Shaping our Future - Transportation
Continuing our series on Shaping our Future, today we are tackling a topic that might not come first or even last to mind when thinking about office life - transportation. We often tend to overlook this absolutely essential aspect of our work life and see it as an item of its own, with no relation to other parts of our life. After all, transport is just a means of linking two points in space. What matters is those two points (in our case home and work). But is that really so?
With more and more countries facing major infrastructural issues regarding transportation due to an exceeding number of vehicles on the road, transportation is starting to have a serious impact on the quality of our lives. This includes the quality of the air we breathe, due to pollution caused by exhaustion fumes, the time spent commuting (influenced by infrastructural problems that lead to traffic jams or by the speed and safety limits of our current vehicles), and the general comfort that we experience while using public or private transportation. While we might think of all of these as problems not affecting our work life, they sadly do. As we have to make at least two trips per day to reach and leave work, we cannot ignore the impact of transportation - from being late to a meeting due to traffic, to being cranky in the morning because you had to share the same space with many others in a public form of transport. But the future might have something better in store for us, solving many of the challenges we are faced with today when trying to commute from home to work. Let’s take a look at those.
The future is twofold
The first thing we need to consider when thinking about future transportation is the type of changes that we are going to be faced with in the near or distant unfolding of events. Most certainly, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of future transport is - flying cars. After toning down our expectations, we might start considering something closer to home - autonomous cars. But what all of these outlandish projections have in common is a completely different and new type of vehicle or transportation infrastructure. There is, however, a different kind of possibility - that of a future based on what we already have plus some minor tweaks. For example, a transportation system that relies more and more on bicycles, just as it is in Netherlands at the moment. So, as things stand, the future is twofold: first, we have the option of entirely new vehicles and infrastructure, and second, we have a future that is based on simpler and greener vehicles and infrastructure that we already have at hand. Let’s discuss these in turn.
There’s no future like the present
While dreaming of flying cars and ubiquitous self-driving ones is far more tempting, let’s first consider a different home-to-work commute. We don’t even have to look that deep into our imagination, as Netherlands has the answer to this already. With the highest bicycle use rates in the world, this country will be having by 2025 only public transport vehicles that have zero-emissions. It is a charming thought, but one that most of us will dismiss as not being fit for our own city or country. “We all know the Dutch are pioneers in green transportation and good for them. We’ll also get there, eventually.” But this “eventually” is placed somewhere in a very distant future that can in no way impact our current lives.
Nonetheless, we might want to start accommodating the thought of commuting to work via bicycle since it might soon be the only feasible and cheap option for dealing with air pollution. While for some this might still be seen as a luxury, for many of us it might become a necessity in order to keep our lungs healthy and, as such, not a matter of debate. Since governments and city administrations will be faced with more and more issues caused by gas-emissions due to transportation systems, the only immediate solution might just be a bicycle. Sure, the infrastructure for bicycle lanes will have to be implemented somehow, but even with some investments in this area, it will still be cheaper and easier to rely on the two-wheeled vehicle.
The future is already here
Now it’s time to dream big - no boundaries for our imagination. From flying cars to space travelling, it’s all in the future. But baby steps will get us there, so let’s take a look at what we already have at the moment.
Self-driving or autonomous cars/ vehicles have been around for quite a while. They are the most likely to have an impact on our home-to-work transportation since more and more of them are seen on the streets, especially in the US. And even with the recent reportings of fatal accidents produced by self-driving cars, their popularity is not decreasing. In fact, a recent study, as reported by The Economist, has found that this is the most desired piece of technology by the elderly population. While undoubtedly there still are serious issues concerning the safety of these autonomous cars, it is clear that they are here to stay. What is needed at the moment is just some fine-tuning which will involve an infrastructure permitting vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, together with real-time data processing systems. These will ensure road safety, as cars will be able to know where other vehicles are situated on the road, what the infrastructure is like (the roads and adjoining environment), while also processing and transmitting this information in real time.
Autonomous vehicles won’t be limited only to Uber-like services or personal cars. Here, another country is worth of a mention - Sweden, as its capital, Stockholm, is the most recent city to be experimenting with self-driving public transport. Thanks to a project by Ericsson - Connected Urban Transport platform, Sweden’s capital city benefits from a virtual bus driver for two shuttles.
And while those living in California can already commute to work with private or shared self-driving vehicles, those in Europe will be soon able to travel using public transportation that is autonomous.
But what is it that makes self-driving vehicles so appealing, especially when coupled with ride-sharing services such as Uber? The Economist has again identified four major points that will be shaping the future of our transportation systems. These are encompassed under the “frictionless travel” concept and represent four major advantages of not owning a car:
- No car taxes
- No insurance
- No maintenance fees
- No need to find parking.
Couple these with not having to pay attention to the road and being able to devote your attention to something else, such as a hobby, a relaxing activity or just some work you have to catch up on and it is easy to see why autonomous vehicles are so appealing especially when commuting from home to work or back.
Ride-sharing might be very appealing, but what about a self-flying taxi? With two available seats, the Volocopter 2X, a vertical aircraft that can be piloted or fly autonomously, represents a viable alternative to a traffic jam for those willing to pay an extra buck in order to get to work faster and not miss an important meeting. And if you are afraid of crashing, you need to know that it comes equipped with an emergency parachute that is completely unnecessary as far as the manufacturer is concerned. September 2017 was the launch date for the Volocopter air taxi and it took place in Dubai, where this flying vehicle was tested. It will take five more years for this aircraft to be put into use on a large scale, but it might just solve many of the work-commuting problems some of us face.
Magnetic Levitation and Flying Trains
Maglev trains are something you might have already heard of as Japan has recently started experimenting with these on a larger scale. The first maglev train was the Shanghai Maglev which was launched in 2004 and connects Shanghai Pudong International Airport with the outskirts of the city. But Japan has bigger plans, intending to launch by 2020 a maglev train line that will be connecting Nagoya with Tokyo, spanning over 350km in just 40 minutes.
Magnetic levitation trains rely on a simple-to-explain technology - magnetic levitation. The train system uses two sets of magnets to keep the train afloat - one set pushes it up into the air repelling it from the tracks and another set propels the train forward at great speed, without any friction. You could also call maglev trains, flying ones since there is no contact between the train and the rails, but the technically correct terms is that of ‘magnetic levitation’.
Since maglev trains are incredibly speedy, the commute from home to work could start meaning something different - spanning hundreds of kilometres and allowing us to live in remote areas or in cities that do not offer the job opportunities of our choice but are more attuned to our out-of-office lifestyle.
Similar to a maglev train is the hyperloop, developed by Elon Musk and described by him as a “fifth mode” of transport. Surpassing the speed capabilities of the maglev train, propelling passengers between two destinations at speeds of more than 970 km/h, this mode of transportation relies on capsules or pods that float in partial vacuum tubes. Launched as a concept back in 2012, the Hyperloop project is already being developed by three different start-up companies, together with Elon Musk’s very own firm.
While both maglevs and hyperloop trains could be changing our work life by giving us fast and easy access to job opportunities we didn’t have before, they are also rather difficult to implement as they cannot rely on an of the existing infrastructure and need serious financial investments. But it is worth keeping these two types of trains in mind, as they will most certainly be part of our work lives in the future.
Now that we know what the future has is not store for our transportation systems, it is time to look for new destinations. Which ones are yours?