Futuristic rail system for Israel designed in Silicon Valley

Within two years, if all goes as planned, Israelis will be the first people to try out a futuristic rapid transport system designed by NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field.

The skyTran uses two-passenger modules that travel along a guide rail suspended from existing power lines. Magnets in the vehicle create a magnetic field around the metal coil inside the rail, causing the vehicle to lift up and glide 60 miles per hour on a cushion of air. The system uses little energy and potentially could be powered entirely by solar panels.

“Our objective is to build a pilot project here so that we can make Israel the center of the skyTran world,” says CEO Jerry Sanders, who divides his time between Palo Alto and Israel.

A transport system called skyTran uses magnets to move two-passenger modules at 60 mph. image/via israel 21c

Construction could begin next spring on the first route, which would run from the high-tech center in Atidim through the Tel Aviv University train station and end at the Tel Aviv–Jaffa Port. Another installation might be placed on the congested east side of Netanya, and a third would take people into and around Ariel Sharon Park, a huge public “green belt” in central Israel.

Personal rapid transit (PRT) alternatives are in demand worldwide — especially in large countries such as China and India — to relieve traffic jams and reduce energy consumption. Underground solutions are expensive, and street-level solutions just add more congestion.

“We are the most sophisticated PRT on the market … and also the least expensive, greenest and most efficient,” asserts Sanders.

With skyTran, riders order a vehicle by tapping an icon on their smartphone. Once inside the pod, the passenger chooses a destination from an on-board console.

The cost of implementing skyTran is estimated at $9 million per mile, as opposed to $100 million per mile for a light rail system and $20 million per lane for buses. The fare probably will be competitive with Tel Aviv’s taxi service, says Sanders. And maintenance costs would be low.

Jerry Sanders

“The vehicles don’t encounter resistance like wheel-based systems do, so there is no wear and tear from wheels hitting pavement or track,” says Sanders. “When the vehicle comes to a station, it rests on little rollerblade wheels.”

A former Wall Street lawyer and serial entrepreneur who teaches a graduate business seminar at Oxford University, Sanders was contacted by NASA to provide direction to the Ames engineering group that pioneered the skyTran concept near Mountain View.

“They showed me the technology and I fell in love with it, so they appointed me chairman and CEO two years ago,” says Sanders.

“As I learned more about the technology and opportunities, it became clear Israel would be the perfect beta site because it has a very sophisticated population with no fear of technology, and great pain suffered every morning and evening when they hit the roads.”

Sanders has found that Israel’s bureaucracy “is not as onerous as in some other Western countries. It’s a ‘two-telephone call’ country. Once the government knows about something and is interested in it, they find a way to clear the bureaucratic hurdles, and that is what is going on with us.”

When he predicts that Israel will become the center of the skyTran world, he is not only talking about passengers. While right now the modules and support poles are mass-produced in the same Austrian factory that manufactures aluminum parts for Mercedes-Benz, Sanders believes they could be made in Israel. In addition, Israeli software engineers could take over the job of continuously upgrading the programming.

“Right now, Ames is the headquarters for the company, but if and when we start a pilot in Israel, without a doubt we will train and qualify many local engineers and blue-collar workers working with local companies. Israel will become a base of knowledge for the skyTran system, and if the first is system built here, people will come from all over to learn about it,” Sanders says.

Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is associate editor of ISRAEL21c.