New Delhi: Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) will finalize the site for India’s first pod taxi prototype, the next generation transportation system, according to the terms of the deal between Reliance and SkyTran, announced last week. Pod taxi is a driverless personal rapid transit system, which runs along a predetermined course either through overhead suspension or magnetic levitation.

“As per the deal, the prototype will be built at the place decided by Reliance," said one person, who was part of deal negotiations, requesting anonymity. Once the pilot and subsequent trial runs are successful, the company will have to get into separate agreements with central and state governments to set up the infrastructure, according to the terms of the respective governments, he added.

“For the prototype, some bits will be imported from the US, while most of it will be made in India. In return, Reliance will help SkyTran with multiple technologies to run the pod taxi, including communication technology, which is an important part of the deal."

Last week, Reliance Industrial Investments and Holdings Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of RIL, acquired a 12.7% stake in US-based technology company SkyTran. The strategic investment was made through stock financing, with an option to further invest up to $25 million in convertible notes, subject to the approval of SkyTran’s board.

SkyTran, which has partnerships with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), has investments by Eric Schmidt, an American businessman and the former executive chairman of Google, and Timothy Cook Draper, an American venture capital investor.

“Reliance, Eric and Timothy if combined will have around 35-40% stake in SkyTran," said a second person aware of the terms of deal, also requesting anonymity. He said that for a prototype, “the ballpark number will be 100 crore per km for bi-directional lines, which will include a reasonable number of vehicles".

The person added that SkyTran’s market valuation is in “single-digit billion dollars", but refused to disclose the exact figure.

The idea to introduce pod taxis in India was undertaken by Nitin Gadkari, the minister for road transport and highways, in 2016. Subsequently, in January 2017, a NITI Aayog panel had cleared the ministry’s proposal to test three rapid transport systems using pod taxis.

The three global companies in the fray were Ultra Global PRT, SkyTran and Metrino PRT.

Ultra Global is the only company whose technology has been tested and is in commercial use. Its pod vehicles are made of steel, have rubber tyres and run on specially made tracks. The Ultra Global system has been in use at Heathrow Airport in London, and runs at 45km/h.

SkyTran’s pod taxis run on its state-of-the-art passive magnetic levitation technology, while Metrino pods are suspended from overhead rails. The SkyTran technology is at the testing stage while Metrino has developed a prototype that was tested in 2007 in Poland, but is yet to be commercially operated.

Last year, New Zealand’s Metrino Personal Rapid Transit, however, decided to withdraw and called off its joint venture with an Indian partner after failing to get funds for the project.

The approval was given on the condition that the technologies should first be piloted on a 1km stretch, and the bidders will have to execute the testing at their own risk and cost. Furthermore, the government said that the pilot project should be executed in such a way that if it is successful then it can be further extended to 15-20km, and also ensure safety during trial runs.

The Niti Aayog expert committee had observed that the energy consumed per passenger km by such rapid transit systems is much lower than other modes of transport.

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