High-speed rail, straddling buses, autonomous air transport, hyperloops and space tourism may be coming to a neighborhood near you.
Disruptive technologies are innovations that create new markets and value networks that displace existing firms or products. As the world’s population grows, becomes smarter, more connected and richer, revolutions have started to address transportation opportunities.
We have selected emerging developments that impact speed and scale and have the potential for broad economic impact affecting transportation.
Happening now in China
There are more than a billion trips per year on high-speed rail (HSR) in China. Growing population and economic wealth are two economic motors propelling a surge in air and HSR travel in China. The country began operating HSR in 2008. Since then, there have been more than 5 billion HSR passenger trips, with 1.1 billion taking place in 2015. Today, more than 4,200 high-speed trains operate every day.
There is no doubt that HSR has encroached on air travel, especially on short-distance travel. Airlines have experienced record delays, which may encourage passengers to switch to HSR. Average annual passenger trips by HSR have grown 30 percent overall, while air travel grew at 11 percent in 2015. China’s goal is to connect every city with a population of 500,000 or more people with its HSR network. The government announced a plan to have 38,000 kilometers of high-speed track built by 2025. There have already been 19,000 kilometers installed.
Transit-elevated bus by 2017
To address inner-city traffic jams and air pollution that plague its big cities, China recently unveiled plans for an elevated bus, called the Transit Elevated Bus (TEB). It drives along tracks embedded on both sides of the street, straddling the traffic lanes beneath it. The TEB looks a bit like a moving tunnel, with passengers riding on-top and cars and trucks moving underneath it.
TEB has a spacious interior that is up to 72 feet long, 25 feet wide and about 16 feet tall. There would be about 7 feet of space underneath for cars to travel through. It could carry 300 people and travel at 60 kilometers per hour. There are many questions about the interaction between the TEB and the cars and trucks that operate below it. Can it operate safely with other vehicles, especially when cars need to change lanes, or direction? Fifteen of the world’s 50 most congested cities are in China. Four of them plan to run TEB pilot projects.
Jetsons update: Autonomous shared ride by 2030
In the 1980s animated television series “The Jetsons,” characters fly around town in aerocars. Flutter forward 30 years and Airbus, through its subsidiaries, has started developing an autonomous flying vehicle resembling a drone with multiple propellers.
The vehicle design has already been completed, and subsidiaries are beginning to build and test subsystems.
There are specific areas for which the subsidiaries are focusing. One is to ensure autonomous drones can be safely operated over urban areas. Airbus Helicopters has a project underway to evolve regulatory constraints to develop an airborne infrastructure solution to address the sustainability and efficiency of parcel delivery. It has begun testing parcel delivery in Singapore.
Other developers are working on an electrically operated vehicle under a ride-sharing business model, similar to Uber. Initially, the vehicle would be operated by a pilot to allow for quick entry into the market. Once regulations are in place, the vehicle would use full autonomous operations.
Customers would use an app to book a seat, proceed to the nearest drone pad and be taken to their destination. Several passengers share the aircraft. A flight would cost nearly the equivalent of a normal taxi ride for each passenger, but it would be much faster.
“When looking at the transport needs of business travelers to and from airports or between business districts, you quickly realize that the potential demand corresponds to about 100 times the yearly production of Airbus Helicopters,” said Jörg Müller from the Airbus Group’s corporate development department. “And this would only require replacing one out of a hundred ground taxis.”
According to Airbus Group Chief Executive Officer Tom Enders, flying cars will make their debut at some point in the near future.
“It’s not crazy to imagine that one day our big cities will have flying cars making their way along roads in the sky,” he said. “In a not too distant future, we’ll use our smartphones to book a fully automated flying taxi that will land outside our front door — without a pilot.”
Hyperloop by 2020
Elon Musk’s original concept in 2013 was a hyperloop able to make the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes.
A hyperloop uses capsules (pods) transported at speeds up to 750 miles per hour along the length of a low-pressure tube. Pods are supported on a cushion of air and are accelerated via magnetic linear accelerators. Once accelerated, they simply glide.
The company Hyperloop One and its partner, FS Links, plan to build a 500-kilometer hyperloop between Finland and Sweden. The project would cost 19 billion euros (US$21.5 billion) and take 12 years to complete. The company plans to demonstrate a “full-scale, high-speed test of its track, vehicle and controlled-environment tube” by 2017.
Each pod can accommodate around 50 passengers in business-class configuration, or up to 80 to 90 in economy layout.
The estimated travel time between Helsinki and Stockholm would be less than 30 minutes compared to 3.5 hours door-to-door by air. Trips to Helsinki and Stockholm’s airports from city centers would be slashed to less than 10 minutes.
Pods will operate on demand from any origin to any destination. The system will use the same principles as internet-packet switching to route pods between any origin and destination. Dynamic real-time positioning and network awareness will enable pods to branch off to a midway destination, and then rejoin the trunk line again, without obstructing flow or reducing capacity on the system as a whole.
“I’m not sure that most of us have a strong enough stomach to ride inside a vehicle traveling at several hundred miles an hour,” said James Moore, director of the University of Southern California’s Transportation Engineering Program. “Whether such a system can provide a comfortable, humanly bearable ride is completely unclear.”
Space tourism: Sometime in the near future
There are several private companies working on space travel. We will look at two high-profile companies: Virgin Galactic, founded by Virgin Group’s Richard Branson, and Blue Origin founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
Virgin Galactic received its launch license from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in August 2016. This will allow the company to resume testing of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital space plane. According to the company, the license awarded by the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation will ultimately permit commercial operations.
The company is hoping to use the license to send a satellite, and possibly even paying customers, into space by as early as next year.
About 700 people have already put down deposits for the US$250,000 space trip. The six-passenger spaceship is designed to reach altitudes of 100 kilometers above Earth. During the trip, passengers will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and be treated to a view of Earth against the black backdrop of space.
Meanwhile, Jeff Bezo’s company Blue Origin, has been successfully launching its unmanned rocket and space capsule called New Shepard. It is built to fly up to six people into suborbital space, with the capsule returning to Earth under parachutes. Blue Origin plans to sell tickets for space tourism flights on the capsule, but has not yet released a price for those joy rides. During such flights, passengers will experience several minutes of weightlessness and be able to see the Earth from space through New Shepard’s huge windows, according to a Blue Origin representative.
This article was republished from Ascend magazine.