New Delhi: As part of India’s attempt to improve public transportation, Varanasi, Nagpur and Gurugram have been shortlisted to test the ambitious rapid transport systems using pod cars—driverless vehicles that run along a pre-determined course.
Varanasi is the Lok Sabha constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi while Nagpur is that of transport minister Nitin Gadkari. The three cities may see the first rapid transport systems using pod cars being built by US space agency Nasa’s SkyTran and UK’s Ultra Global PRT, initially over a 1km test stretch each.
“The expert panel formed to lay down safety standards for pod taxis in the country has shortlisted the two cities in addition to Gurugram for the companies to build a prototype for a 1km stretch to showcase their technology. Two of these three cities will finally showcase the prototypes from the respective firms," said a senior government official requesting anonymity.
New Zealand’s Metrino Personal Rapid Transit along with Ultra Global PRT and SkyTran were among the three companies that had bid for transport minister Nitin Gadkari’s pod taxi project in India last year. All the three companies that won approval from the government to build a pilot stretch are to showcase their technology to implement the projects by forming joint ventures with Indian companies.
“The panel was asked to shortlist three sites. Since the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), which is responsible for implementing the project, had already invited tenders for Gurugram, they were to choose two more. They chose Varanasi and Nagpur. The prototypes will be built on only two sites as one of the three contenders has backed out," added the official cited above.
Metrino decided to withdraw and called off its joint venture with its Indian partner, Mint reported on 25 August.
Transport expert and former transport adviser at NITI Aayog Manoj Singh says, “Varanasi is a good choice. It’s a congested city and overhead pod taxis can be experimented with to see how this mobility solution works. Besides, being a heritage city, pod taxi can be a tourist attraction if managed and planned well."
“This is one of the multiple solutions being explored. Apart from being a viable solution from the cost-per-passenger-km point of view, there are certain advantages to it such as the speed at which it can be constructed as compared to a metro rail system," said Sanjay Garg, partner and leader, capital projects, at PwC.
In 2016, NHAI had invited tenders to build pod taxis. The bid drew four companies, out of which one backed out in 2016 itself and another in 2017. Now only two companies—SkyTran and Ultra Global PRT —are left in the fray.
Queries emailed to NHAI and the ministry of road transport and highways on Tuesday remained unanswered at press time on Thursday.
The project has been delayed because of several reasons. First, the government think tank NITI Aayog raised red flags, directing the road ministry to ask the bidders to prepare a 1-km pilot stretch before the allocation of the project as all the technologies were still “unproven".
Later, a high-powered committee was formed under transport expert Dharam Adhikari, comprising an NHAI official, a retired railways safety commissioner and a retired railway board member to lay down the standards and specifications for PRT systems in the country. The committee is likely to present its report to the ministry this month.
The standards developed by this committee are going to play an important role as around six states are in talks for pod taxi projects—Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Kerala, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Bihar.