Wednesday, November 12, 2008

SkyTran: No Thank You

In my search for transportation-related investments I recently came across a startup called SkyTran, which aims to build two-person maglev pods for short-distance travel. It's a unique concept, but I do not think it is commercially viable.

Maglev is a promising technology, but this particular application has some flaws. The advantage of train travel is moving large numbers of people in a single carriage to a station, either intracity or intercity; mixing this mode with a car's point-to-point modality will cause problems. An automobile can move around another parked or stalled car, but a SkyTran pod is confined to one track. Also, it looks like their initial target market is airport transit. Why would someone need web access and personalized entertainment in a two-person carriage for a ninety second ride from one end of SFO to the other? I don't see the advantage.

Furthermore, maglev depends upon the availability of superconducting materials in sufficient quantities to make laying large amounts of track commercially viable. Using materials like pyrolytic carbon to lift a train off maglev track requires rare earth elements like neodymium for the track's magnets. There isn't enough of that stuff to go around to supply all of the PDAs, cell phones, and thin-film solar cells in the world and still have enough left over to lay SkyTran track door-to-door in every major city. Next generation solar companies in particular, like First Solar, will have a heck of a time finding the supplies of rare earth metals they need. A lot of tech entrepreneurs miss the significance of natural resource constraints!

I personally think maglev trains have enormous advantages over current high-speed rail technology, as long as they're used the way rail has always been used: moving lots of people between large nodes. Maglev trains have fewer moving parts to maintain and the frictionless tracks exhibit little or no wearout from wheel contact. The maglev industry can be viable if it can find a widely available base material to power its superconducting tracks. Perhaps nanotech applications in material science can deliver what our civilization needs.

I personally would not invest my money in the SkyTran concept.