The best way to describe JPods, a new form of public transit soon to be tested in New Jersey, is "something out of the Jetsons." At least that's how one city official described the solar-powered pods, which are a combination of light rail and self-driving car suspended above roads. Imagine something like a ski lift running above our existing streets and you're getting close to the right mental image.
But there's one sticking point: The JPods are a private transit system. Will investors be willing to fund a network of pods that compete with light rail, buses, subways, and other current public transit options? And if the capital was there, would municipal governments let this happen?
Rather than having large train cars like trams or subways do, these fully enclosed "pods" are sized for small groups of people. The idea is for individuals or groups of friends to ride in one pod, as you would commute with a car. The JPods technology then navigates the pod along the rail network as close to your destination as it can get.
The pods essentially operate as mini, personal trains. They travel point-to-point along the rail network to the destination you input via an interactive touch screen. With more stations and switch points than a commuter rail or subway network, JPods can get a traveler much closer to their intended destination than mass transit.
As a finishing touch, the rails are covered with solar panel collectors, which supply self-sustaining power to the entire system. Bill James, the founder and CEO of JPods, believes that the solar panels above the rails will ensure that the network is always able to sustain itself, no matter how large it grows.
James is a West Point graduate, where he received honors in math, physics, chemistry, and engineering. In the U.S. Army, James worked as a logistics officer in addition to being qualified as an airborne Ranger. Despite my having about half a foot of height and four decades of youth over James, I still had the distinct impression that the former NCAA all-American wrestler could take me if he wanted to.
The team James put together to work on JPods includes a number of other West Point alums, with expertise ranging from power plant design and distributed energy generation to finance and law.
"We're a bunch of West Point grads that looked at this situation and realized we've been fighting oil wars since 1990," says James. "So we decided to do something about it. Our point of view on this thing as veterans is that we need to be looking ahead at what causes the path to war and act in advance of it."
The answer for this group was to lessen our dependence on foreign oil by building a commuter transit system that can function entirely on renewables.
When asked to describe how the JPods system works, James has a great metaphor. He likens JPods to a physical Internet (a term he's trademarked) and the comparison is apt. Both the Internet and JPods route traffic throughout a complex network—in the case of JPods it just happens to be literal traffic moving on rails as opposed to the network traffic of the Internet.
The logic of having point-to-point travel along a network with numerous switches applies just as naturally to James' transportation system as it does to the open web. When I ask James why he chose the pods concept rather than simply an elevated train system, he offers a two-word answer: "packet size."
Elaborating, James explains that in creating the backbone of the Internet that today lets us send and receive information over the web, developers experimented with different sizes of packets—the smallest units of information sent over the transmission control protocol. Packets too small couldn't carry meaningful information, while packets too large overburdened the network with more background noise than was needed to convey the information being sent.
Anyone who has used the subway can intuitively grasp how this concept applies to mass transit. Either you've waited forever for a train to come transport a few people or you've gotten on an overcrowded (and sweaty and claustrophobic) train without enough room for everyone who wants to travel during rush hour.
Either of these outcomes is inefficient for a robust, sustainable, and responsive public transit system. On the one hand we are wasting energy by moving a whole train for just a few people. (James has the same complaint of cars: "We move one ton to move one person.") But the other extreme creates an unpleasant user experience for commuters.
The JPods solution is ingenious because it can cope just as easily with overflow during peak hours as it can with a few stragglers who need to head home at 4 a.m. after a night on the town. James holds the patent for an "intelligent transport system," which is the backbone of the JPods technology. Using a distributed communication system that allows pods to talk directly to each other, JPods are able to provide a truly on-demand transportation solution.
The video below shows a model of how JPods use James' patented technology to algorithmically merge into each others' path without causing collisions.
And, by moving far less weight per person per trip, JPods have the added side benefit of an up to 85% reduction in energy expenditure compared to cars or mass transit, according to James.
Most people think of Secaucus as a town you drive through or change trains in. But this sleepy town of some 16,000 just minutes outside Manhattan happens to have one of the busiest train stations in New Jersey. It also sees car traffic on the Jersey Turnpike, which passes through the town. The intersection of the Secaucus Bypass and the Jersey Turnpike divides the town into quadrants, making it impractical to get around by walking.
On my way to lunch with James and some of JPods' board members in Secaucus, my instinct as a New Yorker was to exit town hall and walk to the restaurant for our lunch meeting. James quickly corrected me, pointing me away from the sidewalk and to the parking lot. Of course, I reminded myself, in a suburban town like this it would be necessary to drive to lunch. And the car traffic situation isn't pretty.
Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli apparently shares my frustration. "If I want to take my wife out to eat somewhere that's five miles away, it could take 45 minutes to get there," he says. "That's how gridlocked we are."
In such an environment, the kind of personal—as opposed to mass—rapid transit that JPods represent could be a revolutionary solution. That's why James and his team will be running their pilot program for JPods in Secaucus.
"Combining solar and relatively small mass transit modules to get from point A to point B fits in especially well with some of the needs we have here," says Secaucus town administrator David Drumeler. "With our commercial district relatively close but far enough that you couldn't walk there, an almost on-demand type of mass transit system is an ideal fit for us."
JPods may seem like a far-out futuristic concept. But with the commuting situation in Secaucus dire, officials seem open to trying anything that might alleviate congestion.
"If you see what happens every morning going into New York City, we're at capacity moving people by train, by bus, and even by water," says Mayor Gonnelli. "So there needs to be new, innovative ways to do that."
In addition to being a smart logistical fit for Secaucus, a fully solar powered public transportation is attractive to the town as it tries to ramp up its sustainability efforts.
"I would love to see something like this happen in Secaucus," says Amanda Nesheiwat, the town's environmental coordinator. "I think that we would be a perfect community to have this in, given that we are really striving to be a model sustainable community for the state and the country. We definitely need better transportation systems state-wide to get cars off the road and lower emissions, which are some of the highest in the country."
Although Secaucus wasn't the hardest hit area of New Jersey when Hurricane Sandy passed through, the town still felt the impacts. Gasoline was heavily rationed, including being reserved only for emergency response units at one point, bringing the town to a standstill.
"We haven't had gas rationing since I was 10 years old," says Drumeler. "This was the first time we really had a massive gas rationing. Since these JPods will be solar powered, they would still be operational."
Nesheiwat for her part sees such concerns as part of her mission of making Secaucus a greener city.
"I think part of being a sustainable community is also being a resilient community to climate change and flooding," she says. "This is definitely the future. People are going to be headed toward more resilient technology," says Nesheiwat. "At the state level, the governor has said they are looking to create more resilient energy infrastructure. And what better way to do that than having transportation powered by solar."
Appropriately, the first version of JPods that will roll it in Secaucus is what James calls the "Rescue-Rail" version. Rescue-rail is designed to be lightweight, rapidly deployable, and temporary. James envisions it being used for disaster relief efforts or at special events that have a lot of traffic, like the Super Bowl or World Series.
With that demonstration model out in the world as a proof-of-concept, the team will then work on building the first permanent installation of JPods connecting various points in Secaucus.
But James' vision doesn't stop just at Secaucus. James tells me that he wants to see JPods crossing the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan to alleviate traffic on the bridge and Holland Tunnel crossings.
But if that goal didn't seem ambitious enough for you, James wants JPods to become a dominant mode of urban transportation so that the U.S. can be within a solar budget by 2030. He envisions a world where JPods are zipping us all across cities and the towns that surround them.
James describes JPods as being the middle layer of a three-tier transportation system. The first, highest-speed tier is ultra-high-speed systems like Elon Musk's Hyperloop. After cross-country or international travel on the Hyperloop, travelers would board JPods to get to their approximate destination. Depending on whether a traveler is headed for a rural or urban setting, the last leg of their trip may be made by walking, biking, or a hybrid solar-pedal powered vehicle like Organic Transit's ELF.
In fact, James is so enamored with the ELF that he has designed an ELF carrier for JPods, so that the rail network can transport your personal ELF in addition to your person.
But why stop at transporting people? With a bit of his Army logistics sensibilities baked into his thinking, James says that JPods could just as easily handle transporting a city's freight and waste.
The vision is compelling and should be appealing to environmentalists and forward-thinking urban planners alike. But the biggest obstacles James may face are not technological or even financial, but rather legal. Securing rights-of-way for a parallel transportation system that will effectively compete with the government's roads is a recipe for regulatory and bureaucratic hell.
James doesn't see any alternative but to go through those obstacles head-on. In conversation he can quote to me from memory the Federalist Papers as justification for why the government should allow him to build out the JPods network. He describes our dependence on oil as "close to insane," but is optimistic that he will be able to completely refashion commuter transit into something appropriate for the 21st century.
Only time will tell whether James can accomplish his lofty goal for solar-powered public transportation or whether, like Icarus, his ambition will leave him scorched by the sun.