Cybertran: Status and Prospects


Richard Arthur, President, CyberTran New York LLC

First off, I would like to thank our hosts Bill Flanigan and Kathy Mueller for organizing this conference and inviting me here today to present some thoughts about CyberTran in particular and group rapid transit in general.

Secondly, I would like to say that I would not be here today if were not for Mike Gage and the great support that CALSTART has provided to CyberTran for the past three years. Through CALSTART’s efforts, CyberTran has been able to build a test track, demonstrate a vehicle activated switch, evaluate and test the use of retired BART motors in the CyberTran vehicle, build a simulator of a vehicle control system and evaluate the use of the Harman Advanced Automated Control System currently being installed at the Bay Area Rapid Transit System to the CyberTran system. CALSTART has consistently and reliably sought and won an ongoing stream of federal funding for CyberTran’s development program and has played an invaluable role in furthering this technology along with a whole host of other innovative transportation and energy saving technologies.


So what is the CyberTran system? CyberTran, like many of the technologies that will be presented here over the next two days, is an advanced transportation system that takes advantage of developments in computer control technology to eliminate the need for on-board vehicle operating personnel. This fundamental enabling technological development permits an order of magnitude reduction in vehicle size which in turn enables the efficient use of off-line stations. The effect of these innovations is that the CyberTran system provides a higher level of service at a lower operating and capital cost than traditional transit technologies.

Now before I proceed to expose my fierce CyberTran partisanship, let me just say that I am a strong believer in the "Let 1000 flowers bloom" school of thought. I believe that we stand on a threshold of a major revolution in transportation technologies and that there is room for an infinite array of different approaches to packaging the basic technological breakthrough which is enabling all of our approaches - that of using cost-effective computer control systems to reduce cost and improve service. The next twenty years will see the emergence and marketing of a wide variety of systems, each tailored to specific applications and market needs. And, these systems will be mutually supporting with the success of one creating a groundswell of support for many of the others.

Of course, I may be wrong. Someone may emerge as a clear cut winner. In that case, I would hope that the gracious winner would kindly supply gainful employment to the rest of us.

But back to CyberTran. In my presentation of the CyberTran system I plan to address four primary topics:

Vehicle Size

One distinguishing feature of the CyberTran system is that it is considerably larger than many of the personal rapid transit technologies that will be discussed in upcoming presentations. The CyberTran vehicle is overtly a Group Rapid Transit concept as specifically opposed to a Personal Rapid Transit concept. This means that instead of having a projected average load per vehicle of 1.7 passengers such as an automobile, CyberTran vehicles are designed to carry between 6 and 20 passengers with a fully loaded vehicle weight of up to 10,000 pounds.

There are a number of reasons why we have deliberately chosen a larger vehicle than the classic PRT design.

First, our analysis has shown that there is a limit to the benefits in guideway cost accruing from a reduction in vehicle size. As we know, a driving force behind many of these innovative designs is the simple fact that guideway costs drive capital costs and guideway costs are in turn driven by the size and weight of the load being carried. This is especially true given the fact that it is taken as a given that virtually all of these automated systems will have to be elevated to avoid conflicts with pedestrians, animals, and automobiles. However, we see a natural limit to the reduction in vehicle weight and a corresponding limit to the savings that can be achieved in guideway designs. Depending on the cost of the individual vehicles there comes a point where the savings in guideway costs are outweighed by the fixed costs of the additional vehicles required to carry a given passenger load. The analysis performed by Dr. John Dearien the founder of CyberTran and his colleagues at the Department of Energy’s Idaho Environmental and Engineering Laboratory, showed that system costs per passenger carried including both vehicle and guideway costs are minimized in a range of 6 - 12 passenger vehicles.

Why, in that case, are we proposing initial vehicles with twenty seats?

Here a marketing factor comes into play. I have spent several years looking at potential applications for new transportation technologies such as CyberTran and have come to some simple basic conclusions:

The result of this analysis of the market is that this industry is going to evolve starting with simpler systems and larger vehicles into more complex systems with smaller vehicles. However, I will also say that fixed guideway technologies are never going to offer the convenience of the automobile in servicing suburban single family housing. There is going to be a process of collection and delivery to concentrated destinations for a very long time to come. In this world, a vehicle with loading similar to that of a high rise elevator is not unreasonable.

System Design

The development of the CyberTran system design has been driven by two primary factors: the minimization of cost per passenger and the maximization of trip speed and service. With these two goals in minds, we have concentrated the innovation of the CyberTran design in the overall system design (i.e. small vehicles, off line stations, the availability of on-demand service and direct to destination service) and have deliberately avoided the reliance upon any technological breakthroughs which were not absolutely necessary.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of off-line stations, an off-line station is simply a station built on a siding, off of the mainline. This design allows through trains to pass directly by a station on the way to a given destination. Off-line stations are only practical when combined with relatively small vehicles and they are a wonderful development.

First with the small vehicle design and off-line stations, it is possible to group passengers by destination or area (i.e. a group of destinations). By grouping passengers by destination it is possible to provide a very high level of express, direct to destination service. Also, I should point out that it is possible to combine off-line with in-line stations. For example a destination area may consist of a specific office park or resort community, however there may be several in-line stations in the destination area and in fact the system may combine local circulation services with direct service to remote locations.

Another feature of the off-line station design is the ability to store idle vehicles in stations where they are available for immediate access. This turns the traditional transit model on its head. Instead of stations being a location where passengers wait for vehicles, they become locations where vehicles wait for passengers. Then, when the passenger enters the vehicle, he/she can select a particular destination and the vehicle will proceed non-stop to that destination. This creates tremendous average vehicle speeds.

To test the impact of this design, we created a simulation of the Portland Max system. In our simulation we included the average passenger loads and the number of stations and mileage of the Portland Light Rail system and simulated the operation of the system using the off-line station design. In the Portland Max system, the vehicles have a top speed of 65 mph but an average speed of under 15 mph. In our simulation, we limited the CyberTran vehicles top speed to 55 mph but we wound up with an average trip speed of 45 mph. This means that the simple application of the off-line station design wound up tripling the average trip speed.

A third benefit of this system design is that there is no longer a tradeoff between the number of stations and average vehicle speed. Transit planners have long known that ridership is determined by station proximity and relative mode speed. The closer the stations are to your origin and destination, the more likely you are to use the service. And the faster the system is, the more likely you are to use the service. And the more frequent the service is, the more likely you are to use the service. However, there is a direct tradeoff between service frequency, the number of stations and average trip speeds. In fact, the most successful segment of the transit industry over the past twenty years has been the commuter rail industry where average trip speeds average 30 mph, approximately the same speed as automobiles on congested urban arterials.

Commuter rail systems have achieved this speed by drastically limiting service to a small number of regional rail stations. But there is a problem with this system design. The large regional stations require massive amounts of parking. For example, John Dearien has calculated that each train in the BART system requires over 6.5 acres of parking. Since real estate near train stations is relatively valuable and parking is a relatively low value land use, there is a natural conflict between high intensity land uses near train stations (the goal of transit oriented development) and ridership. In this context that the number one constraint on transit ridership across the country is lack of parking.

The off-line station model eliminates these tradeoffs. Since vehicles travel directly to destination stations, by passing intermediate stations, there is no tradeoff between station frequency and vehicle speed. This means that just as the CyberTran concept replaces a small number of large heavy trains with a large number of small light weight vehicles, it can also replace the small number of large regional stations characterizing traditional commuter rail systems with a large number of small, neighborhood stations.

The CyberTran system design minimizes trip time. With direct to destination service, travel time is minimized. With on-demand service, wait time is minimized. And with many stations, access time is minimized.

Suspension and Propulsion Technology

While the CyberTran system design is quite innovative relative to traditional transit, we have made a deliberate choice to minimize the amount of technical innovations intrinsic to the CyberTran vehicle and track system design. Here are some of the traditional features that you will find in a CyberTran system:

However, there are a few features that would cause an old-line railroad man to pause and take a second look. Some of them are:

The design philosophy which lead to these choices is straightforward, "If it is simple, inexpensive and proven, use it". There are two of these innovations which deserve comment.

The small diameter round rail is fundamental to the operation of the light weight steel wheel/steel rail design. One of the failures of earlier light weight rail vehicles was that they had very poor ride quality and severe traction problems. We have solved this problem by increasing the curvature of the rail head which in turn reduces the contact patch between the wheel and the rail. In fact the ratio of the CyberTran vehicle weight to the size of the contact patch and thus the adhesion between the wheel and the rail is mathematically similar to the ratio of a 500,000 pound locomotive on standard rail. This permits rapid acceleration, deceleration and terrific ride quality at high speeds. In fact, we currently have an ongoing test program at the CALSTART facility in Alameda California where we are demonstrating the ability to start and stop the CyberTran vehicle on 10% grades in inclement conditions.

Vehicle activated switching is a requirement of the small vehicle operation operating on tight headways. While the CyberTran system projects 15 second headways at 60 mph operations (which is a lot looser than some of the PRT designs), it still requires that the switching system be decentralized. During our first test series in Alameda, we designed, built, and demonstrated two versions of a vehicle activated switch.

Service Parameters

One of the criticisms that has long been leveled at the PRT/GRT concept is that small vehicles cannot possibly handle the demands of peak passenger loads. The concern is that during rush hours, the inherent requirements of on-demand, direct to destination service will result in an inefficient use of vehicles by either strangling primary stations with too many vehicles or the inefficient dispatching of a large number of partially loaded vehicles. The traditional standard calls for the ability to handle a peak load of 20,000 passengers per hour per direction and until someone demonstrates that an on-demand system can handle that load, this technology doesn’t deserve the support of the main line transit industry.

There are several reasons why this argument is specious.


In summary, the promise of this technology is that through the small vehicle design enabled by computer control, it manages to combine low cost with a high level of service. Capital costs are reduced through the guideway savings inherent in reducing loads from the 60,000 - 300,000 pounds of traditional  technologies to the 10,000 pound load of the CyberTran vehicle. Operating costs are reduced through the elimination of on-board operating personnel, the single greatest expense of traditional transit systems. At the same time by combining a large number of stations with frequent, direct-to-destination service, CyberTran will be able to provide overall trip speeds which compare favorably with the single occupancy automobile in congested urban areas.

By providing a relatively high quality, high speed service, we should be able to attract a relatively large ridership which combined with our low costs will result in unprecedented cost recovery ratios and possibly significant profits.

And finally, I would like to take this opportunity to announce a significant breakthrough in the development of the CyberTran system. The State of New York has recently awarded CyberTran with a grant of $350,000 to perform a feasibility analysis for a demonstration system linking the seat of the NYS government - the Empire State Plaza with the Rensselaer AMTRAK station located approximately 1.25 miles away across the Hudson River. The feasibility study is projected to be followed by the allocation of $4M for a low speed test facility which in turn will be followed by the $30M demonstration project.

This breakthrough will directly address the number one question that all of us face -- "Where is it operating?" New York State is the center of the nation’s transit industry, and Governor George Pataki and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno have determined that if the future of transit is CyberTran, the future will be in New York.

Thank you very much.


Last modified: May 27, 2001