Transport: Road to the future

Robo-taxis, flying cars, jet packs, 700 mph trains – is this how we’ll travel in tomorrow’s world?

The first time I went on a journey in a driverless car was in 2012, in Abu Dhabi’s futuristic Masdar City – a planned eco-hub with restaurants, offices, apartments and university buildings. Upon arriving at the eerily quiet campus in the desert, I was greeted by a series of glass doors, beyond which were parking bays for a fleet of sleek little solar-powered pods that were summoned at the touch of a button. I climbed in – there was no driver, just a computer monitor that allowed you to select your destination. Then the doors closed and the pod zoomed off, following magnets embedded in the road.

After years of development and innovation around the world, we are reaching a tipping point whereby robo cars are soon to enter the mainstream. Few days seem to go by without a news story about autonomous vehicles, the strides being made in artificial intelligence and whether or not the average person is ready to sit back and let a droid do the steering.

As well as convenience, there is the promise of increased road safety, which is good news for the travel manager but relies on a consensus that the technology will not fail. According to US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 94 per cent of vehicle crashes in the US can be traced back to a human choice or error. Hard to believe? Since launching in 2010, running 18 hours a day and carrying two million people, the Masdar City Personal Rapid Transit system has not had one single accident.

Driverless taxi services
The Masdar City experiment exists as more of a utopian bubble, though, whereby there are far fewer external factors to worry about. In the real world, driverless cars need to be able to perform safely on roads congested with hundreds of other vehicles and far more complex navigational challenges. That said, Waymo – the driverless car project from Google’s parent company Alphabet – is making huge advances in these exact conditions. After eight years, last November it announced it had started testing autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans – without a driver at the helm – around the streets of Phoenix, Arizona. This year, if all goes well, Waymo will become the world’s first driverless ride-hailing service.

Uber Technologies Inc is hot on Waymo’s heels, though. Under its newly appointed CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, it is investing in a fleet of 24,000 Volvo XC90 sport utility vehicles scheduled to be delivered between 2019 and 2021. The vehicles will be customised with sensors for automated operation – drivers are, after all, the biggest cost for taxi companies. Uber has been testing the cars (albeit with a human supervisor at the wheel) in Pittsburgh – although one was involved in a collision earlier this year, it was reportedly because the driver of a traditional car would not yield to the automated car when they should have done.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, in summer 2016, MIT start-up Nutonomy brought a driverless taxi to a small area outside the city centre, as part of a test phase in which a select group of people was allowed to request rides via an app. This year, the fleet will expand to 75 vehicles. Nutonomy has also been trialling its ‘robo-taxis’ in Boston. The start-up’s acquisition by automotive manufacturer Delphi for US$450 million in October is testament to the huge growth spurt in the driverless car industry. 

In San Francisco, ride-sharing company Lyft is launching a fleet of automated cars with humans at the wheel (as Californian law demands) operated by software developed by the ‘deep learning’ start-up Drive.Ai. Meanwhile, the Westfield Pod has recently appeared on the streets of London’s Greenwich. A more advanced version of the pods that go back and forth at Heathrow airport, these have their own sensors and a detailed 3D map of the area. The website says: “It decides for itself on the route to take, and how to interact with other road users – it can safely share a road or path with pedestrians, cyclists and animals, knowing when it is safe to move, and when it has to stop.”

Cars in the skies
As citizens move towards access rather than ownership of vehicles, the hope is that the concentration of vehicles on the roads will go down, but for many cities this is going to be a slow process. For travellers, relief in an ever-more crowded world will come from, yes, flying cars. If you have seen Blade Runner – set in a dystopian Los Angeles where spaceage ‘Spinners’ rise up from the ground and whizz between tower blocks – you’ve have had a taste of things to come.

Uber’s Elevate subsidiary, for one, is planning on lift-off for its aerial taxi service in LA, as well as Dallas Fort Worth and Dubai, by 2020. The programme would be in partnership with NASA, which enforces a Space Act agreement, a new kind of air traffic control system for low-flying, possibly autonomous, aircraft. Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement: “LA is the perfect testing ground for this new technology, and I look forward to seeing it grow in the coming years.” If plans pan out the way they are hoped, UberAir will be fully operational in time for the 2028 LA Olympics.

Racing ahead is Germany’s autonomous, two-seat, 18-rotor Volocopter, which took to the skies of Dubai in summer 2017 as part of a test mission for flying taxis. Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed has already given it a whirl, and hopes to bring it to the people of his emirate in the next five years. It would mean that, instead of a slow drive on dusty roads from the airport to your hotel, a traveller could be landing at a ‘voloport’ on the roof of their chosen building within minutes.

Airbus is also joining the fun with its aircraft, Vahana, which can land and take off vertically. Development is reported to be in advanced stages with live flights promised for some time this year. More exciting still, is Airbus and Italdesign’s Pop Up concept vehicle. A true ‘transformer’, it’s a flying car with wheels and a quadcopter set-up that is predicted to “unite the aerospace and automotive industries”.

Italdesign CEO Jorg Astalosch, said in a statement: “Today, automobiles are part of a much wider eco-system: if you want to design the urban vehicle of the future, the traditional car cannot alone be the solution for megacities; you also have to think about sustainable and intelligent infrastructure, apps, integration, power systems, urban planning, social aspects, and so on. In the next years, ground transportation will move to the next level and from being shared, connected and autonomous it will also go multimodal, moving into the third dimension.”

Into the Hyperloop
The third dimension may take the form of the air above cities, the space above our planet, or the ground beneath our feet. Billionaire Elon Musk, of course, is one of the great transport visionaries of our time – with a fortune made from founding PayPal and a desire to use it to change the world. One of the projects that is most likely to change the way we travel for work is his Hyperloop – a planned system of subterranean tunnels that connect cities with hyper-fast trains that are propelled through tubes at 760mph. Instead of wheels and rails, it uses ‘magnetic levitation’ for frictionless motion, while passenger pods are directed with ‘electric propulsion’. With Hyperloop One trainsets, the journey between Liverpool and Glasgow, for example, could be reduced from 3.5 hours to a mere 30 minutes.

In September 2017, ten routes in five countries (the UK, US, Canada, India and Mexico) were shortlisted as potential candidates for Hyperloop One. After a series of successful tests in the desert outside Las Vegas earlier this year, Musk anticipates a launch date of 2021 for the first line. Attracted by Hyperloop’s potential, Richard Branson stepped forward last October to invest an unspecified amount in the project – enough, in fact, for Musk to rebrand his baby, Virgin Hyperloop One.

Branson was reported as saying: “As a train owner, I felt this is something that I want to be able to operate. At the moment our trains are limited to 125 miles an hour. [With the Hyperloop] you can have a pod outside your office that you and your colleagues can jump into. The pod can self-drive to the top of the tunnel. It then goes down the tunnel. It connects up and off you go at 600, 700 miles an hour up to your destination, going faster than an airline.”

Managing future travel
What does all this innovation mean for the managed travel community? Johan Wilson, vice-president and country director UK and Ireland for CWT, says: “It comes down to travel managers listening to travellers to see which are the most popular transport options and then weighing that up against safety and cost. Financial value, comfort/ ease of travel, sustainability and, of course, how this helps your company achieve its overall goals are factors too.”

He believes that as new modes of transport come online, travel policies and programmes will need to be updated, and due diligence carried out. “It’s a really exciting time as the business travel industry develops and, in many ways, transforms itself,” he says, adding that the challenge for travel management companies is how to develop and transform themselves with – or ideally ahead of – the industry overall. “If we do that right, we are well positioned to still be the best partner for companies when it comes to duty-of-care, as well as helping them to embrace innovation,” he says. “This might sound a bit biased, but with the market becoming more and more complex, I believe our relevance will increase.”

Subscribe to the BBT Newsletter

Join the Buying Business Travel newsletter for the latest business travel news.

Thank you for signing up!