In a retro-futuristic vision of the 21st century, people might zip from place to place in sleek pods, as a robotic assistant prepared a home-cooked meal and an electric dog wagged its tail in anticipation of its owner arriving home.
As the technological revolution of the 21st century makes artificial intelligence and personal assistants more of a reality, they may not be taking the form of Rosie the robot from The Jetsons.
The skypod, on the other hand, is just around the corner, thanks to SkyTran, an innovative company with Israeli roots that is promising to upend the way people get from place to place.
“There’s no more room for surface solutions.
The light rail takes over space that’s used by buses, and they’re not running all the time,” said SkyTran CEO and chairman Jerry Sanders in a recent interview in Tel Aviv. “The world is choked and it’s choking and there’s no solution.”
The vision for SkyTran is kind of like a monorail, but instead of trains racing across the city from stop to stop on an elevated track, it will let people take individual pods from location to location. Instead of waiting for a scheduled vehicle, people will be able to summon a pod on demand.
Instead of waiting through a series of starts and stops along a preset route, as a bus might, it would navigate independently down a series of interconnected lines, taking the person directly to his stop of choice.
And all of it, said Sanders, would cost a fraction of what a project like the Tel Aviv Light Rail is projected to cost.
Here’s how it works.
The system is based on a new form of magnetic levitation, or maglev, essentially relying on the same force that pushes two magnets with the same poles apart. The maglev technology that’s deployed in China’s Shanghai, for example, requires a perfectly flat bed of magnetic electrified tiles.
That’s expensive and fragile.
SkyTran, which is working in close association with NASA, uses magnets differently.
If you drop a magnet down a sheet of aluminum, a metal that doesn’t attract magnets, it will fall straight down. If you a turn a magnet on its side, however, the aluminum will slow the magnet’s fall “like molasses,” a result of loose electrons interacting with the magnets. It’s the same effect deployed to help roller coasters stop quickly at the end of the ride.
By orienting the magnets a certain way in relation to the aluminum, SkyTran manages to get the magnet to coast upward, harnessing the resistant force of the magnet against the aluminum to push the vehicle up. The effect is like a jet pushing air over an airplane wing.
All it needs is propulsion, which it also accomplishes by using a similar trick: It spirals magnets around a motor, puts it in an aluminum cylinder, and when the motor turns, it pushes forward.
“When it gets this energy it takes off, and now we’re flying,” he said.
Because the magnetic wings are frictionless, once it gets a little push it glides forward with very little extra energy. The whole thing uses about a third of the energy that a hybrid Prius car does, said Sanders.
Oh, and the pods can zoom along at speeds of up to 250 km. per hour.
The magnetic wings stabilize it and allow it to stay straight no matter what the guideway is doing, meaning the guideway doesn’t have to be as precisely flat or straight as, say, the Shanghai Maglev Train. The passenger will still have a perfectly smooth ride. Sanders says that, mile for mile, SkyTran will cost 1 percent of what the Shanghai train cost, and about a 10th of the current cost of the Tel Aviv Light Rail.
Light rail typically costs about $70 million per kilometer, he said. In Israel, the Jerusalem Light Rail was $160m. per kilometer (“God bless ’em.”). SkyTran costs just $6m. per kilometer.
“You can build 10 SkyTran lines instead,” Sanders said.
“Many people claim that their technology is different, but we’re doing things that have never been done, and we know that because when we file our patents, there’s basically no prior arc,” he added.
Instead of tearing up roads for a light rail track or building new ones for cars and buses, all the SkyTran needs is a series of poles connecting the stations, which can be housed on the street, on roofs, or even inside big buildings. Then, they just need to connect them with the overhead guideways, which will have automatic switches to send pods in different directions or direct them into the nearby station.
That infrastructure is easier to manufacture, put together, and maintain than most, he said.
Orders are already coming in. SkyTran has already signed deals in Nigeria, with European airports, even with the United Arab Emirates (which Sanders said ignored the company’s Israeli ties. “They didn’t make a big deal, we didn’t make a big deal.”) “We’re two years away from a commercial system, and that’s simply because we don’t yet have a full-scale factory churning out the parts yet,” Sanders said. It’s currently testing subscale systems at NASA and Israel Aerospace Industries.
And in Israel, it has plans set for Netanya and Herzliya, though its Tel Aviv plans have hit setbacks and will take some time to be approved.
“It’s easier in places like China, where the local government can give approval. In Israel, of course, it will be more complicated,” he said.
If it can make good on its promises, Sky- Tran may, indeed, be a game-changing addition to Israel, for more reasons than are obvious at first.
The first benefit, of course, would be improved transport.
An OECD report in late July noted that Israel has the highest average traffic density among the 34-member group of advanced economies. Israelis travel more per vehicle than almost all the other OECD countries.
A 2014 Bank of Israel report found that people use private vehicles about twice as much as public transport, while a Finance Ministry report said the overall investment in metropolitan transport infrastructure per resident in Israel was just 15 percent of that of other Western cities, according to Globes. It would need to invest NIS 200-250 billion to catch up.
SkyTran, Sanders argued, would help Israel leap forward without requiring the same financial investment.
“We’re the only mode of public transportation that’s profitable, and we’re actually very profitable because our capital cost is so low,” he said.
So how would it fit in with the existing transport infrastructure? Sanders said it could help people zip across their cities and help them get to other forms of intracity transport, such as the train.
But what about the driverless car revolution that’s brewing? Driverless car visionaries say they will make it easier to carpool, reduce time cars spend looking for parking, and reduce the burden of the commute in general.
When asked about this prospect, Sanders didn’t hold back. “That’s the biggest crock of shit that’s sold to the public,” he said.
Cars on roads are cars on roads, he argued, no matter if they are computerized, self-driving or electric. The more popular they are, the more usage will increase, he predicted.
“Computerized cars are going to bring about changes, but they will do nothing to solve the traffic problem. They will probably make it worse,” he said. “There’s no magic bullet that is going to transform traffic congestion.”
Indeed, studies have shown that building more roads, unexpectedly, leads to more traffic, because people buy more cars. “The more roads you build, the more traffic you get,” he continued.
The better option, he argues, is to have public transport services that help people quickly get from distant residential areas to work centers.
Therein lies one of SkTran’s unexpected possibilities: It could alleviate the intense demand for centrally located dwelling and finally help the exorbitant cost of housing in Israel drop.
Dr. Efrat Tolkowsky, CEO of the Gazit- Globe Real Estate Institute at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, thinks such solutions are a major key in that area.
“I think we’re in a transportation crisis more than a housing crises,” she said. “If you don’t buy in the demand area and want to work in the demand area, then you’re stuck in a car for two hours a day. It costs you quite a lot,” she added.
It’s even a drag on business. “If you just want to go visit your customer in Bnei Brak, you’re in traffic all the time,” she said.
Dov Greenbaum, director of the Zvi Meitar Institute for Legal Implications of Emerging Technologies at the IDC, agrees.
“Instead of living in Gush Dan and driving up prices there, it would just be a nice and easy and quiet commute.”
He also foresees another possible unexpected benefit.
“I think that SkyTran is an interesting, game-changing system, particularly in Israel, because it’s supposed to be quiet and run on electromagnetism, so it may be a possible middle ground in the haredi vs hiloni [secular] fight about public transportation on Shabbat,” he said.
Religious Jews may not object as much to Shabbat uses of a vehicle that zips by without noise, leaving them undisturbed.
But Greenbaum also notes that building vehicle railways in the sky could be an eyesore, which would be especially bad if the technology, for whatever reason, doesn’t catch on or is made obsolete.
“The worst case is having this white elephant sitting above Tel Aviv’s streets that nobody uses,” he said.
Sanders is not concerned. In his view, the technology will be a welcome disruption to stale transportation technology, and he expects it to make a lot of money in the process.
“There’s no doubt that this company is going to be a multibillion-dollar company very quickly,” he said.