the cost of a normal railway line.
  • Furthermore, the government said that the pilot project should be executed in such a way that if it is successful then it can be further extended to 15–20km, and also ensure safety during trial runs.
  • The Niti Aayog expert committee had observed that the energy consumed per passenger km by such rapid transit systems is much lower than other modes of transport.

Gurgaon As Test Location

  • India’s first driverless “taxi pods” are set debut in Gurgaon, a booming city that boasts gleaming skyscrapers but lacks urban infrastructure.
  • India is known for its hellish commutes, with traffic jams regularly reaching miles and lasting hours.
  • And despite technological promises to make riding the railways and subways more convenient, the country’s mass transit system still needs work.
  • India is finally ready to debut its first “taxi pods,” or personal rapid transit (PRT), in the industrial city of Gurgaon.
  • The National Highways Authority has already laid the groundwork for an eight-mile network of driverless taxi pods, and is seeking global bids from private companies to finance and complete the project.
  • It’s expected to be completed within a year at a cost of $128 million*, with 1,100 pod cars ferrying passengers at a speed of nearly 40 miles per hour.
  • Each will be suspended 33 feet above the ground from an overhead network of supports, and will carry roughly five passengers directly to their destinations.
  • PRT, which combines the on-demand convenience of taxis with the luxury of personal cars, often gets touted as the future of mass transit.
  • It hasn’t quite caught on globally — only a few places, including West Virginia University and Heathrow Airport in London have such systems.
  • But Gurgaon hopes the futuristic mode of transit, if it comes to fruition, will be the answer to its notorious traffic — a major problem that stems in large part from the fact that the city is run almost entirely by private companies.
  • For the pilot project route, 16 stations have been planned, starting near Ambience Mall.
  • A personal rapid transit (PRT) network is made up of small automated vehicles running at close intervals on a guideway with docking stations for passengers to get on and get off.
  • While a pod can accommodate up to five people, there is also an option to hire an entire pod that will take a passenger straight to the destination, skipping the scheduled stops. The average speed of the pods is 60kmph.
  • The network would be built within a year of the contract being awarded. Pod taxi systems are best suited for this though the options are kept open, though, so that private players can come up with best system, including skyrail.
  • A skyrail is also a PRT system, but is more similar to a ropeway .
  • Land required for the project is already available with NHAI and Haryana government agencies.
  • The project does not need forest and environmental clearance.
  • As for financing, the entire investment will be made by the private company that sets up the PRT.
  • Under the terms of the agreement, the company will recover its investment in 25 years through tickets.
  • Union road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari had announced last year that Metrinos will run between Dhaula Kuan in Delhi and Manesar.
  • The overhead network for Metrinos has been planned along the expressway .
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi had travelled in a pod in Masdar City during his last visit to the United Arab Emirates.
  • The Punjab and Haryana governments had, in the past, announced a rollout of pod taxis in Amritsar and Gurgaon, but these never came to fruition.
  • According to estimates prepared by the NHAI, while building a kilometre of Metro costs at least Rs 250 crore and of monorail Rs 200 crore, the Metrino system can be built with just Rs 70 crore. It’s lighter as well.
  • It is going to be a 25 years Build Operate Transfer (BOT) project.
  • There are a number of things that needs to be thought about .One is how much is the project feasible in a city like Gurgaon where everything has come up recently and privately provided.
  • The city has seen a sudden influx of high-end malls, skyscrapers and hotels attracting a lot of investment without a simultaneous equivalent development of Infrastructure and lack of public funding .
  • Second what is the possibility of succeeding in the implementation of this type of system when it has not worked out on a large scale anywhere else in the world?
  • It is currently only active in four places in the world which are Morgantown, West Virginia, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi where the current Prime Minister sat in, Heathrow Airport in London, Rotterdam in Netherlands and recently Suncheon in North Korea.
  • Even New Jersey last year was trying to build a system of jpods powered through solar energy but got caught up in some hurdles.
  • But in all these places also, this system is like a feeder system rather an actual transit system.
  • Thirdly, is it really the most efficient solution to Gurgaon’s traffic or the answer is as simple as more effective Bus Transport System.
  • There are definitely also benefits to such kind of a system.
  • Suspended pods means no traffic on ground, electric cars means less pollution, convenience to passengers of directly reaching your destination.
  • It can definitely solve the “last mile” connectivity problem in India.
  • Being next to New Delhi, one of the most polluted cities of the world where tactics such as the even –odd system is being implemented to reduce its pollution, new solutions are definitely needed.
  • Whether this will even see completion will depend on the interest and investment of the private sector. Will it be successful? Only time will tell.
  • The projected Rs 4,000-crore pod taxi scheme — also known as Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) — is a dream project of Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari, and the NHAI has been mandated to execute it on Delhi-Gurgaon pilot corridor (12.30 km) from Delhi-Haryana border to Rajiv Chowk in Gurgaon on a PPP (public-private partnership) basis.

Extending Pod taxis to its public transport system in six states

  • Six states including Maharashtra is looking to add pod taxis to its public transportation system.
  • The states are in talks with companies that build personal rapid transport systems (PRTs), needed for pod taxis.
  • Maharashtra plans to build the route for Bandra and Bandra-Kurla Complex in Mumbai, while in Rajasthan it will be between Ajmer railway station and Ajmer Dargah, which is a 4.7-km stretch.
  • Other interested states include Jaipur, Gurugram, Dehradun and Thiruvananthapuram.
  • Pod taxis are futuristic driver-less vehicle that ply on specific, pre-decided routes. In pod taxis, the pods that can carry 4–5 persons are suspended from an overhead rail.
  • The pods can zip along five to ten meters above the group and will ascend and descend at designated stations to pick and drop passengers. The average speed of pods is 60 km per hour.
  • The Union road and highway ministry is soon expected to form a panel to pen down standards and guidelines for the PRT system. The union transport minister Nitin Gadkari met with Niti Aayog and National Authority of India for same.
  • With this, India will become the first country to lay down standards for PRT operations. Currently, only Heathrow airport has a PRT project.
  • Last year, the Union government had approved pod taxi project for Gurugram.
  • A pod taxi project will cost somewhere about Rs 50 crore per km whereas for metros the cost is Rs 250 crore per km.
  • According to government officials, proposals are been sieved through Urban development ministry to get approvals and financial assistance in place.
  • The task committee recommends issuance of a fresh EOI (expression of interest) incorporating (automated people movers) APM standards and specifications, along with other general safety parameters with Niti Aayog recommendations.
  • The ambitious project has been plagued by delays as government think-tank Niti Aayog raised some red flags, asking the highways ministry to direct initial bidders to prepare a 1-km pilot stretch as all the technologies were unproven. Subsequent delays were caused due to the formation of the high- powered committee to lay down safety and other specifications.

Automated People Mover APM Standards for PRT

Automated People Mover Standards, Part 1

  • The automated people mover (APM) standards in the US as recommended by the committee for the maiden PRT in India have been prepared by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and these constitute the minimum requirements for an acceptable level of safety and performance for the PRT.
  • The APM standards include minimum requirements for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of the various sub-systems of an APM system and are in general relevant for a PRT.
  • These include vehicle arrival audio and video visual warning system, platform sloping, evacuation of misalighted vehicles, surveillance/CCTV, audio communication, emergency call points and fire protection, among other advanced systems, it added.
  • The pilot project, to be taken up on design, build, finance, operate and transfer (DBFOT) basis, is meant for a 12.3-km stretch from Delhi-Haryana border on NH 8 (near Ambience Mall) to Badshahpur via Rajiv Chowk, IFFCO and Sohna Road.
  • The model is in place in London’s Heathrow airport, Morgantown and Masdar city.
  • The standards approved will also play a role in guiding safety and other specifications for states interested in such projects, including Punjab.
  • Three bidders had made technical presentation to the government last year — Neel Metals Product Ltd-Ultra Personal Rapid Transport (technology partner), Gawar Construction-MIPL, which later said that instead of Metrino, they are roping in LSD by MND Group, and PNC-SkyTran that provided details of specifications in the prototype being developed for commercial operation in Israel.
  • If all goes according to plan, the first phase will be linking the 70-km stretch from Dhaula Kuan in Delhi to Manesar in Haryana to decongest NCR and then the country .
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