A Quirky People Mover with Big Dreams
Kristen Fredriksen and Duncan Carel
From 1974 to the early 1980s, a unique personal rapid transit system ran on the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology but was never opened to the public. Called the Transette, the system underwent years of development and testing, but ultimately, delays and a lack of funding shut the project down.
The Transette’s belt-driven passive vehicle system was invented by Dr. J.F. Sutton while he was employed by Lockheed Aircraft Corporation. Lockheed was not interested in developing automated transportation at the time, and the invention was released to Dr. Sutton (U.S. Patent No. 3,690,367). Transette, Inc. was formed in 1972, and two years later, Georgia Tech was issued a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to install and test the Transette system using Transette, Inc. as a subcontractor.
The Transette was “intended to fulfill the need for a system that [could] furnish effective, low-cost transportation of people over moderate distances in high pedestrian traffic areas” according to the 1977 Final Report of Verification Testing, and per some optimistic accounts, the Transette may have eventually even replaced automobiles on campus for everyday use. Others saw applications of the Transette system at airports, shopping centers, condominiums, parks, and more.A .25-mile test loop was built on the campus of Georgia Tech from the Student Center to a nearby parking lot between 1974 and 1976. The Transette system was autonomously controlled using a series of solid state logic computers; many of the controls developed for the Transette paved the way for other autonomous transit systems used today. The vehicles were propelled by a conveyor belt-like system under a drive wheel, which, using gearing and a clutch, made it possible for the vehicle to travel twice the speed of the belt. Each fiberglass-and-steel vehicle held four passengers and the theoretical maximum capacity for Phase I was about 900 passengers per hour. The Transette had a top speed of 15 mph (avg. 12.4 mph). According to Joe Ledlie, the “patchwork prototype” looked like “a glorified golf cart cruising along a baby roller-coaster track.” It became operational in October of 1976 and underwent an initial round of testing before funding ran out.
Between 1976 and 1979, a number of delays stalled the project until a modification program intended to tackle some of the Transette’s problems was funded in mid-1979. Tests were then carried out on the system by a number of different organizations, including the NSF and the U.S. Department of Transportation. Of the planned eight original Transette vehicles, just two were built during the initial phase. The system never carried passengers due to safety concerns and performance and reliability issues. Even after the modifications, it was concluded that without major changes, the system was unsuitable for use. Over the course of the project, the costs of building and evaluating the Transette system rose to a total of $685,500 (about $3.5 million today).
Soon after funding dried up and interest dwindled, the system was dismantled and scrapped. The only known surviving bit of this quirky personal rapid transit system is a single Transette car, currently on display at the Southeastern Railway Museum.
More historic photos and articles: Paul Grether, Flickr