Transport of the Future: What Technology Will Be a Game-Changer and Save the Planet? And Where Are We Beyond the Hype?

This article focuses mainly on the current trends in the transportation industry, covering both means of personal and public transport. The examples are drawn of the implemented technologies (the ones that have been tried out already) with the outcomes that the trials had, as well as newly emerging technologies (the ones that are on their pre-execution stages yet), outlining the opportunities and challenges that the field is currently facing or is highly likely to face on its way to innovation. The hype that exists around “autonomous”, “self-driving” cars, so-called “hyperloops” and other “out of sci-fi” technologies makes me, as well as many experts and professionals wonder: how much of that is true? and how the transport of the future will look like really? what are the technologies that should be the centre of our attention as they are about to disrupt the conventional transportation systems? how much is it going to cost the governments, companies, and citizens? what are the positive and negative consequences of employing these technologies? These are the questions the article addresses directly.

Introduction of the Issue

There’s no doubt that transportation plays a rather significant role in lives of all of us, independently on whether one is a commuter or lives downtown. The need for a transit arises sooner or later for everyone, even more so when we speak about metropolises – using transport becomes as crucial as breathing the fresh air to fill in one’s cells with oxygen. The problem occurs when one demolishes the other. In other words, when the means of transport that have become so dear to us pollute the air we breathe to a degree where we cannot breathe it anymore. This brings us to the first reason explaining the utmost importance of developing sustainable alternative means of transportation: pollution. Numerous cities worldwide are facing serious air quality problems today. According to a study that has been recently published in the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98% of cities with population above 100,000 in low- and middle-income countries are failing to meet World Health Organisation air quality guidelines. It is true that transport is not the only contributor to air pollution, standing in line with production factories and power plants. However, the transport sector is said to be responsible for the third of the amount of harmful emissions.

Another driver of innovation in the field is growing annoyance with traffic congestions. According to the data from INRIX Traffic Global Scorecard, an average commuter in Los Angeles, Moscow, New York City and Sao Paulo spent accordingly 102, 91, 91 and 86 hours in congestion in 2017. The numbers are rather self-explanatory; nobody wants to spend a lifetime stuck in traffic jams, so we need to find a solution to this issue.

Last but not least on my list of points on why this issue is of the highest urgency is the rise in traffic fatalities (1.25 million deaths worldwide due to vehicle crashes in 2014 according to waymo.com, accidents on the road accounting for 6% deaths worldwide in 2016 according to Waymo.com).

Thus, it should be evident that the issue at hand is worth a thorough research and is worth attention.

Literature Overview

 

It’s quite implausible that old books and fundamental academic works exist that address this issue, and even more so that address the issue and provide actionable breakthrough solutions to it. The problem is very practical and is therefore prominent as a key focus of various forums, discussion boards, and latest research papers. In order to gather the most relevant ideas, I thus focused on the following literature:

  1. “Reshaping Urban Mobility with Autonomous Vehicles: Lessons from the City of Boston”, World Economic Forum Report, June 2018
    This report focuses on the findings from a three-year study run by the coalition of the World Economic Forum and The Boston Consulting Group (BCG). The purpose of the study was to explore how autonomous vehicles could reshape the future of urban mobility, so throughout the paper the numbers are drawn together with conclusions on various effects autonomous vehicles do or might have on the city of Boston, and potentially other big cities in the world. The key prediction based on the analysis says that there is highly likely to be a structural shift to mobility-on-demand (for both autonomous and other, more conventional vehicles). The study is rather thorough, the report provides all the necessary numbers and all the conclusions seem to be reliable. I will thus turn to this paper for relevant information later in the article.
  2. “What should the public transport of the future be like? 56thUITP World Congress”, Acta Oeconomica, Vol. 56, No. 2 (June 2006), pp. 216-218
    This is a relatively short article summarising settlements of the 56thworld congress of the International Association of Public Transport. It gives a clear understanding of where the innovations in public transport are headed, and provides an example of a feasible solution that is being employed in at least one developed country today. The article is rather outdated though and not very descriptive, the case lacks details and numbers.
  3. “The uberisation of public transport and mobility as a service: Implications for future mainstream public transport”, Mulley, C., Kronsell, A., Research in Transportation Economics, 2018
    This is a report of Workshop 7 of the 15thInternational Conference on Competition and Ownership in Land Passenger Transport, which provides a detailed description of the issues covered during the Workshop 7 discussions, the conclusions drawn and future research prospects. The key topic of the Workshop was the impact that adoption of latest advancements in digitalisation (portable and/or wearable internet-connected devices) had on the development of the transportation industry. It was concerned with ‘uberisation’, or creation of Mobility as a Service (MaaS), the potential of the rising trend, the challenges it was facing due to strict or outdated policies in a number of cities and countries and possible solutions for the elimination of legal and interest clashes.
  4. “Examples of Sustainable Development in the Area of Transport, Kadlubek, M., Procedia Economics and Finance 27, 2015, pp. 494-500
    This recent article is quite unique in how it explicitly describes the concept and deeper theoretical aspects of sustainable development in the area of transport, drawing practical examples from the experience of EU countries. It doesn’t introduce any principally new ideas, but is worth a read and is useful for gaining an understanding of sustainability in transportation systems.

New technologies in private transport

 

Having said that among the major concerns and reasons for investing in transport of the future is air pollution and high records of traffic fatalities, it is only natural to focus on the technology that is supposed to solve these two. And this is an electric car equipped with self-driving hardware and software.

The most recognisable company that offers exactly that is Tesla, an American automotive and energy company founded in 2003. They focus on delivering performance and safety by taking the control over the road off the driver, while decreasing harmful fuel emissions practically to zero, as the cars only need electricity to run. And though the concept sounds rather convincing and promises to relieve us of quite some troubles, it has its drawbacks too. First of all, Tesla is failing to live up to the image they build of themselves, saying that all their cars are equipped with “Full Self-Driving Hardware”, and yet turning to say that the driver should remain alert for safety purposes even with an autopilot on, when a Tesla crash makes headlines. So it’s doubtful whether Tesla can actually increase safety on the roads considering that the cars cannot always react appropriately to a situation on the road. Another issue is the expensiveness of the cars (Tesla Model S and Model X cost from €77,480 and €81,130 accordingly), which is supposedly solved by the introduction of a more affordable car, Tesla Model 3 (starting from €30,800). If the prices for the majority of cars produced by Tesla remain as high as they are for Model S and Model X now, it will be affordable to only a very small fraction of the population, and will thus not have a significant impact on the existing situation. Lastly, the question arises whether by making a car run on electricity instead of gas makes it more environmentally friendly, and sadly, there are serious reasons to believe that it does not. The cars surely do affect the air quality positively by cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but producing the electricity they consume to function is also making its impact. According to the Renewables Global Status Report from REN21 (Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21stCentury), in 2013 renewable energy sources accounted for 22% of energy production worldwide, which is a good indicator if we compare it to roughly 18% in 2007, but which still leaves a large piece for non-renewable energy sources, making cars running on electricity a questionable benefit for the environment. Another contributor to my concern about the positive effect of the Tesla cars is the harmful impact of an increase in lithium-ion batteries production which the cars are powered with. Lately, due to an increase in demand, lithium needed for the production of the batteries has been mined in Australia mostly, and this process is extremely energy intensive, with many mines powered with “dirty” electricity such as coal. At the moment, utilisation of the batteries raises concerns too as only 5% of lithium-ion batteries are being recycled. Transferring batteries from production plants to Europe and back to the recycling facilities is said to increase the global warming potential by 45% roughly [5,6].

However, there’s a reason to believe that the society we live in is need for a structural shift from private transport as a whole and not merely a change of a car. There’s a rising trend of mobility as a service, which could well solve the issues that electric and self-driving car manufacturers are trying but failing to address.

New technologies in public transport

 

But before I dive deeper into the concept of autonomous vehicles and mobility as a service, let me briefly cover an older, more conventional “innovative” solution in public transport. Ethanol buses in Stockholm, Sweden were introduced in the middle of 1980’, and there were more than 400 of them by 2010. The aim was to have at least 50% of the two thousandbuses run on renewable fuels in 2011 and100% in 2025. The key idea was that if vehicles would run on fuel containing newly absorbed carbon instead of fossil fuels, the process of an increasing amount of carbon getting into the circulation would come to an end. And it seems only logical that it would have a good impact on the environment, decreasing the amount of harmful emissions. But this technology has its flaws too – ethanol is produced from different plants, and taking soil to plant something ethanol will be derived from means ultimately decreasing the production of plants for other purposes such as growing food crops.

Now, coming back to more modern technologies, consumers’ rapid embracing of Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing services indicates a trend toward MaaS, which is supposed to fill in the gap between public transport and private vehicle-ownership. According to a study conducted by WEF in collaboration with BCG, shared autonomous vehicles (AVs) will reduce the overall number of vehicles on the streets, thus contributing to a decline in ait pollution by traffic and reducing travel times across the city. The number of vehicles on the road is forecasted to decrease by 15% while the total number of kilometres travelled will increase by 16%. Regarding the traffic congestion, which aforementioned technologies did not address in any way, introducing shared AVs is expected to solve the issue for remote neighbourhoods, decreasing travel time by 12,1% as people will turn to mobility-on-demand instead of using personal cars. However, the technology is most likely to worsen congestion in the downtown area, becoming a preferred alternative to public transportation; travel time is forecasted to increase by 5,5% in downtown Boston. On average, travel time is expected to go down by only 4%, but it would still be an improvement. “The greatest effects are likely to come from occupancy-based pricing schemes, in which financial incentives discourage single-occupancy rides. This measure could improve citywide travel time by 15%.” [1, p.4] And though the study focuses on Boston City, the technology is likely to be adopted in various cities worldwide, contributing significantly to the development of sustainable transportation systems.

For another breakthrough in transportation, we should have a close look at the Boring Company, an American transportation technology company founded in 2013 by Elon Musk who was “bored of being stuck in traffic congestions”. The company is working to implement a project of a complex underground tunnel system, which would transfer cars as well as shuttles for pedestrians and cyclists on high-speed platforms and bring them to “thousands of small stations the size of a single parking space that blend seamlessly into the fabric of a city” (Elon Musk on his twitter account). The technology is thus promising to solve the issue of traffic congestions, air pollution (the cars transferred on the platforms will have their engines off, eliminating any emissions while in the tunnel) and traffic fatalities too as the platforms will be operated by machinery, bringing the possibility of cars colliding to zero. However, it is very costly to implement the concept: one tunnel boring machine (TBM) costs £10 million and requires a team of 20 to operate it 24 hours a day, and the company would need quite some of them if they were to build an actual, functioning system of underground tunnels. It is also unclear whether the technology will really solve the issue of traffic congestions as if the number of stations is insufficient, the travellers will have to queue and wait to even enter the tunnel. Despite the challenges though, the first 320-metre tunnel should be ready for testing on 10thDecember, 2018 with a longer, 1-kilometre tunnel promised to be ready for testing in 2019. So, the Boring Company seems to be rather serious about their plans and should be kept an eye on.

A technology that is somewhat resembling of the Boring Company underground tunnels, but seems to have yet more potential is a high-speed technology called Hyperloop. There are several companies working to commercialise Hyperloops, including the Boring Company itself, but I will focus on Virgin Hyperloop One, another American transportation technology company. There’s one simple reason for that: they appear to be the only company that has gone beyond press releases and unrealistic promises, and is actually working on the technology. But are they really? Hyperloop is a technology that will allow for …

What makes the company’s plans more believable is a signed framework agreement to build a hyperloop connecting Mumbai and Pune, and public support from the Indian prime minister – Narendra Modi, who was personally present on the stage alongside Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, when the framework was being signed. The hyperloop is supposed to decrease travel time between Pune and Mumbai to 25 minutes compared to 2,5+ hours it takes by car and 3+ by train, connect 26 million people working in both parts of India and perform 150 million passenger trips a year. But however promising the prospects of having such a transportation system, it is undoubtedly going to cost a lot of money, and it is still unclear who will be the main investor in the project. The time frame for the realisation of it remains unclear too, and the feasibility of the technology raises questions too, consider the following: even if the company has sufficient funds to equip the tunnels with vacuum pumps on the route, how likely it is that there’s not going to be even a slightest leak of air which will lead to the crash of the whole tunnel?

Opportunities and Challenges Ahead of Transportation

 

Having studied the preconditions of the issue at hand, and having studied enough data to evaluate viability of different transportation solutions gaining high traction lately, I naturally finalised my study with an outline of the opportunities and challenges that were and would be lying ahead of the transportation industry.

The problems these cutting-edge technologies are supposed to solve are numerous, creating seemingly bright opportunities for the transport of the future:

  • greenhouse gas emissions should reduce, which will allow to preserve the environment better, reducing the levels of air pollution in cities worldwide, this being achieved with the embrace of electronic cars or a shift towards public transport;
  • traffic congestionsin metropolitan cities should be reducedwith the rise of public transport systems and innovative decisions such as The Boring Company Underground Tunnels and Virgin Hyperloop One;
  • travelling time willhighly likelygo downdramatically with the introduction of Underground Tunnels and Hyperloops, also due to the decrease in traffic jams;
  • connectivity of different areas is likely to increase, which will cause socio-economic benefits as business people will have more opportunities to interact and concentrate on their affairs even when driving instead of constantly watching the road;
  • driving safety should increasesignificantly with the introduction of fully automated cars and shuttles, excluding human error and eliminating the possibility of a tired, drunk or distracted driver operating a vehicle;
  • socio-economic costs are expected to decreasewith the downward trend in accidents on the road.

But however powerful and promising the marketing campaigns of the companies that stand behind the suggested innovations in transportation systems are, there are certain drawbacks to them that cannot be overlooked. The challenges that implementing these technologies is highly likely to face are covered in the followingparagraphs.

Investments. Building the infrastructural facilities for The Boring Company underground tunnels and hyperloops is extremely costly, as well as equipping cars with LIDAR systems for autonomous driving is. Initially acquiring such investments can be rather challenging, even for well-established companies.

Technical issues.All of the aforementioned technologies imply a high degree of innovation, and however ambitious the plans are, it is still unclear how realistic the idea of creating and sustaining vacuum in a hyperloop tunnel is, or whether machines can be taught to mimic humans when driving to the needed extent where they can react correctly and fast enough to unforeseen circumstances on the road.

Human resources. Both highly educated professionals and blue-collar workers are needed in big numbers as the construction works are very time- and labour-consuming, and it might be an issue to acquire the talents needed to make transport of the future a reality any time soon.

Social distrust.These technologies have been around for quite a while, with companies making unrealistic promises, getting the hopes of the people high only to disappoint them after some time, we have also witnessed numerous accidents involving “self-driving” cars, so convincing people of the safety of even more innovative technologies (such as hyperloop) would be rather challenging too.

Legalisation issues.Even if a level-5 (completely autonomous) car exists, laws should be adjusted to allow the technologies to be employed on the streets and roads; this is obviously only likely to happen if and when the technology is empirically proven safe; however, and though the companies have been investing into building an image of trustworthy technologies that are already present or are only an inch away from becoming a reality, most politicians are rather reluctant to embrace innovations and give in to “questionable” initiatives.

In this article, I guided you through the technologies that can be classified as transport of the future, there are certainly more cases and newly emerging technologies than I was able to cover, but this paper should serve a sufficient introduction into the reality of prospects lying ahead of transportation in 2018. At this point, I am unsure whether we are headed at the right direction in transportation development, considering all the drawbacks of existent and currently emerging technologies (they seem to cause more trouble than they are supposed to relieve us of). The question of which technology will be the most influential remains too, although there are certain breakthrough leaders, like “hyperloop”. However, I certainly think that the technologies standing behind the all-around hype have quite some potential and should be invested time, energy and money into.

 

 

 

 

References

 

  1. Reshaping Urban Mobility with Autonomous Vehicles: Lessons from the City of Boston,World Economic Forum Report, June 2018
  2. What should the public transport of the future be like? 56thUITP World Congress,Acta Oeconomica, Vol. 56, No. 2 (June 2006), pp. 216-218
  3. The uberisation of public transport and mobility as a service: Implications for future mainstream public transport, Mulley, C., Kronsell, A., Research in Transportation Economics, 2018
  4. Examples of Sustainable Development in the Area of Transport,Kadlubek, M., Procedia Economics and Finance 27, 2015, pp. 494-500
  5. The Environmental Impacts of Recycling Portable Lithium-Ion Batteries, Boyden, A., Research School of Engineering, The Australian National University, 2016
  6. Tesla and the environmental impact of lithium-ion batteries,MWS, 13 Nov 2017. Retrieved from https://rctom.hbs.org/submission/tesla-and-the-environmental-impact-of-lithium-ion-batteries/
  7. Renewables Global Status Report,REN21 (Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21stCentury), 2017
  8. Scientists explain why Hyperloop is so dangerous and difficult, Moskvitch, K., 23 Oct 2018. Retrieved from https://www.wired.co.uk/article/elon-musk-hyperloop-boring-company-trial
  9. London’s driverless taxi dream turns out to just be shuttle buses,Kobie, N., 23 Oct 2018. Retrieved from https://www.wired.co.uk/article/addison-lee-self-driving-taxis-shuttle-buses

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