Reporter with Silicon Hills News

If Richard Garriott de Cayeux gets his way, Austin’s nightmare traffic will soon be mitigated by little electrically powered pods that resemble storm trooper helmets, drive on an elevated roadway, and can get you from St. Edwards to the University of Texas in about eight minutes. According to Google maps, that’s normally about a 20 minute trip, burning fossil fuels the whole way—or more than 30 minutes on the bus.

Garriott spoke Monday at SXSW about his plan to solve Austin’s traffic problems almost immediately by building a Personal Rapid Transit system like the one at Heathrow Airport in London. With a PRT, electronically powered pod cars carry parties of up to four people—as well as bicycles and wheelchairs–on lightweight, elevated roadways in a web all over the city. The pods are, essentially, electronic cars with their own, dedicated road or track where all the traffic flows one way in a loop, connecting with other loops to traverse the city from north to south and east to west. Instead of waiting for a bus or train, contending with the other issues of mass transit, like other people and their stops, you would order a car on demand at one of several stations, get in and zip along the track to your destination.

The venture would be privately funded rather than requiring tax dollars, cost less than a tenth what a light rail system costs–$100 million for seven miles versus $1.5 billion for 10–and would run along streets near to major corridors.
“All we need,” Garriott said, “is for people not to say ‘No.’”

Garriott initially conceived the idea after his trip to outer space with a Russian commercial space company awakened him to the issues of global pollution. Back on the ground, he realized that his commute from his house near the 360 bridge to his downtown office was contributing to the city’s environmental and traffic problems, but he was unwilling to adopt a new solution unless it met his criteria of being personal, on demand, full-speed point-to-point. In short, it had to be better than driving his own car. His first thought, he said, was gondolas, but he quickly dismissed that one because of the heavy infrastructure and the safety hazards gondolas pose.

The PRT, he said, would use private, electrically powered cars that charge up when not running and use supercapacity lead acid batteries. The system would require users to register—as they do with Car2Go—because, as the inventor of the mass multiplayer gaming system he knows that anonymity encourages bad behavior. For that reason there are also cameras on each car and a central station would be in charge of monitoring the system in case of issues like a tree falling across a track.

Each trip would cost about $1.25 a mile.

His initial plan was to build a system around the University of Texas which would be a good test, he said, because it involved getting cooperation from the city, the state and private land owners. He paid about $1 million of his own money for a study on the efficacy of the system which includes details like how to preserve old oak trees and camouflage the poles that support the elevated roadway with greenery. He also tested whether the system would be able to handle the expected capacity. He said the study showed it could. But while he envisioned a limited test, everyone he spoke to, from city officials to state officials and the Capital Metro organization, and potential investors, encouraged him to expand to cover more of the city, beginning with downtown and a line to the airport. Eventually, he said, the system could take kids to school, with their passes only allowing the cars to open at home and at school, or could be used to transport garbage to the city dump.

Garriott said he believed that the system was ideal for Austin, which is a city of early adopters. Though many audience members—most of whom where Austin residents–immediately shot questions like “I live in the suburbs. If I have to drive in to town to get on this system how is that better than driving in to get on the bus?” or “Isn’t it possible for someone to use this with a false identity?” Revealing that even at SXSW Interactive—the very heart of innovation—Austinites are skeptical of a mass transit system whether they have to pay for it or not.

As long as the project isn’t blocked, Garriott said, part of it could be built as early as this year.