High-speed rail, smart cities, and autonomous cars—how is future transportation technology changing the U.S.?
During February’s World Mobile Congress in Barcelona, over 94,000 attendees gathered to see what the world of mobile had in store for nearly every aspect of our lives.
Qualcomm President & CEO Derek Aberle took a seat next to the three-time world champion of Formula 1, Lewis Hamilton and his Executive Director of the Mercedes AMG Petronas team—and generally brilliant engineer—Paddy Lowe.
Formula 1 racing may not be as white-hot in the States as it is throughout the rest of the world, but one simple fact should resonate with Americans: this bunch knows the destiny of road cars.
Thanks to a partnership with Qualcomm, the ability to download data into the team’s system while the car is still on the track saves Hamilton’s team a lot of time, and they’re able to make adjustments a lot more quickly. For Hamilton, maximizing limited practice time is key.
“In the past we had these long, long waits while they downloaded data. It’s incredible how quick the turnaround is now. If you can optimize then it makes a difference between winning and losing,” explained Hamilton.
Just how does Qualcomm’s connectivity work with Hamilton’s ride?
“Each car has forward- and rear-facing cameras in a winglet mounted on the left side of the engine intake behind the driver’s head, which continuously record thermal images of the tires. As a Mercedes enters the pit lane, it passes a Qualcomm 802.11ac WiFi receiver to which it uploads the thermal data,” AutoBlog broke it down.
“As the car nears the garage, another receiver takes over the upload. Several Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 processors crunch the raw data as it uploads. The data is encrypted—there are always prying eyes in Formula 1. It then goes both to Mercedes engineers in the pits and back at the team’s headquarters in Brackley, England.”
This data would be meaningless without being paired with world-class fuel and power efficiency.
During the World Mobile Congress, Lowe mentioned that in the entire scope of automotive history, cars have operated at about 30 percent efficiency. Mercedes AMG Petronas currently operates their team cars with 45 percent efficiency, and this number will only improve with every year of competition fueling innovation.
“The environment [F1] can be pretty harsh. If you can make things work there then they can become commercialized over time. A lot of things that happen in motorsport eventually make their way into commercial vehicles.”
Aberle, Hamilton, and Lowe addressed the topic of self-driving cars with great certainty. Aberle said that the transportation technology crucial for designing autonomous cars is already being used today in other sectors.
“In our phone now, we have GPS, computer vision, machine learning, sensor fusion,” he said. But he did mention the importance of 5G and reliable, secure connections in order for autonomous cars to be truly safe—in terms of low latency, reliable, and instantaneous connectivity for communications with other cars and traffic lights—for consumers to use.
Aberle noted: “The car of the future is going to be very different and the way that you interact with it is going to be very different than it is today.”
With the growing economy, cheap gas, and suburban sprawl, Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration says driving spiked 3.5 percent over 2014—the largest surge in over 10 years—with over 3.15 trillion miles driven in 2015.
“This makes our work on efficiency and alternative fuels all the more pressing,” said Dave Cooke, a Senior Vehicles Analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Reducing driving, spurred by new policy, and sustainable city planning is what he calls “a very long-term game plan.”
Some research suggests that the last decade’s numbers were headed towards a larger shift in U.S. driving patterns due to public transit popularity and fewer young adults on the road. Scientific American explained that those under the age of 35 with driver’s licenses has dropped over 10 percent since the 1980s.
Clearly, the automobile isn’t disappearing any time in the short-term, but the concept of what a car is evolving before our eyes. And out from under our hands.
Self-driving cars have many technical challenges to face and plenty of moral uneasiness to overcome.
University of Michigan researchers discovered that roughly 90 percent of Americans are reluctant about getting behind the wheel of an autonomous vehicle.
“Some say yes if the computer is accurate and has no bugs in it, while some say no because they want to be in control and they enjoy driving,”NPR’s “All Tech Considered” reasoned. However, most would still welcome the automated changes in some aspects of driving.
That would call for a litany of legal and regulatory changes to support the future transportation technology of self-driving cars. In February, Google was told that its artificial-intelligence system would be interpreted as a driver in the eyes of federal regulators.
As Paul Hemmersbaugh, NHTSA’s chief counsel put it, “If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle, it is more reasonable to identify the ‘driver’ as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving.”
Alternatively, the private sector has surveyed the prospect of connected and autonomous vehicles on the road and suggests that the cars could prevent up to 80 percent of the nearly 33,000 fatalities that occur on U.S. roads each year.
In terms of driverless cars, the U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx went on record to say, “There are still some questions that have to be resolved by the technology company as to whether those vehicles meet our standards. … I can’t tell you definitively today that our view will be that having a licensed driver in the car is a requirement or should be a requirement of operating a driverless car.”
Foxx added, “Under our old methodology, we would have waited for an auto company to come up with a driverless car and we would have had to learn the entire system at one time and that would have taken years and years and we wouldn’t have been as familiar with it.”
“The way we’re doing it now, taking interpretations like … the car being a driver under our safety standards, these interpretations are also teaching us, and so as we learn, we are going to be better and better until we are able to keep pace with innovation and I think safety will benefit as well.”
When it comes to car manufacturing, BMW is aiming to not only produce more emissions-free electric vehicles, but seeks to recycle used high-performance lithium-ion batteries and cutting-edge carbon-fiber elements of their cars. The high-voltage batteries can be repurposed as effective intermediate power storage in solar or wind power systems.
The BMW i3 is a model for an ideal environmental footprint and the company’s success in the long run. Edmunds’ automotive “A” rating for the EV is justified by its structural design, urban-friendly brakes, and overall sportiness.
The main structure is made of light yet strong carbon fiber instead of the usual steel or aluminum. This helps reduce the i3’s weight, which pays dividends for improved energy efficiency.
Fully concealed underbodies prevent wind turbulence under the car, while aero-flaps improve the aerodynamics of the wheel arches and side sills behind the front wheels. Excellent aerodynamics and reduced wind resistance are a key element of efficient electromobility.
Overall, 25 % renewable raw materials and recycled plastics are used in the interior.
What Comes Next
At 37 million residents, California is the most populated state in the union, and the California Department of Finance says the population has doubled in the last 50 years. And with hectic highways and delayed flights, what travel options will emerge for communities in the Central Valley, San Francisco Bay Area, and Southern California with meteoric growth?
In the midst of today’s transportation technology advancements, we’re seeing more connectivity, big data, and sustainable design integrated into our vehicles and smarter cities. So what role will tech play in how California can integrate high-speed rail into its culture?
“The revolution in ridesharing, Lyft, Uber, and whatever comes next, has made car-free living much more possible,” Kate White, Deputy Secretary for Environmental Policy and Housing Coordination for the California State Transportation Agency explained.
“With high speed rail, I can imagine not having to build as much parking, which will have a real positive impact on areas and neighborhoods around the stations. With HSR comes more bikes and development near the station, but you do have to plan around drop-offs and pick-ups.”
California High-Speed Rail Authority is slated to be America’s first high-speed rail system. In a 2015 fact sheet, the Authority projected that 20,000 construction jobs would be created annually for the next half-decade. As the system expands, 67,000 additional jobs would be generated every year for 15 years.
The rail will eventually span a total of 800 miles, from Sacramento to San Diego. By 2029, a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco would only take riders less than three hours, reaching speeds of over 200 miles per hour.
White went on to explain that the de-carbonization of transportation includes providing options for people of all sorts. That demands innovation around the comfort and attractiveness of cycling: “not just typical two-wheel mountain bikes.” Meaning, electric-assist and cargo bikes designed for school pick-ups and drop-offs.
She also noted that over half of U.S. car trips are somehow related to after-school activities, pick-up, or drop-off.
“On the state level, we’re exploring integrated ticketing and seamless trips. Riders will be able to switch transit services with the same ticket—your phone. Just one auto-loaded ticket, integrated with the state so no more worrying about having exact change.”
Seamless ticketing, in turn, will facilitate statewide synchronized timetables, so riders are confident they’ll be able to make their connection. This is all part of a statewide rail modernization effort, where billions of dollars are being invested in infrastructure upgrades to local and regional rail lines to meet California’s modern transit demands.
When refocusing a statewide culture away from unnecessary car trips and air miles, California High-Speed Rail will address some regionally unique challenges once each of its 24 stations are ready for passengers.
“I do think ridership will be very popular from day one,” White said.
Before that, redirected land use and smarter cities will play a huge role in how many people can take HSR. To avoid seeding sprawl, the 24 stations will be built in the heart of existing communities in cities.
Anchor institutions are a current priority, including what White calls “Ed’s and Med’s”: the private and public educational and medical institutions, such as hospitals and city colleges defining location decisions. “A Tesla factory or a new Kaiser hospital, for example,” White added.
In 2020, somewhere in the world will have access to Hyperloop. That somewhere could very soon be North Las Vegas.
The managing director of Sherpa Capital, a venture capital firm with investments in such companies as Uber, Airbnb, Munchery and Shyp.Shervin, Shervin Pishevar is also the Co-founder and chairman of Hyperloop Technologies. Hyperloop will potentially shuttle passengers and cargo in high-speed pods, smaller than most planes and trains, every 10 seconds.
“We will move people and cargo [through a depressurized tube system that slings the pods along a cushion of air] at 700 miles per hour. That changes the way the global economy works,” Pishevar said.
So, obviously, future transportation technology, through a variety of innovations, will be taking us throughout the country very fast.