RogerBW's Blog

A utopian vision for transport 19 September 2015

Driverless cars, quite apart from privacy concerns, are solving the wrong problem. Here's what I want to build to replace the majority of transport infrastructure. It is unabashedly utopian.

The basic unit of transport is a pod. This comes in different sizes: probably for 1-2 people, 4-6 people, and 10-ish people, to start with. It has road wheels and a battery that can shift it a few miles at 20mph or so, and it drives itself. It is built to be as light as possible.

You book one in advance (ideally), or call for one on your phone. If you tell it your destination some time beforehand it's cheaper, because this makes capacity planning easier.

If you're only going a mile or two, that's it. It's a short-hop taxi.

If you're going further, it goes to the nearest local transfer point (something like an Underground station) and moves into a packet-switched light rail network; it loads itself onto a rail chassis (possibly with other pods, ideally solo) that's going in roughly the right direction, and is moved non-stop to the destination station, where the process is reversed. (The battery gets recharged at the same time.) If lots of pods are going in the same direction, they can link up for better energy efficiency, then split apart as they near their destinations.

If you're leaving the city area, the pod can go to a main-line station and shift onto a proper rail chassis. This one probably is for multiple pods, because for a journey of several hours you want access to toilets and such like.

The key point is that through all these modes you don't have to pick up your stuff and leave the pod. Existing systems for intermodal passenger transport have things like car rental or a taxi rank right next to the platform at your destination station: but you still have to shift all your luggage from the train to the car, and that puts a limit on what you can take with you.

(Now you can argue that taking less stuff is a good thing, and that's a fair point, but if you're trying to get people to want an alternative to the car, rather than to be forced into it grumbling, that problem needs to be solved.)

In this system you can take as much stuff as you like, and even use the pod as a lockable storage space at the destination if you want to.


  1. Posted by John Dallman at 10:57am on 19 September 2015

    I fear that this fatally neglects several aspects of car psychology, specially US car psychology. it doesn't work well for people who live a long way from a town, and there seem to be a lot of people who want to do that. For a lot of people, this would seem dystopian.

    A friend had a system rather like this in a near-future setting, and initially claimed that it had ben imposed world-wide without much resistance. He eventually accepted that there would be riots, but lampshaded around them, rather than solving the problem.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 11:38am on 19 September 2015

    For people living a long way from anywhere else, one still needs something like cars - whether they're private cars as we see them now, taxis, or an autonomous version of either. Same applies to remote spots visited by a few people a year. I don't see these replacing cars completely, but I do think they could do away with the vast majority of car journeys.

  3. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 12:21pm on 19 September 2015

    I'm not sure the psychology aspects are totally defined by 'cars' as I would imagine the problems will center around ownership, and by that I mean who is responsible for keeping the pod clean and tidy? What I might find acceptable others may not and vice-versa. One reason to own one's own car is choice of things like performance, comfort and decor. Being ferried around in bland, anonymous and probably rather tatty utility pods is a think an appalling idea. I'm with John this sounds like a dystopia to me.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 09:32am on 20 September 2015

    The other upsides are that it's cheaper (rail is used for all but the shortest legs), much faster (ditto), and you can do whatever you like while you're travelling rather than having to concentrate on the driving.

  5. Posted by John Dallman at 11:08am on 20 September 2015

    This isn't a dystopia for me - it sounds great, for me. But I'm very aware, as a non-driver who finds a lot of people don't understand what that implies, that car possession and the freedoms that creates have come to be seen as basic rights by many people. Remember the fuel price protests of a few years ago? This scheme would be rejected by lots of people who'd gain from taking it up, because it wouldn't provide the emotional benefits of car ownership.

  6. Posted by Chris Bell at 11:13am on 20 September 2015

    There is the time factor. I don't live in town, and don't want only things which can be ordered from the internet and are not time-critical and can be obtained within my limited walking-distance.

    Present system: at 5.15pm I realise I need to buy [essential ingredient] for making supper before a shop ten minutes' travel away closes at 5.30pm. I rush from the house, leap into my car, get there in time and buy it.

    Pod system: at 5.15pm I realise I need to buy [essential ingredient] for making supper before a shop ten minutes' travel away closes at 5.30pm. I call for a pod and wait, tapping my fingers. Pod arrives at 5.25 because it is coming from the town where the shop is, and the shop closes while I am getting to it.

    Going shopping, and other such small activities (taking the dog for a walk, going to pick blackberries, going to visit the Gloucester Old Spot pigs up the hill just too far to walk to) are not "travelling", exactly, and often involve changing your mind about where you want to go next; how easily will a pod accommodate "Oh, stop, look, there's a lot of cowslips on the verge back there and I want to go and look at them! Find a place to park close enough for me to walk back."?

  7. Posted by Dr Bob at 05:00pm on 20 September 2015

    As another non-driver this sounds good, but I'd want to know the pricing system. For instance, to get to one of the edge of town hospitals by taxi is £40 for the round trip, yet for £70 I can get a bus pass that can take me to and from there several times a day for a whole month. If this costs bus fare money (or cheaper) is its utopia. If it is taxi fare money it is dystopia! :-)

    Also, I'd want "with stupid amounts of luggage" and "without luggage" options for the pods. Perhaps a special Ikea/B&Q pod, with space for the flat packs and lengthy bits of wood you have to drop the rear seats of a car to fit in. :-)

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