CyberTran: Small start-up has big dreams
on October 31, 2011
For Eugene Nishinaga, the chief technical officer at CyberTran International, ultralight rail is nothing short of a spiritual awakening.
“I was actually driving on the highway, right outside the [Richmond] field station,” he said, “totally coincidence — and I felt the call of God.”
The call was the impetus for a major shift in Nishinaga’s life. At the time, he was a respected research and development manager for BART with nearly 40 years experience in transit. But in 2008, Nishinaga, 58, quit his job to take a position at CyberTran International — an ultralight rail start-up based out of UC Berkeley’s Richmond Field Station.
Nishinaga’s mix of engineering credentials and unyielding faith in smarter transit fit well with his new employer, which has positioned itself to be part of Richmond’s future.
In September, the City Council voted 4-1 to use $20,000 to hire a lobbying firm to help CyberTran pitch its product in Washington, D.C. CyberTran officials won the city’s support with a proposal that projects 20,000 manufacturing and technical jobs in Richmond over the next 10 years and a 13-mile transit system linking Richmond neighborhoods to the city’s BART station. Ultimately, as CyberTran systems sweep into other cities throughout the world, the company said Richmond could become a hub for the transit industry.
CyberTran has garnered significant support from city and state leaders, with letters from City Manager Bill Lindsay, Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner and Martin Luther King, Jr. III.
Amory Lovins, chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute and author of “Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era” recommended CyberTran, in a letter to Bill Lindsay.
“I think it is the single most important idea in American public transit,” Lovins wrote.
City Council member Jeff Ritterman, perhaps CyberTran’s most staunch local supporter, spoke in favor of CyberTran at a City Council meeting last month. “This is a $1 trillion industry,” he said. “This technology can change transit.”
But for all the praise, the company has a history of false starts with cities, including some in the Bay Area.
Since its inception, CyberTran has bounced from city to city looking for funding. Starting in Albany, N.Y., they built test tracks but lacked local support to fund a functional rail system. CyberTran then came west, trying to develop partners in Oakland and Alameda. Both times, city officials declined, unwilling to invest in a little-known start-up’s untested transit technology.
Alameda’s mayor at the time, Beverley Johnson, said the lack of a proven track record doomed CyberTran in her city.
“The concept is attractive but the substance wasn’t there,” Johnson said. “Everyone has been very reluctant to invest in a company that hasn’t built a model anywhere yet.”
Despite a checkered past, CyberTran officials say this time will be different.
“What Richmond is doing is so important . . . They are opening the gate to make that first one happen,” Nishinaga said. “When Richmond builds this system it’s going to be a no-brainer for the next community.”
There are several reasons CyberTran is poised to shift the paradigm for transit, said CEO Neil Sinclair.
First, the CyberTran system will cost a fraction of what existing transit systems cost, mainly because “trans” — what CyberTran calls its passenger cars — and tracks are much lighter, Sinclair said.
CyberTran will cost as little as $25 million per mile, a bargain in the world of mass transit. BART, for instance, costs about $100 million per mile. Recent Bart extensions project costs of $200 million per mile.
Second, CyberTran will run on solar energy. Sinclair said that rows of solar panels atop tran stations will generate enough energy to power the entire system and put energy back into the grid.
Most important, Cybertran could be more convenient than cars, Nishinaga said.
“People don’t use transit because it takes longer and is less convenient,” Nishinaga said. “In the future, a 30-minute trip on transit, door-to-door travel, will be less than driving in a car, and instead of worrying about traffic, you can read a book.”
CyberTran works like an elevator, Sinclair said. A rider comes to the station, pushes a button and within five minutes departs on a 24-passenger, driverless “tran” that travels directly to the passenger’s chosen station.
The system will sort passengers by destination to enhance efficiency, Nishinaga said, adding that they have not worked out the exact logistics of grouping passengers.
Nishinaga said that situating stations off the main track will make CyberTran more efficient than existing transit. He said the concept is similar to adding on ramps to a freeway system. Instead of a tran having to slow down or stop at each station, trans that aren’t stopping can just continue pass the destination.
CyberTran’s secret to cutting costs is cutting weight, Sinclair said. While a typical light rail train weighs about 100,000 pounds, and a BART car about 60,000, a cybertran will weigh about 10,000 pounds, Sinclair said.
The lighter cars require far less energy to propel and stop, and less infrastructure to support, Sinclair said.
Harry Burt, CyberTran’s financial manager, said the economics are on their side as well. Even amidst a time of rising transit costs, Burt said cities across the country have expressed demand for roughly $100 billion in public transit development.
“BART is equivalent to about 10 lanes of freeway in each direction,” Burt said. “San Francisco could not exist without it. This is the importance of transit that people often lose sight of. We want to bring a more cost effective transit to bear.”
By cutting costs, Burt said CyberTran could potentially run without continued government subsidy — unlike every other transit system that exists in the United States today.
Despite the promises and forecasts, CyberTran has its skeptics.
Council member Corky Booze called CyberTran a “pie in the sky” gamble before being the lone vote against giving the transit company $20,000.
“Dreams are great,” Booze said. “But the city of Richmond cannot afford to finance your dream.”
Johnson, the former Alameda mayor, shares Booze’s concern.
Johnson said her city’s fleeting attempts in 2004 to raise federal support for CyberTran fell flat. Johnson said she doubts efforts to garner federal support would be easier today.
“With Solyndra being such a popular subject now, I would think that our representatives would be very cautious about putting money into a company that has been around for as long as they have, and not accomplished much yet,” Johnson said.
According to Sinclair, that’s the rub — CyberTran doesn’t have much to show. Without more funding, CyberTran is just a trailer in the Richmond Field station filled with temporary office dividers, about six full-time staff and an occasional intern. A 38-foot long, cylindrical, steel tran parked outside the front door has a tarp draped over its pointed end.
That’s the only model they can present to interested cities.
“It’s a Catch-22,” Sinclair said. “Nobody wants to be first.”
Sinclair blames politics. “Transit conservatism” has stifled innovation in the United States, he said. Since the ‘70s the government has actively excluded transit in favor of funding highways and big oil, he said.
“Sixty percent of the transit ridership in the U.S. is in New York … We made the decision that what is good for G.M. is good for the country and built a system that runs on highways,” he said.
But Sinclair said he believes that history has caught up with us.
“The MTC [Metropolitan Transit Commission] has estimated that in the next 20 years Bay Area traffic will worsen 50 percent — just cause,” Sinclair said. “They don’t have enough money to maintain the system that is in place today.”
Nishinaga said as long as the country thinks about transportation in terms of highways and cars, problems like global warming and foreign oil dependency are just going to get worse.
A block down from the CyberTran trailer, a model system circles around a quarter of a dimly lit warehouse. It’s about two feet tall and ten inches wide.
A plywood structure next to the track is the nexus where Nishinaga and a few other engineers — including Nishinaga’s son — are creating the final piece to the CyberTran model: the automated control system.
Nishinaga held up a football-sized train-car, wires and computer chips exposed. “I made this first one in my garage,” he said.
Sinclair said CyberTran has made a lot of progress in the past few months. They have finalized patents and secured support from influential scientists, engineers, politicians and business people.
But the $20,000 of lobbying fees from Richmond will only be enough to last through December.
After that, the city will decide if it will continue to fight for CyberTran. If it does, CyberTran has no guarantee when they could secure funding or if a system will be possible at all.
Even so, Ritterman said he is willing to wait. “If it took five years and we were successful, I would consider it a success,” he said. “I think it’s imperative in this country for us to take some kind of leadership.”
For Nishinaga, his life’s calling is at stake.
Nishinaga said, last time God called him — about 40 years ago — he was just about to graduate from UC Berkeley with a degree in mechanical engineering.
“I wanted to become a pastor,” Nishinaga said. “My parents were upset about this. They said, ‘You have a degree in engineering, be an engineer.’”
And so Nishinaga got a job at Boeing and seven years later moved to BART. In many ways, he said he felt he had missed his calling to join the ministry and redeem souls. Until 2008, outside the Richmond field station, when God spoke to him again.
Nishinaga said: “He said, ‘Look at how you have been raised throughout your career … All of these things are the necessary pieces to put this system together. I opened the door for you once, you did not walk through. I will open the door for you again.’”
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