Where we stand on key technologies for getting around
Fans of “Under the Tuscan Sun” – it’s OK to admit it if you are one – know the quote about the construction of the Semmering railway connecting Venice and Vienna over a steep stretch of the Alps.
“They built these tracks even before there was a train in existence that could make the trip. They built it because they knew some day, the train would come,” Martini tells Frances.
The anecdote is about the daring it takes to start a new journey even when you can’t see how it ends or how you’ll get from Point A to Point B. While Martini’s romantic notion fudges the truth about the railway’s construction a bit, building tomorrow’s transport often does involve visionary thinking followed by a process of trial and error to make it reality. We’ve been waiting for years for new transportation technologies to become the way we get around. Just how close are we to self-driving cars, air taxis, and other features of tomorrow’s transport becoming mainstream?
Pilot programs have been going on since at least 2016 in select cities, and autonomous car companies like Waymo have been raising capital like crazy. The legal status of self-driving cars remains murky, with a hodgepodge of individual state regulations and federal legislation stalling out. For the short term at least, the focus of several driverless automakers has shifted to long-haul trucking in compliance with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rule that states, “Occupant-less vehicles are designed for the transportation of property, not people.”
How close we are to self-driving cars might depend on your definition, as there are several levels of autonomy. You might say with all the automation many cars on the road today have, we’re already there. Honda’s new Civic LX, for example, can drive itself in most highway conditions. If we’re talking Level 5, fully autonomous with no human intervention at all, that might be a dozen years away at best.
“We expect the timelines for deploying fully autonomous vehicles (Level 5) to be pushed back over the next few years,” research firm GlobalData concluded. “Companies that have made big bets on the technology will continue to move toward commercialisation, but it could be closer to 2035 before we begin to see any meaningful deployments of fully self-driving vehicles.”
GlobalData’s report did say it expects Level 3 autonomy (dynamic driving in most situations) like Mercedes-Benz’s DRIVE PILOT on the road in the next couple of years.
The eVTOL (electric vertical takeoffs and landings) technology is progressing fast enough that this iteration of tomorrow’s transport might be reality by the end of the decade. The founder of Joby Aviation, JoeBen Bevirt, is confident his company’s air taxis will be in the skies in the next couple of years.
“Our goal is absolutely still to achieve commercial service in 2025, and given the progress we’re making on certification and the progress we’re making on the manufacturing front, we’re excited to just be day after day knocking down the milestones,” he told ABC News.
Archer Aviation recently closed a $65 million financing agreement to build a manufacturing facility in Georgia it expects to produce up to 650 aircraft annually.
“The ability to manufacture eVTOL aircraft at scale is critical to building a successful business in this industry and Archer continues to maintain a significant lead on this front,” CEO Adam Goldstein said.
Crucially, the necessary regulators are on board. The FAA announced a rollout plan in July that details steps companies will need to take in order to be approved. The plan anticipates limited operations as early as 2025 and a competitive market in at least one city by 2028.
“These things will be coming on the scene, and our job is to try and be ahead of the curve,” Paul Fontaine, an assistant F.A.A. administrator, told the New York Times.
In other parts of the world, this is yesterday’s and today’s transport, but in the U.S. high-speed rail has remained part of tomorrow’s transport for decades as projects continue to be announced then stall out under ballooning costs. There’s not an official definition of what constitutes high speed, with some standards set at 125 mph (200 kmph) and others at 186 mph (300 kmph). There has been some recent movement in bringing faster trains to some parts of the U.S., with other high-speed projects in the works. This fall, Brightline, the first private passenger rail line to operate in the U.S. in a century, began service between Miami and Orlando at speeds of up to 125 mph.
“This is a pretty important moment, whether you’re thinking about it in the context of the state of Florida or what it might mean for these kinds of products as they develop elsewhere in the United States,” Brightline CEO Mike Reininger told the Associated Press. “The idea that my car is the only way for me to get where I need to go is being challenged by a new product. A new product that’s safer, that’s greener, that is a great value proposition (and) it’s fun.”
Brightline is also working on connecting Southern California and Las Vegas at speeds of up to 186 mph. It hopes to begin service on Brightline West by 2028, in time for the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Amtrak’s faster Acela trains, capable of hitting 160 mph between Washington, D.C., and Boston are scheduled to debut in 2024 after being pushed back from a planned 2021 debut. They will still share tracks with slower commuter trains that will prevent them topping out on the entire route.
The California High-Speed Rail plan voters approved in 2008 called for trains up to 220 mph shuttling between San Francisco and Los Angeles by 2030. As it stands now, a much shorter and more out-of-the-way stretch between Merced and Bakersfield in the Central Valley might be ready in the early 2030s.
The Texas Central project to link Dallas and Houston with Shinkansen hit some bumps along the track but picked up a new partnership with Amtrak in August that might revive the 200-mph train after land acquisition struggles and a leadership shakeup.
“This high-speed train, using advanced, proven Shinkansen technology (from Japan), has the opportunity to revolutionize rail travel in the southern U.S., and we believe Amtrak could be the perfect partner to help us achieve that,” new Texas Central CEO Michael Bui said.
Nationwide EV Charging
Soon after an agreement between Tesla, General Motors, and Ford allowed the latter two’s EVs access to Tesla’s Supercharging network (with an adapter), a coalition of seven automakers announced an agreement to build a nationwide network of 30,000 “high-powered” chargers. BMW, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Stellantis, and Mercedes are on in the deal, with the first stations slated to be operational in summer 2024. The system will be able to accommodate all EVs on the market, with connectors for Tesla’s North American Charging Standard and Combined Charging System plugs.
The coalition didn’t disclose financial figures or say how long it would take to reach the 30,000-station target. Each station would have 10 to 20 plugs, meaning the network would consist of 1,500 to 3,000 stations.
“North America is one of the world’s most important car markets – with the potential to be a leader in electromobility. Accessibility to high-speed charging is one of the key enablers to accelerate this transition,” BMW Group CEO Oliver Zipse said.
In October, Kia and Hyundai announced that they too would switch to Tesla’s charging system.
The Biden administration in May announced $51 million in funding for charging station infrastructure.
“The EV revolution is well underway, and this funding will help to ensure that every American can access the benefits and count on a reliable EV charging network across the country,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said.
You can already buy a ticket for a commercial electric plane flight. It just won’t take off until 2028 at the earliest. Scandinavian Airlines, in partnership with Heart Aerospace, opened bookings on the 30-seat ES-30 for regional flights in June. “The exact date will be communicated in due time, the ambition is for 2028,” SAS says.
That timeline squares with what Gregory Davis, CEO of Eviation, envisions. “In five years, we’ll be flying on electric planes,” he told Forbes. Eviation’s Alice is a nine-seater with a current range around 300 miles, so it would be more for short-haul private jet transportation and cargo hauling.
As for longer-haul flights, tomorrow’s transport might have to rely on sustainable aviation fuel. Battery technology that can carry airplanes thousands of miles across oceans is a long way off.
“I am skeptical about electric flights because of range restrictions,” Lars Enghardt, the director of Institute for System Architecture in Aeronautics’s Institute of Electrified Aero Engines, told DW. Enghardt said the DLR didn’t foresee “batteries with sizably increased energy density in the near-term future.”
With half of the world’s flights covering 500 miles or less, though, there’s ample opportunity for electric planes to cut the industry’s emissions. Rolls-Royce plans to have two electric motors powering flights for Norwegian regional airline Wideroe by 2026. By 2030, Rolls-Royce CTO Grazia Vittadini told DW, “We will see all-electric aircraft of up to 30 seats flying.”
We’ll be eager to book our spots.