GSP Takes an Autonomous Approach to Landside Sustainability

April 19, 2022
Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport takes a major step forward in the development of a landside automated transit network to reduce emissions and costs.
Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport
Group Rapid Transit (GRT) technology will shuttle passengers from three economy parking areas and employee parking lot to the airport terminal via the autonomous vehicle.
Group Rapid Transit (GRT) technology will shuttle passengers from three economy parking areas and employee parking lot to the airport terminal via the autonomous vehicle.

Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport (GSP) is turning to electric autonomous vehicles via an Automated Transit Network (ATN) to enhance sustainability on its landside operations.

David Edwards, President and CEO of GSP said the airport is exploring Group Rapid Transit (GRT) technology that would shuttle passengers from three economy parking areas and employee parking lot to the airport terminal via the autonomous vehicle.

Edwards said he became interested in automated transit in 2013 after seeing the Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) System at London Heathrow Airport (LHR) connecting Terminal 5 to a business carpark. He was intrigued because of the environmental benefits and the on-demand nature of the

“For us, it was very much a customer service driven item,” he said. “Also it’s only being used when it’s in demand. Other systems at airports connecting terminals on headways are operating continuously.”

The airport performed a feasibility study in 2015 contrasting a PRT system with rubber tire gas fueled vehicles during a 30-year useful life timeframe and the automated system makes sense from a business perspective. ATN’s have more upfront costs to build the system, but drivers aren’t required, fuel costs are eliminated and maintenance is less expensive.

GSP then performed a public procurement process asking for PRT-type ATN systems. GSP leaders chose 2getthere as preferred partner, which was acquired by ZF in 2019.

Oceaneering International works with the company on rolling out a U.S.-based ATN. P3 developer Plenary Group is assisting the companies in launching the GSP project.

Edwards said GSP went through a detailed RFP process to find a vehicle partner. One of the key factors leaders sought was a working vehicle, not a test or concept. It also had to run independent of a fixed track so it could potentially run in mixed traffic as the technology matures.

“We wanted to touch it, feel it and understand it,” he said. “There’s a lot of companies out there that are purporting this technology, but it’s all frankly housed in the cloud. It’s virtual and nothing you can go test and ride.”

PRT system are being embraced by the rest of the world, but the U.S. has been less apt to adopt the technology. Airport leaders went to Masdar City, Abu Dhabi to see its PRT system firsthand. They saw the system operationally, the technical elements and Edwards said it showed them it was the best option for GSP.

“2getthere has been out there for a while,” Edwards said. “I don’t want to be cutting my teeth with someone new in the industry that doesn’t have the experience going through not only the technology side, but the operational side.”

The companies held a December demonstration in a partially operational new economy parking lot at GSP to show airport leaders and community partners the capabilities of GRT vehicle technology and its application to the airport environment. Specifically, it demonstrated how automated vehicles can be used as parking shuttles, cargo delivery vehicles and other transit uses.

“For me, when they see visualizations or videos of operating systems, there’s nothing better than touching it, feeling it, riding it and seeing how it operates,” Edwards said.

Edwards said leaders are now in discussion of a preliminary development agreement with the stakeholders, with hopes of bringing a recommendation of moving forward on the project to the airport board later this year.

Alignments, station locations and configurations and funding will be determined within a year after that.  

“In reality, we’re probably still three years away from an operational system if everything goes as planned,”

Edwards said.  The system will run in a mostly at-grade dedicated lane at GSP. Some elevated roadway will be necessary going over existing roadway to reach the terminal building.

“We want to make this as convenient as possible for the end user. We don’t want to ask them to escalate up or elevate up or ramp up or do anything that tends or be inconvenient and frankly cause additional maintenance.”      

An Underused Tool

Peter Muller, President of PRT Consulting, said moving people in small pods around an airport can revolutionize operations and have a stronger impact than an Automated People Mover (APM).

GSP and Austin-Bergstom International Airport (AUS) are the only airports in the U.S. to explore the option while another major airport is also starting to study it. 

“Why a lot of airports haven’t looked into it is beyond me,” he said. “It’s working like a charm at Heathrow. It has reliability like an APM and all the passengers love it. It gets the highest rating of all systems at that airport.”

A PRT system runs approximately 50% to 70% of the operating costs of a traditional shuttle bus. They’re smaller than a traditional shuttle bus, but they do twice as many round trips because they’re faster.

The average wait time for a PRT is less than 30 seconds at LHR, Muller said.

“Think about like a horizontal elevator,” he said. “You go to the station, you push a button and either there’s a vehicle waiting for you or one comes.”  

Muller said a new PRT system going online in Mexico has a capacity of more than 8,000 passengers per hour, which exceeds APMs at 25% of the cost. The column load of a PRT guideway is 10% of that of an APM. The columns are also 2-3 feet in diameter compared to 6-9 feet for an APM.

“The standard for an APM is at least 99.5% reliability and modern PRT systems in operation today are doing 99.7%,” he said. “In 10 years of operation, the Heathrow system has had one vehicle get stuck on the guideway. And no accidents.”

Edwards said GSP would eventually want to extend the system to its planned business park on its property fronting I-85 to connect tenants who need to use the airport. It could also serve as a model in the region where municipal leaders are expressing interest in ATNs to connect the community. 

Edwards recommend airports exploring an ATN hire a consultant versed in the technology and airports. He also recommends taking the time to understand the technology itself and building flexibility into your vision to meet changes in need and technology.

“Don’t box yourself in,” he said. “If we would’ve rolled out this project in 2017 and gone with a PRT system, we would’ve probably built an elevated roadway system that would probably just accommodate that smaller vehicle and if we had wanted to up gauge to a larger vehicle, we would’ve had a problem.” 

About the Author

Joe Petrie | Editor & Chief

Joe Petrie is the Editorial Director for the Endeavor Aviation Group.

Joe has spent the past 15 years writing about the most cutting-edge topics related to transportation and policy in a variety of sectors with an emphasis on transportation issues for the past 10 years.

Contact: Joe Petrie

Editor & Chief | Airport Business

[email protected]


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