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  • 11.02.15

The Sci-Fi SkyTran Monorail May Be Our Most Practical Replacement For Cars

After decades in development, this smart pod network is about to hit the real world. It has the potential to revolutionize personal transport in cities.

SkyTran is a monorail. It’s also a maglev, and a personal transport network, and it’s about to open for business in Tel Aviv, Israel, with tickets that cost the same as a bus ride. It is also, says SkyTran chairman and CEO Jerry Sanders, “a solution to the soul crushing, time wasting, stress inducing phenomenon that is surface traffic.”

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Technically, the SkyTran is impressive. Developed at NASA’s Ames Research Center, it uses maglev to hover the two-person cars below a rail and to drive them at up to 150 mph. The overhead rail from which they hang is no more intrusive than the overhead power-lines for a tram system. But it’s the intelligent routing that’s really impressive.

Each two-seater pod (passengers sit one behind the other) is routed individually, much like data packets over the Internet. Each pod is sent along the fastest route to its destination. This, combined with the fact that the lines are in the air, means that the pods never need to stop except in stations and can avoid potential blockages. “SkyTran is in effect a private vehicle–it is your own limo service–and therefore commuters will love it,” says Sanders. Even in the stations, this smart routing continues. If the folks getting out of the car in front take forever to unload their luggage, your own pod can skip past them on a separate rail.

The Tel Aviv test project comprises just four stations, but the smart routing gets even better when the system gets more complex. Imagine traveling across London or New York without have to change lines, ever. “It is virtually impossible to get cross-town in NYC,” says Sanders. “SkyTran could cover that in minutes.”

Just as attractive is the lack of scheduling. You just jump in the first pod that turns up, and it takes you where you want to go. There’s no chance of accidentally jumping on an express train that will miss your stop. You can also order up a freight car if you have a lot of shopping to carry home. The combination of SkyTran and Ikea sounds unstoppable.

One of the factors stressed by SkyTran is the low cost of the system. “Even freeways are dozens of times more expensive per mile to construct than the simple SkyTran tracks,” says the company. This, combined with a modular design, means that networks can be set up quickly. You can even run existing telecom and power lines through the track, kind of like a cable-tidy for the street.

“Its very practical and most suited for a large urban environment because its footprint is very small–a mere 18-inch light pole–and it can enter and exit virtually all existing buildings,” says Sanders. That’s right: The tracks can run through buildings, like tunnels through a hillside. Stations can even be located inside existing buildings, in the lobby next to the elevators, for example. It’s an attractive prospect. “Several building owners have asked us to bring SkyTran into their building, and they are prepared to pay for that ‘extra mile,'” says Sanders.

“Cheap” is relative, though. Wikipedia compares sourced figures, putting the SkyTran at around $10 million per mile. This compares to $100 million per mile for light rail systems. The difference comes both from the cost of the infrastructure itself and also thanks to the fact that a SkyTrans system doesn’t need to buy up expensive city real estate in order to build its tracks.

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“Cities that have subways and trains are blessed,” says Sanders. But building out an entire subway system today is just too expensive. “We know from NYC that the last mile of subway built cost over $2 billion and took more than a decade. So those systems are just not going to get built anymore,” he told us.

As modern cities seek to reduce car use, alternate transit option are needed. Despite its sci-fi looks, the SkyTran might be the most practical way to add as fast, medium-distance transport network to a city. It might also be the safest.

“The system is like a rental car: No one gets in unless the system knows who you are,” says Sanders. “You can be recognized by your smart phone, thumbprint, special chip-encoded card, and other ways.” In this aspect, the SkyTran is closer to municipal bike-sharing schemes than it is to traditional, anonymous transport. Even if the system is gamed–after all, even a ne’er-do-well can register–security is built in. Here’s the FAQ entry:

In the unthinkable event that a terrorist made it onto the system, he/she could only do harm to themselves in their vehicle. By the same token, natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes, and fires have less of a chance of harming riders that are not bunched together.

Sanders first conceived SkyTran 25 years ago, and the Tel Aviv trial is its first appearance in the real world. I asked Sanders if he thought it might finally be taking off. “Rome was not built in a day,” he said. “But when it was, all roads led to it.”

About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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