Future transportation

Often times we find ourselves struggling to transport data, goods or people from point A to point B: this is where traffic jams, latency, and late deliveries have their origins. The question, however, is how might we improve our means of transportation to avoid these useless waste of resources?

This article targets three sectors of movement: Movement of data, Movement of Goods and Movement of People. (I couldn’t decide on just one).

In the first one, the subject of faster data transfer through new infrastructure and with the use of new materials will be the main topic; in the second one, the use of drones and other mobility technologies will be addressed; and in the third one, I will address the optimization of public transportation with minimum effort.

Data is the most powerful tool humans have at their disposal, so it should be a prerequisite for everyone to have access to data, instantly. Even though that might seem like a target for a distant future, companies in the present have already started working on reducing latency and improve the rate at which we transmit data. There is that common saying among millennials right now: “What is worse than no internet? Slow internet”. SpaceX set out to solve that problem through their Starlink program, a vast array of satellites set to orbit the earth at 550 km, each satellite equipped with 5 lasers that transmit data back to earth.

Starlink map
Starlink map of possible satellite routes

This addition to our infrastructure system would reduce the latency of the fastest underwater fiber cable on earth ( Hibernia Express Cable – 59.95 ms) by 40%. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? But if we take into account that just 3 years ago, the fastest underwater fiber cable on Earth was Atlantic Crossing 1 Cable, with just 65 ms of latency was replaced by Hibernia Express Cable at a cost of a whopping 300 million dollars, we understand just how much latency impacts our day-to-day life.

With the Starlink technology, we could bring the fastest latency available anywhere on the globe and possibly accelerate the development of the third-world country with larger access to information. Surrounding earth with 7,518 satellites doesn’t sound like an easy task and it will surely take a long time, but SpaceX, as always, is on top of that too: They already
launched the first batch, which was visible on the night sky for a period of 2 weeks until they elevated from 340km to their actual cruising altitude of 550 km using Krypton thrusters (a cheaper alternative to Xenon thrusters).

Starlink
Sattelites visible while orbiting The Netherlands (Marco Langbroek, Leiden)

With the cost of deploying 5G through Fiber will be at least 130 billion dollars, Starlink might actually turn out to be the more sensible and cheaper approach to wider access and transfer of data.

Starlink satellite
Starlink satelites in Orbit

The next topic might not be as interesting as a mesh of satellites so close we can see them, but it might make a big difference in the hardest field to master back on Earth: Logistics. For the past 2 years and a half, we heard a lot of news about Amazon’s drone delivery service and how it’s going to change the world, but there are simply just too many obstacles in the way right now to make the idea of drone package delivery real.

But what about cargo? Usually transported by trucks all around the world, cargo is very susceptible to delaying factors like weather, human fatigue, accidents, and poor road infrastructure. Introducing: Cargo drones! With the latest breakthrough by Boeing just 4 weeks ago, this technology proves to solve all of the previous issues of trucking with
less energy and more flexibility.

Cargo drone
The future of freight shipping?

Carrying payloads of up to 500 pounds, Boeing’s new drone is said to achieve speeds of 300km/h cruising at an altitude of 7 kilometers. While a study from Pew Reseach Center (2017) showed that 54% of Americans disapprove of drones flying in residential areas (positively nailing the coffin of the drone delivery market), the cruising altitude of cargo drones is so high there wouldn’t be any noticeable noise or disruption to homeowners.

Boeing cargo drone
Boeing’s prototype

Initially targeted at the first-responder market, these drones have found their way of becoming the mainstream by partnering up with FedEx, DHL or UPS to deliver from port to deposit or from airport to deposit.

The third and last topic I will approach is regarding public transportation, optimizing it specifically. Why choose public transport? There were a lot of other alternatives to talk about like electric cars, sharing economy, personal flying devices, maglev rail, underground car tunnels, etc. It was hard of course to focus on this particular idea, with such tempting options on the table, but I think that, out of all the ideas discussed so far, this one has the most potential to be implemented in Bucharest by 2030.

According to a study by Rand Corporation, there are two possible scenarios: “No free lunch” and “Fueled and freewheeling”. According to the researchers, “No Free Lunch describes a future in which the United States has strengthened regulations to reduce dependency on oil and GHG emissions, which results in greater investment in research and development (R&D) on AFVs, increased public transit ridership, greater reliance on road pricing, and lower levels of car ownership.

Fueled and Freewheeling describes a future in which the economy is booming and a reluctance to raise taxes is prevalent, which results in high car ownership and steadily increasing congestion”. The study identified three main driving forces for these scenarios: price of oil, development of environmental regulation and highway revenues and expenditures, but suggests that policymakers will have a hard time influencing the price of oil and should focus more on leveraging the other key drivers.

Similarly, The European Commission, with the help of the European Platform on Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans, developed a roadmap on urban transportation for 2030. Two of the key policy measures in that roadmap are “Green public fleets” and “Bus, trolley and tram network, and facilities”, proving that priorities in European cities are changing to a more open culture of public transit.

One solution that was actually implemented a couple of years ago in Manhattan for a short period of time was VIA. Allowing people to hop-on-and-off small private buses that adapt according to where you’re going, Oren Shoval, the CTO of Via, launched their service in September 2013 with moderate success.

This leads me to my challenge for any Romanian startup up for the task: automate the current public transport in order to optimize its route based on the riders inside the bus.

How will it work? With the help of your smartphone, you can see if there is a bus passing nearby and stopping at the corner. You can signal the autonomous bus to wait for you to get on. After jumping in, the bus adapts its route based on the destination you input on your phone and the destinations of the other riders in the bus, finding the optimal stop for as many people as possible. This system would work in a continuous loop, and with dedicated bus lanes integrated by the municipality (which, let us be honest, is going to be implemented by 2045 probably) it would accelerate the city at a pace never seen before. Not to mention the dynamic call function: Whenever a big event is coming up, you could signal the fleet and make sure there are a few available that stop next to your venue.

Mercedes future bus

There are of course a lot of problems to overcome, the biggest one being the lack of cooperation of the municipality, followed by the need for complex algorithms to optimize routes and stops and how (or better said “if”) would you monetize this idea. The potential is there, however, and there is a lot of flexibility on the implementation of this approach.

There are a lot of competing technologies right now on the market trying to solve the same problem in different ways and that’s what makes me really hopeful for the future generations.

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