What will tomorrow’s roads look like? If we want to avoid seeing our cities become a cacophony of car horns, a new transport model must come about by 2030. To combat pollution, traffic jams and accidents, startups are raring to go. Shared vehicles on demand and driverless cars might become commonplace. The innovation race to become the Uber of tomorrow is on.
The Uber of the Future
The rate of innovation in the transport sector is growing. In the 3rd quarter of 2016 alone, €6 billion was invested worldwide in 150 companies within the industry, more than in the whole of 2015. Long focused on electric vehicles, the market turned towards driverless cars. It might swell to over €500 billion by 2035 and has become the focus of quite a great deal of conjecture.
In two short years the young startup Zoox, created by an Australian designer and an American researcher from Stanford, has captured the collective imagination with the mere height of its ambitions – to have developed, by 2020, a driverless electric car and offer a taxi service that would make Uber look old hat… The startup has already been valued at more than a billion dollars.
Founded in 2014, Zoox aims to overtake car manufacturers in the development of a driverless electric vehicle. The startup has already been valued at $1 billion. Its main competitor – Tesla.
Rather than develop the vehicles themselves, the American startup Drive.AI has decided to invest in the design of the ”brain” of these driverless vehicles: straight out of the prestigious AI Lab at Stanford University, the founders want to equip a whole fleet of share and delivery vehicles with vision and control systems to turn them into driverless cars, and develop tools by which automated driving will be safer and faster than human driving ever was. By ringing the death knell for accident-related traffic jams, these smart cars will also help in the advent of cleaner cities with automated, fluid and energy-efficient traffic.
Should we wave goodbye to the personal car?
We should, at this point, reassure the car lovers amongst us – in 2030 personal cars won’t have disappeared altogether. The migration towards a collaborative driverless transport system will take place progressively at different speeds depending on different countries.
For megalopolises in developing countries, such as Mumbai and Mexico City, which are literally suffocating in exhaust fumes, the major issue is to ease traffic pressure so as to minimize the environmental impact. Restricting access to personal cars will be accompanied by the further development of alternatives – an effective public transport system and an attractive range of shared transport options.
In the United States, where ownership is as sacrosanct as the 2nd Amendment, tentacular cities such as Los Angeles are heading in the direction of popularizing driverless electric cars, without really addressing the elephant in the room – personal cars. As such, in the traffic jams choking the city, users will soon be able to imagine themselves spending time playing video games, checking emails… This innovation hosts great expectations as much for its advances in terms of eco-friendly transport as for the freedom afforded to the driver-cum-passenger.
In Hong Kong, London, or Singapore, personal cars might indeed disappear – thanks to the popularization of car-sharing, the total number of vehicles on the road might fall.
In Hong Kong, London or Singapore, it might be easier to imagine the disappearance of the personal car – users could alternate between modes of transport, depending on the situation – and thanks to the popularization of car-sharing, the total number of cars on the road might fall. This would take place while the number of trips rose, by 20 to 50% by 2030. It is estimated that by that year, in these cities, 60% of vehicles might be electric, of which 40% might be driverless.
The Traffic Jam War
Developing car-sharing is also an answer to one of the toughest slogs faced by city-dwellers – those infamous traffic jams.
This promise of improvement matters when we take into account that French drivers (for example) waste an estimated 23 hours per year in traffic jams. Paris holds the national record, with 65 hours of annual traffic jams per motorist. One radical solution would involve taking off in an Ehang 184, a feasibly accessible drone designed by a Chinese firm. It could allow users to fly over traffic jams during peak hour. Fully electric, its cruising speed is close to 100 km/h (60mph). It has a flight battery capacity of 25 minutes – enough to get you to work on time – and recharges in two hours. What’s more, there are no parking problems as its retractable arms allow it to park in a standard car parking space.
While they wait impatiently for their chance to look down over the city, startups have been getting down to the business of providing more grounded solutions. Thanks to Stratasys, a 3D printing giant based in Israel, it might be possible to “print” tailored infrastructure alternatives in the case of roadworks, which are a major cause of slowed traffic flow – and this would reduce traffic jams for users.
All those hours spent driving round in circles trying to find a parking space will be a thing of the past – the Californian startup SFPark is working on an algorithm system to optimize carparks. It fluctuates parking prices according to offer and demand. In this way, spaces are cheaper in less popular zones in order to encourage users to park there and thus reduce demand on zones with heavier traffic and greater pollution levels.
Applied to traffic lights, artificial intelligence will help create smoother flows for vehicles such as ambulances, buses and even bikes, so as to avoid bottlenecks.
Another piece of technology might enable user-to-user collaborative transport networks to see the light of day – blockchain. Thanks to its virtual currency, the “Zooz”, which is traded between drivers and passengers, the Israeli collaborative transport platform “La’Zooz” (“move” in Hebrew) offers the same service as the French car-sharing site BlaBlaCar, but without the middleman.
Even traffic lights are in the startups’ sights. The London-based Vivacity Labs has put them in its cross-hairs as they are responsible for a great deal of significantly reduced traffic flow. It has fine-tuned technology that will enable them to monitor traffic density and to solve flow problems in real time by modifying traffic light frequency. Artificial intelligence should also be capable of providing right of way to vehicles such as ambulances, buses and even bikes, so as to avoid bottlenecks.
Big Data: Tomorrow’s Compass
How can we make sense of all these transport options? All roads may lead to Rome, but some of them will get you there quicker than others and, according to a study published on the website Science Advances, 80% of the possible trips made in metropolises exceed the calculation capacities of the human brain. That is where big data and algorithms come into play. The London-based app Citymapper, a new compass for city-dwellers, is off to a flying start in the urban transport data battle. Using buses, underground, your own two feet or a mountain bike, it suggests the best itinerary according to your preferences. It has even just launched its connected buses feature to optimize traffic flows in London.
The company collects usage rates and shares its data on traffic flows and the condition of roads with local governments.
This collaboration could provide the means to significantly improve the public transport network. In France, the startup AiD is working in conjunction with SFR, the RATP, Suez and Paris City Hall on a project to help tourists get around the City of Love. From the Eiffel Tower to the Louvre via the Champs Elysées, AiD looks at every trip made by tourists, aggregates all the data and analyzes it in order to adapt the available transport options.
Paris to Marseille in 40 minutes
At long last, a speed revolution is in the wings. For the price of a metro ticket, Hyperloop One, the brain-child of the visionary Elon Musk, will offer you a trip at the speed of sound. This project for a magnetic train propelled along a vacuum-sealed tube at around 1200km/h (745mph) convinced the SNCF, who – without going into any exact financial details – participated in the creation of an $80 million fund, with 9 other investors. At this speed, that brings the Paris-to-Marseille trip time down to 40 minutes, from a little more than three hours today. At this pace, Parisians will soon be able to nip down for a quick sun-drenched bouillabaisse.
A Made in France version is also under study. Though another five years will be needed before the prototype might be tested, academic Christian Brodhag is working on the French Hyperloop which might link Lyon and Saint Etienne in record time – whipping the current 45-minute trip time down to just 8 minutes. “For a €15 ticket, it will be possible to implement this innovative transport solution in the next 5-10 years,” promised Christian Brodhag. So what’s stopping us imagining that the future 800km (500-mile) trip from Paris to Marseille could be like today’s 60km (40-mile) trip to Fontainebleau?
A constant in all this innovation – beyond the advances in terms of passenger experience and safety, tomorrow’s transport solutions are to be irrevocably clean. Driverless cars, shared vehicles, rebooting rail networks, artificial intelligence applied to traffic flow issues… never before have technological solutions made such sense as when they work together to reduce our carbon footprint, which in 2014 remained at 42% in France, due to our transport methods, to make sure transport solutions – even within urban centers – respect our ecosystem.