Magnetic gliding pods could be transit of the future

August 2, 2011 8:42:56 PM PDT
Forget planes, trains and automobiles, a totally new kind of transportation is in the works at a NASA lab in the South Bay. Gliding pods could someday pick you up where you live and drop you off at work.

In a nondescript building at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, a little bullet shaped vehicle, creeps down a 50-foot metal test track.

"You're whisked away at a high speed with silence -- because SkyTran is a passive magnetic levitation vehicle, meaning there's no clitter-clatter of wheels, you're riding on a cushion of air," SkyTran CEO Jerry Sanders said.

Gliding at up to 150 miles an hour, suspended from poles, SkyTran is the first in a category called personal rapid transit. The computer-controlled pods pull off the track and into a station where riders hop in, swipe a card and select a stop -- just like pressing a button on an elevator.

It combines the flexibility of a car with the experience of riding a train.

"People don't like driving now because you're stuck in the car, you can't text without risking a ticket or an accident, so with SkyTran you'll be able to work on your computer or your laptop while you're traveling," SkyTran Vice President of Engineering Robert Baertsch said.

SkyTran's designers say the technology behind the system is innovative, but not revolutionary. What is revolutionary, they say, is how much the system will cost cities, or rather, how much it won't cost them.

"Anyone can build a train system that costs $500 million; very few people can build a train system that costs $5 million," Sanders said.

SkyTran 's CEO claims his system would pay for itself, charging fares of around 30 cents a mile.

"It can be built cheaply, safely, effectively and efficiently and the beauty of SkyTran is that it's built in a factory like Lego," Sanders said.

One proposed site for that factory is in Fresno, where SkyTran claims it would create hundreds of jobs. But the city of Mountain View also wants a factory and hopes it will help them score the first SkyTran system.

"It would allow this area to continue to grow for many years before it becomes completely saturated," Mountain View Mayor Jac Siegel said.

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