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Where’s my flying car? Oh, and make it fuel-efficient with a side of congestion relief, please


Jessica Tang

By

April 2nd, 2020


There’s great potential for transport developments to solve the worldly problems of our time. So, what’s in store? Jessica Tang explores.


It hasn’t been long since the first train, the first car and the first plane were invented. And yet, so much has changed since then. Even the best of us would struggle to manoeuvre a Model T Ford in very much the same way as our ancestors would struggle to even conceptualise commuting to work in a driverless car. The dynamic nature of the transportation landscape and the innovative ways in which we’ve mobilised people have enabled us to build cities, create jobs and have lifestyles that were unthinkable not too long ago. But we cannot rest on our laurels. The evolutionary ways in which we now move about our lives – jetsetting across the world, commuting in single-passenger vehicles – have quickly collided with trends such as over-population, inciting a host of issues. The headliners amongst these are urban congestion and climate change. It’s not all doom and gloom though. It’s possible that radically efficient, equitable and sustainable transport developments are actually just around the corner.

Where’s my flying car?

Back in the 1980s, the Back to the Future films made futurists and regular folk alike excited for a future of flying cars, jetpacks and hoverboards. For those who eagerly awaited the development of futuristic vehicles, it’s understandably disappointing that we don’t really have any of those transport options available to us…yet. This all changed when Uber announced last year that it has booked trialling of its aerial ridesharing service to commence in 2020, with full commercialisation of the service anticipated by 2023. Melbourne is one of the three lucky cities selected for these trials.[1] It’s certainly a bold statement. There are regulatory concerns – such as safety, privacy, noise pollution and air traffic management – that must be addressed before Uber can take to the sky.[2] Nevertheless, any developments in the flying car space are exciting because it prompts us to really consider how new transport options could combat the challenges of the 21st century.

Take congestion, for example. It’s clear that there is scope for new modes to be added to our current suite of transport options. The direct costs of sitting in traffic (such as drivers’ wasted time and fuel idling) combined with the indirect costs (such as businesses passing on higher costs to consumers) are estimated to cost Australians a grand total of $30 billion by 2030.[3] But flying cars are just one option for meeting efficiency objectives. Driverless cars are another novel development that promises to meet these same objectives. Another is Elon Musk’s Hyperloop. While at first glance the Hyperloop looks just like any old train, this new proposed mode of passenger and freight transportation is set to operate at up to 12,000 km/h, substantially faster than Japan’s already impressive bullet trains.[4]

Ridesharing and planet caring

There’s certainly a common theme of ridesharing and mass transit amongst these new transport options. The benefits of these are clear – environmental sustainability, affordable consumer prices and congestion relief.[5] Indeed, many experts in the transport industry have hailed ridesharing as the future of urban mobility. One MIT study found that carpooling options from companies such as Uber or Lyft can reduce the number of vehicles on the road by a factor of three, without significantly impacting travel time.[6] It seems simple enough – less cars means less traffic means less carbon emissions. But is something stopping us? Despite the clear environmental benefits of ridesharing, driving a car remains a popular choice of transport with over two-thirds of Australians opting to drive themselves to work.[7] What this really comes down to is individual preferences. Mark Thomas of tech firm Ridecell analogously compares people getting out of their cars with people giving up CDs. It’s a slow burn, but it will happen.[8] This is consistent with the empirical evidence that we are observing – statistics show that the percentage of Australians who drive themselves to work is steadily decreasing, while reliance on other transport options has increased. Amongst those transport options experiencing more love is the grandfather of all mass transit, the trusted train.[9]

But moving away from single-passenger transport options isn’t the only option for environmental sustainability. The gradual adoption of the electric car has demonstrated to us the very real potential for fuel powered cars to become phased out. This is great news for our environment as the typical car emits a staggering 4.6 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.[10] But if you thought electric cars were cool, consider that developments are underway to electrify our entire suite of transport options. From Victoria’s first fully electric bus hitting our roads last year to Uber working with Hyundai to manufacture a battery powered flying car as we speak, there’s no shortage of innovation in this space.[11][12]

#StayHome

The coronavirus pandemic has brought upon really testing times. But if we take this with a grain of positivity, it’s moments like these that really test our ability to adapt. And that’s where telecommuting comes into play. The continued widespread adoption of video conferencing, e-mailing and cloud computing has meant that there is less need for workers to head into the office. While it didn’t take a deadly virus for working at home to become a thing (statistics show that telecommuting has been on the rise for a while now), it’s certainly forced the more stubborn of us to acknowledge that this is the way forward.[13] There are equity impacts worth mentioning, too. Working from home insists that our roads are freed up for those who have little alternative.  

Sometimes it’s easy to overlook how much the transportation landscape has changed since industrialisation. We may not have flying cars (not yet!), jetpacks or hoverboards. And it’s easy to sit around and moan about congestion and commute times that are longer than they were a couple of years ago. But who’s to say we don’t have anything to look forward to? If the transport of the future involves more efficient, equitable and sustainable options, I’d say we’re on the right track.


Photo by kevin laminto on Unsplash

[1] Uber. 2019. Uber Elevate: Uber Air. Retrieved from https://www.uber.com/au/en/elevate/.

[2] Erin Pearson. 2019. “Flying taxis in the next few years? Tell ’em they’re dreaming.” The Age, September 27. Retrieved from https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/flying-taxis-in-the-next-few-years-tell-em-they-re-dreaming-20190925-p52uq3.html.

[3] Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development. 2015. Traffic and congestion cost trends forAustralian capital cities. Retrieved from https://www.bitre.gov.au/sites/default/files/is_074.pdf.

[4] Danielle Muoi. 2015. “The Hyperloop has 5 key advantages over today’s fastest trains.” Business Insider Australia, September 24. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com.au/hyperloop-advantages-over-bullet-trains-2015-9?r=US&IR=T#/#the-hyperloop-is-much-much-faster-1.

[5] Frontier Economics. 2017. Ride sharing and public transportation – the next big disruption. Retrieved from https://www.frontier-economics.com.au/documents/2017/11/ride-sharing-public-transportation-next-big-disruption.pdf/.

[6] Javier Alonso-Mora, Samitha Samaranayake, Alex Wallar, Emilio Frazzoli, and Daniela Rus. 2017. “On-demand high-capacity ride-sharing via dynamic trip-vehicle assignment.” PNAS, 114(3). Retrieved from https://www.pnas.org/content/114/3/462.

[7] Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2016. More than two in three drive to work, Census reveals. Retrieved from https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mediareleasesbyreleasedate/7DD5DC715B608612CA2581BF001F8404?OpenDocument.

[8] Julie Walmsley. 2018. “What Does the Future Hold for Ride-Hailing? Here Are 7 Expert Predictions.” Forbes, December 9. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/juliewalmsley/2018/12/09/what-does-the-future-hold-for-ride-hailing-here-are-7-expert-predictions/#3765ba8a4b25.

[9] Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2016. More than two in three drive to work, Census reveals. Retrieved from https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mediareleasesbyreleasedate/7DD5DC715B608612CA2581BF001F8404?OpenDocument.

[10] United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2018. Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/greenhouse-gas-emissions-typical-passenger-vehicle.

[11] Melissa Horne. 2019. First Victorian Built Electric Bus to Hit the Road. Retrieved from https://www.premier.vic.gov.au/first-victorian-built-electric-bus-to-hit-the-road/.

[12] Hyunjoo Jin and Joyce Lee. 2020. “Uber, Hyundai unveil flying taxi for future aerial ride share network.” The Sydney Morning Herald, January 7. Retrieved from https://www.smh.com.au/technology/uber-hyundai-unveil-flying-taxi-for-future-aerial-ride-share-network-20200107-p53pjd.html.

[13] Derek Thompson. 2020. “The Coronavirus Is Creating a Huge, Stressful Experiment in Working from Home.” The Atlantic, March 13. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/coronavirus-creating-huge-stressful-experiment-working-home/607945/.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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