The Spartan Superway
By Brett Bralley
It’s not a bird. It’s not a plane. It’s the future of solar-powered, emissions-free, world-changing public transportation, designed by faculty, students and alumni of San José State University.
Burford Furman has a vision. The mechanical engineering professor at San José State sees the university’s two campuses — one located in the heart of downtown San José, the other eight blocks south — connected by a new transit system.
Not a bus route, nor a train — instead Furman sees sleek blue and gold pods hanging from an elevated solar-paneled guideway. Students, faculty and staff ascend steps to a boarding station on Seventh Street, departing Main Campus to catch a Spartan football game at CEFCU Stadium. They step inside, take a seat, doors close, and then they move, slowly at first, but soon whirring through downtown, above stoplights, past treetops and alongside skyscraper windows.
There’s no energy wasted; as congested traffic starts and stops below them, the pods never gain or lose momentum, until they slow to a stop at their destination.
To be sure, this futuristic transitway may still be quite a few years away from implementation, but the project — dubbed the SPARTAN Superway (SPARTAN stands for Solar Powered Automated Rapid-Transit Ascendant Network) — is now in the proof-of-concept stage: Miniature pods zoom along an oval-shaped track the size of a dining table, proving that they can follow instructions from code written by SJSU alumni, faculty and students.
The track sits in the former Terraine Courthouse in downtown San José, where engineer, entrepreneur and sponsor Ron Swenson, president of the International Institute of Sustainable Transportation, has set up shop. Swenson shares the SPARTAN Superway vision, which is why he’s invested in the idea since its inception.
Furman and Swenson, along with 15 other faculty, students and RodzMas, a Mexican design team, investigated how realistic this concept could be for the university. Their findings, which were published in December 2021 by SJSU’s Mineta Transportation Institute [read more about the institute below], confirmed that the transit system could certainly integrate within the downtown landscape.
What’s more, the study concluded that SPARTAN Superway would emit 86% less greenhouse gases than a purely electric grid-powered version — and 98% less than the current SJSU Park & Ride diesel shuttle system.
That’s why Furman and Swenson aren’t stopping with SJSU. They know this idea can change the world, amplifying Silicon Valley’s impact, as they collaborate with universities and co-developers in Mexico, Europe and Africa.
“This is a new paradigm for how to do urban transportation,” Furman explains. “For over a hundred years, we’ve had wheels rolling around on the pavement. When we think, ‘How do I get from point A to point B?’ it involves taking your car out and driving. Our cities are built around that form. We have parking lots, streets in a grid. We’re talking about moving this guideway up into the air, collecting solar energy.
“This means that instead of parking your car, you let the pod car go off to serve someone else. We’re doing more with less.”
Greg White observes a model of the SPARTAN Superway. Video: Brett Bralley.
At a demonstration on campus this spring, members of the SPARTAN Superway core team showed students how the transitway works, using an oval-shaped track with miniature model pods zooming around its perimeter. Photos: Robert C. Bain.
“This is a new paradigm for how to do urban transportation...”
— Burford Furman
Part student project, part world-changing innovation, SPARTAN Superway has been put together by more than 300 students, faculty, alumni and mentors who have contributed since the project started in 2012.
Furman reconfigured an existing program initiated by Belle Wei, then-dean of the Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering, to establish an industry-university project and partnership with an effort focused on sustainable mobility. This project would allow students to gain real-world experience while making an impact in sustainability. Wei now serves as the Carolyn Guidry Chair in Engineering Education and Innovative Learning.
While searching for the right project, Furman formed an advisory board with industry experts, which included Swenson.
Swenson had built a successful engineering career that had taken him around the world, creating remote solar systems and experimenting with sustainable transportation options like solar- and electric-powered vehicles. When he joined the advisory board, he had an idea: Instead of solar-powering just one vehicle, “I realized you could put solar panels on a guideway and thereby achieve this result of having enough solar energy to run a whole fleet of vehicles.”
Furman remembers, “It was Ron who said, ‘Hey, you ought to be working on solar-powered pod cars.”
Ever since the project took off, cohorts of engineering students have joined during their senior year to learn about design, manufacturing and programming, as well as study renewable energy and sustainability. They have also gained career-building skills, such as learning how to network and make formal presentations.
Every student works on a different facet of the project — from the design of a single pod, to creating and perfecting the track system, to researching user experience, to even developing an escape hatch for emergency situations.
Still, for several years, progress was slow for a big reason: high turnover. Students finished their projects, graduated, then moved on. The next cohort of students often started from scratch or had to spend valuable time understanding the work and processes of the former cohort.
That is, until Greg White, ’20 Mechanical Engineering, got involved.
White was in the middle of his senior project with SPARTAN Superway when the pandemic arrived, and “everything was taken out from under us,” he remembers.
He got through the semester and met the requirements of the project, but he “still felt like there was more to do. I wasn’t satisfied.”
He said as much to Furman, who gave White the go-ahead to continue working on his project over the summer. It wasn’t long before White pitched to Furman and Swenson that he work on SPARTAN Superway as a staff engineer — and bring on an entire team. They agreed.
“Now we have continuity,” Swenson says. “It makes a huge difference.”
The biggest difference is that the project has accelerated. In just two years, White and three other on-staff engineers led the development of the miniature proof-of-concept track and pods — from designing to 3D printing to building.
It’s a dream experience for White, who admits to often spending late hours working at the downtown building, solving pieces of the puzzle. He knows this opportunity is setting him up for success in his career as an engineer and as a leader.
“The reason I am here is because I want to make a difference in something in the world,” he says. “I think this is an opportunity to do so.”
“...I always hoped that the government could do something to save the people, the next generations and the environment. The SPARTAN Superway project reminds me of that hope.”
— Trang Dang, ’22 Mechanical Engineering
Before she graduated in May, Trang Dang, ’22 Mechanical Engineering, worked on the design of the track, concentrating on the switch rails that would allow the pods to make turns and veer toward stations.
She plans to pursue her master’s degree and says the project has helped her understand the processes of design planning, developing a prototype and cross-collaborating with different teams.
The SPARTAN Superway project holds special meaning to her: Growing up in Vietnam, Dang saw daily traffic congestion and a high number of traffic accidents.
“Air pollution [in Vietnam] is at an alert level because of greenhouse gases [emitted] from the high number of mobile vehicles,” she says. “People keep asking why more and more people have lung diseases and respiratory illnesses. The oil industry is also harmful to marine life because of oil leaking and land disturbances.
“When I was in my country, I always hoped that the government could do something to save the people, the next generations and the environment. The SPARTAN Superway project reminds me of that hope.”
Furman and Swenson share Dang’s hope for the future. But in many ways, SPARTAN Superway is just plain common sense.
“A lot of people ask, how much can solar power do? And actually, fossil fuels do very little,” Furman explains. “If you look at an internal combustion engine, something like 88% of the energy in the fuel tank is wasted. As little as 12% of the total energy actually moves the car down the road." You fill up your tank and think about how all the gas in that car is going to get you down the road. But really, most of it goes toward heating up our world.”
And there’s another way that SPARTAN Superway can change the world. In 2019, 33,244 people in the U.S. were killed in traffic accidents, according to the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That number is about the same year after year, Furman notes.
“We have a terrible time right now with the way transportation machinery interacts with people,” he says. “You take your life into your hands crossing streets, and it ought not to be that way. What can I do as an engineer to preserve and protect and cause life to flourish, rather than extinguish it? Moving machinery away from people so that it can’t maim and kill people — that’s important to me.”
So what will it take before we see pods speeding through the air, saving the world one trip at a time? Furman and Swenson agree: buy-in from the community. It will take discussing ideas with stakeholders, developing more partnerships and engaging more investors, they assert.
Ultimately, Furman says, “it’s going to take the will of people who want to take this different approach, who can see the vision.”
About Mineta Transportation Institute
By Tiffany Harbrecht
In 1991, San José State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) launched with a mission to improve the safety, efficiency, accessibility and convenience of our nation’s transportation system. Through surface transportation research, technology transfer, workforce development and education, the institute is creating a more connected world and increasing mobility for all.
MTI spearheads two multi-university consortia: the California State University Transportation Consortium, which represents the 23 CSU campuses, and the Mineta Consortium for Transportation Mobility (MCTM). MCTM includes Howard University, Navajo Technical University, San José State University and the University of North Carolina Charlotte. MTI is affiliated with SJSU’s Lucas College and Graduate School of Business.
Want to learn more?
Top image: An illustrated rendering depicts the SPARTAN Superway, with sleek blue and gold pods hanging from an elevated solar-paneled guideway, sustainably shuttling SJSU community members between the Main Campus and South Campus in downtown San José. Rendering: Courtesy of SPARTAN Superway team.