Mountain View Voice

Opinion - March 28, 2014

Unfortunately, the pod car never took off

Mountain View residents who may have dreamed of seeing a space-age transportation system of "pod cars" strung along Shoreline Boulevard between downtown and the North Bayshore had to be disappointed when the City Council pulled the plug on a small investment in the experimental system proposed by SkyTran.

Talking about the rush-hour traffic crunch of Google and other high-tech employees trying to get to work in North Bayshore, council member Ronit Bryant perhaps summed up the council majority's hesitancy best: "We do not have any direction from our residents that pods hanging from the sky going to and from downtown is our solution to this problem. This (a city investment) is really premature. The proof of concept should happen at NASA Ames." The SkyTran company is based at NASA-Ames, just a stone's throw from the North Bayshore home of Google.

Championed by council member Mike Kasperzak, the pod cars have not been able to attract any interest from investors to test the true viability of the system. Kasperzak's request to use $75,000 of the Shoreline Fund to back a Department of Transportation-led development program for the technology fell on deaf ears, as council members said the idea needed to have support from North Bayshore businesses as well as more proof the technology would work.

Kasperzak said SkyTran would not be the only company working on the technology funded in part by the city's $75,000 grant. But the company's claims, particularly their ability to carry as many passengers as three freeway lanes, did not seem genuine to some council members. Bryant cited a study of a system proposed to serve San Jose Airport and the Diridon light rail station that concluded the pod cars would not do the job, at least not with current technology.

"They thought the carrying capacity wasn't there to do that, and that was in 2012," Bryant said.

"I am not interested in committing myself to technology that isn't there and has a carrying capacity that I find hard to believe," Bryant told the council.

SkyTran has been trying to get Mountain View interested in pod cars since 2010, when it was estimated that an 8.5-mile pod car system to connect downtown to Moffett Field with 24 stations would cost between $60 million and $130 million. It is difficult to imagine how a very modest $75,000 investment by Mountain View would get the ball rolling on such a costly project.

John McAlister, the vice mayor, said he had been told, "This is not the type of venture people put money into." Instead, he suggest that studying pod cars would be more appropriate for the city's newly minted Transportation Management Association, which is composed of the city's major companies, including Google, and is tasked with the job of managing traffic congestion and sharing employee shuttle services.

It is worth noting that none of the city's top companies have expressed much interest in pod cars. Google is focused on its driverless car technology. Rather than pod cars, a Google representative suggested that the city partner with the company to study a range of options for reducing North Bayshore traffic, including getting more people to bike, join carpools and use transit.

So despite watching this shimmering vision of space-age pod cars disappear in a convincing City Council reality-check, no one can deny that it would be really cool if Mountain View was the first city in the United States to install a system of pod cars whose passengers would glide above the clogged highways and interchanges in comfortable pods, stopping between major destinations along the way. If the system would work as planned, it would take thousands of vehicles off our already stressed local traffic network, shuffling workers between Caltrain and the North Bayshore. Sadly, it was a dream that won't come true, at least until someone antes up a few million dollars to get the pod cars off the ground.

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