A local company imagines a day when computer-controlled electric vehicles will become the default mode of public transportation, taking people to their destinations via a network of overhead magnetic rails at the touch of a button.
Unimodal, Inc. has already built prototypes of "SkyTran" at its facilities inside NASA Ames Research Park. "Personal Rapid Transit" (PRT) is a futuristic idea that's been around for over 30 years, but now that technology has caught up, PRT systems are being considered for Santa Cruz, Marin County and San Jose airport.
The system could also come to Mountain View's outskirts. While not part of any formal plans yet, discussions are underway about installing a PRT system at the 73-acre NASA Ames Research Park when the area is redeveloped as a research hub for private companies and universities.
On Tuesday, during a talk at NASA Ames' "Exploration Expo," Unimodal CEO Christopher Perkins likened the technology's superiority over cars and buses to the Internet's superiority over switchboards.
Just as the Internet efficiently sends packets of information through a network of cables and servers, SkyTran would efficiently send people through a computer-controlled network of stations and "maglev" rails, Perkins said.
Pointing to a picture of gridlocked freeway traffic, Perkins said the "freedom" of the automobile is something everybody wants. However: "We're all held captive by this same desire."
The 1,200-pound electric vehicles allow up to three passengers. Users do no driving computers control the system to prevent accidents. The vehicles literally float on overhead rails using magnetic levitation or "maglev" technology instead of wheels. The vehicles would get the equivalent of 500 miles per gallon and could travel up to 150 miles per hour before becoming inefficient.
One SkyTran line can support as much traffic flow as a three-lane freeway, Perkins said. Power could come from rail-mounted solar panels or wind turbines.
Among the advantages of PRT is that, unlike trains, it can provide non-stop service (vehicles merge off of main lines for stops). Because of the light weight of the vehicles, the overhead rails and support poles need not be large.
Perkins said that right now it would cost $15 million per mile to construct SkyTran, but costs would go down "substantially" once mass produced.
If the technology gains public acceptance, Unimodal expects it to go "viral" at some point, spreading across the country to various cities. Perkins envisions urban areas with stations within walking distance.
The Marin County Board of Supervisors reportedly approved a letter of interest in January for a demonstration SkyTran system that could connect Marin's civic center with a new SMART rail line. Unimodal can use the letter to help acquire private funding.
Perkins says he hopes private companies would develop and operate the systems piece by piece, the way private companies once developed the county's railroad system. Taxpayer funds usually would not be necessary, Perkins says, though Marin has discussed using some state grants for its project. Fares for the systems in Marin are reportedly estimated at 25 cents per mile, paid using RFID cards.
There are several other companies developing personal rapid transit systems, including Ultra in Britain, which is constructing the first modern system at Heathrow airport, and POSCO Steel, which is testing a system in Sweden.
"It's time for the USA to get into the race," Perkins said. "That's why we're going to develop a system here at Ames."
Clark Foster, a mechanical engineer, says the company is supported by a team of engineers, some of whom volunteer their time because they "believe to a high degree in the concept." Perkins and Foster say Unimodal's biggest problem is political acceptance, and Foster admits that politics "is not our world."
Such acceptance is the "final hurdle all good ideas must overcome," said Phil Smith, CEO of Space Grant Education and Enterprise Institute, which may send college interns from around the country to work for Unimodal.
For more information, including video, visit the Unimodal Web site.