Masdar's Personal Rapid Transit is cool and all, but will it be the next greatest thing in e-mobility?
Masdar City, the ambitious project to build a sustainable city on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, has been criticized by some for not moving fast enough or for making too many changes in its development strategy. But planning, designing and building a sustainable city from the ground up is no easy task, just ask Masdar City Director Alan Frost.
"Four years ago, we locked into the PRT, we thought that was the strategy," Alan Frost told me when we sat down to talk Wednesday at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi. "But now if you look at how quickly the regular electric vehicles have moved," the strategy has changed somewhat, Frost explains.
"When we first started, everything was moving, we had waste to energy, we had desal[ination], we had PV moving, everything in the renewable energy field was moving at the one time, and its very hard to lock stuff down and very expensive, because every second day something is better than what you had the day before. So when do you stop?"
Along with a public metro line and light rail, Masdar's driverless cars, or Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) vehicles were at the core of Masdar City's public transportation strategy, but that strategy has changed as the technology has advanced so quickly in electric vehicles. It's a bit like hitting a moving target. And if you miss, it can be an expensive mistake.
After touring Masdar City, I can personally attest to the fact that cruising around in a driverless electric car that is pre-programmed to take you to the next station at the touch of a button is a remarkable experience, the ooh factor doesn't necessarily mean they are the solution.
Frost says PRTs will continue to play a role, but so will electric buses and other electric point-to-point vehicles.
"We have three to five years to lock into the solution of phase I and five to ten years to lock into a permanent solution," Frost says.
And being able to make changes, has allowed Masdar to avoid jumping into the wrong technology, whether in transportation or energy generation. "If you want to put PV panels on the roof, when do you buy them? If you bought them last year, they're now half the price."
"What we've realized is you have got to lock into the absolute best technology you can do on the day, monitor it, check it, add to it, whatever, and then learn from it and go again. That's part of the secret of what we're trying to do," Frost explains.
"At the end of the day, that's part of what Masdar is all about."
Check out this video of the PRT experience made by Nick Aster of Triple Pundit. See also Ucilia Wang on zooming around in PRTs at Earth2Tech and Brian Merchant's take on the Masdar City PRT test-ride at Treehugger.
Disclosure: My trip to Abu Dhabi for the World Future Energy Conference was paid for by Masdar.