Thirty years from now, will we be zooming down tubes in lightning-fast pods, or relaxing in airborne autonomous taxis? The future of our daily commute is still up in the air, with different tech giants making highly varied bids for ambitious transportation options.
NewtonX consulted an urban planning professor at an East Coast ivy league university, a former senior level employee from Tesla, and an SVP level engineer with Uber to map out the associated risks, costs, and outlook for various futuristic transportation methods. This mini panel identified three key areas of interest:
- Autonomous vehicles (and fleets of vehicles)
- Hyperloops and bullet trains
- Flying self-driving cars
Implementation of any or all of these options will cost billions in infrastructure overhaul and technology development. But companies that develop and own these technologies also stand to make billions, which is why some of the world’s biggest companies are so interested in the future of transportation.
The Three Bids: Why Investors Are so Interested
1. Autonomous Vehicles
The first futuristic transportation method that the mini-panel analyzed was autonomous vehicles — after all, AV’s have garnered intense public scrutiny and investment both from VCs and tech giants. 2016 was dubbed a tipping point for self-driving cars, with major investments by Ford, Mercedes, Apple, Intel, and Delphi Automotive. NewtonX analysts estimate that over $100B has been invested in self-driving cars (this estimate includes investment in technologies needed for AVs such as microprocessors like Nvidia’s and Andreesen Horowitz’s investment in advanced mapping). Common census holds that it’s only a matter of years until self-driving vehicles are on the road — although recent setbacks such as the Tesla autopilot crash and the Uber AV accident have potentially lengthened this timeframe.
Investment activity has been most active in the U.S. but also significant in China, Germany, the UK, and Israel. The pace of investment saw a meteoric YoY increase starting in 2016. The scope of investment has been wide: from software development, to microprocessor development, to Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM’s) making advanced sensors for car parts.
According to the urban planning professor, one of the key benefits that will impact the viability of self-driving cars is that cities don’t have to invest in infrastructure overhaul. “A self-driving car, in theory, doesn’t impact roads and infrastructure at all,” he explained. “The city gets less congestion and the possibility to move parking lots out of urban centers [because AVs can park themselves]and in return, they have to invest very little. It’s a good deal for cities, as long as pedestrians are safe.”
2. Hyperloops and Bullet Trains
Hyperloops — a sealed system of tubes through which a pod filled with passengers can travel without air resistance at extremely high speeds — is turning into more than just an Elon Musk space dream. Just this month, Dubai unveiled a full-scale model of a passenger pod at Dubai’s City Walk mall. Plans for a Dubai hyperloop have been in the works since 2016, when Hyperloop One announced an agreement with the Roads and Transport Authority in 2016. The plan is to build a 12 minute hyperloop between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
The benefits of proposed hyperloops include minimized safety risks because they’re built either on columns or underground, reduced risk of collision, reduced impact by weather, minimized energy expenditure because there’s no wind resistance, and lower prices due to contactless tracks and minimally intrusive civil engineering input.
That said, the NewtonX panel acknowledged that most countries are focused on bullet trains over hyper loops — in part, because bullet trains are already in use. The first Shinkansen (bullet train) was unveiled in 1964, and by 1976 over 1B passengers had traveled by bullet train. The U.S. has been notably slow to adopt, and the NewtonX panel credits this latency with the country’s low population density and high suburban sprawl. The urban planning expert also noted that American culture is uniquely car obsessed. Polls of the American population show that Americans are demonstrably less inclined toward public transportation than populations in other countries, including Japan and China.
3. Flying Self-Driving Cars
Flying autonomous vehicles may sound fanciful, but Boeing, Uber and Airbus are already well on their way to making them a reality. As NewtonX previously wrote, Dubai has already begun testing autonomous flying 2-person taxis, called Autonomous Air Taxis (AAT), and the government of Dubai aims to have autonomous transport account for a quarter of total trips by 2030. According to the senior engineer with Uber, from a technological standpoint autonomous flying cars are actually easier to develop than autonomous ground vehicles are. “We’ve already done a lot of the work toward automating flights,” he explained. “It’s easier because there are fewer objects, less traffic, and fewer signals to obey.” Historically, the U.S. has been an aviation leader, and it’s likely that flying vehicles could become a reality in the next half decade. Indeed, Uber Elevate is already testing its prototypes in Los Angeles and Houston, with the goal of launching in 2020.
The primary benefits of air transport are that it could reduce traffic, decrease commute time, and provide a greater degree of safety than traditional vehicles. A potential drawback, though, could be the environmental impact, and the Tesla and Uber former employees emphasized that we won’t know what this impact is until we see how it affects driving habits and efficiency.
Who Will Win? Experts Say It’s Only a Matter of Time Until All Three do
The U.S. is severely behind when it comes to rapid mass transit, but it’s likely to be one of the pioneers of autonomous vehicles on the ground and in the air. The NewtonX panel agreed that all three forms of transportation are imminent, but their degree of popularity will vary by region. In New York City, for instance, there is less of a need for autonomous vehicles, and a greater need for modern, rapid mass transit. In Arizona, on the other hand, the wide streets and lower concentration of pedestrians makes it well suited for autonomous vehicles.
On a macro scale, different countries will encourage and back these new transportation methods to varying degrees. Culture, urban sprawl, cost, and environmentalism will all be contributing factors for consideration.
The real goal for any country, though, is to have all three. Each brings fast, autonomous transportation to different use cases, which is why tech giants, VC investors, and even government entities are investing in the future of transportation.