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Move Over, Elon Musk: Autonomous Shuttle Company Jockeys For Position As Mass Transit Solution

In June, Elon Musk's The Boring Company opened one of two mass transit projects in Las Vegas whereby passengers are ferried in Teslas through a 1.7-mile tunnel that is 40 feet underground.

Several other municipalities have flirted with The Boring Company for similar projects. Fort Lauderdale this summer received an unsolicited proposal from The Boring Company to build a system that would take passengers between a downtown train station and Fort Lauderdale Beach. Commissioners will soon vote on whether to move forward. 

Not content to let The Boring Company have all the fun, San Francisco-based Glydways submitted a competing proposal to Fort Lauderdale suggesting the use of 3-foot-wide, battery-powered, automated shuttles that can travel in a dedicated space about the width of a bike lane and can fit four people, or two people and a bicycle. Shuttles can operate on-demand 24/7. 

A Glydways shuttle

Glydways founder and CEO Mark Seeger told Bisnow a Glydways system's capital costs are as much as 90% cheaper than a train or bus system and operational costs are 70% to 90% less. A 2018 Bloomberg analysis put the cost of building a rail system at $170M to $920M per mile. Glydways costs $50M per mile if elevated (for four lanes, two in each direction) and provides about double the capacity as rail, Seeger said.

"We completely decimate the competition through the following ways: No. 1, we are profitable with every ride," Seeger said. "That means, for the first time in human history, we are not asking the city for any money. We don't need any money to keep the operations running. Every other transit system requires a taxpayer to subsidize the operations because the cost to deliver a ride is more than the revenue you get by selling a ticket. For the first time in 100 years, that is not so with us. That is extraordinary."

Seeger said Glydways uses its profitability to attract private capital to build the system without public money. Glydways has raised $40M in venture funding, according to the Silicon Valley Business Journal.

"No. 2, we are a high-capacity system," he said. "Roads have traffic jams because too many people want to use the road, or rather, more people want to use the road than the road can handle, so you've got a traffic jam. So anything that is based on road technology — autonomous car and autonomous shuttle — any of those things are stuck in traffic [and are] not our competition, couldn't care less about them."

Because it uses narrow, dedicated lanes that are fenced off for safety, a Glydways system can move more people in less space than cars, buses or rail. A system could accommodate up to 10,800 people per hour, the same as five lanes of a highway, the company says. Glydways also puts solar panels on canopies over its lanes, so a system can generate twice as much electricity as it consumes, Seeger said. 

"We never sacrifice passenger experience because it's an Uber-like experience for the price of the subway," Seeger said.

The average speed of a Glydways shuttle is 30 mph, but it can go up to 75 mph. Systems would be built with two lanes so if a shuttle breaks down or has an emergency, other shuttles can go around it. 

Glydways already has projects in development with six cities, including South San Francisco. Seeger said he expects those to be up and running by 2025. In Fort Lauderdale, Glydways proposed having 12 access points along a 3.8-mile system. The access points are small, thus inexpensive, Seeger said.

"They don't take up a lot of real estate, and so we can have a lot of them," he said. "We don't park our unused vehicles there. We do keep vehicles there so people can just walk up and go, but our vehicles are stored charged, cleaned and maintained in a garage, so we don't need a trainyard."

In Fort Lauderdale, both a Boring Company system and a Glydways system would require a 12-foot-wide tunnel going beneath the Intracoastal Waterway, which separates the mainland from the beach, which is on a narrow barrier island. Details of The Boring Company's proposal haven't yet been made public because of secrecy provisions in Florida state law regarding unsolicited proposals, so Seeger couldn't directly compare his proposal with theirs, though reports say The Boring Company's project would cost at least $30M.

"A luxury Tesla Model 3 is nice. We have one, personally, but they're not a mass transit solution or public transit solution," Seeger said. "And furthermore, when you start to think of accessibility, you can't get a wheelchair in a Model 3, you can't get a double-wide baby stroller in a Model 3. Sometimes the luggage that we carry, we can't even get that in our Model 3."