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Thursday 28 February 2019

10 minutes read time

We were promised jetpacks

  • The explosion in technologies is on the verge of delivering a transport revolution
  • Future modes of transport will be mixed, but roads will be less important: flying will probably be the norm, even within cities
  • Private ownership of vehicles will become a thing of the past

By Alexander Asseily

Henry Ford, talking about his Model-T, once said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” It turned out he could do better than that.

Evolution is unpredictable. Around 500 million years ago the Earth witnessed an enormous surge of new animal life in what is now described as the Cambrian explosion. Whatever the specific conditions on Earth at that time – a combination of heat, ocean chemistry and primitive cellular life – they led to radical diversification of animal life. Nature innovated rapidly.

A Hyperloop vision of catching the train

In transport, a Cambrian explosion is under way. It promises to be just as unpredictable. Instead of moving to faster cars, or cleaner ones, or autonomous ones, it may be moving us beyond cars and trains altogether. Certainly beyond ownership of vehicles and the linear transportation frameworks we’ve known for over a century. Instead, we’re not far from air taxis, or, if you’re feeling colloquial, flying cars. “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It’s Mum coming home from work.” Seriously.

In an age of accelerating change, we seem to have less imagination about the future. But consider the demand for change and the forces of innovation at work. Within little more than a generation, you can foresee a world with a different transport system altogether.

Heritage Images / Getty Images

The British-built Morris Bullnose

Today, our need to move faster and more efficiently is challenging the petrol car. Much about the vehicles we use has changed since early car companies raced to dominate the “horseless carriage” market. Constant refinement has made the petrol engine almost as efficient as it can be. Lighter materials, better aerodynamics, ABS brakes and seat belts all work to provide consumers with a more enjoyable, cheaper and safer experience. Yet for all these improvements, the underlying “genus” of this technology has remained unchanged for almost a century – we burn ancient hydrocarbons to take us from A to B in a thing with four wheels.

Getty Images

The Dynasphere, invented in the 1930s

And while our air-conditioned journeys across the world are now far more advanced than the experience of early cars or planes, the fact remains the same. Until recently we have not had any viable disrupters to this methodology – you can take a car, motorbike, a train or a jet. Or power yourself on a bicycle. That’s about it.

But now, the primordial soup of innovation is once again beginning to stir, as advances in some enabling technologies converge to rethink transport. The technological ingredients have matured over many decades, often in completely unrelated sectors. Lithium-ion batteries developed for mobile phones are being tied together to deliver more energy from smaller units. Almost ubiquitous mobile broadband permits unbroken chains of communication between a vehicle’s computer and cloud-based machine intelligence. Likewise, cheap and low-power sensors, including GPS, allow for the construction of intelligent on-demand services, because we know where everything is situated in space, continuously.

Only a few years ago, electric cars were considered niche and possibly even uncool. That claim is no longer viable. Tesla’s aspirational brand and vision of the future set it ahead of many car manufacturers, who are now racing to catch up. In July 2017, Volvo announced that all of its cars would be electric or hybrid by 2019, and almost all major car manufacturers are following suit.

Vision of a city Hyperloop system

Machine Learning (aka artificial intelligence) allows for vehicles to become independent in a new way as they share data and coordinate with other vehicles and service providers around them. Thus we might reasonably argue that transport systems could develop a consciousness of their own, individually and collectively, with the goal of more efficiently meeting consumer needs.

Regardless of whether Tesla remains relevant in the future of electric cars, it will certainly be remembered for having set the trend for electrification and autonomy. But cars are not the only sector being revitalised by electric propulsion, GPS and machine intelligence. The industry that may benefit most of all is aviation.

As Paul Stein, Rolls-Royce’s chief technology officer, said: “Aviation has been the last frontier in the electrification of transport, and is slow to catch up. This will be a new era of aviation.” He went on to add that electrification “has the potential to move mass transport from rail to air; flying might become the norm.” This is because electric propulsion is not just cheaper to run; it is simpler, permitting entirely new vehicle designs that are safer, cleaner and quieter.

Lilium, an electric plane taxi service

In particular, the vehicles that will service this need are not necessarily like the commercial airliners we are so used to today. More akin to a helicopter in convenience, and yet far safer, quieter and more affordable, these are the electric vertical take-off and landing jets (eVTOL), which could really revolutionise transport.

A myriad of eVTOL aircraft developers has emerged over the past few years, all claiming to herald the revolution. They are enabled by this primordial swamp of technologies, and they are answering the market’s key needs directly: get me from A to B faster and cheaper than before – and safely, of course.

From Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk to Munich-based Lilium (full disclosure – I’m an investor), designs come in different shapes and capabilities. The reality, as laid out in the Uber white paper (see below), is that these aircraft not only make environmental sense but commercial sense as well. Uber and Morgan Stanley have each estimated that the urban air mobility market will be worth between $1.5trn and $2.2trn by 2040.

Getty Images

A London motor scooter, around 1916

The unit economics are appealing. An Uber driver who worked 365 days of the year, doing at least ten mid to long-range trips a day, could expect a total revenue of around $110,000, while using an equivalent eVTOL vehicle would gross closer to $1.5m. The consumer benefits, too. The average cost per mile would go up by only one dollar, but a drive that used to take 48 minutes would take 12 or less. And such aircraft, because they need only a small area to land, can be deployed extremely fast. The economics and flexibility of public infrastructure suddenly look wildly different – eVTOL may eventually do to trains and planes what the mobile phone did to land lines: leapfrog them.

There’s a similar battle unfolding on our streets, with the proliferation of micro-transportation options such as on-demand shared e-bikes and e-scooters from companies like Lime and Bird. A year ago, these services simply didn’t exist. Two billion dollars has been invested in the last few years alone in such micro-mobility services. They are becoming permanent features of our urban spheres, despite the resistance of some towns to adopting them – and the annoyance they provoke when they are discarded around the entrances to subway stations in US cities like Oakland and San Francisco. We might ask ourselves what our urban transportation will look like in five years if this creative evolution continues at the same pace.

Bird’s urban scooter

No discussion of mass transport is complete without a look at trains – a sector that, likewise, has not been immune from innovation. Countries like the UK are planning high-speed upgrades to ageing infrastructure – such as the 250mph HS2 between London and (eventually) Northern England – while well-funded innovators are proposing insanely fast, 500+ mph alternatives to conventional railways, such as Hyperloop, where the carriage travels on top of a magnetic cushion in a vacuum tube.

While history suggests that trains at whatever speed have a major role to play in shifting large volumes of passengers between cities, there are other forces at play. Firstly, once a train line is built, it can’t be moved. Secondly, trains demand that passengers converge in densely packed stations to gain the speed benefits. Lastly, such infrastructure requires decades to plan and build – during which time competing (and far cheaper) networks of transport may mature.

Popular Science / Getty Images

An early vision of revolutionary transport

Henry Ford, in perhaps his more prescient message, said: “I can visualise the time when almost every family will have a small plane in their back yard.” I suspect he will be proven almost right at some stage, except perhaps in the assumption that ownership is a requirement – a parked aircraft, like a parked car, is a wasted resource.

My personal view is that the relative mix of transportation methods our societies depend on will change radically as this Cambrian explosion matures – but it will remain a mix. Trains will get faster and still play a vital role in densely populated areas. Jet airliners, including supersonic aircraft, will continue to propel us over vast distances to exotic getaways and big meetings.

Hyperloop’s Vactrain concept

But let’s be clear: the next generation of “faster horses” may not be cars at all. If we want to imagine the transport systems of the future, we have to start by realising we’re getting into – or onto – a different class of smarter vehicles, accessible through our smartphones, and coordinated by computers that continuously recalculate the fastest and cheapest ways to get us safely from A to B. It’s not about the road less travelled; it may not be about roads at all.

Alex Asseily has founded or backed several successful high tech businesses including Jawbone, Elvie, Lilium, Okta, Improbable, and Juul. More details https://zulu.group | Twitter @aasseily


Further reading

Uber Elevate A comprehensive overview of eVTOL and how it will emerge as a new economic sector over the next decade. Does a great job of explaining the logistical features and economics, naturally from the perspective of Uber as the central coordinator of such a service.

Morgan Stanley The first major report by a financial institution describing the sheer size of the market enabled by eVTOL. It will be huge but it’s likely to be focused on logistics and movement of goods, initially.

Hyperloop The science behind the Hyperloop vision. Has popularised an invention originally called Vactrain (vacuum-tube train) and proposes ways to make it work in practice. Fails to address the enormous costs and years of planning and construction involved.

Porsche A comparison of eVTOL with existing transport systems. A weaker version of the Uber paper, but compelling insofar as it comes from Porsche’s viewpoint.

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