The Future Mobility Landscape
Transportation has been steadily evolving since the dawn of humanity. Each new innovation created a variety of benefits, including convenience, safety, economic and social. Domesticating horses substantially increased how fast people could move while reducing the majority of stress on their bodies. The train made it possible to travel long distances faster and with less risk of injury. The automobile in the early 1900’s dramatically increased the accessibility, convenience, and speed of intra city mobility. The bus greatly reduced the hardware cost per seat and distributed the driver cost across many people. The interstate highway system redefined personal transportation and restructured the way cities were designed. And planes introduced the ability for humans to move and across between cities, countries and continents in hours.
Now, we’re seeing another radical transformation happening in the transportation space, and this time, it’s the autonomous, electric, connected automobile (ACEV).
Since I founded Tesloop in June of 2015 a few things have become very obvious in the automobile mobility space:
The per mile cost of running cars is radically declining. Today, this is accentuated in high utilization, high mileage scenarios, as we’ve seen first hand from running Teslas over 17,000 miles a month. Our fully loaded (fuel, lease, depreciation, maintenance) cost came out to under $0.30/mile, which is almost half AAA’s estimated cost per mile. For the first time, the costs of operating vehicles are declining on a step curve, instead of experiencing a linear decline. The electric drivetrain dramatically increased the longevity and reduced the maintenance effort required. The two major stages of autonomy (technical and driverless), both have significant impact on the economics. Innovations in charging technology, such as the introduction of the high-speed Supercharger, reduced the amount of time lost per charge by 3x. Enabling deep-connectivity -- essentially turning the vehicle into a rolling API and creating application programmer interfaces -- of the vehicle makes the operations significantly more efficient and reliable. So each major innovation comes with major cost savings, and as each individual element is continually improved the cost trends further down.
The social benefits of electric/autonomous vehicles will inherently create a pull towards their utilization. Autonomous vehicles are becoming safer than human drivers, reducing the accident rate. Electric vehicles produce zero emissions and can be powered by renewable energy. And who doesn’t want to travel safer and greener?
Due to the huge range of benefits provided by ACEVs, it is clear that they will cause an unparalleled shift in the transportation landscape.
The world is looking for a sustainable solution for mobility.
Over the next few decades, the majority of transportation methods will be either replaced, or enhanced, by ACEVs.
Below is a quick summary of where things are headed.
I’ll break this down by distance, as regional and transcontinental flights are different ball games.
Regional flights under 200 miles
On flights that are less than an hour and a half, such as Seattle to Portland, more than fifty percent of your total travel time is spent waiting in line, navigating stressful airports and waiting on overcrowded tarmacs for take-off - you are also prevented from bringing basic necessities such as water, and being forced to purchase inflated products in the terminal. And anybody who frequents air travel knows that flight delays are common. Just ask United Airlines, which saw over 20% of their flights delayed in 2015, with an average delay of 62 minutes. To further this inconvenience, airports are scarce, and clearly nobody’s actual start and end points are the airports. On either side of a flight, there is normally a few mile commute between the airport and where you are really traveling to/from. Add this to the fact that the cost structure of air travel is not linear, so your fare is not commensurate to the distance traveled, and it’s easy to understand that many will adapt to new solutions. However, there are some scenarios where short flights will make sense in the foreseeable future. If you are flying from Los Angeles to Boston, and there’s no direct flight, it may be more convenient to take a connecting flight from JFK since you are already in the terminal. Or, if you are flying from Los Angeles to Maui, you may need to take an island hopper from the mainland if no direct flights are offered.
I believe it is inevitable that we will see automotive-based ridesharing replacing the majority of short flights in as soon as five years. Drastically lower costs, more comfortable seats, more convenient scheduling -- to the point where it’s almost on-demand --, and more convenient pick-up/drop-off locations are hard to compete with. In general, when it is possible to offer a better product at a lower cost, there is massive potential for disruption.
Mid-Distance Flights (200-500 miles)
As EV battery capacity increases and battery charging time decreases, the distance of a trip where automotive-based ridesharing makes sense will increase. Since the timeframe on these advancements is not certain, it is hard to predict what proportion of the air travel will be replaced by automotive-based ridesharing in the next 10-20 years. Mid-distance routes will be serviced by auto-mobility services, and I expect the value propositions of the two different methods will be the differentiating factor in consumer decisions. Depending on exactly from and to where you are traveling, taking a rideshare service may or may not be faster and cheaper, or one of the two. Imagine Bill lives in Arcadia, CA (10 miles north-east of downtown Los Angeles), and wants to spend the weekend in Las Vegas (which is a little under 300 miles away); his travel options are:
For Bill, it makes more sense, economically, for comfort, and for productivity to travel via automotive mobility service. But now his sister Suzie has FOMO (fear of missing out), and decides last minute to join Bill in Vegas. She lives in Playa Vista, CA (two miles from the airport). Her options are:
Suzie wants to get to Las Vegas ASAP, and has little work to do, so, for her, the two-hour time difference is not enough to make up for the $20 saved and productive time gained by traveling via automotive mobility service. It makes sense for Suzie to fly.
Morgan Stanley analysed over 50 of the top short haul pairs, comparing the total cost and travel time for planes and cars, and found that “It is on average $120 more expensive and only ~60 minutes faster to fly rather than drive”.
Long-Distance Flight (1000+ miles)
When you need to travel further than 1000 miles, such as from New York to London, it is unclear if a more practical vehicle than a plane will emerge in the next 20 years. While SpaceX has proposed rocket travel to replace these types of flight, the timeline for this infrastructure to support mass-transit of people is unclear. There are a lot of challenges that will be faced, including the time-consuming navigation through the bureaucracy of government to enact legislation to support and regulate this.
Trains face a similar dilemma to that of any ground-based vehicle carrying large amounts of people. Either you offer few terminal locations, which increases the distance people are required to travel to get on-board, or you offer stops at lots of terminal locations, which greatly increases the amount of time it takes for people needing to travel far distances. Trains are good for areas with heavy traffic going between Point A and Point B, such as a commuter train direct from Grand Central Station to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, or an airport rail line from one terminal to another. However, people who have to commute to/from the trains stops will see more convenience in automobile-based mobility. With increasing distribution of where people are really coming from/want to get to, you face decreasing convenience.
Furthermore, trains face another struggle. Laying new tracks is expensive (between $1m and $2m per mile), and in urban areas, nearly infeasible these days. For example, going through the hoops of permitting, proving eminent domain to clear a path, and gathering the funds to lay a set of train tracks between Los Angeles and Palm Springs is something that nobody would do.
Similar to the train, regional buses can either be slow and convenient, or fast and inconvenient. The actual cost of hardware per seat per mile in electric cars will be so cheap* that spreading that cost over more people won’t really matter. Let’s say that you want to get to Austin, TX from Houston, TX. You can either purchase a seat on an automotive mobility service for $10, or a seat on a bus for $5. Even though the car is twice as much, it’s still only a difference of $5, and people tend to value comfort on long trips over a few bucks. For example, people are paying up to $100 to get a “premium” economy seat on a 5-hour flight, which is just a couple extra inches of legroom. The difference between a luxury car and a bus is night and day. The only scenario that a bus will make sense is when you are moving a lot of people from and to the same location/destination - for example, a company is hosting a large event and wants everybody to be moved from a central location to another 50 miles away.
Intracity electric buses will offer an affordable solution to getting around, but similar to intercity bus travel, as mobility costs decrease, buses will become less competitive due to worse experience than cars.
Note: trying to drop everyone at their closest point is really hard when you have multiple people due to time tax of others on the bus.
Flying cars have been a fantasy of humans for many decades. Urban areas are running out of usable ground space, making the seemingly unlimited space in the air enticing.
Currently many serious programs for flying cars are in development, including, most notably, Uber. What is unclear, however, is whether it will make sense to build transportation infrastructure “up”. While we like to entertain the idea of a world of electric, autonomous, and connected flying cars, it is uncertain where this makes practical sense, and if the world will adopt this in the near future. Of course, the biggest benefit of being able to soar over the roads is the mitigation of traffic congestion. In highly dense urban areas, such as Manhattan, flying cars may be adopted, if the technology is pursued, but there would soon be questions of air congestion just as there are now in high use urban airports. On the other hand, it’s not clear what the mechanics of flying cars will look like. For example, will they systematically elevate above our current roads, or will they be constrained by dedicated landing zones? Companies such as Uber have proposed VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircrafts. It’s unclear how realistic building the infrastructure for such transit, especially considering legislative constraints, where flying cars will offer a more practical solution to alternative methods in a majority of scenarios within twenty years is.
Multiple companies are currently in a race to develop a functional “hyperloop”. These include HTT, Virgin Hyperloop One, Arrivo, and others. While the detailed mechanics vary between companies, the concepts are are similar. For those unfamiliar with the idea, Hyperloop is essentially pods being carried in low-friction tubes moving at very-high speeds. It is likely that nations with looser regulations, such as the UAE, will be early adopters of this technology. However, the inherent disadvantage is that the infrastructure is expensive to develop and travel will likely command higher prices than the alternatives. Hyperloops will benefit cities with lots of demand to travel between, but will still rely on centralized pick-up/drop-off locations, and be unable to offer the convenience of automotive based mobility for people that aren’t going to/from areas close to the “terminals”. In many scenarios, the electric autonomous car is going to be the extension of other networks, since they offer unbeatable convenience with networks of scale, HyperLoops being one of them.
Car and Hyperloop Tunnels
Some people are less optimistic about flying cars reaching actualization. As Elon Musk explains, “I’m in favor of flying things. And obviously I do rockets, so I like things that fly. This is not some inherent bias against flying things but there is a challenge with flying cars in that they’ll be quite noisy, the wind force generated will be very high, let’s just say that if something’s flying over your head, if there are a whole bunch of flying cars all over the place, that is not an anxiety-reducing situation.” This is why he founded the Boring Company, with the dual intentions of increasing the efficiency of how we dig underground and creating a 3D network of tunnels under urban areas, intending to transport vehicles systematically and efficiently. It’s unclear how much building these networks out will cost and what timeframe we will see unground car travel emerge into the market, but it’s something that could greatly benefit urban areas. It would reduce people utilizing the system’s travel time dramatically while alleviating a lot of congestion on the roads above. Digging tunnels also addresses a few of the problems faced by laying new train tracks and above ground hyperloops, so we may see hybrids between the tunnels and above-ground transport technology.
Earlier this year, Elon Musk hinted at a future where travel between any two points on Earth could be completed in under thirty minutes. Through SpaceX, he has worked to increase the percentage of a rocket that is reusable. The biggest increase in reusability is the ability to land rockets back on Earth, which SpaceX has been doing increasingly well. However, beyond making this form of travel cost effective, there are some major safety concerns. “You can’t fly humans on that same kind of orbit,” Brian Weeden, director of program planning for Secure World Foundation, told The Verge. “For one, the acceleration and the G-forces for both the launch and the reentry would kill people. I don’t have it right in front of me, but it’s a lot more than the G-forces on an astronaut we see today going up into space and coming back down, and that’s not inconsiderable.” I spoke further with Weeden, who clarified that the major difference between human rocket travel and launching astronauts into orbit is that “the flight profile of a ballistic missile (which has a similar trajectory as what some are suggesting) has a much faster burn schedule on the front end, and much faster re-entry schedule on the back end”. However, people like Elon believe that it’s conceptually physically possible for human rocket travel to work.
So while rocket travel should not be completely dismissed, bringing this to the commercial market will require major advances in technology. It is hard to fathom this being available in the near future. But again, that won’t be the first time someone said that about Elon Musk’s ideas.
Like anything in the future, nobody know exactly what the landscape of mobility will look like. However, we do know that things will be very different. The effects of innovations in transportation will be huge, and easily recognizable. Most importantly, mobility will restructure itself around sustainability, so that future generations will be able to thrive and progress.
1. This is focused on consumer transportation methods. Moving freight is a whole different topic, which will be discussed in a future blog post.
2. This is a relatively optimistic outlook on the future. There are lots of hurdles in the way of adopting new technology, and this assumes that they are navigated in a reasonable time, with no outside influences heavily lobbying the opposition of such.
3. The cost per mile of operating ACE vehicles is assumed to be trending down significantly. This is due to transformative components of the ACE platform. Electric drivetrains get cheaper over time. We have seen through anecdotal evidence that maintenance is far less expensive and intensive on electric drivetrains. Autonomy will eliminate driver costs and greatly reduce insurance costs as they become statistically less prone to collisions. Advances in energy technology will allow for cheaper and faster fueling of the vehicle.