Reinventing Transportation

Section 6 of “Reinventing Societal Infrastructure with Technology” which will be released end of January. I will be posting a new section daily. Please share your feedback as this is a work in progress.

Key drivers: Driverless technology, electric cars, reimagined public transportation, batteries, dedicated self driving public transit lanes, mobile hailing and scheduling solutions.

From public transportation to flying cars… it can all be reinvented. When you take the cost structure of an Uber, multiply its usage by 5–10X in any given city, assume cars that are used 100,000–200,000 miles per year (amortized as a few cents per passenger mile serviced over its million mile designed life) instead of 12,000 and as a result operating costs become much more important than capital costs. Thus, electric cars become much more cost effective. Interest and maintenance costs decline because of scale, and the cost of the driver disappears because of driverless technology. At the moment, the driver is the largest part of a Uber, Lyft, or taxi service and would approach a few cents per passenger mile. Scheduling, hailing, and other operations are automated through intelligent AI and mobile devices. It becomes hard to see how owning a car makes sense except for a small fraction of the population.

Cars remain a thing for car enthusiasts. However, besides special use cases for the vast percentage of passenger miles cars, trains and public transportation will be reinvented. We could have public transportation in smart cities, enabled by clever legislation, point to point on demand. All that dramatically reduces cost for cities and citizens. Batteries and electricity would be the main cost per passenger mile. These pods, given the service time, will need to be electric, which incidentally lowers carbon per passenger mile for cities that are carbon sensitive about their electric supply. It also means higher reliability because of fewer moving parts.

Pods will be be less prone to crashing. Hence, they will be lighter and cheaper, which will allow them to go much further on a kilowatt hour of electricity, reducing battery costs. A light bicycle is 17 pounds. Would a four passenger pod that can be frequently recharged need more than a few hundred pounds to carry 1,000 pounds of four people? Electricity cost would be very small at 50–100 pounds per person for each mile. One could summon specialty pods for wheelchairs or other specialty loads. For forward-looking cities, we may see these as anywhere to anywhere on demand public transportation for a few dollars or maybe near free!

Parking lots and spaces could be replaced by parks or housing, or commuter lanes. Commute distances may expand, housing may get cheaper, and environmental pollution decline. Driverless car technology may kill the combustion engine and set the oil industry in permanent decline. Cities could be redesigned to work differently, especially if one adds communications technology. The number of cars could decline five fold or more. The need to natural resources like steel, rubber and plastics decline concomitantly.

Automobiles as a large part of GDP could change dramatically. Even trains could become autonomous pods on roads or tracks, dispatched on demand, instead of being enormous beasts ( the 100,000 pound cabins that go empty much of the day) that only make economic and climate sense when fully loaded and whose schedule is limited by when they can carry a breakeven number of passengers. A key metric might be average pounds and costs of material required to carry a human. Ideally, we start with key arteries. Let’s take the airport to the strip section of Las Vegas and reimagine it as a driverless-only free service; then, let the service spread spread organically from there, with more reserved streets to offer anywhere to anywhere public transportation on demand, which could be cheaper than today’s transit tickets and more economical for the city. More and more of the city streets might become driverless and public utility only, much like today’s “reserved lanes” in a city like San Francisco. Cities will have increasing incentive to make more of the publicly paid for streets driverless only for public “transport pods” only.

And if residents of a city get closer to their destination, they might even walk the last half mile, which could have beneficial influence on their health. Incidentally, with the increasing number of driverless pods, the “reach of the city” or distance possible within a certain fixed commute time will increase. Thus, it can ease housing shortages and improve housing affordability. Parking land would be freed up for parks and low-cost housing. The city without automobiles would be a different animal. To understand what drives cities check out A Physicist Solves the City!

The pattern of adoption is not yet clear. The rate of adoption will depend upon how the technology is targeted at social solutions. It might happen first on elder care communities, with free taxi service to avoid the disadvantages of having average age 70 drivers and enable everyone in age restricted communities to have more freedom.

On the other hand, it may be an incentive to make affordable housing more prevalent by guaranteeing a certain commute time with free service in dedicated lanes from certain communities to work centers? Or it may be used in order to relieve traffic congestion in cities like inner London; offering near private point to point convenient and affordable service can render private transportation unnecessary. Another likely development is to relieve truck drivers of tedious jobs by letting driverless trucks ply the freeways and the drivers to take over when off the freeway? Adoption and social acceptance in my view will have a huge path dependence and a range of adoption options are available.

**This is a section from “Reinventing Societal Infrastructure with Technology”. To read the previous section, click here.

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