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Riding Around In Pods

By James Donahue

Instead of the daily traffic jam as we struggle to get to and from our jobs or even hopping crowded commuter trains and subway cars, a company in Mountain View, California is offering a better idea . . . magnetic high speed levitating pods.

SkyTran Inc., working in partnership with NASA Ames Research Center, is ready to test the device on Silicon Valley workers, transporting them around company property and from campuses to nearby downtown centers.

The pods are two-person vehicles moving silently on a cushion of air along elevated guide-ways; lightweight aluminum tracks. The pods will be tested at slow speeds of no more than 40 miles per hour at first. But researchers at SkyTran say they have the potential of traveling safely at speeds of up to 150 miles per hour.

Not only would such a system ease overcrowded highways, it would eliminate the need for downtown parking. People could move in and out of shopping areas within minutes just by stepping into a Sky Tran pod and paying a minimal toll. They believe the cost of a ride would be comparable to the Bart system between San Francisco and Oakland.

The pods move along a high speed track but when it comes to a station where riders want to board of jump off, it leaves the track and stops. Riders get in, swipe a card, select a stop and then are carried away. It would be something like riding a horizontal elevator.

Even better, the SkyTran system would operate on flexible solar panels coating the guideways, thus generating energy instead of using it. Thus the pods are a super- efficient, high-speed, private vehicle for public use. Since the system is elevated, it is cheaper to build. Engineers at SkyTran estimate a cost of about $7 million per mile compared to about $100 million per mile for a light rail system.

Plans are to start with a test loop on space leased in the NASA Ames research park, then begin building a system to serve the big employers in Silicon Valley. After this, SkyTran pods could begin expanding services north along the Highway 101 corridor. Who knows how far it will go from there?

Robert Baertsch, vice president of engineering, said he believes the company is about three years away from offering public travel. But once it is operating, Baertsch believes the pod will be a popular way for people to get around.

"People don’t like driving now because you’re stuck in the car, you can’t text without risking a ticket or accident, so with SkyTran you’ll be able to work on your computer or laptop while you are traveling," he said.

The pod project is gaining interest in other nations already. Company CEO Jerry Sanders is currently in Tel Aviv, Israel, talking with government officials about building a three to four kilometer-long system. Also representatives from Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Bulgaria and Brazil are expressing interest.