Forecast | Public transit goes bust while planes, trains go driverless: Future of Transportation P3

Self-driving cars aren’t the only way we’ll be getting around in the future. There will also be revolutions in public mass transportation on land, over the seas, and above the clouds.

But unlike what you’ve read over the last two installments of our Future of Transportation series, the advancements we’ll see in the following alternative modes of transportation aren’t all centered around autonomous vehicle (AV) technology. To explore this idea, let’s start with a form of transportation city dwellers are all too familiar with: public transit.

Public transit joins the driverless party late

Public transportation, be it buses, streetcars, shuttles, subways, and everything in between, will face an existential threat from the ridesharing services described in part two of this series—and really, it’s not hard to see why.

Should Uber or Google succeed in filling cities with massive fleets of electrically-powered, AVs that offer direct-to-destination rides to individuals for pennies a kilometer, it will be tough for public transit to compete given the fixed-route system it traditionally operates on.

In fact, Uber is currently working on a new ridesharing bus service where it uses a series of known and impromptu stops to pick up passengers along unconventional routes for individuals heading to a specific location. For example, imagine ordering a ridesharing service to drive you to a nearby baseball stadium, but as you drive, the service texts you an optional 30-50 percent discount if, along the way, you pick up a second passenger heading to the same location. Using this same concept, you can alternatively order a ridesharing bus to pick you up, where you share the cost of that same trip among five, 10, 20 people or more. Such a service would not only cut costs for the average user, but the personal pickup would also improve customer service.

In light of such services, public transit commissions in major cities could begin seeing severe reductions in rider revenue between 2028-2034 (when ridesharing services are predicted to go fully mainstream). Once this happens, these transit governing bodies will be left with few options.

Most will try to beg for more government funding, but these requests will likely fall on deaf ears from governments facing budget cuts of their own around that time (see our Future of Work series to learn why). And with no additional government funding, the only option left to public transit will be to cut services and cut bus/streetcar routes to stay afloat. Sadly, reducing service will only increase the demand for future ridesharing services, thereby accelerating the downward spiral just outlined.

To survive, public transit commissions will have to pick between two new operating scenarios:

First, the world’s few, ultra-savvy public transit commissions will launch their own driverless, ridesharing bus service, one that’s government subsidized and thus can artificially compete (maybe outcompete) privately funded ridesharing services. While such a service would be a great and needed public service, this scenario will also be quite rare due to the sizeable initial investment needed to purchase a fleet of driverless buses. The price tags involved would be in the billions, making it a tough sell to taxpayers.

The second, and more likely, scenario will be that public transit commissions will sell off their bus fleets completely to private ridesharing services and enter into a regulatory role where they oversee these private services, ensuring they operate fairly and safely for the public good. This sell-off would free up huge financial resources to allow public transit commissions to focus their energy on their respective subway networks.

You see, unlike buses, ridesharing services will never outcompete subways when it comes to quickly and efficiently moving massive numbers of people from one part of the city to another. Subways make less stops, face less extreme weather conditions, are free of random traffic incidents, while also being the far more environmentally-friendly option to cars (even electric cars). And considering how capital intensive and regulated building subways are, and always will be, it’s a form of transit that’s unlikely to ever face private competition.

All this together means that by the 2030s, we’ll see a future where private ridesharing services rule public transit above ground, whereas existing public transit commissions continue to rule and expand public transit below ground. And for most future city dwellers, they will likely use both options during their day-to-day commutes.

Thomas the Train becomes a reality

Talking about subways naturally leads to the topic of trains. Over the next few decades, as is always the case, trains will gradually become faster, sleeker, and more comfortable. Many train networks will also be automated, controlled remotely in some drab, government rail administration building. But while budget and freight trains may lose all its human staff, luxury trains will continue to carry a light team of attendants.

As for growth, investment in rail networks will remain minimal in most developed nations, except for a few new rail lines used for freight shipping. Much of the public in these nations prefer air travel and that trend will likely remain constant into the future. However, in the developing world, especially throughout Asia, Africa, and South America, new, continent-spanning rail lines are being planned that by the late 2020s will greatly increase regional travel and economic integration.

The biggest investor for these rail projects will be China. With over three trillion dollars to invest, it is actively looking for trade partners through its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that it can lend money to in return for hiring Chinese rail-building companies—among the best in the world.

Cruise lines and ferries

Boats and ferries, like trains, will gradually become faster and safer. Some types of boats will become automated—mainly those involved with shipping and the military—but overall, the majority of boats will remain manned and sailed by people, either out of tradition or because the cost of upgrading to autonomous crafts will be uneconomical.

Likewise, cruise ships will also remain largely manned by humans. Due to their continued and growing popularity, cruise ships will grow ever larger and demand a massive crew to manage and serve its guests. While automated sailing may reduce labor costs slightly, unions and the public will likely demand that a captain always be present to guide his ship over the high seas.

Drone planes dominate the commercial skyline

Air travel has become the dominant form of international travel for most of the public over the past half-century. Even domestically, many prefer to fly from one part of their country to the other.

There are more travel destinations than ever. Buying tickets is easier than ever. The cost of flying has remained competitive (this will change when oil prices rise again). There are more amenities. It’s statistically safer to fly today than ever before. For the most part, today should be the golden age of flight.

But for the past few decades, the speed of modern airliners has stagnated for the average consumer. Traveling over the Atlantic or Pacific, or anywhere for that matter, hasn’t become much faster for decades.

There’s no grand conspiracy behind this lack of progress. The reason for the plateauing speed of commercial airliners has to do with physics and gravity more than anything else. A great and simple explanation, written by Wired’s Aatish Bhatia, can be read here. The gist goes as follows:

A plane flies due to a combination of drag and lift. A plane spends fuel energy to push air away from the plane to reduce drag and avoid slowing down. A plane also spends fuel energy pushing air down under its body to create lift and stay afloat.

If you want the plane to go faster, that will create more drag on the plane, forcing you to spend more fuel energy to overcome the extra drag. In fact, if you want the plane to fly twice as fast, you need to push about eight times the amount of air out of the way. But if you try to fly a plane too slowly, then you have to spend more fuel energy to force air below the body to keep it afloat.

That’s why all planes have an optimal flying speed that’s neither too fast or too slow—a goldilocks zone allowing them to fly efficiently without racking up a massive fuel bill. That’s why you can afford to fly halfway around the world. But that’s also why you’ll be forced to endure a 20-hour flight beside screaming babies to do so.

The only way to overcome these limitations is to find new ways to more efficiently lower the amount of drag a plane needs to push through or increase the amount of lift it can generate. Luckily, there are innovations in the pipeline that may finally do just that.

Electric planes. If you read our thoughts on oil from our Future of Energy series, then you’ll know that the price of gas will begin its steady and dangerous ascent at the tail end of the 2010s. And just like what happened in 2008, when oil prices rose to nearly $150 a barrel, airlines will again see the price of gas rise, followed by a crash in the number of tickets sold. To head off bankruptcy, select airlines are investing research dollars into electric and hybrid plane technology.

The Airbus Group has been experimenting with innovative electric aircraft (ex. one and two), and have plans to build a 90-seater in the 2020s. The main roadblock to electric airliners becoming mainstream are batteries, their cost, size, storage capacity, and time to recharge. Luckily, through the efforts of Tesla, and its Chinese counterpart, BYD, the tech and costs behind batteries should improve considerably by the mid-2020s, spurring greater investment into electric and hybrid aircraft. For now, current rates of investment will see such airliners become commercially available between 2028-2034.

Super engines. That said, going electric isn’t the only aviation news in town—there’s also going supersonic. It’s been over a decade since the Concorde made its last flight over the Atlantic; now, US global aerospace leader Lockheed Martin, is working on the N+2, a redesigned supersonic engine designed for commercial airliners that could, (DailyMail) "cut the travel time from New York to Los Angeles by half—from five hours to just 2.5 hours."

Meanwhile, British aerospace firm Reaction Engines Limited is developing an engine system, called SABRE, that may one day fly 300 people anywhere in the world in under four hours.

Autopilot on steroids. Oh yeah, and just like cars, planes will eventually fly themselves as well. In fact, they already do. Most people don’t realize that modern commercial aircraft take off, fly, and land 90 percent of the time on their own. Most pilots rarely touch the stick anymore.

Unlike cars, however, the public’s fear of flight will likely limit the adoption of fully automated commercial airliners until the 2030s. However, once wireless internet and connectivity systems improve to a point where pilots can reliably fly aircraft in real time, from hundreds of miles away (similar to modern military drones), then the adoption of automated flight will become a corporate cost-saving reality for most aircraft.

Flying cars

There was a time when the Quantumrun team dismissed flying cars as an invention stuck in our science fiction future. To our surprise, however, flying cars are much closer to reality than most would believe. Why? Because of the advance of drones.

Drone tech is advancing at an accelerating pace for a wide range of casual, commercial, and military uses. However, these the principles that are now making drones possible don't just work for small hobby drones, they can also work for drones large enough to transport people. On the commercial side, a number of companies (especially those funded by Google's Larry Page) are hard to make commercial flying cars a reality, whereas an Israeli company is making a military version that's straight out of Blade Runner.

The first flying cars (drones) will become make their debut around 2020, but will likely take until 2030 before they become a common sight in our skyline.

The coming 'transportation cloud'

At this point, we’ve learned what self-driving cars are and how they’ll grow into a big-time consumer-oriented business. We also just learned about the future of all the other ways we’ll get around in the future. Next up in our Future of Transportation series, we’ll learn how vehicle automation will dramatically impact how companies across a variety of industries will do business. Hint: It’s going to mean the products and services you buy a decade from now may be a helluva lot cheaper than they are today!

Future of transportation series

A day with you and your self-driving car: Future of Transportation P1

The big business future behind self-driving cars: Future of Transportation P2

The rise of the Transportation Internet: Future of Transportation P4

The job eating, economy boosting, social impact of driverless tech: Future of Transportation P5

Likelihood of happening rating 
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importance rating 
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March 3, 2021. Last updated March 3, 2019.
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