The Later — The Future of Transportation and How We can Redefine Human Mobility Forever
Redefining the daily commute, day trip, and holiday vacation…
In my previous article, I discussed recent advancements in advanced transportation that are on the precipice of widespread implementation within the next decade. In this article, I will be focusing on some mind-blowing and groundbreaking prototypes, designs, and proposals that could, quite literally, change the way we travel forever.
For those in a rush, there is a TL:DR section included at the bottom of the article!
Without any delay, let’s get right to it! 👇
Autonomous Drone Taxis — Redefining Air Traffic
Humans have a really cool luxury of being able to exist within the 3rd dimension. Despite this, we operate the vast majority of our transportation within a 2-dimensional plane. Left, right, forward, backwards, that is the extent to which we participate in common commuter transport. So this begs the question: why don’t we incorporate up and down into the equation — generating exponentially more possibilities for mobility — as well?
If we want to maximize human efficiency, then we must bring commuter transport into the 3rd dimension.
Air Taxis are NOT Flying Cars
Flying cars are certainly not a new interest and have been a staple of science-fiction for decades, but innovations and adoptions of EVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) aircraft are seeking to make this sci-fi concept a reality.
However, current air taxis do not bear significant resemblance to flying cars depicted in media such as Blade Runner or The Jetsons, rather looking more like a large drone. This is mainly because, despite many efforts dating as far back to the early 20th century to build a car-airplane hybrid, it simply isn’t practical from an engineering standpoint to make a 2-in-1 vehicle that can both drive on the freeway and fly. Cars are built to maximize torque from friction; airplanes maximize lift from gravity. These concepts don’t mix. So while it may be more economical and reasonable for innovations in terrestrial automobiles and urban air transport to split, the combined implementations will only compound efficiency and give more opportunities for travel.
The Market Incentive is Already Here
In many ways, the air taxi revolution is already underway. Dozens of companies, with notable players Uber, Lilium, Airbus, Volocopter, and Ehang, are working on designing and testing various models of piloted EVTOL aircraft. South Korea has invested 22 billion dollars into air taxi research, production, and infrastructure through the next few years and plans to continue necessary funding to implement a robust urban air transport system. Uber’s air taxi program Elevate (recently sold to Joby Aviation) is set to take off trial runs in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Melbourne in 2023. This market is projected to reach an astonishing 1.5 trillion dollars by 2040.
Regulation, Privacy, and Affordability
Despite all of this excitement and economic potential, there are a lot of technical hurdles to address along with regulatory standards and ethical concerns surrounding the industry. The aerospace industry is regulated magnitudes more than the automotive industry, and for good reason.
While early rollouts of these commuter services are being piloted by highly-trained employees, companies are also working on creating autonomous piloting programs, not only reducing cost but also providing a safer and more consistent passenger experience.
Applying sensor fusion technologies found on current iterations of autonomous vehicle technology appears to be feasible and effective with air taxis. In fact, sensor fusion would likely be easier to implement for autonomous aerial vehicles over normal consumer cars, as they will generally complete extremely repetitive routes and only need to account for potential hazards in the sky, which are few and far between compared to the modern roadway. However, this brings up potential privacy and security concerns for those living in regions under autonomous air transport. People are already scared of the potential for facial recognition in autonomous cars, how are they supposed to feel knowing that there’s a literal flying surveillance system that could be monitoring people 24/7? While this is a far-fetched version of the future, it is something extremely crucial to keep in mind moving forward.
Bearing the obvious necessity to continue developing safety, consistency, stability, and privacy protocols, air taxis seem to be the logical next step for our rapidly urbanizing society. There are still major infrastructural and technological developments that have to be made before this technology is affordable or widespread. While you most likely won’t be getting picked up by an air taxi in your driveway, or even owning one yourself, you can expect air taxi hubs to begin popping up in key locations across majors cities, such as airports or business centers. In this way, we can provide an efficient and safe option for those 30–300mile journeys that are currently over-congested by automobile and airplane travel.
The “Autonomous Vehicle Superhighway,” or the Automobile Hive Mind
Nobody actually likes sitting in traffic. As a resident of the SF Bay Area, I can say confidentially that I’ve had my fair share of experiences where seemingly trivial trips become multi-hour excursions into the wonderful world of going 5 miles per hour on a 4 lane freeway.
Whenever I find myself in these predicaments, I find myself asking: “uhhhhhh why today? Why are so many people out on the roads?”
While the amount of drivers on the roads does in part contribute to the amount of traffic, it isn’t the entire cause. In fact, when freeways are expanded in hopes of reducing traffic congestion, most of the time we see the exact same level of congestion, attributable to an increase in drivers on the road. The real reason for traffic for traffic congestion actually stems from human error, and a greater number of drivers just exacerbates this error.
Basically, we don’t need more drivers, we just need better drivers.
So if traffic congestion is a human problem, and this traffic congestion leads to longer commute times which means more wasted time and more lives lost to vehicular accidents, why don’t we just remove humans from the equation? This is the leading question that researchers in autonomous vehicle networks are working to solve.
Connected Cars and the Internet of Transportation
The benefits to adopting connected cars are numerous. As individual vehicles will continue improving in autonomy and safety with independent sensor fusion systems, connected vehicle infrastructure employed by the C-V2X (Cellular Vehicle to Everything) framework utilizing the increased bandwidth of 5G networks will allow the cars themselves to communicate with other cars and the environment around it.
This opens up limitless applications for smart traffic, allowing vehicles to interact with other vehicles, with traffic lights, or even with roadside sensors or cameras.
Moving Forward: A Push Towards a More Cooperative Roadway
The two main incentives for researching and implementing connected vehicle technology are human safety and traffic reduction.
Making automobiles safer is a constantly-evolving process, and reducing traffic collisions and deaths is one of the most important tasks in the transportation industry. Connected vehicles would be able to communicate and interpret data from other vehicles/objects within a ~300 meter radius, allowing for safety features such as collision warnings, intersection movement assistance, do-not-pass warnings, emergency electronic brake light warnings, and even blind spot awareness.
While many of these features and ones similar can be accomplished with onboard and localized sensors, connected vehicle technology is actually more flexible and reliable as adverse weather conditions/physical interference especially is prevalent with some sensors. Also, connected cars will be able to provide safety warnings for things that couldn’t possibly be seen by onboard sensors, such as a car slamming on it’s breaks three cars ahead of you, or a vehicle passing at high speeds around a corner.
Along with safety, making our transportation structure more efficient, even marginally, is a task that engages thousands of automobile workers across the world. With connected vehicles, we would be able to have a thorough and consistent network of communication between the infrastructure that manages the vehicles and the vehicles themselves. This could allow for things such as dynamic speed limits, traffic diversion by manipulating stoplights and navigation softwares, and even notifying drivers when curbside parking is available. As someone who knows what it’s like to find parking in SF, I’m particularly interested in that application!
Would Personal Ownership Even be Necessary?
The overarching goal of developing connected vehicles and collaborative traffic infrastructure is to build a complete Cooperative Intelligent Transport System (C-ITS). This would create a universal and interactive framework for all travelers to interact in a dynamic and efficient way, allowing for communication between vehicles, between infrastructure and vehicles, between vehicles and the network, between pedestrians and vehicles, and so on and so forth.
The implementation of these systems are inherently institutional, and it begs the question: would we even need personal ownership of automobiles if this were to be accomplished?
If complete automation was achieved alongside smart traffic infrastructure, then humans would no longer need to earn a driver’s license to travel by car. Additionally, fully autonomous vehicles would be able to drive themselves wherever they needed to go without humans on board. In essence, we could have a universal ride-sharing platform in which citizens called publicly-owned and fully-autonomous vehicles to come pick them up and deliver them to a location, marking the optimal route based on the vehicle’s independent sensor fusion and the collective information fed to the vehicle from surrounding vehicles, infrastructure, pedestrians, and the overarching network based in the cloud.
This is not only a daunting task from a technical perspective (we have yet to reach dynamic level 4 automation and are unsure if it is even feasible to go further at this time), but a legislative and social one as well. Even when sustainable and efficient public transportation is proven to have greater and more equal outcomes for people, it is an undeniable fact that people love their cars. It will be hard to convince some people to adopt a public network of vehicles that they don’t personally own, control, or manage. Along with this, there are some very prominent automobile companies with powerful lobbies that would likely work to sustain the current vehicle market out of self-interest. These are the very same companies currently spearheading connected car technology.
In order to successfully deploy this truly revolution to traffic infrastructure, we would not only have to revoke the private market incentive from some of the largest companies around the world, but we would also have to alter the perspectives of the public. These tasks, alongside the aforementioned technical leaps, are things that will naturally take a long time to tackle, and will require decades of collaboration and compromise. However, if we are to see this future revealed, or even a portion of it, we will completely alter the method in which billions of people travel within their cities and the world more broadly.
Hyperloop: A Literal Pipe Dream?
Woah woah WOAH Tim, what is with this spicy and mildly passive-aggressive section title? Aren’t you a major advocate for adopting trains and other high-capacity and energy efficient forms of public transportation for long distance travel? Well yes, I am all for those things — but Hyperloop has always given me a bit of skepticism. The immense amount of hype is bound to overestimate the progress of the project, and technical stagnation and business disputes have also marred Hyperloop development.
Also, maglev trains operate on similar propulsion principles to the Hyperloop, and the technology already exists and is being actively built for high-speed rail! Since we already have this drastic and sustainable improvement in rail transportation, and it is guaranteed to operate safely, why can’t we focus on building that?
However, I consider myself to be an unconditional optimist, and there is still work being done that we can only hope is going to bring about the insane promise of Hyperloop technology.
How it’s Supposed to Work and the Necessary Hurdles to Address
For those not in the know on Hyperloop proposals, it is supposed to be a pedestrian and cargo vehicle that operates within an artificially-created vacuum, using electromagnetic levitation and propulsion in a nearly frictionless environment to reach speeds up to 760mph — nearly the speed of sound. This would allow a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles to take only 35 minutes as opposed to half of a day. This is a pretty spectacular proposal, and it would certainly revolutionize transportation if accomplished, but what are the drawbacks?
First, there is the problem with tube expansion due to fluctuating weather. Materials that make up Hyperloop tubes are either going to shrink or grow in size based on how hot or cold the weather is. In order to account for this, companies have proposed attaching large flexible segments at the end of pipes, similar to airplane onboarding ramps, but this is still in development.
Next, we have to look at scalability and construction concerns. No Hyperloop has designed a full-scale pod for either mass transit or cargo transport and tested it on a track. If this is the overarching goal of the project, then this must be developed and tested for feasibility. Once we have reached this scale, we need to address how these long tracks will possibly be constructed. As you would assume, Hyperloop tracks have to be primarily straight, with some designs being able to maneuver turns, albeit very broad ones. In places of extreme geographical diversity, it will be especially difficult to develop, maintain, and protect these linear, lengthy, and delicate vacuum chambers.
What We Could Look Forward to
Even despite the obvious hurdles, a lot of work is being done to make this pipe dream a reality and revolutionize the world of transportation forever. In November 2020, Virgin Hyperloop completed their first successful human trial on their test track in the desert of Nevada, proving safety and consistency at a modest scale.
Additionally, there are many prominent competitors within the Hyperloop startup industry, all with their own ideas for propulsion, energy generation, and eventual route networks to roll out across the world. With each of these companies also needing to develop their independent infrastructure due to these varying methodologies, only one company can come up on top if they choose to remain separate. This competition will drive innovation and promote long-term funding for these projects.
If the Hyperloop becomes a reality within the next few decades, it will be the single most fundamental change to mass transportation since the commercial airliner. By integrating Hyperloop stations in urban areas to connect metropolitan hubs, we can further increase human mobility and opportunity by connecting economic and cultural centers. People would be able to live hundreds of miles away from where they work, greatly easing the stress being put on our urban infrastructure due to mass urbanization. The challenges to overcome are large, but the promises are even larger, and I remain hopeful that we will see a breakthrough in Hyperloop feasibility in the near future.
Why these projects are so far off, and why they could not be…
Like I’ve said throughout this article: none of these technologies are going to drastically change our lives in the next 10 years. For all we know, many of them may never see widespread implementation, or any implementation at all. However, the sheer magnitude of the projected improvements in efficiency, mobility, and opportunity for the human race that is proposed with the implementation of these transportation infrastructures mean that they’re worth working on.
In terms of how this can be accomplished, it truly is anyone’s guess. However, investing money into transportation and space travel means investing money into innovation as a whole, and we can’t possibly predict what amazing discoveries both inside and outside of the transportation sector we can make by increasing and sustaining funding for research in revolutionary automotive, aerospace, and aeronautical technologies such as these.
So at the end of the day, if you want to change the world of transportation today, work on building Maglev trains to connect your country’s key cities. However, if you would like to lead a more uncertain path — a path that not only doesn’t guarantee success but will also be widely criticized as “insane” or “a waste of time and energy” — but a path in which the potential breakthrough is just too enticing to refuse, then you have plenty to be excited about.
I believe that it is important that we have passionate people working on both of these movements, and I leave it up to any who are interested to keep reading, keep reaching out, and keep discovering exciting applications of transportation that make you excited about our future.
- While our transportation methods are being improved every single day, truly revolutionary systems will take decades to develop and implement.
- Many innovative transportation proposals adopt disruptive emerging tech (EVTOL, AI, Smart Cities, Magnetic Levitation) to accomplish uniquely excellent propulsion, management, and safety techniques.
- Outside of the obvious benefit of traveling faster and more sustainably, improving transportation infrastructure on these levels of magnitude will reduce accidental deaths, relieve the stress on our urban infrastructure, disrupt harmful environmental policies within our current transportation sector, and improve quality-of-life for billions of people.
- Air taxis utilize EVTOL technology to transport people on short-medium range trips across urban environments. They are basically large drones that could potentially navigate autonomously.
- Connected cars and smart traffic infrastructure utilizes artificial intelligence and internet-of-things technology to allow for a universal network for dynamic communication between vehicles, pedestrians, and infrastructure to provide safer and efficient commutes.
- Hyperloop technology uses properties of magnetic levitation and propulsion within a frictionless environment to produce extremely high speeds at low energy costs.
- While many critics of these emerging techs will point to current improvements that are constructible today, it is important to invest in both elements of progress as we hope to expand opportunity and improve the lives of humans both today and tomorrow.
- Lilium’s Website for info about air taxis
- Volocopter’s Website for urban air mobility
- Why Don’t We Have Flying Cars Yet?
- Cellular Communication for Connected Traffic Infrastructure
- Intelligent Transport Systems: US Department of Transportation
- What’s Driving the Connected Car? Data, It Turns Out
- What’s Happening (And Not Happening) With Hyperloop
I hope you enjoyed reading my article. If could take the time, I would love for you to share this with any of your friends, family, or colleagues. If you would like to see more from me in the future, feel free to follow my page and get notified for when my next article is released. Constructive feedback is always appreciated. Also, please don’t forget to leave a clap 👏 and have a great day! 💜
- Timothy Simmons