In an interview with PSFK, working in collaboration with Verizon, Mike Stanley discusses how he is using technology for good in his work with Transit X, creating solar-powered pods that provide an alternative to current methods of public transport, ultimately hoping to curb urban pollution and congestion

In a special series brought to you with the help of our partner Verizon, The Pioneers of Humanability is directing the spotlight onto the people, organizations, and companies who are using technology to do more new and do more good in the world.

While the environmental and human costs of cities filled with traditional automobiles have been well known for some time now, the transition to more sustainable methods of transportation has been slow. A major impediment to the adoption of more environmentally friendly transit systems lies not so much with the vehicles themselves, but rather with the major infrastructural changes that would be required. Mike Stanley, one of PSFK’s featured Pioneers of Humanability, hopes to resolve this issue with his company, Transit X, which is using technology to create a solar-powered mass transit system that glides gracefully over traffic. In this interview, Mike talks about his plan to reduce urban pollution, congestion and surface runoff with an innovative method of transportation that is convenient, reliable and environmentally sound.

In what ways do you think technology has the potential to impact humanity, making a positive social difference?

Cars are the dominant mode of transportation around the world. The cost to transition to vehicles that are all electric and autonomous is extremely high and will take decades—and won’t eliminate congestion, crashes or be resilient to flooding. For humanity to flourish, we need a better approach that enables Earth to heal.

Transit X is creating a solar-powered personal mass transit network with the cost, capacity and convenience to displace cars, buses, trains and trucks. Transportation impacts most elements of society, including education, health, housing, entertainment and equitability. If Transit X is successful, it will represent one of the most significant transitions in our history.

How does your work create a positive impact on urban communities?

Our current roadways have a tremendous negative impact on our quality of life—ugly black asphalt that smothers our roads and parking lots, causing water drainage and urban flooding. Injuries and deaths are all too common. By enabling walkable and car-free cities, we can enhance our cities to be green, clean, quiet and safe. Our health and quality of life can be improved. As a side effect, adoption of Transit X can rapidly de-carbonize transportation and help reach our carbon emissions targets.

What are the biggest challenges facing cities and urban environments?

Congestion (waiting), parking, pollution, resiliency and safety.

What inspired you to do more new and do more good?

I started building autonomous robots in 1982 and was inspired by the “The Jetsons” cartoon. While attending MIT, my friends and I started building autonomous LEGO robots to compete in games. In 2015, a series of major snowstorms shut down Boston’s transportation system and my wife had to walk home through the snow. That was when I decided that transportation needed to be fixed and I didn’t see anyone willing to “think big.”

You describe Transit X as a “shared mobility network” rather than “public transportation.” Can you explain your vision, and what makes your transport service distinct from existing solutions?

The term “public transportation” has different meanings to different people. I see Transit X as a new form of public transportation. Transit X is an automated transportation network which is also a “shared mobility network.” Many people think that the term “public” means publicly funded, but Transit X is completely privately financed and operated—similar to the old streetcar networks that covered our cities. Transit X is distinct from other shared-mobility solutions such as shared rides and bicycles because we build the road-like infrastructure—which we call podways—and the “pods” that run on them, which brings me to my favorite movie quote: “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

What are the technologies that make Transit X possible?

Most of the technologies we use have been around for decades. Another fully automated transportation network has been operating accident-free for the last 40+ years in Morgantown, West Virginia. We are using lightweight composites, including thermoplastics, carbon fiber and pultruded fiber-resin-polyester beams. For our purposes, the costs are now competitive with conventional infrastructure materials such as asphalt, concrete, stones and steel.

The design is probably more important than the specific technologies, and we will be filing dozens of patents to cover the key elements that make Transit X unique.

What in your opinion are the biggest challenges to implementation?

I feel that we’ve crossed an important threshold from “if” to “when.” We need to rapidly deploy Transit X across entire metropolitan areas with hundreds or thousands of miles of podway, so quickly scaling up manufacturing is key. We aim to create car-free cities and that requires getting rights-of-way from multiple, overlapping government entities.

One challenge is that cities perceive anything new as a higher risk than the status quo, even if the status quo is actually much riskier for crashes, pollution, flooding and lost productivity. It’s been difficult to get municipalities to look beyond their current infrastructure, but concepts like Hyperloop and The Boring Company are at least getting people thinking about different approaches.

More than 10 cities are moving forward with Transit X and 150+ cities are interested once we demonstrate our first pilot. Our challenge at that point will be keeping up with demand.

What’s in store for the future of Transit X? When will people be able to test the service?

We'll show a full-size pod and test track later this year in the Boston area. Groundbreaking for our first pilots will be next year (2019).

Resolving the challenges facing urban communities is possible with creative applications of technology like those that Transit X is pioneering. For more about how innovators like Mike are using technology to serve progressive goals and better the community for all, see the Pioneers of Humanability, brought to you by PSFK with Verizon.

Verizon’s Pioneers of Humanability list honors the people, organizations and companies that are using technological innovations to bring about good things for the world. These are the pioneers, keeping food safe and water clean, cutting pollution, saving energy and enabling doctors to treat patients a county or a country away. They’ve stopped asking “What if?” or “Why isn’t?” and started doing and leading. These are the people, organizations and companies you need to know about now—because they’re building the future.