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The Sky Isn’t the Limit

If you have ever seen an episode of the 1960’s cartoon “The Jetsons”, then you should know all about the almost laughable portrayal of our future society, sporting things such as flying cars and robotic house keepers. However, according to Douglas Malewicki, an inventor as well as aerospace engineer for UniModal Transport Solutions Inc., the idea seems far from a joke. The famous inventor is considered the father of green transportation, responsible for creations like the 156-miles-per-gallon “California Commuter” cars that hold the Guinness fuel economy records for street-legal vehicles driven at freeway speeds, as well as the highly-aerodynamic human-powered recumbent bicycle. Although both inventions seem to be great contributors to the technological revolution, neither top Malewicki’s latest prototype, the SkyTran.

Malewicki patented the SkyTran in 1992 and published several papers on it, including a paper entitled “People Pods – Miniature Magnetic Levitation Vehicles for Personal Non-Stop Transportation”, which was presented to the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Future Transportation Conference. The paper describes how Malewicki had built and driven a freeway-legal 154-MPG car in 1981, but realized it could never be safe on a street surrounded by vehicles much larger and heavier; however, elevated tracks would allow a very light vehicle to be safe, hence the concept of the SkyTran. It went on to describe how the SkyTran can squeeze both surfaces of a track simultaneously and brake safely to a stop from 100 miles per hour in just 55 feet. In 1999, Malewicki was invited to present an overview of the invention for the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, hinting to the construction of the SkyTran in the year 2052. Once Malewicki and his partners began making proposals to transit systems, the prototype began to be recognized in popular technology magazines, as well as local and national news articles.

So what exactly is the SkyTran? It is a lightweight, two-passenger PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) system suspended from elevated magnetic levitation tracks, estimated to travel around 100 miles per hour with approximately 200 miles per gallon. The special kind of tracks featured with the SkyTran allow it to use natural magnetic fields to counteract the effects of gravity, as well as propelling itself by a linear motor and metal coils built in to the tracks. Because of these unique and innovative railway features, it makes switching on and off tracks at high speeds easier and more efficient as well as requiring little to no maintenance. Ideally, the system would be elevated by standard utility poles 20-30 feet above the ground or attached to the sides of buildings. The tracks are carefully mapped out in a 3D grid of inter-city guideways to avoid intersection accidents as well as derailment, and are able to deliver you within a quarter to half of a mile within your destination. The pod also comes equipped with parking wheels, a vertically opening door, and air conditioning or heating to optimize the comfort of the passengers.

There is a list of incredible benefits of the SkyTran system, starting with how extremely inexpensive it would be to build compared to other transit modes like light rails and buses. One mile of SkyTran guiderail, including stations and stops, will cost $1 million to $2 million, while the Light rail costs $25 million to $50 million per mile, and SkyTran vehicles will cost approximately $4,000 to $6,000 each while one new 36-passenger transit bus costs $300,000. As far as labor costs go, SkyTran’s operating and maintenance costs are only a fraction of those required to support a light rail and expanded bus system since there are no drivers. Also, consider the savings not only in terms of the tax burden current transit systems put on the public, but in other areas such as no land purchases or neighborhood destruction to provide rights-of-way.

Additional benefits include the freedom and convenience passengers will receive with the system because they will not be spending any time in traffic, which will reduce stress as well as their time commuting. It is environmentally friendly because of the 200 miles per gallon it can achieve, as well as the elimination of air and noise pollutants that used to be caused by traffic and gridlock. Last but not least, it will help with the rising number of deaths due to automobile accidents. In the United States each year, there are over six million car accidents and around 40,000 deaths due to how unsafe cars can be, from drunk or irresponsible drivers to car malfunctions; the SkyTran would drastically reduce those numbers. Not only does it keep its riders safe, but here’s where SkyTran’s self-driving vehicles really shine. Essentially, there is no risk that an incapacitated driver will crash or endanger other vehicles, but if they can manage to press the vehicle “Emergency” button in case of a medical situation, such as heart attack or seizure, then an operator will intervene, assess the situation, and re-route you straight to a hospital or emergency room. People with medical conditions can also wear monitors that detect a dangerous event and communicate with the system for them, even if they are unconscious.

Malewicki’s intentions for the SkyTran were not to completely replace cars, just eliminate commuter traffic. It is not expected for you to ride the system to your local grocery store or down the street, just lengthy trips into or throughout the city. Although the concept seems beyond brilliant, it has of course been met with criticism. One of the design flaws is the size of the pods. Because they only seat two at a time, it will make it hard for groups or families to travel together, as well as not being able to carry large amounts of stuff, like luggage. Another dangerous possibility to consider is a local area power failure. Imagine hanging in a pod in the middle of winter until the utility company restored power, or until a cherry picker could come by and rescue you; it would not be the best way to spend your morning.

To summarize, nowadays we all seem to be obsessed with technology- always having the better cell phone, car or computer, or simply being more advanced than everyone else. The SkyTran could be the one technology that starts a whole other revolution, opening up other scientific discoveries. It could be the future of our transportation system; the advantages obviously outweigh the risks. It is ideal for the every-day commuter- efficient, environmentally friendly, fast, and not to mention extremely aesthetically pleasing. If UniModal actually introduced this advancement into our lives, the possibilities could be endless.