Okay, I’m simplifiying – biotech will be huge, too – but I just came back from the Hyperloop Pod Competition Design Weekend in College Station. And what I saw and heard there leaves me more convinced than ever that I made the right choice when, a little over a year ago, I decided I wanted to really focus on writing and thinking about transportation.
The event convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt of one crucial thing:
Transportation is clearly what excites today’s nerds.
And by nerds, I mean the passionate and selfless, those who do things out of love and fascination more than ambition. This weekend’s event – the first ever public gathering of an underground network of Hyperloop buffs that has blossomed over the last two years – had a truly electric energy. It drew 120 teams of college students from 20 countries, including Malaysia, Pakistan, Japan, South Africa, and the Netherlands.
Some of those teams payed their own way directly, while others, perhaps even more impressive, angled their way into corporate sponsorships. They put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears – and when the 23 advancing to the next round were announced, the crowd and teams reacted as if they’d won Oscars. (And that was before Elon Musk showed up).
This, in short, was a project that triggered emotions in people – wonder, excitement, even love.
By contrast, the Internet as an object of emotional attachment and fascination is over. It’s all about commerce now – getting rich, not transforming the world. (With the possible exception of Bitcoin, which is just as much of a passion project – though it’s also about getting rich).
Transportation fascinates nerds because it’s where the action will be.
It’s where the action will be because:
The Horizon for Physical Technology Has Shifted.
I am not an engineer, but it’s clear that many, many new possibilities have opened up over the last century, creating conditions for a fundamental change in how transportation works. The underlying desires are not new – to move people and things quickly, cheaply, and safely. To eliminate the distances that separate us.
But we’re ready to take a leap forward, as big as the leap that the train and automobile were in the long 19th century.
The new technological horizon is being opened up by four basic shifts:
- Information: We’re not leaving the internet behind, at all – we’re giving it a body. It’s called the Internet of Moving Things. The proliferation of wireless communication standards for a variety of applications allows the tracking and sharing of mobility data – fleet location, scheduling data, vehicle repair states, and passenger needs. We can put vehicles and their payloads in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, vastly increasing system efficiency.
- Automation: Artificial intelligences are not just learning to drive cars, but to pick routes and manage fleets. Transportation of physical goods will become as human-light as information packet-switching is now. Dispatchers will be the telephone operators of the 21st Century.
- Electrification: Batteries are still the biggest obstacle to most electrified transportation solutions, and the changes will be slower than in other areas. But the fundamentally superior efficiency of electric motors will kill internal combustion for many, and probably most, applications. This is not about politics anymore – it’s about physics.
- Levitation: Yes, I said it. Trains are our most efficient form of transportation because they have the least relative contact with the ground. Mag-lev trains are – as one of the leaders of Hyperloop Tech so elegantly put it to me over the weekend – and intermediary technology between trains and what’s next. Though levitation is energy-hungry, there is now hard data [http://www.popsci.com/hyped-up-startups-race-hyperloop-life] showing that eliminating friction can more than make up for the cost. Possibly even without a Hyperloop tube.
There are other factors, of course, that don’t fit neatly into the above categories – advanced materials being one – and, I’d guess, some other big things I haven’t thought of.
But what it all adds up to is simple. We have within our reach a variety of transportation solutions that will be more efficient and faster than what we have now. Some will fit into the infrastructure we currently have, but the best of them, including not just the Hyperloop but Skytran and ET3, will require at least some infrastructure construction and reconsideration of how our cities are laid out.
That means they won’t become large-scale quickly without major, and likely public, involvement. And, unfortunately, it seems unlikely that they’ll come fast enough to have a short-term impact on climate change, a problem I’ll leave for another post. But they are coming, and they are where the best talent and a lot of resources will be concentrated, soon, and for decades to come.