Imagine zipping above the sidewalk crowds in a personal transporter pod suspended from a two foot wide cable propelled by a magnetic field. It’s not as far-fetched as you may think. A California startup called Unimodal is building what it calls the SkyTran system–a series of two-person pods that move eight to fifteen feet above people on the ground. Unlike traditional Maglev trains that run on electromagnets, SkyTran will use permanent coil-wrapped magnets.
At first, Unimodal envisions the pods, which move from 10 to 100 miles per hour, toting around passengers on high-traffic routes. For example, SkyTran could take people from the airport to a downtown city center or link regional airports in a network. Eventually, SkyTran could be installed on regular utility poles and connect individual homes and businesses in what Unimodal calls a “physical instantiation of the Internet”–i.e. moving packets on interconnected pipes.
Such a system doesn’t come cheap. Unimodal estimates it could cost $10 million a mile, including cables, poles, stations, and cars. That’s cheaper than both freeways and light rail, but with most cities already struggling for cash and the government focusing on a country-wide light rail network, what are the chances that an entirely new transportation system will be put into place?
Still, Unimodal is pushing ahead with a prototype, and the company hopes to have a working model in 18 months on a 1,000-foot loop in Mountain View, California. If the government can gin up the money for it, SkyTran could be a way for people who can’t afford electric vehicles to move around quickly and efficiently in a clean energy-powered system.