Speed systems: the next century of transport—part 2

This is the second post in a series of three about the evolution of passenger transport locally, regionally, and globally over the next century. The first post is here; the third will be published in a few days.

Decades ago, clever people conceived that north-central New Mexico, where I live, could use commuter rail service along the Rio Grande. In 2003, governor Bill Richardson espoused the idea, and over the next five years, the New Mexico Rail Runner Express was planned, built, and opened—with great fanfare. Today, Rail Runner trains whiz every couple hours along a line running from Belen, north through Albuquerque, and up to my home city of Santa Fe. I have never been on one.

Why not? After all, I like trains! I also visit Albuquerque regularly for errands and pleasure. The problem is the location of the stations. In Albuquerque, the rail line runs through older residential and agricultural areas, with the main station downtown: not an optimal situation for this city. Albuquerque is big, sprawling north, south, east and west for miles. Important areas in the city are far apart. The Rail Runner has established bus links to several of these points, and desperate travelers could always call a cab. But taxicabs and buses are slow and expensive, and for someone, like me, who may want to spend the day in Albuquerque, do some errands, and return home in the evening, these options are slow and unforgiving.

This illustrates a decisive factor of regional-scale transport: as nice as the service between cities may be, if it leaves you with few options at either end, the service becomes essentially useless to many people. This is a problem today, and it will be a problem for futuristic systems, like the Hyperloop, that would connect not just towns and cities, but whole metropolitan areas. In my previous post discussing Hyperloop-style transit systems, I speculated how new technologies might change regional transportation, as speed becomes increasingly important to travelers. What happens, twenty years from now, when you disembark from a Hyperloop-inspired capsule, and need to reach your destination several miles away, cheaply and quickly? This is the domain of local transit, and it demands speed and efficiency at least as much as the regional variety. There are a few developing technologies that might foot the future’s bill, and mix things up along the way.


In modern cities, local transit today is usually provided by some combination of private automobiles, taxicabs, buses, subways, light rail, and streetcars. I’ve put together a little table of these options, comparing them by a few measures of desirability:

System On CALL? Speed traffic-affected? Infrastructure
Private automobiles  Yes  Medium  Yes  Pre-existing (roads)
Taxicabs  Yes*  Medium  Yes  Pre-existing (roads)
Buses  No  Medium  Yes  Pre-existing (roads)
Subways  No  Fast  No  Extensive (tunnels, tracks)
Light Rail  No  Fast  No  Moderate to considerable
Streetcars  No  Medium  Yes  Moderate to considerable
???  Yes Fast No Moderate to considerable

The last, beige-colored row is the domain of something that barely exists at present: personal rapid transit, or PRT. Riders on PRT travel in automated vehicles that follow guideways like a subway, monorail, or tram. The vehicles are small, holding only a few passengers each, and are often called podcars. Most important of all, podcars are not confined to set routes. Instead, passengers enter their destination, and the vehicle takes them there directly, without intermediate stops.

As I write this, only three podcar systems are operational (according to the Wikipedia article on PRT): one at Heathrow Airport, another in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, and a third in Morgantown, West Virginia. They resemble miniature railways or tiny electric cars, and have all the logistical drawbacks of those technologies. The future looks utterly different. NASA’s Ames Research Center recently developed the SkyTran system, which is boldly billing itself as the “physical internet”. Its three-person podcars are suspended from a guideway elevated 20 feet above the street, along which they glide at speeds up to 150 mph using maglev technology. Small stations—no more than a siding on the guideway dipping down to accessible height—could be located as frequently as necessary along the lines. Most interestingly of all, travelers could use a mobile app on their phone or tablet to request a podcar at a station within walking distance.

Conceptual rendering of a SkyTran pod and station.
SkyTran pods would swoop down from their main guideways to stop at elevated stations like this one, located on a sidewalk. Image courtesy of: www.skytran.us

Cheap (less expensive than taxi fare), fast, and convenient, as well as private. Curiously, it operates a lot like a slower, smaller version of the Hyperloop, which inclines me to believe that systems of this nature truly are the future of public transport. Tel Aviv plans to build a four-mile SkyTran line, which could be completed by 2015, and the Daily Camera of Boulder, Colorado reported last week that a SkyTran system has been proposed to connect Boulder and the nearby city of Longmont. A number of other cities around the world are apparently interested.

If I pare it down to the basics, what a SkyTran-like system (and there are many options) offers is a network connecting critical points in a metropolitan area, cheaply and efficiently. Podcars seem like the obvious tie-in to regional transit modes, such as the Hyperloop, and I predict they will be built in a number of cities over the next two or three decades. (I’m hoping Albuquerque will be one of those.)

Enter the Robo-car

Suspended podcars are great for transporting people between major points in a city, or along key thoroughfares. A big part of their rationale is getting cars off the roads, thereby reducing traffic and pollution and making everyone happier. But in every city, there will be large numbers of people and businesses that aren’t located near a podcar line. Cars and roads will still be very necessary for them, and that’s unlikely to change any time in the foreseeable future.

The cars themselves will certainly change. Autonomous vehicles, such as self-driving cars, may still sound far-fetched, but they are coming. Soon. We all know about Google’s tests of self-driving technology, which will reportedly be ready for auto manufacturers by 2018. Competitor Mobileye Vision plans to have a simpler version available by  2016. And Audi, BMW, General Motors, and most recently Nissan have all announced that they intend to offer  “robo-cars” to the public by 2020. The Wall Street Journal’s report about Nissan (see previous link) mentions that the automaker plans to make self-driving cars “available across its model lineup within two product generations, or roughly between eight and 10 years thereafter,” i.e., by 2030.

The law and public perception will take some time to catch up, but if all goes well, I expect to see a fair number of robo-cars on the roads in 2030. What will that change, apart from letting commuters text-message with impunity? (Assuming texting is still a thing… )

For starters, it’s likely to erase the jobs of all taxi drivers.

Just like with the Hyperloop and SkyTran, I imagine that reserving and/or summoning a taxicab to you via a mobile app will become the norm. We’re already doing it with Uber, and cab drivers are up in arms about it. Interestingly, Google just invested a staggering $258 million in Uber. A coincidence that Google is also involved in robo-car technology? I doubt it. By 2030, robo-car taxi service will probably be available, and human cab drivers will be, sadly, on the way out.

If robo-car taxis are cheap, reliable, and fast, they will change everything. Car ownership will decrease, parking lots will shrink dramatically, and all other nonessential local transit systems will fade away. (Subways, possibly autonomous buses, will probably stick around in dense urban areas, while SkyTran-type systems will still be a faster and more efficient way to travel longer distances.) These changes will have further repercussions, throughout our lives. This is the true importance of self-driving cars. Not that you will own one—there’s a good chance you won’t—but that they will be everywhere, and you’ll be able to use one whenever you want.

The EN-V podcar from GM and Segway.
Taxi service in 2030? The EN-V autonomous podcar, created by GM and Segway, is planned for release in 2020. Original image on Flickr from Segway Inc., released under a Creative Commons CC-BY-2.0 license.

Update: Almost at the same time that this article went live, Matthew Yglesias at Slate published his own piece discussing the idea of robo-taxis, prompted too by Google’s investment in Uber. He talks about the regulatory hurdles for such an idea, and gets into greater detail than I did about the changes ubiquitous robo-taxi service would create in our lives, our neighborhoods, and our society at large. It’s worth reading; you can find it here.


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