All images: Max Bögl


Cities could ease congestion through the power of pod

The rail industry has been working hard to curb its environmental impact, which has led to companies developing sustainable fuel for train power, retrofitting locomotives and much more. Frankie Youd speaks to Kevin O’Grady, CEO of Urban.MASS, to find out if a new zero-emission pod could be the way forward for passenger travel.

Launched by UK-based tech start-up, Urban.MASS, a new driverless, zero-emission transport solution is taking shape in the form of autonomous electric pods. These pods, capable of travelling on both rail and road, aim to revolutionise urban mobility.

This driverless pod technology will cater to the door-to-door demand, as well as on a fixed schedule, allowing passengers to be collected from anywhere in cities supporting this technology, using existing road infrastructure as well as elevated smart tracks.

The company states that this technology will cost 50% less than conventional urban rail and is able to be deployed in half the time. Urban.MASS networks are planned to be delivered in 10 cities across the UK and worldwide by 2030 to meet global demand. The first prototype of the technology is scheduled to be showcased at the National Railway Museum in 2025.

Frankie Youd speaks to Kevin O'Grady, CEO of Urban.MASS, to find out more about the technology included within the pod design as well as the key environmental benefits this technology brings.

Andrew Morgan

Frankie Youd:  Could you discuss how the idea for this technology came about?

Kevin O’Grady: Urban.MASS is an infrastructure as a service, zero mobility business – it started in 2014 by a leading British architect called Ricky Sandhu. He was frustrated with the misery of crossing London, Ricky worked on a few different entrepreneurial, ground-breaking innovations in mobility. When he approached me with this design, just seeing the video, and seeing how simple the actual system could be, it was like a revelation.

None of the technology itself is new, we've got elevated trains today in many cities around the world. We've got autonomous vehicles now in many parts of the world. You've got applications on your phone, where you can book taxis and rides, so all Urban.MASS is doing is bringing those technologies together in one system.

When we speak to people, people love it, people want it for their cities – but there’s always the reservation until you build one. “Will this technology work?” It's that scepticism in something new, but it's people like Ricky who have got that forward-thinking that actually help us push the idea forward.

Servelec rail case study - frozen points med

What technology is included in the pods?

The pods themselves would be very much like EVs, they're electrically driven, charged with electric motors at each of the wheels. There's going to be various levels of design, so we would start with a very simple one. Each of the four wheels would have a motor, it's like driving in a spacious sort of minibus because you haven't got the space for the driver, so it gives you more space within the actual area.

We're hoping that the first one at the National Railway Museum would be a prototype, a very simple prototype that would take people from the historic part of town to the locomotion building. The vehicle takes 12 people seated and four people standing - that's the optimum size that we see to give us mass transit.

The technology also allows us to know who is on each pod because they have booked their seats, everybody who travels in the same carriage is known to the operator. So, if anybody said: “Oh, I heard somebody say something rude or offensive to another passenger”, that person would be known to the operator. This may result in them having their pass or access taken away should complaints be levelled against them.

I don't think, post-pandemic, people like travelling on 170 capacity passenger trains. With our technology what we're trying to do is make sure that no more than 12 will get on seated, and no more than four standing. If we have a passenger in a wheelchair, or somebody with a bike, we've still got the 12 seated, but not four standing so that all those individuals have space. We are also making the step into the pod at the same level as the platform, so it is a wheelchair-accessible service.

How do passengers get collected by the pods, what is the system for this?

We would run a scheduled service, but out of peak hours, it would be called on-demand. The pods wouldn't run unless there was somebody who wanted the pods to run. Say late at night you were with a group of your friends and wanted to get a pod for yourself, you would book the pods for yourselves knowing that you're safe to travel late at night.

It would probably be the same way you'd go about booking an Uber: You would book the scheduled service, you would see your pod on the line, and you would book it.

We know there's plenty of these apps out there that people are used to using, passengers would be able to say: “If I book the 6:15 this pod will be available by 6:20, so now I know when my pod is coming.” Your seat would be confirmed on that pod. You know when your pod is going to arrive so you can manage your time.

You can also pre-book in advance, if you've pre-booked your pod a week in advance we should be able to service that for you. That's where we say the flexibility will mean that people will come out of the vehicles, the cars, and use public transport more.

Everybody I know has been left on a train beyond their destination. It’s so common that the railway industry has a name for it: being overcarried.

Other than being battery-powered, what are some other environmental benefits of the pods?

Above the actual track, there is a solar canopy that protects the vehicles but also provides their power. The solar canopy acts as a renewable energy provider, but also as a solar shade. The pods won’t heat up as much because they'll be shaded when they're outside, or if it was in Canada, it would shield the snow from the tracks.

We were very encouraged with some of the renewable energy calculations from the canopy, that it not only powers the system but may give us some surplus which helps the operator. If we can over generate the power then that can get sold back to the grid, and therefore that would reduce the cost of the ticket to the passenger.

Another benefit can be shown with the example of when you are sitting at a level crossing and see the train go past with nobody on it, and there are about 15 cars sitting behind you all chucking out emissions and fumes waiting for an empty train to pass.

With our elevated design, we want people to walk underneath the pods, we want to be non-disruptive in the cities that we go to, we want to complement the existing rail network, the ports, the airports, every mode of travel, and get them to use this as a non-disruptive way to connect different forms of transport.

The other benefit that's probably not come out of the press too much is the logistics benefit. The same pod could be used, not with seats or the same level of comfort inside, but just an empty shell to move small parcels.

At night when there's no demand on the system, a dispatch company could send their own pods down the system taking small parcels which would mean we would take vans off the road, which takes the carbon emissions out of the air and frees up the traffic for people to use the roads.

Where in the UK are these planned to be delivered as well as future developments?

We are in discussion with quite a few cities who've liked this system, it's different to what they've been offered. They've been offered trams, bendy buses, skinny buses, but all of them seem to be at ground level which would add to the congestion, they do not alleviate the congestion.

It's been a bit of a lightbulb moment for some cities, but obviously, we know that some cities are quite constrained with space so you can't always get an elevated section constructed - so there are areas that maybe it will have to go underground, or it goes back to ground level.

We think this technology is great for UK cities, but where we think our impact will be the greatest is in developing countries where there's a lot of sunshine for the solar panels, but also where flooding is frequent.

If our systems are elevated part of the countryside you go through could flood but you don't disrupt the transport systems. Sometimes having a transport system to remote villages and areas is a lifeline to allow these cities to develop.

Main image: Launched by UK-based tech start-up, Urban.MASS, the world first driverless, zero-emission transport solution is taking shape in the form of autonomous electric pods. Credit: Urban.MASS.

All images: Max Bögl