A Japanese startup aims to tackle traffic jams in Asia by making self-driving aerial tramways that it says can be built at less than one-sixth the cost of conventional counterparts.
Zip Infrastructure, founded in 2018, plans to submit a bid for its first commercial project in Japan by March 2025 and aims to enter the global market as early as 2029.
“Our goal is to build a transport network in countries like the Philippines which can rival that of Japan’s,” Mario Ian Carlos Ferido Rebonquin, head of business development at Zip, told Nikkei Asia.
The company says it will take part in bidding for a small transportation project within Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo. If successful, Zip says, operation of the tramway will start by 2027.
“There is more demand from abroad for cheap transports,” Rebonquin acknowledged, but even a small successful project in Japan would make it easier for the company to “approach the overseas market as a ‘Made in Japan’ technology.”
A Zip tramway costs around JPY 1.5 billion (USD 10 million) per kilometer, while conventional monorails or railways cost around 10 billion yen, according to the company’s estimates. Each Zip car weighs about 2 metric tonnes, about a tenth of a typical railway car, which reduces the amount of land needed to build supporting structures.
Each car is equipped with a battery and motor similar to an electric vehicle. Indeed, Zip’s demonstration model is built from a used Japanese EV. The cars can run on both steel rails and cables, which allows for more complex routes and lower costs. Cables are cheaper but can only run along straight lines, while rails are more expensive but necessary for building curved routes.
“You can build lines in urban areas where conventional transport is difficult,” Rebonquin said. The company is hopeful that Zip’s system can be built over existing roads, without the need for developing extra land.
Rebonquin had a specific example in mind. “A 2- or 3-kilometer route connecting the central district of Makati in the Philippines is ideal,” he said.
The business-heavy city near Manila has many office buildings but lies in a gap between existing railway lines, meaning office workers have to walk 20 minutes or drive from the nearest station, Rebonquin said.
“This is the cause of traffic jams, as office workers use taxis or ride-hailing apps to commute,” he added.
There are startups developing similar transit systems, including Swyft Cities in the US and Ottobahn in Germany, but the Japanese company claims it is ahead of rivals because it is able to use relatively bigger rolling stock, capable of holding up to 12 people.
While that capacity is smaller than an urban subway, for example, Zip says its system is intended to supplement rather than replace major transportation infrastructure.