What does the future of Transport look like?
A close look at key trends that will changes the way we use and perceive transportation
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This Sunday, I’m talking about the future of transport. I enjoyed writing this one, do take your time to think while you read it :)
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‘Starman’ made it
Remember the Tesla Roadster with the ‘Starman’ mannequin that was sent as the payload for the Falcon Heavy test flight almost two and a half years ago? Well, Starman has (sort of) made it to Mars almost a month ago.
If that’s how you are envisioning the future of transport to be, where space transport becomes accessible, you aren’t far off the track. However, on a realistic basis, it’s still far away! But, that doesn’t mean the near future of transport is dull.
Innovations in science and technology have and continue to keep disrupting almost every sector that we know of today. In this data-driven-age of globalization, innovations are on the rise to change the way we perceive and use transport.
I wrote about energy and its future in a previous issue, in a similar vein, I’ll talk about the trends determining the future of transport along with some futuristic modes in this issue.
Trends for the future
In 2014, we had more than a billion cars on the world's road, a figure that’ll double by 2035. Most of our vehicles (95%) currently are powered by fossil fuels. The transportation industry together with electricity is the largest consumer of fossil fuels, which has had a huge impact on our climate.
Climate change calls for a switch to cleaner sources of energy. Electric vehicles have already been integrated into society, as per this IEA report, sales of electric cars topped 2.1 million globally in 2019, boosting the stock to 7.2 million electric cars.
While electric cars eliminate the direct dependence of vehicles on fossils as a fuel source, the electricity today is still coming from these fossils. This will change in the future as more and more countries are tapping into renewable sources of energy. The research today is also focusing on potential future and performance of vehicles running on biofuels and hydrogen fuels.
In general, the idea would be to get as many cars off the road and switch to mass transport systems to counter congestion and pollution by minimising the stress of ownership. The drive towards a sustainable future would also include promoting cycling, changing the urban landscape to include infrastructure that is designed for walkers, bikers and high speed trains.
Throughout the history of transport, humans have developed modes that reduce the time taken to reach from point A to B and this trend is going to remain constant over years to come. Here’s a nice infographic on how far each mode of transport can travel and the evolution is quite evident:
Bullet trains that came in the early 1960s and Concorde that began in the 1970s and retired in 2003 (its story is quite interesting, check this video out!) have been the fastest modes of transport in the past few decades.
It’s only now that Hyperloop and other high speed bullet/ mag-lev trains have emerged as revolutionary concepts in the field of high speed travel. These modes are proposed to travel at unprecedented speeds around 600 mph! To put figures into perspective, a jet averages around 540 mph at cruising altitudes. Since these projects are focused on land, they will largely shape the economy on the potential routes and have major implications for the real estate market.
Among other developments are supersonic and hypersonic flights i.e. flights that travel faster (Mach 1.2 - 5) and much faster (>Mach 5) than the speed of sound respectively. The main problem with these modes apart from being super expensive is noise (a sonic boom, produced on breaking the sound barrier is extremely loud).
NASA is currently working on an experimental aircraft X-59 based on QueSST, short for Quiet Supersonic Technology that will lead to supersonic commercial aircraft in the future cutting travel times by half and at the same time reduce sonic booms to a quiet thump.
AI is driving the future of all things in tech, and autonomy is one of the core concepts that will drive the future evolution of transport. I’m sure you have heard of self-driving cars equipped with advanced sensors, cameras, and LiDAR technology by now. Major companies like Google, Apple, and Tesla are quite invested in the tech. Uber and Lyft are also working towards making their fleet autonomous.
The developments look quite promising, and in a decade’s time, these driverless modes are likely to be all over the place. According to this report on autonomous vehicles, the market size is projected to be $556.67 billion by 2026, with a growth rate of roughly 40% from 2019.
Even if the cars are not fully autonomous, the autonomous tech will still play a role. Imagine a car equipped with a machine learning assistant that handles automatic braking, acceleration, and other features to assist the driver.
These assistants will also have real-time data on traffic congestion or weather forecasts to optimize your travel experience. Additionally, they could also for instance sense that the driver is tired and take him/her to the nearest cafe or just park the car on the side for a quick nap.
The key motivation for autonomous vehicles is safety since more than 90% of accidents are caused by human errors, Google’s self-driving car project Waymo has an interactive infographic on this. These driverless cars won’t get exhausted and would be programmed to strictly follow the traffic rules, reducing fatalities and congestion.
The challenge for autonomous tech currently is to change the perception the public has towards it. People are not comfortable with the idea of not behind the wheel themselves. This perception is expected to change with the development of reliable technologies and safety demonstrations.
The emergence of 5G is crucial for these AI-powered cars to efficiently communicate with each other and make the chances of any sort of accident minimal. This would also require the development of a central control system to monitor and manage the traffic as different companies employing diverse AI algorithms could lead to conflicts among their cars.
Moreover, AI is expected to lead to a new sector altogether: Transportality = Transport + Hospitality. Think of self-driving vehicles that could also be your hotel room, or the option to sleep and work while on the move. You see, when you eliminate human driving, it eventually opens doors to a lot of functionality that can be achieved in a car. You can read more about this concept here. I tried to start an interesting discussion about this on Twitter, talking about possibilities. Lmk what you think!
In the future, there will be a shift from individual ownership of vehicles to shared platforms. This is going to lead towards growth in Mobility as a Service (MaaS).
A layman definition of MaaS as pointed out in this article would be: ‘Making going around without your own car easier’. It’s the concept of personalized and on-demand transportation service similar to what you avail in Uber and Lyft, however, the concept is not just limited to cars.
The idea is to integrate different mobility services like taxis, buses, trains, bicycles, etc. in one application. For example, you take a cab to your nearest metro station by planning and paying for the journey via a single application. Take a look at this infographic to see the expanse of MaaS:
Though the pandemic has negatively impacted this industry at the moment, in the coming years it will kickstart the MaaS revolution.
MaaS is all about personalization, transparency, and localization. Individual cars are parked more than 90% of the time and occupy space. The rise of mobility services will free up this urban space that can be utilized for other purposes.
Tracking rides along with a bunch of other real-time information bits such as crowding levels, cleanliness, etc. are the appealing factors that the public will look forward to given the shift in thinking that the pandemic has brought.
This multimodal solution is of course going to be powered by automation and at the same time reduce the stress on the environment, making traveling faster and efficient, thus combining all the trends that I have mentioned so far.
Since transport is not just about passengers, I’ll briefly touch upon the transport of goods. It was the transport of goods in the early days that led to the emergence of trade routes and means to get around faster.
The logistic transport sector is said to be positively impacted by tech such as blockchain, AI, and machine learning, you can read more about these trends here.
Imagine a transport network of goods so efficient and accessible that the need for physical storage of goods is eliminated just like the advent of the internet did it for physical storage of information.
Inline with the idea of reducing congestion and accidents on roads, delivery drones, and self-driving trucks are said to be the future of delivering goods.
In 2016, Amazon successfully delivered a package in Cambridge England using a fully autonomous drone. This future service called Prime Air is expected to deliver orders within 30 minutes using drones, that’s how rapid the transport of goods can be!
And, when you think beyond online shopping, there are so many essential services that can utilize this tech, for example, providing medical aid in war/natural calamity affected areas.
An exciting trend of our times that should definitely see the light of the day by this end of this century is space tourism. So far the human adventures in space have been mostly for research purposes, but with companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic (read more about these and others in this sector here) developing spaceflight for commercial travel, humans can venture into space just for recreation after paying a hefty sum of money.
Images from space have often captured our fascination as kids and adults alike, reminding us how small we are in this vast universe. Imagine seeing your planet from 300 Km up in the air (the aim of SpaceX’s Mission Earth Orbit), the feeling would be unmatched by any other. This is the sort of experience that companies investing in space want to bring to you.
The mission of these companies is to make space more accessible for the common public by utilizing reusable launch vehicles to make human life interplanetary, which has been the theme of sci-fi books and movies for years now. We might as well see Star Wars becoming a reality, only the future will tell!
In this section, I’ll focus on some of the modes of transport based on the trends that I mentioned above:
Considered only a possibility a few years ago, AV’s are now heading towards widespread deployment.
Google’s Waymo started testing driverless cars in 2017 and by October 2018, became the first to commercialize fully autonomous car service in Phoenix, Arizona.
Lyft is already operating its autonomous fleet of Aptiv vehicles in Las Vegas, shuttling its customers from point A to B safely. A few days ago, Tesla began pushing its ‘Full Self Driving’ beta to a select group of customers allowing them to use autopilot’s advanced driving assist features. However, it still requires someone to monitor the operation.
Amazon has partnered with Embark to use self-driving trucks to transport cargo. In 2014, Mercedes Benz Future Truck 2025 was unveiled as a transport system for the future. As per Mercedes, these self-steering trucks are capable of rolling down the highway at 85 mph. Check this video out!
Autonomous Aerial Vehicles
Autonomous Aerial Vehicles currently are based on the VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) concept. A common design is to employ four rotors i.e a quadcopter to carry cargo or people. These AAVs would be a feasible model to avoid street traffic for short distance travels, however, there are safety concerns with long-distance travel and clash with the current aviation network. Plus, they will be super expensive. Take a look at S3 2019 Hoverbike developed by a Russian company Hoversurf:
A brainchild of our one & only- Elon Musk, Hyperloop was envisioned in 2012. The innovation consists of low pressure, near-vacuum tubes that contained pressurized capsules facilitated by magnetic levitation to transport passengers and cargo. The unique design makes the system free of air-resistance to reach ultra-high speeds of 600 mph. These tubes could be elevated, underground, or even underwater!
The capsules would be able to depart at the interval of a few minutes, significantly reducing the wait times as compared to other rail networks.
Tesla and Richard Branson backed Virgin Hyperloop One are the biggest companies working on this tech, with a test track of 500 meters in Nevada. Hyperloop projects are being considered in the US, UK, Canada, Mexico, and India. In India, Virgin Hyperloop plans to develop a high-speed line between Mumbai and Pune, reducing travel time to just 35%. It could become the world’s first Hyperloop!
There are of course many challenges with the project, the construction of vacuum tubes over long distances is an enormous task that requires billions of funding. Plus, a lot of clearances and permits would be required for the project to become functional. Nevertheless, Hyperloop is currently the most talked-about futuristic mode of transport that people are looking forward to in the next 2-3 decades.
As mentioned earlier, hypersonic flights travel at speed five times that of sound (~3800 mph). Big players like Boeing and Airbus are working on prototypes for passenger-carrying jets that have got aviation enthusiasts excited.
These flights are capable of reducing the travel time between London and New York to just an hour! Read more about Boeing’s hypersonic flight here.
There are some interesting startups that are working on these jets as well, Boom is the most talked-about one yet.
Throughout the history of transport, we have made efforts in making travel faster, safer, and convenient. In addition to making travel faster, today, innovations are driven by issues of sustainability to develop smarter, cleaner, and more efficient modes of transportation. We have already seen the rise of electric vehicles (EVs) in the past few years, the switch to electricity along with autonomy is going to be the core concept driving towards the future of transport.
Along with the above, the emphasis will be more on public transportation, micro-mobility, and shared platforms than on individual cars on the path towards decarbonization to combat climate change.
Though the ongoing pandemic means that people would prefer their individual modes of transport over public ones, the situation will improve in a few years and mass transit systems will emerge as winners in the longer run.
We will see many more changes happening in this sector in the next 20 years than that have taken place in the last 100 years.
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