Articles about technology and the future of transportation rarely used to get far without mentioning jet-packs: a staple of science fiction from the 1920s onwards, the jet pack became a reality in the 1960s in the shape of devices such as the Bell Rocket Belt. But despite many similar efforts, the skies over our cities remain stubbornly free of jet-pack-toting commuters.
For a novel form of transport to make a material difference to our lives, several key requirements must be satisfied. Obviously the new technology must work safely, and operate within an appropriate regulatory framework. But public acceptance and solid business models are also vital if a new idea is to move from R&D lab to testbed to early adoption, and eventually into mainstream usage.
There's inevitably a lot of hype surrounding the future of transportation, but also plenty of substance, with big investments being made both by disruptive tech companies and by incumbent industry players. Can technology help to get us and our goods around quicker, in greater safety, and with less damage to the planet?
Connected & Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs)
Driverless cars, or Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) are getting the lion's share of attention, but the wider implications of CAVs and other novel forms of transport are also firmly on the agenda -- including smarter, greener cities and more efficient distribution of freight and consumer deliveries.
Most of the technologies listed here are in the early stages of the progression towards mainstream adoption, according to Gartner, with only five out of 30 making it beyond the Trough of Disillusionment.
No surprise, then, that there's a lot of activity in the CAV market. In a report published last October The Brookings Institution collated reports of "investments and transactions attributable to autonomous vehicles or core technologies" between August 2014 and June 2017, and found over 160 separate deals amounting to some $80 billion. These covered auto electronics, microchips, rideshare apps, AI/deep learning, digital mapping, non-AI software, physical systems and sensors. The authors concluded that "investment in 2018 should be substantially more than the $80 billion disclosed from 2014 to 2017, and continue upward for some period of time as the race to deploy self-driving moves on."
At the same time, public perception of autonomous vehicle safety seems to be heading in a positive direction. In a survey last year, Gartner found that while 55 percent of respondents (from the US and Germany) would not consider travelling in a fully autonomous car, 71 percent would ride in a partially autonomous vehicle.
These findings are echoed by the Deloitte 2018 Global Automotive Consumer Study, which found that the percentage of respondents considering fully self-driving vehicles unsafe ranged from 57 percent (in Japan) to 22 percent (in Mexico). In the previous year's survey the figures were much higher, ranging between 81 percent (S Korea) and 54 percent (Brazil):
Still, as Deloitte notes, there's a way to go when it comes to the perception of fully autonomous vehicles, with "almost half of consumers in most markets doubting the safety of this technology."
Clearly the degree of driving autonomy is important, and this has been codified by SAE International into six levels ranging from no automation (Level 0) to full automation (Level 5):
Levels 3 and above are considered to be 'automated driving systems'. In a Level 3 vehicle, the system handles steering, acceleration and deceleration, and monitors the driving environment, with human intervention available on request. A fully automated Level 5 vehicle does not require a steering wheel, pedals or any other controls -- humans, if present, are simply passengers.
Many trials of autonomous vehicles are underway around the world, with the highest concentration in California, which not coincidentally provides the best statistics on traffic accidents involving them. Since 2014, California's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has logged 54 autonomous vehicle accident reports (as of 18 January 2018).
Reading through these reports, we judged that only four (7.4%) could be 'blamed' on the AV -- and every one of those was under manual control at some point during the incident. Almost all were minor, low-speed accidents with no injuries, and the majority (56%) involved the AV being rear-ended by a vehicle driven by an inattentive human.
Two recent incidents have given the driverless car industry pause for thought.
At around 10pm on 18 March a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona was hit by an Uber Volvo XC90 driving in autonomous mode (with a safety driver on-board) and later died of her injuries. Despite the array of on-board sensors, Uber's vehicle failed to detect the bicycle-pushing pedestrian crossing the road, and video footage showed that the safety driver did not appear to be paying due attention to road conditions. Investigations are still ongoing, and in the meantime testing of Uber's autonomous vehicles in Arizona has been suspended.
On 23 March the driver of a Tesla Model X was killed in Silicon Valley when, in Autopilot driver-assistance mode, the car collided with a concrete lane divider at high speed. Again, investigations are not yet complete, although a 30 March statement from Tesla had this to say: "The driver had received several visual and one audible hands-on warning earlier in the drive and the driver's hands were not detected on the wheel for six seconds prior to the collision. The driver had about five seconds and 150 meters of unobstructed view of the concrete divider with the crushed crash attenuator, but the vehicle logs show that no action was taken." Here's a take on what may have happened.
Clearly, the interplay between autonomous systems and humans will be an issue for some time to come.
The key to improving the performance and safety of autonomous vehicles lies in the maturing of the underlying vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communications and (real-time) data processing systems. Over time, the components involved -- including LiDAR systems, for example -- will become cheaper, helping to remove another barrier to adoption. They will also become more power-frugal, making them more suitable for deployment in cleaner electric vehicles.
Autonomous vehicles are likely to prove much safer than conventional ones, and public confidence in them will surely increase. But even in the best-case scenario for CAVs, there will inevitably be a time lag as conventional vehicles are gradually phased out: the average age of light vehicles in the US in 2014 was 11.4 years, for example. The transition period, which could last well over a decade, will see roads carrying a mixture of autonomous and human-driven vehicles, and is likely to prove challenging for drivers, passengers, regulators and enforcement agencies.
And of course, once CAVs become the norm they will still have to deal with pedestrians and other unpredictable non-vehicular elements in the environment. There may be fewer auto accidents, but insurance companies and lawyers will doubtless still find a way to make money.
Most people are familiar with drones from footage in the media, and low-end devices are now affordable enough for enthusiasts to get directly involved. Meanwhile, on the commercial side, logistics companies like Amazon (Prime Air), DHL and UPS are investigating the use of drones for parcel distribution -- particularly 'last mile' deliveries in rural areas where conventional vans and trucks can struggle. Google's X 'moonshot factory' is also doing R&D on delivery drones under its Project Wing.
As far as public acceptance is concerned, the position on drone deliveries seems to be 'interested but wary'. An online survey conducted by the US Postal Service in June 2016 found that while three-quarters of the 1,465 respondents expected drone delivery by 2021, less than half (44%) liked the idea. Drone malfunction was the main concern (46%) with theft (16%) and intentional misuse (14%) much less serious worries. Speedy delivery was the main reason for interest in the technology, with emergency delivery also highly ranked. In the UK, the IMRG Consumer Home Delivery Review 2016 found that only a quarter of its 1,280 survey respondents (25.6%) would be prepared to have parcels delivered by drone -- up slightly from the previous year's survey (23.8%).
Regulation will be a key factor in the future of delivery drones. In the US, this is the remit of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), whose strict Part 107 Rules allow a certified pilot to fly a single drone so long as the entire system weighs less than 55 pounds (25kg), the flight remains within line of sight of the operator and doesn't cross national or state borders. Other Part 107 restrictions are that drone flights must take place in daylight, remain in Class G (uncontrolled, low-altitude) airspace, cannot be operated from moving vehicle or pass over anyone not directly participating in the operation.
The FAA can provide waivers to these rules on application, and is in the process of amending and broadening them -- something that will be required for the sort of operations envisaged by Amazon and others. It's no coincidence that the first Prime Air demonstration was in the UK, where the regulations are somewhat less restrictive.
Meanwhile, NASA is developing an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Traffic Management system, or UTM. This is essentially automated air traffic control for drones -- another key component of a commercial drone ecosystem.
Regulatory issues surrounding delivery drones and larger CAVs have led Starship Technologies -- whose co-founders are Janus Friis and Ahti Heinla of Skype fame -- to take a more down-to-earth route: Starship's small six-wheeled self-driving robot can operate within a 3km (2-mile) radius, delivering goods such as parcels, groceries and food in 15-30 minutes.
By October last year Starship robots had clocked up 100,000km of driving, with pilot programs including a pizza delivery service in partnership with Domino's.
A step up from the delivery drone is the two-seater Volocopter 2X, an 18-rotor VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft powered by nine high-capacity batteries that can be piloted or, in permissible areas, fly autonomously. The 290kg Volocopter 2X has a maximum payload of 160kg and a range of 27km (17mi) with a cruise speed of 70km/h (43mph); maximum flight time is 27 minutes at a cruise speed of 50km/h (31mph). Safety features include multiple redundancy in critical components such as propellers, motors, power source, electronics, flight control and displays -- plus an emergency parachute, although the manufacturer claims "you will never require it".
The first test flight for the Volocopter 'air taxi', which its German manufacturer sees as an on-demand smartphone-summoned service, took place last September in Dubai. At the event, Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter announced plans to launch the flying taxi service within five years.
In the US, Uber and NASA are collaborating on a VTOL taxi scheme called Uber Elevate, with demonstrations planned for 2020 and a service launched by 2023.
Perhaps the most futuristic of all new transportation technologies is Hyperloop -- a combination of maglev train and (partial) vacuum tube capable of propelling 'capsules' or 'pods' of passengers and/or freight at velocities approaching the speed of sound.
Although based on pre-existing ideas, Hyperloop's recent visibility is down to super-entrepreneur Elon Musk, who released an open-source white paper entitled Hyperloop Alpha in 2013 outlining the technology and promoting its suitability for linking "high traffic city pairs that are less than about 1500 km or 900 miles apart." Beyond that inflection point, Musk argued, supersonic air travel should be cheaper and faster.
To date, tests of Hyperloop systems have reached 240mph (387km/h) -- about a third of the 760mph (1,200km/h) posited by Musk in his 2013 white paper.
Hyperloop may eventually get fully up to speed, but plenty of issues remain surrounding public acceptance, regulation and business viability.
In an online survey of 1,346 US adults conducted in February 2017, 17 percent of respondents said they would choose a one-time hyperloop trip over a one-time trip to space. That may have cheered the technology's proponents, but the survey also revealed that 43 percent doubted Hyperloop would be available in their lifetime. Were it up and running now, 37 percent said they would use it, with 8 percent refusing outright.
Building a Hyperloop system is major undertaking, whether the partial vacuum tube is located above or, more expensively, below ground. Typically, Elon Musk has founded his own tunnelling business, The Boring Company, among whose goals is to reduce the cost of tunnel construction -- which currently can be as much as $1 billion per mile.
Apart from construction cost, other questions hovering over Hyperloop include land acquisition and building/tunnelling rights, environmental impact, safety standards and security.
None of these potential obstacles have deterred several startups from seeking to advance and implement Hyperloop technology. Apart from Elon Musk's SpaceX/Tesla, the frontrunner is Hyperloop One -- recently rebranded Virgin Hyperloop One following an (undisclosed) investment by Richard Branson's group.
Notable Hyperloop One milestones include: a Global Challenge, launched in May 2016, that identified 10 possible routes from a shortlist of 35; a test track -- DevLoop -- in Nevada, completed in March 2017; and the current Hyperloop speed record, set in December 2017 on the DevLoop. Although Virgin Hyperloop One says it is "working aggressively to meet a goal of having three production systems in service by 2021," anyone who has followed the tortuous progress of its Galactic stablemate may be forgiven for not holding their breath.
Novel transport technologies that make it to the mainstream will operate in a smarter, more connected world. This will have profound implications for the way cities are designed (or redesigned) and managed, and will transform our experience of moving within and between them. But it's early days yet.
Smart cities, and in particular the place of autonomous vehicles within them, were the subject of an informative panel session at CES in January, where several industry experts offered insights on the current state of play. Here's a flavour of the discussion.
Mike Abelson, vice president, global strategy, at General Motors set the tone: "From our testing in San Francisco what we're learning right now is how the vehicles interact with the environment around them -- pedestrians, cyclists, all the other traffic. Experiments on how autonomous vehicles may enable us to significantly redesign and reimagine the city -- we haven't gotten to that stage yet. I think you've got to have a reasonably large fleet deployed and be working with the city on trying to run some experiments. We're looking forward to that interaction, because I think autonomous vehicles will have a significant and fundamental effect on how cities operate and how they're laid out physically."
For Erez Dragan, senior VP, advanced development & strategy, at Mobileye, mapping is a key factor: "A very critical enabler of autonomous driving is a dynamically updated map of the environment, and the way to do that with our technology is crowd-sourcing using single-camera, lower-autonomy vehicles."
Such projects clearly require a high level of connectivity, which was addressed by Nakul Duggal, vice president, product management at Qualcomm: "What we have started to focus on recently -- in the last 15 months or so -- is 'vehicle-to-x' [V2x]. If you start to equip infrastructure in cities [with sensors] -- traffic lights, construction zones and so on -- it allows the car to essentially have a sensor that 'hears' exactly what the environment is looking like. As the city of the future starts to get modernised in terms of connectivity -- getting to 5G, getting to denser networks -- the transportation network needs to be more intelligent. As that network gets connected, with technology that can communicate to vehicles, you're going to be able to have local context. So an intersection should be able to indicate to cars what the average speed is at that point in time, for example."
Dynamic maps, sensor-equipped infrastructure and intelligent connectivity should enable more efficient routing and parking in smart cities. Along with ride-sharing schemes and electric vehicles, such developments could save time, free up land, and reduce pollution and congestion in tomorrow's cities.
Although consumer aspects of new transport technology receive the most coverage, analyst firm Forrester is clear that it's the commercial world that will be disrupted first. In a July 2017 report entitled Autonomous Vehicles Will Reshape The Global Economy, six key areas are considered to be "poised for profound transformation": automotive, shipping and logistics, insurance, government, media, and data security and privacy.
"Before we even come close to seeing widespread consumer adoption," said Forrester, "shipping and logistics companies like Amazon, DHL, and UPS will pioneer the commercial use of autonomous vehicles. Practically every interview we conducted agreed: Shipping and logistics is where vehicle autonomy shows the most near-term potential."
New research by market intelligence firm Tractica supports this view, predicting that sales and revenue from autonomous trucks and buses will rise from just 343 and $84 million in 2017 to 188,000 and $35 billion in 2022:
"The potential for autonomous trucks and buses is huge and market growth is accelerating, with news of successful pilot projects coming at an increasing pace," said Tractica research analyst Manoj Sahi in a statement. "Considering the next 2 to 3 years as a make or break time, several prominent companies are prioritizing investment for large-scale development," he added.
Here's how Forrester sees the next decade or so unfolding:
Are we there yet?
Transportation is about to get a technology-driven reboot -- and not before time, considering the accident-prone, polluting, resource-guzzling and time-consuming nature of many of our current methods of moving people and things around.
Right now, many new transport technologies are being tried out, and many vested interests are jockeying for position in the developing ecosystem. The details are still taking shape, but future transportation systems will certainly be connected, data-driven and highly automated. As a result, for all their potential benefits, it will be vital to keep security and privacy issues front and centre as these systems develop. The journey from here to there promises to be a fascinating one.