#5 The Future of Transport; We’ve Come a Long Way from the Red Flag Man
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#5 Dude, where's my hoverboard?
Despite the Victorian Britons’ appetite for science and progress, the UK’s Locomotive Act 1865 -- the infamous law that required one of the crew of three deemed necessary to operate a “locomotive propelled by steam or any other than animal power” to walk 60 yards in front carrying a red flag – hints at feelings of fear and suspicion held in some quarters toward the age of the automobile.
It seems quaint that our neurotic ancestors should shackle this powerful invention that we, in today’s safety-conscious world, take for granted as we drive through towns at up to a dizzy 20-30mph close to pedestrians.
A Freedom Lost – or Gained?
Change always meets a certain amount of resistance. In our apparently tech-friendly world, we have yet to experience the full heat of the debate about driverless cars. What began with primitive cruise controls and ultrasonic parking sensors has recently exploded into a rapidly expanding variety of driver aids that warranted the American SAE to establish its J3016 scale of autonomous driving levels from level 0 (no driving automation) to level 5 (full driving automation).
Google’s fully-autonomous vehicle project (Figure 1), now managed under the brand name Waymo, has covered millions of self-driven miles and encountered only a handful of incidents with other vehicles while generating copious reports of the journeys to help quell public anxiety. It’s reckoned that more than 90% of road traffic accidents are caused by human error, so taking human drivers out of the equation makes logical sense. We don’t yet know the likely extent of machine error, or public acceptance of any accidents caused by machines, in such a complicated scenario as driving a vehicle on roads populated by many other self-driving vehicles, all making inferences based on their own sensor data and learning at more or less the same rate.
Figure 1. Firefly, Waymo’s fully self-driving test vehicle, has covered millions of driverless miles. (Source: Waymo)
Quite apart from the safety conversation, others will be worried about potentially losing the freedoms that come with the privilege of holding a driving license. Mobility delivered by self-driving vehicles could easily be geofenced and time restricted. In addition, the traditional car ownership model is expected to change radically. On the other hand, Mobility as a Service (MaaS) brought to the doorstep by a combination of e-hailing and full-autonomous vehicles could be life-changing for elderly or disabled people whose horizons are currently limited if they are unable to drive for themselves. Acceptance may grow as populations continue to age.
The self-driving vehicle is not the only technology aiding moves towards shared transportation. The Internet provides a powerful foundation for new mobility-sharing platforms that allow people to access vehicles such as bicycles, cars, and scooters, and pay by the minute, from a mobile app.
Belgium’s Poppy is an example of one such platform, which launched electric-car and electric-scooter sharing services in Antwerp in 2018. On the one hand, the emergence of SharingOS, a platform comprising hardware and software designed for easy deployment anywhere, points to faster and more widespread rollouts of new sharing services worldwide. On the other, concerns are already gathering about the practicalities of free-floating sharing systems, and regulation over parking and use of data is likely to come.
Electric cars and electric scooters such as those of the Belgian schemes are a natural fit with the general drive towards making our cities into low-emission zones and probably needed to ensure their acceptance across a wide cross-section of public and stakeholders. But there are other advanced transportation technologies that could help clean up the air in our cities, in addition to hybrid and electric buses. New gas-powered buses that run on bio-methane produced from sewage and food waste qualify for the UK’s Low Carbon Emission Bus Certificate, which entitles operators to a rebate based on the number of kilometres travelled. Biogas buses are already in service in Nottingham, Reading, and other UK conurbations. The origin of their fuel has earned them the nickname “poo buses”. We must wait to see if it will stick, or whether their environmental credentials will drive public approval.
Need for Speed
When it comes to inter-city transport, technologies such as magnetic levitation and hyperloop are emerging to satisfy our need for speed. It’s clear that any change in motorway speed limits will only be downwards, for safety and environmental reasons, while rail services are seeking ways to increase speed. Faster train services that get people to where they are needed – workers to their offices or tourists into cities – is good for any national economy.
Magnetic levitation provides a way to overcome some of the challenges that face high-speed wheeled transport, such as dealing with the effects of friction and designing a suitable suspension system. Maglev technology has no moving parts and, with patents going back to 1905, also has a long history as the object of rail engineers’ dreams. While building an impossibly fast testbed is one thing, delivering a service that is both safe and commercially viable has proved beyond pioneers in the UK, Germany and Russia.
Today, China operates the fastest commercially successful maglev service, which was opened in 2002 and covers the 30 kilometres from Shanghai’s Pudong Airport into the city in just eight minutes, travelling at up to 430km/h. Japan is preparing a 500km/h maglev link (Figure 2) to cut the journey time between Nagoya and Tokyo to just 40 minutes. That’s faster than a plane and less than half the current 90 minutes taken by Japan’s already infamous Shinkansen bullet-train service running on old-fashioned wheels. Time and money – new technology’s age-old adversaries – could have the final say: the project is scheduled to be complete in 2027, after 18 years in the making, and will cost the equivalent of more than $55 billion.
Figure 2. Japan’s planned maglev train will take another eight years and $55 billion to deliver. (source: Japan Rail Pass)
Also harnessing ancient science, realised using modern technologies and materials, The Hyperloop concept proposed by Tesla and SpaceX is based on established theories for vacuum trains and pneumatic tube transport, which has been used for many years to transfer cash and documents safely, quickly and conveniently between locations throughout an enterprise.
Targeting mass transit applications, Hyperloop uses a combination of technologies including air bearings and externally powered accelerator motors to deal with aspects such as the Kantrowitz limit on moving objects within tubes, suspension design, and ensuring suitable travelling range that have prevented vacuum trains becoming successful in the past.
Virgin Hyperloop One (Figure 3) could become the first commercial hyperloop service to begin operations, having already signed agreements with authorities in Dubai and published a feasibility study for a Hyperloop link in Scandinavia that could cut the journey time between Helsinki and Stockholm from 3.5 hours to less than 30 minutes. The pods and linear motors are relatively inexpensive, at a few hundred million dollars according to Tesla’s Hyperloop Alpha paper, and the tubes will cost several billion dollars depending on length. Tesla claims this is significantly lower than the tens of billions of dollars needed to build a comparable rail link.
Figure 3. The Hyperloop pod contains innovative technologies to travel at high speed inside the tube. (source: Hyperloop)
A Question of Adopters Versus Laggards?
It remains to be seen whether people will be prepared to load themselves into a Hyperloop pod to be fired through a giant-sized tube (Figure 4) when more genteel and proven means of reaching their destination are available.
Figure 4. The view inside the Hyperloop tube is similar to that inside an ordinary underground station. (source: Hyperloop)
Then again, some may have felt the same way about the world’s first underground trains that began serving London in 1863, while others could hardly wait to get on board.
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