"Think of it as a horizontal lift," says Fraser Brown, managing director of ULTra, the company that has built a new way to travel to Heathrow Terminal 5 from the business car park. And he says this as Pocket-lint is hurtling along at 25mph in a driver-less pod.
The ULTra Personal Rapid Transit System has just gone into full operation following a testing phase over the summer. It aims to not only speed up getting from the car park to the terminal, but help airport owner BAA to cut down on traffic congestion and emissions around the area.
“It’s about covering the last couple of kilometres,” Brown tells us.
The idea is simple: instead of asking customers to wait for a bus for up to 10 minutes, those using business parking will never have to wait more than 34 seconds to get to the terminal, and journey times are cut from almost 10 minutes to a promised 5 minutes.
And there's no reason to doubt the claims. There are 21 pods and there is a dedicated route between the points so there is no traffic.
At the car park end, it’s a case of opening a door and jumping in. The pods themselves take up to five passengers and resemble the back of a London black taxi cab. Once in, you have to request to shut the doors and then that you want to get going.
“We wanted to make sure parents weren’t worried their kids would be sent to the terminal without them,” explains Brown.
The technology behind the system is fairly simple and hugely clever. Four lasers positioned above each pod's four wheels guide the vehicle through a curbed course, constantly ensuring that the pod doesn’t bump around. There are no rails or track to follow and that, says Brown, makes it ideal to install retrospectively, and will subsequently offer the option to extend the course at a later date.
Five minutes into our ride and we're at T5, having travelled above the airport’s perimeter road, along the runway and into the short stay car park.
For travellers having just arrived and heading to their car, the experience is the same, albeit you get to choose which car park you want to travel to (A or B) by answering a couple of questions via a touchscreen display. There is nobody manning the system. It’s all very futuristic.
The first in the world, the new system has been in development for over 6 years, but the company is already working on a second instalment ... in India.
“We are working to put a 100 pod system in Amritsar in India,” Brown says. “It’s between a bus station and a temple to help beat emission issues at the site.”
But an airport terminal and a temple aren’t the only place he believes we will see the pods in the future. He suggests that they would be great at big campuses, theme parks and basically anywhere that involves you covering short distances. The “last couple of kilometres” quote comes out again.
BAA seems to agree, so much so that it has ditched the bus service altogether - if you are using business parking at T5, it's this or nothing.
Is that a problem, we ask? Brown doesn’t think so, with BAA telling them that overall customer satisfaction is considerably higher than with the former bus system. People no longer have to wait, he says, and that means less stress getting from parking to the terminal.
And he seems to be right. While we’ve been talking at one of the terminals there has been a small stream of people jumping in, with some opting to share the pods rather than insisting on riding on their own. No one seems phased that there is no one around, and all are happy to jump in before being whisked on their way.
Our two trips completed, it’s clear that Brown and his company ULTra might have found the next big thing in short distance travel. It is a very pleasant experience indeed.
Next stop, M25 please!