It’s the shape of a swoopy modern streetcar, but it’s got the rubber-shod wheels of a bus. Also, there’s no driver—it’s automated like a tram. The “trackless train” is sort of a jackalope of public transportation.
Or maybe it’s more like a donkey than a truly mythical creature; unlike a certain infamous straddling bus, this hybrid transportation innovation is for real.
Since late October, oblong, self-driving vehicles have been using sensors to follow markings painted on the streets of Zhuzhou, China. Operators are behind the wheel for now, but the idea is that they won’t be needed by the time the city builds a network larger than the roughly two-mile test track, a dedicated lane on a heavily trafficked boulevard. Word of the apparently successful pilot reached Carlos Gimenez, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, who was so impressed by videos of Zhuzhou’s system in action that he says he’s planning a trip in person to see if it would make sense as an answer to his city’s transit challenges. “It’s a solution we can implement now,” Gimenez told the Miami Herald last week. “Not one that will take decades to complete.” (All aboard the “Commie bus,” is how one none-too-impressed local columnist interpreted Gimenez’s response.)
Battery-powered and capable of speeds up to 43 miles per hour, a three-carriage trackless train can hold more than 300 passengers. CRRC, the Chinese transportation company that manufactures the vehicle, estimates that building and running a network of robo-rail-buses would require only about 20 percent of the cost of a subway system, according to the design publication Dezeen.