THE FUTURE OF BUSINESS TRAVEL
From self-driving cars to fleets of flying taxis, there's a revolution brewing for city transport – and roads are optional.
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.
THE AUTONOMOUS ROAD
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.
WHEN A CAR IS JUST A RIDE
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
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
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.
COUNTDOWN TO LIFT- OFF
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
“THE DESIGN OF CITIES WILL BE GREATLY INFLUENCED BY THE DEVELOPMENT OF AUTONOMOUS CARS AND FLYING VEHICLES. PEOPLE COULD LIVE FARTHER AWAY FROM THE DOWNTOWN AREA AND PARKING LOTS CAN BE GREATLY REDUCED IN CITY DESIGN AND OPERATIONS” –Liu Ming
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.