Dr Rocio Ortego speaks with Jean Phillipe Mangeot, CEO of Urbanloop, about the company’s smart urban transport innovation for sustainable cities.
Urbanloop is an innovative and intelligent urban circuit which objectives are simple: to save time, to pollute less, to reduce the size and costs of public transport infrastructures. Today, thanks to the progress of digital technology and Jean-Philippe’s intuition and his team skills and motivation, Urbanloop offers a system that will connect thousands of users to a network of loops in the same way as data is routed over the Internet. The team has already simulated the system and is moving on to the production of a demonstrator. The first full-scale demonstrator is expected in 2019 in Nancy, at the technology park.
How would you describe Urbanloop?
JP: Urbanloop is an intelligent urban circuit that allows users to travel without stopping and without connections in heavy traffic. A typical journey lasts five minutes for five kilometers. People are transported individually thanks to a network of rails where the stations are diverted. This principle breaks with traditional urban mass transit solutions (buses, metro, trams) that stop at each station. This saves time, increases the capacity of passengers transported per day while reducing infrastructure size and energy consumption.
How did you come up with this Innovative idea?
JP: This idea was born from a simple observation: every day urban traffic is saturated due to the lack of good traffic management. Some engineering students and their professors have then sought to answer this question: how could we get to any point in a city like Nancy in an acceptable time? The objectives of Urbanloop are mainly to save time, to pollute less, and to reduce the size and costs of public transport infrastructures. Today, thanks to the progress of digital technology, it is possible to create a system that will connect thousands of users to a network of loops in the same way as data is routed over the Internet. We have already simulated the system and are moving on to the production of a demonstrator. The first full-scale demonstrator is expected in 2019 on a technology park in Nancy.
How does Urbanloop contribute to the UN sustainable development goals?
JP: First, this means of transport integrates the most recent technologies for position measurement and information transmission to control each pod in a fleet of several thousand entities (SDG 9). The safety of people is the priority, which is why the principles of active safety developed nowadays for autonomous vehicles are included in order to avoid collisions (SDG 3). The passive aspect is also taken into consideration in the design of the pod to have an anti-intrusion and energy absorption role. What is more, the electrical energy powering the pods allows the use of various power sources (renewable energies, local suppliers, shared networks such as “smart grids”, etc. (SDG7). Our technology also fits into a network of other existing conventional or emerging solutions (inter-city trains, private vehicles, or carpooling). All these elements clearly enable to respond to the societal challenge of providing intelligent, green and integrated transportation (SDG11).
Faced with urban densification and population growth in metropolitan areas, Urbanloop is also positioning itself as an alternative solution to vehicles in urban and suburban areas. The low mass of the pods (about 200kg) is yet another ecological asset that improves energy efficiency (SDG7). Thus, travel times are reduced, parking is no longer a difficulty, CO2 emissions are locally low (SDG13), and all destinations in the area are equally accessible (SDG 9). This contributes to developing the well-being of the population (SDG 3) but also to promoting safe, clean and efficient energy (SDG 7).
How is the Urbanloop project different from Elon Musk’s recent project based on tunnels under cities?
JP. Its cost. To be effective, an urban transport system requires a large number of stations to distribute the flow of users in the urban space. The more stations there are, the more efficient the system is. Our standard stations simply consist of installing a rail in the asphalt pavement without any further work. The pods then evolve autonomously, in slow motion like a taxi that comes to the service of its customer. To increase passenger flows in stations, a diversion infrastructure is required to parallel getting on and down times.
Nevertheless, the solution proposed by Elon Musk is, in its concept, very similar to ours, but it is designed for very large urban areas, with very wide roads and very large shuttles. In Europe, city centers are often dense, rich in historic buildings with much narrower streets and fewer opportunities for integration. That is why Urbanloop relies on compactness with pods that are reduced to a minimum and go at much lower speeds for shorter distances.
It is important to note that the Urbanloop project started at the University of Lorraine in collaboration with the Grand Est region in 2017 before Elon Musk’s first publication on the subject. Urbanloop is a registered trademark in France.
We can add that the main scientific problem of this project is a discipline in which French scientists excel: it is a problem called optimal transport. If this problem is to be managed in a computerized way, the algorithms implemented could not exist if French mathematicians such as Gaspard Monge (19th century) or Cédric Villani (Fields Medal 2010) had not laid the theoretical foundations for solving the so-called optimal transport problem.
Some see the future of urban mobility with autonomous cars without dedicated infrastructure…
JP: A car that drives itself already exists, even in the city, even at fairly high speeds. The evolution of the autonomous car is eagerly awaited by everyone because it will mean a tremendous increase in comfort. Nevertheless, even if this autonomous car were shared in an intelligent way, it would not solve the problem of urban congestion because it results from the number of users at a given time. Congestion problems in cities are not due to vehicle speed or driver intelligence but to intersections that cause latency and affect the entire network. When the flow of vehicles is greater than the absorption capacity of the urban network, this inevitably leads to congestion. Whether or not the vehicle is autonomous does not change this.
A reasonable and secure way to facilitate traffic flow today is to avoid stops and connections. To do this, vehicles must operate in a network that is specific to them and that protects them from external disturbances that cause them to slow down. It is thus possible to cross paths and change lanes without stopping or slowing down.
Finally, this circuit must be precisely instrumented and controlled: A distance accuracy of 2 centimeters between pods launched at 72km /h requires a time accuracy of 1 millisecond, which is nowadays controlled by specialized industrial equipment.
Others see the future with drones or propose solutions with suspended cabins?
JP: With regard to urban mobility solutions with suspended cabins, they are particularly suitable for places where the relief is significant or areas with a low capacity for ground passage (mountains, river crossings, ports). Beyond the questionable aesthetic aspect, the essential question is that of the necessary infrastructure to build the stations. The deployment of such installations requires the erection of a boarding tower every 250 meters to board and get off in a suspended cabin.
Urbanloop offers minimally invasive standard stations. Moreover, nothing will prevent these rails from being removed later on when technologies and regulations allow the pods to operate alone in the city to pick up the users where they are.
Finally, with regard to drones, although the flight of scale models is controlled, it is nevertheless sensitive in urban environments because of the risks induced: fall, collision, noise, or high aircraft density. The generalization to mass transport seems difficult given the amount of energy required for vertical movement by propellers. This can work as a demonstration to make people dream, but given the current orders of magnitude in terms of a city’s energy availability, this means of transport does not seem suitable for a scale-up in the coming decades. Everyone can be convinced: it is less expensive energetically to pedal to move forward horizontally than to pedal to turn a propeller that would make us take off and move forward.
We can turn the problem around in any direction, the key is compactness.
What have you already achieved and when do you think Urbanloop will be a reality?
JP: To improve our Urbanloop technology we have gone through the usual growth stages (TRL), which will be accelerated by integrating innovations developed in the field of autonomous vehicles (sensors, embedded systems, information transmission, etc.). We plan to use the first loops during the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024.
To reach this objective, a multidisciplinary team is now working on the completion of various technological bricks to meet the following challenges: network management, routing principle, active security, multi-agent communication, risk study, and pod design. This first aim is to launch a short experimental loop for the third quarter of 2019 (TRL 5). A demonstration loop of the system with several pods on a prototype scale in an operational environment is planned for the end of 2020 (TRL 7). A location is already under study. Today, this project not only gives young engineers from different specialist fields an amazing opportunity to work together, but also to experiment over time on new mobility concepts.
I’d like to thank Jean Philippe, and also extend a special thank you to Stephanie (International relations director of Urban loop), Philippe (Urbanloop Project chief) and Marc Buckley for their insights.