For many people, their commute to work is a daily exercise in unpredictability and stress. Americans spend a nerve-fraying 42 hours out of the year stuck in traffic, and that congestion also harms the environment.
But Gerald Sanders, CEO of seven-year-old transportation startup skyTran, has a mission to change how people commute around the world.
Based at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., skyTran developed a high-speed elevated Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie -- futuristic and streamlined aluminum pods that are attached to steel poles and powered by patented magnetic levitation technology. Able to hit speeds of up to 150 mph, the silent vehicles are designed to be an environmentally sound alternative to that soul-crushing traffic.
It may sound like a futuristic dream, but working with infrastructure, especially in cities, is rife with roadblocks. How do you generate that all important governmental and community buy-in? Sanders says that is the multimillion-dollar question at hand.
“We believe that when people understand the promise of skyTran, when they understand that all we’re talking about is a system that costs about one tenth to one hundredth of any competing system, that will not require massive government subsidies, that will never be stuck in traffic, that is silent and fast, people are going to want this system in their homes and neighborhoods," he says. "We’ve learned that persistence is everything.”
Alex Washburn, an Industry Professor of Design at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ and the former chief urban designer of the City of New York under Michael Bloomberg, says that startups such as skyTran have a tough road ahead of them. “Nothing happens in the city without an alignment of politics, finance and design," he says. "And if something is not profitable, it's not replicable -- and cities grow by repetition.”
That replicability could be part of skyTran's future appeal. When describing the construction of the systems, Sanders likened the process to using Lego bricks. “You can build the entire system in a factory off-site," he says, "and then when you’re ready to deploy it, you simply come to the city, and you roll it out without having to close off roads, highways, freeways, digging tunnels or anything." The systems don't generate any electromagnetic radiation and utilize one third of the energy of a hybrid car, according to Sanders.
Sanders also plays up the system's cost-effectiveness. Traditional mass transit systems rely on a great deal of manpower. Paying the people who make the trains run on time, from ticket takers to engineers, can take up 85 percent of revenue, according to Sanders. But software-supported skyTran's operating costs would come to about 15 to 20 percent of revenue.
For the construction of New York City's Second Avenue Subway, $4.45 billion was set aside to build only the first phase, which will stretch from 96th Street to 63rd Street. It's anticipated to be ready by the end of the year, but the construction has been going on since 2009. Invoking New York's never-ending story, Sanders claims that this is the kind of political and budgetary gridlock that skyTran is aiming to avoid, costing around $9 million per mile and built in under a few weeks.
However, for skyTran and other companies operating in this space, the challenge is not only convincing officials that a system such as skyTran belongs in their cities, but having a comprehensive understanding of the regulations that currently exist that will either help or hinder them.
"There is a really important function that entrepreneurs are going to have to do and hopefully maybe government officials can help them, which is to scour back laws that are preventing us from accomplishing today what we need to do tomorrow,” explains Washburn. “There is a school of regulation that imagines the world as a static place. The world is not static, it's a dynamic place and it’s only getting more dynamic. So there is a challenge for regulation to be based on performance and equity, not a table of standards that have been empirically derived. I think successful infrastructures will be able to introduce into regulation that notion of a dynamic city. "
SkyTran will soon have some real life examples of their proof of concept for regulators to look to. A pilot program system has been built on the campus of Israel Aerospace Industries in Lod, Israel, and the company recently announced that it would be constructing a 50-kilometer system in Lagos, Nigeria, to be incorporated into the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (LAMATA). The company also has a partnership with French civil engineering firm Systra to develop a system in that country and would like to set up its first U.S. assembly plant in Baltimore.
In April, skyTran announced that it had raised $30 million in series B funding to build up the company’s team of engineers and make an even bigger push to get the word out, which is a challenge Sanders says his team is ready for. “Anywhere you put your finger on the globe," he says, "is a place where we could make people’s lives better."