Testing above-the-street magnetic pods in Israel

An Israeli defense contractor is testing out a new form of mass transit that is carried above city streets:

SkyTran is a personal rapid transit system that features two-person pods hanging from elevated maglev tracks. As futuristic as that sounds (and looks), the idea has been around since 1990. It’s been suggested in cities ranging from Tempe, Arizona to Kuala Lampur, but the idea never got off the, er, ground.

Until now. Israel Aerospace Industries is working with the California company to bring SkyTran to its corporate campus in Tel Aviv. It’s a pilot program that could be expanded throughout the city, which has been looking at adopting SkyTran for awhile now. Although the test track will be a 400- to 500-meter loop with a max speed of 70 kilometers per hour (44 mph), skyTran CEO Jerry Saunders told Reuters a broader system could hit 240 km/hr (150 mph) and carry as many as 12,000 people per track per hour.

A congested city like Tel Aviv is an ideal place for transit pods that float above crowded streets. The small pods and fixed route place the system somewhere between a car and light rail. The system is automated; passengers will summon a pod on their phone, have it meet them at a specific destination and carry them where they need to go. “Israelis love technology and we don’t foresee a problem of people not wanting to use the system. Israel is a perfect test site,” Sanders told Reuters.

The low-maintenance tracks move the cars with “passive” magnetic levitation, so there’s no power required to keep the pods elevated and mobile. An initial burst of electricity sends each pod to 10 to 15 mph, and it carries onward to 44 mph while gliding inside the track with the attachment levitating one centimeter above the rails.

Given different important areas of innovation in recent decades, it is interesting that the automobile with an internal combustion engine has proven to have remarkable staying power. Of course, cars (and variants from motorcycles to trucks) require quite an infrastructure from roads to the production of gasoline as well as a whole host of industries build around them like fast-food restaurants and big box stores. A new transportation technology, regardless of its genius, would take some time to develop its own infrastructure and for people and places to adjust around it.

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