If you live or work in a large city, it’s likely you’ve experienced the frustration of sitting in urban traffic. In Toronto, Canada’s largest urban center, traffic is a problem for 71 percent of drivers, with 40 percent estimating they spend more than an hour a day in gridlock, according to a survey by traffic-solutions company Beat The Traffic. Add this wasted time spent sitting to our already sedentary lifestyles, and it’s no surprise many of us are finding it harder and harder to get out from behind the steering wheel when we do finally reach our destination.
Of course, road traffic affects you even if you don’t drive. All those wasted hours represent a massive drain on a society’s economic production, while all those idling cars produce pollution contributing to respiratory illness and climate change.
Many city planners try to compensate by building public transit systems, but these often rely on buses similarly stuck in traffic, or on prohibitively expensive subway systems. What if there was a better way? What if you could sail above the traffic in a sleek pod, suspended from a monorail, being propelled by clean renewable energy, and perhaps even by your own pedal power? This is the vision of Shweeb-Can, an Ontario, Canada-based company with plans to re-draw the traffic picture centered around a personal rapid transit solution.
We spoke with Stephen Bieda, Shweeb-Can’s VP of Business Development, about the SkySMART system.
|© Shweeb-Can Corporation|
Jules: Tell us about Shweeb’s “Transportation Through Entertainment” model.
Stephen: Shweeb originated in Rotorua, New Zealand where the first Eco-Ventures Park was built around the bullet pod style Shweeb design, the human-powered pedal monorail system. We’ve taken that concept and we’re bringing it to Niagara Falls. With 12 million tourists annually it’s a great hub for showcasing this sort of new technology. At the Eco-Ventures Park, people will be able to come to the park and enjoy typical activities like bungee jumping, jet boat rides, and treetop trekking, but we’ll also have our own technologies including the touring model pod and the SkySMART system.
Our goal is to raise the capital to prove that the concept works. We’ll do this with two tracks, one for the amusement purposes, and one for getting people from the parking lot and around the facility. They’ll be able to experience the actual transportation technology first hand.
Jules: How does this have potential as a practical urban commuter system?
Stephen: While the bullet pod is just an initial step, we also have a two-person, a five-person, and a 12-person pod design. The bullet pod that we’ll have at the Eco-Ventures Park in Niagara Falls runs on pure pedal power. But in the touring pod and the 12-person pod that make up the SkySMART system, pedal assist technology is optional. Primary drive is provided by an on-board battery pack, charged with solar electric power, with pedaling offered as a means of reducing the cost to the rider.
It’s a gamification strategy that also incentivizes people to stay fit. It’s also a way to provide an added level of security in the event of a total grid failure or some mechanical malfunction. People could actually pedal to the next station.
|© Shweeb-Can Corporation|
Jules: Why do we need a new transportation system like this?
Stephen: In the greater Toronto area it’s costing us $6 billion a year in lost productivity related to grid lock. On top of that, in the Toronto area alone, there is $2.8 billion in health care related effects associated with sedentary lifestyles, including the stress and frustration of sitting in traffic. That has a huge economic impact and is a burden on our tax system. So we’re talking about almost $9 billion a year just in our region that can be overcome or at least offset through this sort of technology.
Jules: How would this function in an Ontario winter or other cold climate?
Stephen: One of the nice things about our system is that it’s a suspended monorail system, meaning that the guideway has the pod underneath, as opposed to on top. In other systems, the pod would be pushing snow on top of the tracks. With our design, that becomes a non-issue.
As far as keeping it warm … I drive an electric car. I’m an electric vehicle industry consultant, and I build electric vehicle infrastructures, so I understand and have experienced winters with pure electric battery vehicles. It’s really not an issue, particularly on a system like this that’s going to have so much renewable energy available to power it, plus the human-power aspect. The battery on board will be able to provide all the HVAC related comfort that you want, so you’re not going to be too hot or too cold.
Jules: Where does the project stand now?
Stephen: We’re at a very exciting point right now, after a few years of R&D and work in the background to establish supply chain partners and consortium partners for manufacturing and so forth. We’ve also conducted several research studies through our various partners, including over 20 academic institutions, that have confirmed the viability of the concept. Now we’re at the point where we’re planning for the procurement of the property in Niagara Falls which will serve as our demonstration and commercialization project. That starts in January. So it’s sort of a chicken and egg situation; we need to build it so people can come.
Jules: Shweeb-Can is currently running a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo [LINK]. How much do you hope to raise and how will the money be used?
Stephen: Our goal is $1 million. We have had some relationship in the past and still to this day with the folks from Solar Roadways. I’ve been a keen advocate and follower of that campaign which set the record and raised $2.2 million. We see some interesting parallels in that we aim to integrate that sort of vision and technology into our stations, including solar parking lots and infrastructure that would help power the guideway and the pod.
The million dollars will help us with further research and development projects that we have underway with our partners handling specialties including pod building and guideway construction. We need to build out the park in Niagara Falls. It’s a much bigger amount that needs to be raised for the park in its entirety, but we are focusing on hitting this milestone right now to excite the industry.
In 2010, when Google awarded Shweeb $1.05 million for their transportation innovation technology out of 150,000 applicants, the marketplace was a lot different. Venture capital and angel investors were very leery of risk. 2010 was still in the heart of the economic crisis. But that funding provided us with time to do this development in the background and get us ready for the present, when people are really starting to cry for solutions to climate change and solutions to gridlock. Our project addresses both of those in a very slick manner.