As the world’s urban centers continue to expand, getting around cities is set to become increasingly difficult. In some areas, traffic congestion is already an ongoing daily problem with rush hour lasting for hours on end along with increasing pollution, noise, and emissions. Over the next decade, commuter trends in urban mobility will likely center around efficiency and sustainability. This means that renewable-energy alternatives will become widely available as well as accessible and affordable for the general public along with more efficient modes of transport that will further aid in combating travel-related pollution and congestion.
Additionally, shared, multi-modal mobility options will also play a crucial role in how people move around as part of emerging mobility-as-a-service ecosystems and long-anticipated concepts such as self-driving cars and flying taxis. It’s largely expected that the future of transportation will rely on technologies that are electrified, carbon-neutral, autonomous, and smart. Let’s go over some possible scenarios for new types of public transportation we can expect to see become a reality in the future.
The High-flying Caterpillar Train
The concept for the Caterpillar Train, also referred to as a CTrain, could become a reality in the future, ushering in a whole new era for mass transit. The idea was initially created by an Indian railway engineer who won a global competition for innovation at Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), having been selected as the winner among a total of 29 contestants. This form of transit has been proposed as a viable and more environmentally friendly solution to traditional road transport with the possibility of improving traffic and efficiency in the sector, along with conserving energy, reducing emissions, and additional cost-saving for cities.
CTrains will comprise of rail cars that travel on a network of elevated tracks at an average speed of about 62 miles per hour. Rather than using rails affixed to the ground level, the train cars will travel on an arch-shaped structure that carries passengers high above the streets, leaving enough space for cars, trucks, and public transportation vehicles. Compared to typical elevated rail transit, the CTrain’s slim arches will not obstruct the urban scenery, which is an additional benefit. Unlike monorails, whose tracks are supported by pillars that require large sidewalks or other open spaces, the CTrain will be supported by arches placed on both sidewalks of any street. With support structures taking no more space than existing light poles, CTrains do not come with space limitations as to where they can be built as opposed to existing elevated railways.
That design also aims to improve accessibility in residential areas, making traveling a more seamless experience for commuters who can just hop on and off the trains without blocking the sidewalk or causing inconvenience for people walking by. The whole system is expected to run entirely on electricity with the coaches having a backup battery that can be used in emergencies such as a power failure. Every coach will have the capacity to seat around 20 people and the compact size of these trains will also allow them to reach more residential areas, expanding the network’s reach. The result will be a lighter, minimalistic approach to mass transit that has less of a negative impact on the environment as well as the look and feel of the city.
Autonomous vehicle technology has rapidly expanded in the last decade and is currently being tested in various cities and countries around the world. It’s widely considered that driverless pods could transport passengers around a city and will likely play a fundamental role in the future of urban mobility. The futuristic pods are already surprising citizens who are lucky enough to be testing them first and many believe that autonomous shuttles are the right way to introduce autonomous technology to urban areas. Autonomous pods or shuttles have the potential to solve many of the first and last-mile problems we see today while at the same time making mass transit efficient and sustainable since they are capable of operating as a convenient shared-mobility option among citizens.
Some current projects involving autonomous pods include the likes of Dubai which has recently begun testing Next Autonomous Pods in a trial run in hopes of encouraging its transformation to becoming one of the smartest cities in the world. The city is striving to make 25% of its daily transportation trips completely autonomous by 2030 with further plans for flying taxis in the future. A UK-based tech start-up called Ubran.MASS has launched the world’s first driverless, zero-emission transport solution in the form of autonomous electric pods. These futuristic pods will be capable of traveling on both rail and road and aim to revolutionize urban mobility as we know it. The solar-powered self-driving pods, which can seat up to 16 passengers, will travel independently to collect passengers on the ground from various locations in cities, then link together along a specially built ground-level or elevated railway track. In Switzerland, the so-called Post Auto Smart Shuttle has been testing its self-driving pods since 2017 with the revolutionary shuttle having transported over 30,000 passengers since then at the maximum allowed speed of 20km/hour.
Electric Bus Shuttles
Olli is America’s first driverless public shuttle bus printed in 3D technology that’s fully electric and autonomous. The vehicle was first introduced in 2016 and has already been undergoing testing in various American cities, as well as Berlin and Italy where it has been servicing the ITC-ILO university campus of Turin. The electric minibus manufactured by the American company Local Motors is said to be able to carry up to 12 passengers, reaching a maximum speed of 25km/h. It’s currently commissioned to provide public transportation in closed network locations such as campuses and airports, before branching into new functions and locations.
In addition to the 3-D printed fender manufactured by Local Motors, and its autonomous driving technology, Olli is powered by IBM Watson which is the company’s artificial intelligence platform. That means that Ollie is capable of processing information, interacting with passengers, and even asking them about their destination, or clarifying why it made certain driving decisions while further applying face recognition as a means of identifying frequent destinations.
Many predict that Olli will do great in introducing a kind of autonomous experience people are naturally comfortable with hailing themselves, hopping in, and hopping off. Similarly to other ride-hailing services, Olli could connect to a fleet management system, with the possibility of а customer ordering a ride through an app, however, where the shuttle stands out to its competitors is that it can simply transport more passengers than a car. Municipalities, universities, and even theme parks and other establishments could offer this service to move passengers around, much like public transportation today.
Hyperloop technology is often hailed as the future of mass transportation for its potential to revolutionize the transportation sector, forever changing the way we move passengers and freight. It’s widely believed that Hyperloops will reduce overall travel times, decrease congestion, along with cutting down on carbon emissions, and even limit the number of travel-related accidents. The optimal speed to be achieved by a Hyperloop pod is predicted to be around 760 miles per hour, which means you could travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just over 30 minutes. This is a tremendous improvement over current travel times for the same distance which amounts to 6 hours by car or 1 hour by flight.
A Hyperloop works by incorporating a combination of magnetic levitation and vacuum-sealed tubes to transport passengers and cargo at high speeds. As opposed to traveling on tracks, the Hyperloop pods levitate above the track, reducing friction and allowing them to travel at supersonic speeds. The pods then travel through low-pressure tubes that are void of air, creating a vacuum environment that diminishes air resistance and allows the pods to travel faster than conventional trains. Hyperloop systems are designed to be energy-efficient, with solar panels providing the energy required to power the propulsion system. This means that this type of technology is not only faster and more efficient than traditional modes of transportation but also environmentally friendly.
There are currently several Hyperloop projects being developed and tested around the world. Among the most notable ones is the Virgin Hyperloop. This project is currently being developed by Virgin Group and Hyperloop One to create a Hyperloop system that can transport passengers to various parts of the world. Their levitation engines contain electromagnets that lift and guide the pod within the track, making it 10 times more efficient than the world’s fastest maglev trains. Canada’s TransPod Hyperloop project is also set in motion to initiate a hyperloop system that can transport passengers and cargo between major cities in Canada, such as Toronto and Montreal, in just 45 minutes. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) is yet another project focused on developing a hyperloop system in different countries such as the United States, India, and the United Arab Emirates.
High-speed Rail & Supersonic Trains
As the world continues to search for ways of mitigating the effects of climate change, short-haul flights are beginning to look increasingly unattractive to many travelers around the globe. High-speed rail is hailed as one of the most effective alternatives to air travel for journeys of anywhere up to 700 miles, offering a compelling combination of speed and convenience by shuttling passengers between city centers at speeds of 180 mph or more. Furthermore, some argue that its ability to move a large number of people quickly makes it a far more efficient and reliable method of transportation as opposed to more undeveloped, low-capacity concepts such as Hyperloop.
Since the 1980s, hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in newer, more modern high-speed, high-capacity railways across Europe and Asia, initially pioneered by Japan’s Shinkansen and the Train a Grand Vitesse (TGV) in France. Since the last decade, China has turned into an undisputed world leader in the high-speed rail sector, building a 38,000-kilometer network of new railways with the capacity to reach almost every corner of the country. Spain, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and England are also set to follow in expanding their network reach along with other countries which are expected to join the list by the 2030s.
Supersonic trains are often proposed as the next generation of high-speed mobility, offering safe, convenient, highly adaptable, and environmentally friendly modes of transportation. Maglev high-speed technology which is used to propel these trains has an established and proven track record in China, which currently contains the highest number of operational Maglev tracks in the world. Researchers at the Southwest Jiaotong University in China are now testing an ultra-fast bullet train prototype, based on maglev technology, that could reach speeds of up to 1,000km/h. These super-maglev trains will use the same underlying technology as previous versions of high-speed rail, except this next-generation transport innovation will utilize a vacuum tube to reduce air friction and allow for even greater speeds.
Autonomous Helicopters could potentially play a major role in the future of mass transportation systems. The Aerospace firm Airbus has been performing a variety of test flights of its Vahana electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft. The company hopes to create a fleet of operating eVTOL aircrafts and place them on rooftops in major cities in the U.S. as a way of enabling commuters to get around densely populated areas where road traffic is deadlocked. It’s expected that if trials go smoothly a fully operational aircraft will be ready within the next half of a decade.
The arrival of the eVTOL revolution is partly premised on the promise of the aircraft being environmentally friendly. If its batteries are charged through renewable power, an eVTOL’s operation will technically be carbon-neutral. There is currently some research available that indicates electric air taxis may be greener than ground-based automobiles in some instances. A team at the University of Michigan recently reported that a fully loaded eVTOL with three passengers could achieve 52% less emissions than a gas-powered car and 6% lower than an electric car. The study further indicates that these types of crafts could offer citizens fast, predictable transportation and could play a role in sustainable mobility in the future.
There are various challenges associated with a VTOL aircraft mainly regarding vertical maneuverability and its ability to operate in congested, low-altitude airspace. Another valid concern has to do with the accessibility of such services and whether this type of transport can be made affordable for the general public. Additionally, large batteries attached to the craft could limit its capability of flying for extended periods. A UK company called Vertical Aerospace has been working on another zero-emission five-seater aircraft that it claims will have a lighter environmental impact than any existing form of air travel. It’s estimated its battery will be only 20% to 50% larger than an electric sedan’s, with a range of over 100 miles and accessible to the general public who don’t count themselves among the business elite. The company states that initial pricing will be similar to land-based ride-hailing services, with a target of about $1 per passenger mile.
Although the majority of these concepts are still in their trial stages and are yet to adhere to newly established regulatory frameworks, we can expect to see many of them become a reality in the very near future. As technology advances and manufacturers continue to collaborate with public officials and city planners, we’re sure to see many new and incredible developments that will help us build a landscape of smarter, more efficient, and sustainable mobility systems that serve citizens and cities around the world.