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9 radical changes that are coming to transportation

A conceptual drawing of a vertical-takeoff airplane.
Joby Aviation

We’ve gotten used to transportation technology improving at a glacial pace. Today’s cars and airplanes look and work about the same as they did 25 and even 50 years ago. But two announcements this week made it clear that the pace of innovation in transportation is about to accelerate dramatically.

On Monday, Google’s Waymo unit announced it was opening its self-driving car program to members of the general public in Phoenix. Waymo has ordered 500 Chrysler Pacifica minivans and will provide free rides to hundreds of customers who are accepted into the company’s pilot program.

Then on Tuesday, Uber announced that it was aiming to launch a network of small, vertical-takeoff electric aircraft — essentially, flying cars — in the Dallas area by 2020. The system could cut a 45-minute commute down to a few minutes, and in the long run Uber expects flights to be cheaper than conventional Uber rides.

Uber’s Jeff Holden said that these kinds of flying taxis represent “the pinnacle of urban mobility — the reduction of congestion and pollution from transportation, giving people their time back, freeing up real estate dedicated to parking and providing access to mobility in all corners of a city.”

Those are just the two most recent examples of a dramatic transformation in how we move ourselves and our stuff around. We’re also seeing rapid progress on delivery drones, self-driving trucks, supersonic airplanes, and even rockets. In all, there are major transportation breakthroughs being developed today. Almost all of these technologies already have working prototypes. And all of them have well-funded companies aiming to bring them to market by the early 2020s.

Not only will these transportation revolutions make our lives safer and more convenient, but they could also change how people feel about the economy and technological progress more generally. Seeing cars drive themselves and drones and flying cars zip over their heads could give people a palpable sense of progress — one that’s been missing in recent decades.

1) Electric cars

Investigation Continues Into Tesla Driver's Death While In Autopilot Mode
Tesla’s Model S.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Battery-powered electric cars are still rare today, but a huge shift is underway. Car companies sold almost 160,000 of the vehicles in the United States in 2016. And sales are set to explode over the next five years. Tesla is beginning production of its mass-market Model 3 later this year and aims to produce a million cars in 2020.

The growth of electric cars is driven by the plunging cost of batteries. According to Bloomberg, battery costs have fallen by 65 percent since 2010. In recent years, higher battery volumes have allowed greater economies of scale, pushing down prices. Those lower prices expanded the market for batteries, allowing even higher volumes.

Experts expect this virtuous cycle to continue in the coming years, and it could even accelerate. One 2016 study by Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates the total cost of owning an electric car could drop below the cost of owning a gasoline-powered car as early as 2022.

At that point, even people who aren’t at all concerned with the environmental harms of carbon emissions will nevertheless have an economic incentive to switch. And battery costs might continue to drop for years after that, making electric cars a more and more compelling option.

2) Self-driving cars

Waymo

Self-driving cars have gotten a lot of press, and for good reason. Human-driven cars kill 30,000 people each year in the United States alone, and most of those lives could be saved if self-driving software gets good enough.

A number of companies — including the major car companies, Uber, Tesla, and Google’s Waymo unit — are hard at work on the technology. Uber and now Waymo have begun offering rides to a select number of human riders — albeit with a human also in the driver’s seat for extra safety. Several other companies have signaled plans to ship commercial products within the next five years. Ford, for example, said last year that it was aiming to ship a car with no steering wheel for use in ride-hailing networks by 2021. Audi says it’ll have a fully self-driving car by 2020.

In this article I’m treating electric and self-driving cars as two separate trends, but from the consumer’s perspective it’ll seem like one big industry revolution. With no need to put a driver in the front-left position, carmakers may experiment with radically new designs, such as having passengers facing each other like they’re in the back of a limousine.

With no need to pay a driver, self-driving taxis will be a lot cheaper than taxis today, ushering a big shift toward Uber-style ride hailing. That, in turn, will make it feasible to build small, super-efficient electric vehicles specifically for use as urban taxis, further reducing the cost and increasing usage of ride-hailing services in urban areas.

A shift to self-driving, on-demand transportation will dramatically reduce the need for parking, especially in dense urban areas. That could have far-reaching implications for urban planning, since concerns about parking are a major factor limiting the density of urban development. Meanwhile, suburbs will have to decide what to do with the land occupied by their vast, mostly empty parking lots.

3) Rolling delivery drones

Starship Technologies

While self-driving cars shuttle people around, smaller vehicles will be carrying our stuff. This is another technology that is already being actively tested by a bunch of different companies.

A big question is whether delivery drones will predominantly in the air or on the ground. There are companies working on both approaches. Rolling food delivery robots have already started to show up on the sidewalks of San Francisco and other cities.

4) Flying delivery drones

A prototype Amazon delivery drone.
Amazon

A big question here is whether most delivery drones will roll along the sidewalk or fly through the air. Amazon, Google, and a number of startups are developing unmanned aerial vehicles capable of ferrying small packages across a metropolitan area.

Each approach has distinct advantages. Rolling robots will be quieter and simpler, but flying robots will be faster and less likely to get in people’s way. It’s unclear which approach will be safer and more reliable — flying robots could crash and fall on people’s heads, but ground-based robots could cause accidents or fall prey to vandalism.

Either way, delivery drones will transform the retail sector. Why drive to Walmart when you can have a robot drop off the stuff you need on your front steps in a matter of minutes? Some traditional retailers will survive — especially those that offer expert advice or personalized service — but the drone delivery era will accelerate the decline of brick-and-mortar retail that Amazon started two decades ago.

5) Vertical-takeoff airplanes for intracity travel

This is a conceptual drawing, but Lilium has begun testing a real prototype of the electric vertical-takeoff plane depicted here.
Lilium

Small quadcopter-style drones can carry packages. Larger versions of these aircraft can carry human passengers. Several companies are already building prototypes of what’s known as vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft that use a bunch of propellers to lift off vertically, eliminating the need for a runway.

Last year, Bloomberg reported that Google co-founder Larry Page was secretly funding a startup working on this kind of technology. And a number of other startups are working on it as well. Sophisticated software in these vehicles controls each propeller independently. That makes the aircraft safer and more stable than a helicopter: If one or two propellers were to fail, these aircraft can compensate with the other propellers and land safely.

Once the technology is perfected, the results could dramatically change how people get around metropolitan areas. An Uber white paper released last October sketched out a vision for the future these aircraft could make possible. Uber envisions a network of dozens of “vertiports” — basically helicopter landing pads — spread out across a metropolitan area. Customers would take an Uber car to the nearest vertiport, fly to a vertiport near their destination, and then take an Uber car to complete the trip.

This week, Uber is holding a conference in Dallas to make clear how serious the company is about bringing this technology to market. “We're going to start our VTOL operations in Dallas,” Uber’s Holden said on Tuesday. “We're shooting for a deployment by 2020.” Uber hopes to start flying vehicles in Dubai the same year.

Uber estimates that the service will initially cost about $1.32 per passenger-mile, which is only slightly more expensive than a conventional Uber ride. The company believes that costs will fall as the system scales up, eventually allowing urban flights that are cheaper than the cost of driving a car today.

As Uber tries to achieve its ambitious 2020 goal, it will face two big obstacles. One is improvements to battery technology. We’ve already seen significant progress in the energy density of batteries, allowing the creation of early prototypes. But some experts believe more progress will be needed.

“Right now, batteries that you could actually put in an airplane wouldn’t let you fly very far,” Brian German, an aerospace researcher at Georgia Tech, told me in December. “But you give it a few more years, and the writing’s on the wall that you will be able to make a very practical aircraft.”

VTOL aircraft will be aided by the rapid development of electric cars, which require massive capacity. As battery makers pour money into creating more and better batteries for the car market, electric aircraft may benefit from falling prices and improved performance.

The other big challenge is regulation. Getting a new aircraft approved for flight is a slow and cumbersome process. America’s current air traffic control system relies on human operators and isn’t really set up to have hundreds of small planes taking short trips through populated areas. And current rules definitely don’t envision planes flying themselves without a licensed pilot on board.

6) Supersonic airplanes

An artist’s conception of the supersonic airplane Boom hopes to prototype in 2018.
Boom

Conventional passenger airplanes rarely fly faster than 600 miles per hour, which is why it takes about five hours to fly from New York to Los Angeles. Speeds haven’t increased since passenger jet service was introduced in the 1950s.

A big reason airplanes haven’t gotten faster is that things get tricky when a plane goes faster than the speed of sound — around 750 miles per hour. When a plane is flying at supersonic speeds, sound from its engines piles up into a cone-shaped shock wave known as a sonic boom. This boom can be disruptive for people on the ground, so US law has long banned supersonic flights over the continental United States.

That ban was one reason the first commercial supersonic plane, the Concorde, failed. The airplane served ocean routes like New York to London starting in 1976, but the economics of the plane didn’t work out, and it ceased operations in 2003.

Now it looks like the world is on the verge of a supersonic renaissance. A startup called Boom is designing a prototype and says it will begin flying test flights next year, and it will face competition from a partnership of Aerion Supersonic with Airbus. These companies say technological advances have allowed modern supersonic airplanes to be more fuel-efficient than the Concorde was. Both companies are aiming to introduce supersonic airplanes in the early 2020s.

Eventually, Boom would like to start flying over land as well as over water. The company says it’s figured out how to make the sonic boom quiet enough that it wouldn’t bother people on the ground. But Boom will need to convince policymakers to change the rules to allow supersonic flights over land.

7) Reusable rockets

SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 rocket is already in commercial use, and the company expects to use them a lot more in the coming years.
SpaceX

Sending a rocket into space is really expensive. A leading rocket company, the United Launch Alliance, offers launches that start at $109 million. But SpaceX, a rocket company founded by PayPal and Tesla co-founder Elon Musk, is working to bring these costs down dramatically. SpaceX already offers rocket launches for as little as $60 million, and the company is aiming to bring these down much more by making the rockets reusable.

Musk likes to say that today’s rocket launches are likely having to build a new 747 every time you want to fly a planeload of people from New York to Los Angeles. Airplane tickets would be outrageously expensive, just as rockets launches are. But SpaceX has figured out how to use sophisticated software to land the first — and most expensive — stage of its rockets back on the landing pad. And in March, the company made history by reusing a rocket it had used on an earlier flight.

SpaceX says that customers who fly their cargo on a used rocket will get a discount of about 30 percent, and the savings are likely to be even larger in the long run. Eventually, that could lead to space tourism that’s affordable at least to millionaires. And Musk hopes it will someday allow him to reach his ultimate goal: human colonization of Mars.

8) Autonomous long-distance shipping

Otto, owned by Uber, is one of several companies working on self-driving trucks.
Otto

While small drones carry individual packages to customers, autonomous software is also going to transform how businesses transport large shipments over long distances. Startups are hard at work on self-driving trucks. Initially, these trucks will handle highway driving with a human driver on hand to handle unexpected situations. But eventually, software will likely replace human drivers altogether.

Research is also being done on self-driving ships that can ferry cargo across the oceans without a human being on board. And robots are already starting to appear at the nation’s docks to help carry cargo between ships, trucks, and trains.

These changes won’t be as visible to customers as the other innovations in the list. But these technologies will have a significant impact on the global economy. Shipping costs will drop even further than they already have, knitting the global economy even more tightly together. At the same time, the technology could cost a lot of jobs in the trucking and shipping industries.

9) The Hyperloop

Hyperloop One’s Nevada test track.
Hyperloop One

First proposed by Musk in 2013, the Hyperloop is a plan to drive magnetically levitated pods through a low-pressure tube. With little air resistance, Hyperloop pods could travel at airplane-like speeds, allowing passengers to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles in as little as 30 minutes.

There are two competing startups working on Hyperloop technology. Hyperloop One has raised $140 million in venture capital funding, while Hyperloop Transportation Technologies has raised a relatively modest $30 million.

The technology is still in its infancy, but these companies are optimistic. Hyperloop One says it will have a full system ready for testing this year. If those tests go well, the company is aiming to move cargo by 2020 and passengers by 2021.

Even if the companies can solve the technological challenges, however, the bigger issues may be logistical and political. Like California’s perpetually delayed high-speed rail proposal, a Hyperloop route will need to acquire rights to build in a straight line between cities. That will require working with a bunch of different jurisdictions, making difficult compromises, and ultimately spending a lot of money. It’s not obvious that this is a good job for a startup.

This may be why the startups have engaged in some forum shopping. Hyperloop One has been shopping its technology in India, perhaps hoping that the less developed country will be more interested in pioneering a potentially revolutionary transportation technology.