Cruising to work in a levitating pod 20 feet above city streets might sound like something out of “The Jetsons,” but a California company is building the technology right now in Tel Aviv and thinks it could solve transportation problems in major cities worldwide.
SkyTran Inc. has formed an unlikely partnership with defense giant Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. to build a prototype of the next-generation mass-transit system at the Israeli company’s headquarters. Tel Aviv has committed to installing a 2.7-mile downtown commercial line that could be completed as soon as 2016 at a cost of about $50 million if the project succeeds.
“Our vision is to change the way people live and travel,” SkyTran CEO Jerry Sanders said.
SkyTran uses magnetic levitation technology to transport lightweight, egg-shaped cars hovering underneath a rail constructed above city streets. A commuter would be able to summon a pod by smartphone to platforms at the tops of staircases roughly every quarter-mile along the line.
A connected side track would allow cars to divert from the main rail line, pick up passengers at platforms and then re-enter the flow of traffic.
The cars are designed to hold two people and travel up to 150 miles an hour, but the average speed of the line planned for Tel Aviv is expected to be about 43 miles per hour. The SkyTran vehicles will rely on a “neural network software system” that will control the flow of traffic and indicate which areas need higher concentrations of cars to satisfy demand.
The transit system, which is touted by its builder as fast, safe, green and economical, will carry up to 12,000 people along a 125-mile line. Each ride will cost about $5.
“We don’t expect to take over the mass-transportation system,” Mr. Sanders said. “But as SkyTran grows and people see its benefits, we think more and more people will stop driving cars and taking trains and will start taking SkyTran, and I think we will decrease the number of cars on the road.”
The project has been underway for almost a decade at SkyTran’s headquarters at the NASA Ames Research Center near Mountain View, California. It is part of a public-private partnership by which NASA offers companies access to its expertise and technology. In this case, designers were looking to “revolutionize public transportation.”
“Everyone knows that the [public transportation] system doesn’t work,” Mr. Sanders said. “The highways we have can no longer accommodate the number of cars on the road.”
Mr. Sanders said he envisioned a solution that would operate above the roads instead of below them like subway systems, which he said are too costly and time-consuming to build. The company points to how quickly and cheaply its lines can be constructed because assembly requires a handful of basic parts and little maintenance.
SkyTran last month announced its partnership with Israel Aerospace Industries — a defense company that is better known for producing drones and missiles. The prototype being built at the company’s headquarters will consist of a 500-yard loop that will allow designers to test and refine their system.
SkyTran initially planned to implement its first commuter line in Mountain View but could not get the local and government support it needed, Mr. Sanders said.
“We got the green light from the mayor of Tel Aviv and have been getting wall-to-wall support from all the government industries, and that made it attractive to build here,” Mr. Sanders said. “It’s truly a very techno-friendly city.”
Pending the success of the SkyTran system in Tel Aviv, SkyTran plans to start building the technology in other places. The company says it is making preliminary plans for routes in France, India and the San Francisco area.
“With the approval from the mayor, It was natural for us to start here, but we hope to build a system in California and go from there,” Mr. Sanders said.
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