From self-driv­ing cars to fleets of fly­ing taxis, there's a rev­o­lu­tion brew­ing for city trans­port – and roads are op­tional.

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents - STORY NATASHA STOKES

From self­driv­ing cars to fleets of fly­ing taxis, there’s a rev­o­lu­tion brew­ing for city trans­port – and roads are op­tional

Is that the daily com­mute in our rear-view mir­ror? As grow­ing cities across the world face the Her­culean task of ef­fi­ciently trans­port­ing mil­lions of ur­ban in­hab­i­tants each day, tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies and es­tab­lished auto mak­ers are con­verg­ing on new modes of trans­port that could spell the end of con­gested jour­neys to the of­fice.

Self-driv­ing cars, fly­ing taxis and so­phis­ti­cated ride-shar­ing plat­forms have the po­ten­tial to defuse traf­fic jams, re­duce pol­lu­tion, and even re­shape how a city is built. The Mon­day morn­ing schlep may one day be quicker, smoother, and quite pos­si­bly road-free.


Fast-for­ward just one year and some lucky peo­ple could be turn­ing up to the of­fice in the first fully driver­less car – at this point, most likely to be a Tesla. By 2022, re­search firm Gart­ner pre­dicts that such self­driv­ing, “self-aware” ve­hi­cles will be com­monly avail­able, vir­tu­ally all of them elec­tric.

Self-driv­ing cars would be kit­ted out with hun­dreds of sen­sors, to de­tect their sur­round­ings and nav­i­gate based on the po­si­tion­ing of fel­low smart cars and city in­fra­struc­ture.

“Au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles would en­joy en­hanced driv­ing safety,” says Liu Ming, assistant pro­fes­sor in the de­part­ment of elec­tronic and com­puter engi­neer­ing at Hong Kong Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy. Ad­vanced soft­ware would con­tin­u­ally build dy­namic images of road haz­ards and traf­fic con­di­tions – and morn­ing rush hour traf­fic would be a by­gone frus­tra­tion, as ro­botic con­trol would reroute cars to spread the over­all flow of traf­fic.

“Cars have been the same for 100 years – [they have a] car­bon com­bus­tion en­gine, some­one con­trols how they op­er­ate and the ve­hi­cles don’t have a whole lot of in­tel­li­gence,” says fu­tur­ist Jim Car­roll. “With the rise of elec­tric ve­hi­cles and com­puter con­trol, we are in the midst of a trans­for­ma­tion.”

Fu­ture cars will look quite dif­fer­ent to to­day’s me­chan­i­cal beasts. “When driv­ers don’t need to worry too much about the con­trols, the de­sign of cars can be much more tai­lored to the driver also be­ing a rider,” notes Ken­neth She, gen­eral man­ager of Uber Hong Kong.

Self-driv­ing cars by Ford, which plans to launch a fleet of au­ton­o­mous taxis in 2021, will not have steer­ing wheels or foot con­trols; by the end of this year, pro­posed state rules in Cal­i­for­nia would al­low driver­less, con­trol-less cars like Google’s Waymo to legally take to the roads. As the steer­ing wheel be­comes a ves­ti­gial nod to our cur­rent era, it will catal­yse a dra­matic change in the func­tion and de­sign of ve­hi­cles. “Space pre­vi­ously used to ac­com­mo­date driv­ing fa­cil­i­ties can be turned to fea­tures that im­prove the rider ex­pe­ri­ence,” says She.

Fu­ture com­muters might use their jour­ney to do work, surf their news­feeds or chat with friends. Ve­hi­cles would come with fold-out sur­faces, power sock­ets and touch­screen dis­plays where pas­sen­gers can log into their so­cial ac­counts, stream videos or up­date their des­ti­na­tions. The driver’s seat – if there was one – might not need to face front, while seat lay­outs could be con­structed to al­low flex­i­ble re­arrange­ment de­pend­ing on whether pas­sen­gers wished to in­ter­act or not.

“Even­tu­ally, self-driv­ing cars could be more like small of­fices on wheels,” Car­roll says. The need for tra­di­tional of­fice space is al­ready fall­ing, as more com­pa­nies utilise free­lancers and work in­creas­ingly shifts into dig­i­tal realms. A self-driv­ing car out­fit­ted with board­room ameni­ties such as Wi-fi,

TV screens and a snack bar might be the meet­ing place of choice for our fu­ture col­leagues, with the ve­hi­cle pick­ing up each mem­ber of a pow­wow be­fore parking some­where with a view – the mo­bile, high-tech ver­sion of to­day’s cor­ner of­fice.


Cars may be­come in­fin­itely more in­ter­est­ing – but fewer and fewer peo­ple will own them, much less drive them to work in con­gested city cen­tres. “For some peo­ple, a car will re­main the ul­ti­mate ex­pres­sion of free­dom and iden­tity,” Car­roll says. But with Unicef pre­dict­ing 70 per cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion will live in cities by 2050, the cost of own­ing, stor­ing and sup­port­ing a ve­hi­cle in crowded ur­ban con­fines is likely to be­come as­tro­nom­i­cal. Driv­ing will shift to­wards a car­shar­ing econ­omy, says Car­roll.

Ride-shar­ing apps such as Uber and Lyft are al­ready an­ti­quat­ing the idea of car own­er­ship in dense cities like Lon­don, Hong Kong and New York, where parking comes at a pre­mium. In San Fran­cisco, the first self-driv­ing taxis are now avail­able to Uber rid­ers (for now, there are still hu­man safety of­fi­cers up front), while in Sin­ga­pore, Grab has part­nered with au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle start-up nu­ton­omy to launch its self­driv­ing ser­vice in 2018.

As the car-shar­ing ecosys­tem ma­tures, it’s likely to spawn more so­phis­ti­cated apps and ser­vices. “When ve­hi­cles be­come 100 per cent au­ton­o­mous, we can branch into other prod­ucts,” says She. “You could click on Uber and choose whether you’d want a fully-au­ton­o­mous car with­out a driver, or an au­ton­o­mous car with an op­er­a­tor who could of­fer per­son­alised ser­vice.”

Morn­ing com­muters run­ning late might book an Uber with a hot break­fast bar, or pick one styled as a cock­tail lounge for an aper­i­tif on the way home. Al­ter­nately, peo­ple who own their own cars might ride to the of­fice, then set the car to earn some money by fer­ry­ing around other pas­sen­gers, who could in turn get a fee dis­count if they agreed to fetch the carowner’s gro­ceries.

As en­ter­tain­ing as kick­ing back in a high-tech self-driv­ing ve­hi­cle would be, for longer com­mutes be­tween cities, peo­ple would prob­a­bly pre­fer to travel by Hyper­loop. The sub­ter­ranean vac­uum tube sys­tem al­lows au­ton­o­mous pods to travel at up to 750 mph (1,200 km/h) – or from Philadel­phia to New York in 10 min­utes. Sev­eral UK and US cities are cur­rently pre­par­ing for tri­als, with the United Arab Emi­rates re­port­edly keen to host the world’s


first commercial Hyper­loop jour­ney as early as 2020.

Fur­ther down the line, busi­ness trav­ellers on a mul­ti­c­ity trip might slash even more hours off jour­neys by stay­ing at a Hyper­loop Ho­tel, a con­cept de­sign for lux­ury ho­tel rooms built in­side Hyper­loop pods that could zip through a vast net­work con­nect­ing sev­eral US cities – all with­out their pas­sen­ger-guests checking out.


Give it 10 years and com­muters might be soar­ing over busy roads in fly­ing cars, pre­dicts To­masz Krysin­ski, vice pres­i­dent for re­search and in­no­va­tions at Air­bus He­li­copters. He en­vi­sions a world where peo­ple will move around cities in elec­tric fly­ing taxis at al­ti­tudes of a few hundred me­ters, while a cou­ple of thou­sand me­tres up, high-speed, af­ford­able he­li­copters shuttle peo­ple be­tween cities.

“Fly­ing ve­hi­cles will be one of the ma­jor rev­o­lu­tions, com­pa­ra­ble to the in­ter­net,” says Martin Rits, pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Fly­ing Cars As­so­ci­a­tion. It’s a sen­ti­ment shared by Uber’s She, who notes that “in a city like Hong Kong, where roads are su­per con­gested, if you can ex­pand into the sky where there is vir­tu­ally no limit on the num­ber of fly­ing cars, we can dras­ti­cally im­prove traf­fic.”

Fly­ing cars might end up look­ing some­thing like Air­bus He­li­copters’ Cityair­bus, an elec­tric ve­hi­cle that can carry up to four pas­sen­gers in a central cabin sur­rounded by mul­ti­ple pro­pel­lers that en­able ver­ti­cal take-off and land­ing ( VTOL), thus al­low­ing it to pick up and drop off pas­sen­gers in cramped ur­ban spa­ces. A ring shroud­ing each pro­pel­ler im­proves per­for­mance and re­duces noise – crit­i­cal in the city set­tings where it will op­er­ate, Krysin­ski says.

Slated for its first flight in 2018, the Cityair­bus will ini­tially have a pi­lot at the helm to ease its way into public ac­cep­tance, but even­tu­ally be fully au­tonomously op­er­ated. By then, sin­gle-pas­sen­ger,

au­ton­o­mous VTOL air­craft such as the Air­bus Va­hana and the Ehang 184, both meant be pub­licly tri­alled this year, could al­ready be fer­ry­ing pas­sen­gers around town.

Though wealthy en­thu­si­asts may park their fly­ing cars on the roofs of their es­tates, peo­ple would most com­monly hail a fly­ing car when needed. Uber plans to test an au­ton­o­mous fly­ing taxi ser­vice in 2020 in Dubai and Dal­las-fort Worth. In the next five to 10 years, She be­lieves that con­sumers could be us­ing their apps to call fly­ing taxis from their rooftops. What was once a two-hour drive through city traf­fic might be­come 15 min­utes as the crow flies.

“As de­mand grows and we can scale the prod­uct, the cost of a fly­ing Uber could be as cheap as an Uber ride on the road,” says She. “But when it can hap­pen de­pends on whether cities can sup­port fly­ing ve­hi­cle ser­vices with in­fra­struc­ture; whether there is good polic­ing for fly­ing ve­hi­cles.”

Parking space for fly­ing drones would be cre­ated on the roofs of build­ing, and as ur­ban flights be­came more pop­u­lar, en­tire build­ings de­signed so drones could fly di­rectly to park on them, or more ef­fi­ciently, charge and fly out again. “The idea is that the ve­hi­cles fly most of the time,” Krysin­ski says. “Ef­fi­ciency will be key for th­ese fly­ing taxis – peo­ple should not have to wait.”

Busi­ness trav­ellers in Dubai and Sin­ga­pore are likely to be the first to ar­rive at meet­ings by fly­ing cab – the Dubai Roads and Trans­port Author­ity has an­nounced plans to launch a fleet of un­manned aerial taxis within five years, while Sin­ga­pore’s


Min­istry of Trans­port said cit­i­zens could ‘bet money’ that pas­sen­ger drones will be a part of the city’s lauded tran­sit net­work in 2030.

In São Paulo, where he­li­copters are a com­mon al­ter­na­tive to the city’s con­gested roads and un­der­de­vel­oped trans­port in­fra­struc­ture, VTOL air­craft could also win swift ap­proval from law­mak­ers. “Mega-cities with traf­fic is­sues will be very in­ter­ested in fly­ing cars as emer­gency ve­hi­cles,” says Rits. “Fly­ing am­bu­lances that by­pass con­ges­tion to save lives would ini­tially be pi­loted by trained peo­ple then, based on that ex­pe­ri­ence, a city could roll out an Uber-like sys­tem of drone taxis.”

The suc­cess of fly­ing taxis could pave the way for an­other clas­sic of sci­ence fic­tion – mod­u­lar cars that can both fly and drive. Air­bus’ Pop.up con­cept imag­ines an au­ton­o­mous car-pod that would pick up its pas­sen­ger, nav­i­gate to the near­est drone port, then ditch the wheels and dock a set of copter blades to swoop over the city streets.


Even­tu­ally, a com­mon work­day might in­volve hop­ping a driver­less bus into town, catch­ing a drone to the gym, and hail­ing a juice bar-pod for the au­ton­o­mous drive home. Rather than own­ing any mode of trans­port, com­muters in com­ing decades will most likely ac­cess a city’s worth of shared bikes, au­ton­o­mous cars and aerial taxis on a sin­gle app that al­lows book­ing and pay­ment.

“The de­sign of cities will be greatly in­flu­enced by the de­vel­op­ment of au­ton­o­mous cars and fly­ing ve­hi­cles,” says Liu. “Peo­ple could live far­ther away from the down­town area [ be­cause they would use their com­mute for pro­duc­tive or leisure ac­tiv­i­ties] and parking lots be greatly re­duced in city de­sign and op­er­a­tions.”

As car own­er­ship gives way to shared ve­hi­cles that can au­tonomously and con­tin­u­ously move peo­ple around the city, cars might be rel­e­gated to the fringes of pedes­tri­anised blocks of of­fices, shops, and restau­rants. “Parking lots could be turned into parks or public housing; de­vel­op­ments that add value for cit­i­zens,” says She. “Peo­ple could en­joy more green­ery and walk­ing streets, and the city could have zones where only elec­tric ve­hi­cles are al­lowed. Imag­ine Central district with­out any cars!”

Within the next ten years, Gart­ner pre­dicts that self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles will be ca­pa­ble of link­ing up to smart home and smart­phone soft­ware. Self-driv­ing cars of the fu­ture would recog­nise pas­sen­gers by their phones, retina scan or fin­ger­prints, then per­son­alise in­car set­tings to match. If pas­sen­gers for­get to in­put a des­ti­na­tion, the car would check their cal­en­dar for the lo­ca­tion of their next appointment. On the trip home, the car could alert the home ther­mo­stat to start cool­ing the house.

Roads would be lined with sen­sors that could com­mu­ni­cate with au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles, which could in turn re­port on civic main­te­nance is­sues such as over­flow­ing waste or faulty street lights – which them­selves would be equipped with Wi-fi, charg­ing ports for elec­tric ve­hi­cles and traf­fic sen­sors. “[Each piece of city in­fra­struc­ture] would be like an en­vi­ron­men­tal Fit­bit that tracks the health of the city,” Car­roll says.

How might Hongkongers be getting to work in 2040? In just over two decades, Liu be­lieves all this will be old news. “Fly­ing ve­hi­cles, au­ton­o­mous driv­ing and shared rides will al­ready be part of his­tory by 2040. New forms of trans­porta­tion will be merg­ing aug­mented and vir­tual re­al­ity, robotics and quan­tum tech­nol­ogy,” he says. In that not-so-dis­tant fu­ture, we might still have roads, but we may never need them.

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