California’s transportation revolution

May 27, 2018

Another revolution is brewing, and it’s being led by California. A little more than a century ago, our means of transportation made a relatively swift transition from horse and buggy to automobile. Between 1890 and 1920, there were hundreds of automobile manufacturers in the United States, but the industry was soon dominated by the Big Three (Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler).


Now, California companies are leading us away from traditional motor cars with new transportation devices, influenced by artificial intelligence; visual recognition systems; radar, sonar, and laser scanning; mapping capability; global positioning systems; memory chips; and complex communication systems. According to a May 18, 2018, publication of the California Policy Center (CPC), “every one of these technologies, along with investment capital, more than anywhere else, is concentrated in California.”

Reconfiguring the chassis


One of the first changes to which we’ll have to adapt is a reconfiguration of the “skateboard,” the term that is being used for the basic chassis. Some skateboards will be very small, capable of carrying two people, while others might carry freight weighing as much as 80,000 pounds. One mini-skateboard chassis is featured in the latest (Father’s Day Edition) Hammacher Schlemmer catalog: a 900-pound, three-wheeled all-electric roadster that seats two in a sleek, futuristic fiberglass body, propelled by a carbon Kevlar chain. It has a top speed of 75 mph and sells for $9,900.


We will also see a great deal more variation in the passenger cabins that are set on the skateboards. According to the CPC, “An SUV-sized passenger module, for example, might hold 6-8 passengers like a mini-bus. Or it might be a conference room or an office where a group of passengers could conduct business while being transported. Or it might be a sleeper unit, a rolling hotel room, where a lone passenger or a family or work crew would sleep while en-route to their destination.”


In other developments, the cabin and skateboard might not be permanently fixed to each other. The CPC speculates, “A passenger module may arrive at a staging area on a wheeled chassis, where an aerial drone will attach itself to the top of the passenger module at the same time as that module is released from the skateboard chassis. In an automated, seamless process, the occupants will then be flown beneath this drone to their intended destination.”

Self-driving vehicles


While some of the above concepts are on the drawing boards, a number of automakers are partnering with high-technology companies to win the race toward the first government-approved, mass-marketed self-driving car. According to the CPC, “San Francisco based Uber is working with Volkswagen and Nvidia, a major chipmaker and world leader in visual computing.” Utilizing a parallel strategy, Uber is also involved in a deal with Toyota. The hope seems to be that some combination will result in autonomous vehicles that will be safe, comfortable, and affordable.


Meantime, Tesla is working with the Google spin-off Waymo, all three companies being based in Silicon Valley, to produce “full self-driving hardware” that will be necessary for autonomous automobiles. And, the CPC reports, Aurora is teaming with the Google parent company, Alphabet, in the competition. Additionally, Tesla will develop self-driving electric cars with both Hyundai and Volkswagen.


“Not to be excluded,” claims the CPC, “Silicon Valley heavyweight Apple is confounding critics who claimed they might find achieving their business model of vertical integration too challenging to include vehicles.” In fact, Fortune recently reported that Apple now has 45 cars on the road, which is more than its rivals. For example, Tesla has 39 permits for self-driving cars; Uber has 29, and Waymo has 24.


Luxury in motion


Lest consumers think that future transportation will take place only among economy or moderate-priced vehicles, Mercedes Benz is showing off its F015 Self-Driving Concept Car. The cabin’s interior looks a bit like a conference room, with controls located on a side wall. The front seats swivel so that they face the back seats under a fully lighted ceiling so that passengers can engage in the same types of activities that would occur in a standard office.


The CPC shows that a wide variety of auto and high-tech companies are joining the race toward future transportation. “When it comes to major automakers and high-tech corporations, it’s hard to find a company that’s not getting involved … Some not already mentioned … include Rinspeed AG, a Swiss automaker teamed up with Samsung; Volvo, teamed up with Uber; Chinese internet giant Baidu’s self-driving vehicle platform Apollo, which includes vehicle hardware, software, and cloud data platforms to help others in the autonomous cars industry; Intel, which bought Israel-based driverless car technology firm Mobileye, in partnership together with BMW; Audi in partnership with graphics cards maker Nvidia; the list goes on.”

The roads we travel


As the vehicles we use become more “high tech,” the roads on which they run may also have to change. A “hyperplane” has been proposed by UC Berkeley graduate students Baiyu Chen and Anthony Barrs. Their idea is to construct a single platform “the size of four interstate lanes.” This platform would run parallel to preexisting highways, but they would contain tracks on which self-driving cars could travel without fear of getting into an accident or even a traffic jam because all traffic would be controlled by a computer that is equipped with all of the software and data sources that are available. Ultimately, such platforms may actually obviate the necessity for personal cars at all, replacing them with on-call vehicles.


Back when the Big Three automakers were rising to prominence, they purchased street cars and other modes of transportation while lobbying Congress to build highways. The idea, of course, was to force people to buy cars. Now, the CPC claims, “The conventional enlightened policy wisdom is that driving cars on roads is an obsolete way for millions of people to travel.” The group believes that alternative means of travel will result in high-density “transit villages” which will be located near mass transit stations. The organization concludes, “(I)n general, if more people live and work in smaller urban footprints, there will be less need for people to own cars.”


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Jim Glynn may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.

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