Posts

California’s Transportation Future, Part Three – Next Generation Vehicles

The next generation of vehicles will transform transportation in several fundamental ways. What is coming will be as revolutionary in our time as the transition from horses to horseless carriages was over a century ago. Some increments of this dawning revolution are already here in realized products. Electric drivetrains. Collision avoidance systems. Self-driving cars. Cars on demand. Aerial drones. Nearly all of the enabling technology for this dawning revolution is already here. Artificial intelligence. Visual recognition and sensor systems that use radar, sonar and LIDAR laser scanning. Mapping capabilities. GPS. Data collection. Memory chips. Communications systems. And every one of these technologies, along with investment capital, more than anywhere else, is concentrated in California.

As this revolution unfolds, our conception of what constitutes vehicular transport will change. Many vehicles will be modular and reconfigurable. On the road surface, the wheeled chassis, or “skateboard,” will contain the essentials to power and navigate the vehicle. Depending on the duty cycle, a skateboard chassis may be small, only capable of carrying a two passenger cabin, or small freight payload. Other skateboards will range in size from those capable of carrying a sedan or SUV sized passenger unit, all the way to the largest versions which, with freight or passenger units attached, would weigh up to 80,000 pounds.

Even more variation will be present in the passenger modules. An SUV sized passenger module, for example, might hold 6-8 passengers like a mini-bus. Or it might be a conference room or an office where a group of passengers could conduct work while being transported. Or it might be a sleeper unit, a rolling hotel room, where a lone passenger or a family or work crew would sleep while en-route to their destination.

Perhaps even more amazing are the aerial modules that are coming. A passenger module may arrive at a staging area on a wheeled chassis, where an aerial drone will attach itself to the top of the passenger module at the same time as that module is released from the skateboard chassis. In an automated, seamless process, the occupants will then be flown beneath this drone to their intended destination.

SELF DRIVING VEHICLES

All of the above is happening with surprising rapidity. Dozens of partnerships between major automakers and the technology partners they need to complete this process have already been formed and continue to be formed. San Francisco based Uber is working with Volkswagon and Nvidia, a major chipmaker and world leader in visual computing. Uber is also working with Toyota to develop self driving cars. Silicon Valley based Tesla continues to test “full self-driving hardware,” competing with Google spin-off Waymo, also located in Silicon Valley. Another credible Silicon Valley self-driving car startup is Aurora, which as reported by the San Jose Mercury earlier this year, is “formed by one-time heads of autonomous car projects at Google parent Alphabet and Tesla [and] will develop self-driving electric vehicles with Volkswagen and Hyundai Motor.”

Not to be excluded, Silicon Valley heavyweight Apple is confounding critics who claimed they might find achieving their business model of vertical integration too challenging to include vehicles. According to a March 2018 report in Fortune, referring to testing in California, “with 45 cars on the road, Apple is now testing more vehicles than its top rivals. Tesla, for instance, has 39 permits. Uber has 29 permits, according to the report. Alphabet’s Waymo had more than 100 permits in June 2017 and has 24 now.”

According to the same report, “Apple is now second behind General Motors’ Cruise company, which has 110 self-driving car permits in California.” The GM owned company, Cruise Automation, is headquartered in San Francisco. GM’s strategy? According to The Street, GM intends to “deploy self-driving taxis in dense urban environments to take passengers from point A to point B. Rather than a one-time sale of the vehicle, the automaker can milk hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue per vehicle.” And in that same report, Ford’s strategy is “using a new vehicle capable of carrying both people or items. The unit will run a hybrid engine and operate about 20 hours per day.”

The Mercedes F 015 “Luxury in Motion” Self-Driving Concept Car

The above photo of the Mercedes F 015 “Luxury in Motion” Self-Driving Concept Car provides a glimpse into just how much vehicular travel is going to change. Note that the dashboard and control surfaces, including an almost vestigial steering wheel, are on the right side of the compartment. The front seats are swiveled to face the rear seats, turning the area into more of a lounge or conference room than a traditional vehicle compartment. The presumption is that most of the time the car will be self-driving, allowing the passengers to pursue many of the same sedentary activity options in the vehicle that they might pursue outside the vehicle.

When it comes to major automakers and high-tech corporations, it’s hard to find a company that’s not getting involved in autonomous vehicles. A March 2018 report in TechWorld attempts to catalog all of them – some not already mentioned above include Rinspeed AG, a Swiss automaker teamed up with Samsung; Volvo, teamed up with Uber; Chinese internet giant Baidu’s self-driving vehicle platform Apollo, which includes vehicle hardware, software and cloud data platforms to help others in the autonomous cars industry; Intel, which bought Israel-based driverless car technology firm Mobileye, in partnership together with BMW; Audi in partnership with graphics cards maker Nvidia; the list goes on.

Convinced yet? Driverless vehicles are coming. They are coming in myriad forms and will employ myriad business models. Stepping to the curb and using your phone to dial up a robotic ride, any type of ride, to any destination, will become commonplace. Scheduling personalized transportation services in advance will become routine. Ownership models will become more diverse. Individuals will own cars, but so will automakers, transit agencies, taxi services; who will own these cars of the future and to what purpose is only limited by one’s imagination.

PASSENGER DRONES

If the world of self-driving cars is just around the corner, then just down the street, also set to arrive sooner than expected, are passenger drones. And again, most of the major players are operating in California. Uber has formed “Uber Air,” or Elevate, to develop aerial transportation systems. Google has two companies, operating in stealth, Cora, and Kitty Hawk. Also active in California are the companies Aurora, in partnership with Boeing, and Vahana, in partnership with Airbus.

Cora’s experimental electric powered “Air Taxi” –
takes off like a helicopter, flies like a plane

An interesting company based in Santa Cruz is Joby Aviation. While over a $130 million in financing and over 120 employees isn’t all that much so far, Joby Aviation appears to be a serious contender. Investors include Intel Capital, Toyota AI Ventures, JetBlue Technology Ventures, and Capricorn Investment Group. Despite being one of the most secretive startups in a sector where stealth is the rule, not the exception, an excellent report on Joby’s progress was published by Bloomberg earlier this year.  From a remote test station deep in the mountains of California’s central coast, the Bloomberg reporters were given a ride. From the article: “Powered by electric motors and sophisticated control software, the taxi performs like a cross between a drone and a small plane, able to zip straight up on takeoff and then fly at twice the speed of a helicopter while making about as much noise as a swarm of superbees.”

This is fascinating stuff. Apparently most “air taxis” (or “sky cabs”) being developed are powered by electricity, and in many respects are just enlarged versions of the drones now commonly used by hobbyists and photographers. Joby Aviation intends to build an aircraft with a range of 150 miles on a single battery charge, carrying up to four passengers. They would travel at relatively low altitudes to avoid having to pressurize the cabin. They expect to be “100 times more quiet during takeoff and landing than a helicopter and near-silent during flyovers.”

LAND/AIR HYBRIDS

No discussion of the imminent revolution in vehicle transportation is complete without considering the possibility of travel by land and by air in the same passenger module, with a separate wheeled module for land travel, which detaches from the passenger module when it is lifted airborne by a flight module. As reported earlier this year in Electrek.co, Audi and Airbus are working on just such a solution. The following two images are from a visualization of this futuristic transportation option prepared by Italdesign in partnership with Audi and Airbus.

Aerial drone/electric car hybrid concept –
passenger module prepares to detach from land module

 

Aerial drone/electric car hybrid concept –
passenger module now attached to flight module

THE HYPERLANE OPTION

If the Hyperloop might represent the fastest conceivable mode of land based travel, then, similarly, the “Hyperlane” might represent the fastest conceivable mode of travel by autonomous wheeled vehicles on a flat road surface. The hyperlane concept was conceived by UC Berkeley graduate students, Baiyu Chen and Anthony Barrs, who proposed the hyperlane concept in 2017 as their winning entry in the Association of Equipment Manufacturers “Infrastructure Vision 2050 Challenge.” AEM’s 2017 challenge to entrants was to present concepts to “support high-speed transportation by the year 2050.”

As reported in Fortune, “The duo’s idea was to construct a ‘Hyperlane,’ or a single platform the size of four interstate lanes that would run parallel to pre-existing highways in order for self-driving cars to travel at high speeds with no chance of getting into a jam. …’we realized we could remove the tracks and deploy new, emerging technologies like autonomous vehicles.'”

Whether the Hyperlane is a dedicated four lane highway, elevated over existing highways on existing right-of-ways, or additional specialized lanes similar to the HOV lanes we’ve already got, emerging automotive technologies support safer, denser traffic at higher speeds. Electric traction motors not only have extraordinary torque which delivers impressive acceleration, they also have a wide functional RPM range, zero to 20,000, far greater than combustion engines. Back in the 1990s, a prototype version of the now legendary General Motors EV1 was clocked at 183 MPH. The current crop of electric vehicles have top speeds that are deliberately limited by software; the Chevy Volt tops out at 100 MPH, the Tesla Roadster at 125 MPH, and the Tesla Model S at 130 MPH.

Using dedicated lanes for high speed vehicular travel has been tried already. The fast lanes on the German autobahns easily qualify. If you’re driving 120 MPH in the fast lane on the autobahn, you’d better watch your rear view mirror, because if a car traveling 160 MPH crashes into your rear end, it’s your fault. German drivers obey strict rules, the most critical of which is slower drivers must always yield to faster drivers by moving promptly into the left lanes, and faster drivers must never pass on the right. And it works. The fatality rate on the autobahn is much lower than on the United States interstate system.

THE CASE FOR CARS

The conventional enlightened policy wisdom is that driving cars on roads is an obsolete way for millions of people to travel. Policy driven alternatives, costing billions each year, include light rail, high-speed rail, trolleys and bike lanes. In support of these policy alternatives, “transit villages” are zoned, along with “densification,” based on the theory that if more people live near mass transit stations, and, in general, if more people live and work in smaller urban footprints, there will be less need for people to own cars.

To explore the costs and benefits of densification and urban containment goes beyond the scope of this report. But the primary problems currently inherent in relying on cars to fulfill the requirements of mass transportation – low speeds, unsafe, congested roads – are all being solved through innovation. With upgraded roads and updated driving laws, modern cars can sustain speeds as fast or faster than California’s proposed high speed rail. And there are a variety of ways that the new innovations that are transforming vehicular travel will increase safety and relieve congestion.

Private sector funding:

With minimal government investment, the private sector is creating connected and autonomous vehicles, completely redefining the car. The enabling technologies draw from diverse industries, resulting in consortiums that bring together participants from sectors including automotive, semiconductor, telecommunications, smart phones, aerospace, robotics and AI. One challenge is ensuring that the makers of this next generation of vehicles incorporate common standards.

To navigate the roads without a driver, self-driving cars rely on vehicle to vehicle (V2V) and vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) communications. The Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research, (CAR) with a mission ” to educate, inform and advise stakeholders, policy makers, and the general public on critical issues facing the automotive industry,” has produced several recent reports evaluating what they call “intelligent transportation systems.” In their 2017 report “Planning for Connected and Automated Vehicles,” they define V2V systems as “wireless communication between vehicles, such as safety warnings and messages.” They define V2I systems as “wireless communications between vehicles and the infrastructure, such as a system that connects a vehicle to cellular towers for navigation purposes.”

As the technology matures, several industry associations are working to harmonize standards for intelligent transportation systems, nationally and globally. In CAR’s 2016 report “Global Harmonization of Connected Vehicle Communications Standards,” they explain how interoperable communications systems in vehicles are necessary to resolve the following questions:

  • Which entities communicate and to whom (e.g., vehicle, pedestrian, roadside infrastructure, central servers)?
  • Which message set is used within the communication?
  • What media and channel allocation is used (e.g., 5.9 GHz)?
  • What application is implemented and how?

Private entities supported by industry are funding this effort and working closely with the U.S. Dept. of Transportation as well as with most states. Just a few of the major organizations involved in this effort include the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), ASTM InternationalSAE International, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), National Transportation Communications for Intelligent Transportation System Protocol (NTCIP), American National Standards Institute (ANSI), European Committee for Standardization (CEN), European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC), and the European Telecommunications Institute (ETSI).

In April 2018, as reported in the industry publication Transport Topics, two of the most prominent associations involved in setting standards, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the American Center for Mobility announced they have signed a memorandum of understanding with the  to help accelerate development and deployment of voluntary technical standards for connected and autonomous vehicles.

Lower costs to the consumer:

To some extent, the fact that consumers will spend less for transportation is a function of the convergence of increasingly automated manufacturing, the availability and superiority of new composite materials to replace expensive steel, global competition, and progressively lower costs for software, chip sets, sensors and other high-tech components. Moore’s law is alive and well, and doesn’t just apply to semiconductors. But lower costs and more options for consumers of transportation will not only result from ongoing advances in manufacturing, they will also result from the rollout of a variety of new business models that offer a variety of new modes of transportation.

The disruptive impact of Uber, a ride hailing service that has challenged the taxi industry to its roots, is an early example of what is coming. Uber and its competitors are already testing autonomous vehicles, something that will become common. These driverless taxis will cost less to ride, since there won’t be a driver. Similarly, privately funded “micro-transit” services will offer mini bus services based on a connectivity and AI driven dynamic awareness of consumer demand and road conditions, offering shared rides based on aggregating riders who are boarding and exiting the mini bus along routes that are optimized to move the most passengers the fewest miles in the lowest amount of time.

Ride sharing, the 21st century version of picking up a hitchhiker, will also become a more viable option than ever. For example, participants in many ride sharing services will be members, vetted in a manner similar to the vetting that occurs with the hosts and the occupants of Airbnb properties. The advantage for the vehicle owner, of course, is a having a paying passenger join them on their commute, with the added benefit of becoming eligible to drive in carpool lanes.

Car sharing, where the user takes over a vehicle, is similar to a conventional car rental. The differences are a reflection of the new technologies. For example, using their smart phone or other connected device, consumers will order a car, and within minutes the driverless vehicle will arrive wherever they are. The car can be rented by the hour, or per day, or for a longer period. The price includes fuel and insurance costs.

Also on the way are mobility services, online aggregators of all transportation options. These mobility services will offer consumers transportation options tailored to their preferences. A consumer will be presented with a variety of ways to reach their destination, ranging from a single vehicle going point-to-point to a collection of travel legs utilizing public and private transit services.

The sheer variety of these emerging transportation options, primarily funded by the private sector, suggest that there will be vibrant competition for the consumer, driving down prices. Another significant factor in lowering prices is the fact that in general, the transportation services being offered will involve multiple riders on each vehicle, spreading the per-mile costs over more people, lowering per-mile costs for each of them.

Less traffic congestion:

The ability of next generation vehicles to create cost-incentives for individuals to opt out of purchasing their own cars will reduce the number of cars competing for space on congested roads. It will also reduce the demand for parking spaces and parking garages. This will be accomplished in a variety of ways. Through ride hailing, ride sharing and micro-transit services, fewer cars will be used to deliver the same number of commuters from bedroom communities to urban centers. Through sharing of self driving cars, an early commuter may arrive at their destination, but the car itself will immediately drive itself to the nearest next consumer, transporting them to their destination instead of taking up a parking space for the rest of the day. Mobility services will present consumers with customized options, resulting in compelling incentives for them to opt out of purchasing a car, or a second car.

The other way 21st century vehicles will alleviate traffic congestion is because as semi-autonomous vehicles – for example, collision avoidance systems which are already standard on most new cars – and fully self-driving vehicles become widely adopted, the safe distance between vehicles will shrink, as will the safe speed for vehicles. The adoption of next generation vehicles will mean that the same network of lanes and roads will be able to deliver more people. Michigan’s  Center for Automotive Research, in their 2017 “Future Cities” report, depicts how in the long term, once autonomous cars are fully adopted, urban boulevards may be reconfigured with narrower lanes and fewer lanes, without compromising mobility.

Autonomous Cars – Same Road Capacity With Narrower and Fewer Lanes

PREPARING FOR NEXT GENERATION VEHICLES

It appears likely that the technologies for next generation vehicles, operating on roads and in the air, will mature faster than our ability to develop policies and infrastructure to accommodate them. This is particularly difficult since autonomous vehicles will not suddenly displace conventional manually controlled vehicles on our roads, but will share the roads with them for many decades. But the encouraging possibility with next generation vehicles is that the public infrastructure necessary to support them is relatively limited compared to the transit solutions that currently consume huge allocations of public resources.

For example, establishing uniform standards for autonomous vehicles is being actively coordinated and funded by the major automakers and aerospace companies, along with other private sector participants. The role of the state and federal departments regulating highway travel and aviation is vital, but will not consume significant funds compared to the cost of major infrastructure investments.

In the case of aviation, next generation solutions, ranging from passenger drones today to the supersonic electric airplanes that are likely tomorrow, are virtually all designed for vertical takeoff and landing, meaning that expensive airport runway infrastructure does not require expansion in order to accommodate them.

Similarly, autonomous land-based vehicles are designed to operate at higher speeds in closer proximity to each other, reducing the need to increase road capacity. Moreover, the emerging business model for next generation vehicles strongly incentivizes consumers to forego purchasing their own car, opting instead for ride hailing, ride sharing, car sharing and micro-transit services, which also reduces the number of cars sharing the road. These new mobility solutions will also reduce demand for parking spaces and parking garages, taking further pressure off of infrastructure requirements.

It may be that for urban areas, the impact of next generation vehicles combined with the contributions from aerial transportation options, combined with congestion pricing, will mean that the only road investment necessary within urban centers is to maintain and upgrade existing roads. For major intercity connector roads, highways and freeways, however, important policy decisions loom. Because as it is, these roads are not designed or maintained in a manner sufficient to allow next generation vehicles to reach their potential.

The implications of this are profound. Next generation vehicles, in all sizes and configurations, have the potential to replace most if not all proposed mass transit solutions both for intercity and long-range travel. The maximum safe and sustainable cruising speed of a modern electric vehicle is conservatively pegged at 120 MPH. Vehicles of the future will not only be configured similarly to conventional cars and SUVs, they will also be mobile hotel rooms, entertainment lounges, offices, conference rooms, and buses of all sizes, offering countless levels of services. On properly designed and maintained roads, there is no reason these vehicular solutions cannot replace literally all current or proposed modes of surface based transit, certainly including high-speed rail but probably including light rail as well.

Policymakers have a choice. They can recognize that private industry is creating new ways to travel on land and in the air. They can cooperate to develop uniform standards and updated laws to expedite this transformation. They can revise zoning laws, redirect funding priorities, and invest in new roads and communications infrastructure. Or they can neglect road construction and instead continue to build public mass transit systems that offer dubious prospects of ever solving growing transportation bottlenecks.

Elon Musk’s Boring Company is a privately funded transit solution that transports private vehicles point-to-point underground, moving them on and off surface streets with elevators. On the Boring Company’s FAQ page, focused on ways to dramatically reduce the costs of tunneling, a provocative assertion is made: “The construction industry is one of the only sectors in our economy that has not improved its productivity in the last 50 years.”

The next installment in this series will explore the implications of this assertion. What would it take to improve productivity in the heavy road construction industry? There has been a healthy public discussion regarding how much it will cost to build California’s high speed railroad. But how much does it cost to build roads in California? How much would it cost not only to catch up on all the deferred maintenance on California’s roads, and upgrade them incrementally, but to actually build new roads, north to south and coast to mountains, engineered for the cars of the future?

*   *   *

This article is the 3rd in a series on California’s transportation future. The first installment was “California’s Transportation Future, Part One – The Fatally Flawed Centerpiece,” published in April 2018. The second installment was “California’s Transportation Future, Part Two – The Hyperloop Option,” published in May 2018. Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center in 2010 and served as its president through 2016. He is a prolific writer on the topics of political reform and sustainable economic development.