Going back 50 years, the ways books, movies, and TV shows depicted life in the 2020s weren’t always that far off. Popular predictions included manned missions to Mars, robots playing baseball, and humans living underwater in sea labs. Then again, there were some who imagined dragons would have overrun Earth by now.
These days we see news about the future of transportation and we think they’re talking about things in the far distance – robo-busses and flying cars. Amazingly, those technologies are already past the R&D stages and into testing and deployment.
So which mobility topics will dominate the news in 2021? Keep reading to see our top picks.
It’s evident that governments and automakers are embracing electric vehicles and that by 2035 electric will be a dominant vehicle power source. Some fleets will postpone adopting this change, but these days it’s not just legislation that is persuading corporations and organizations to act sooner. More and more, the elimination of carbon emissions is being expected as “doing the right thing.”
The Deloitte article Electric vehicles — Setting a course for 2030 says, “In the past year, purpose has continued rising to the top of the corporate agenda, with an increasing number of companies seeking to differentiate themselves by acting as a force for positive change.”
Right now it’s not necessarily public opinion driving this, rather corporations and organizations exerting pressure on their peers. They’re looking at not only their own business models but also those of their supply chain. For some, it’s no longer enough to say “we’re green.” They want to say, “We’re green, and we only work with others who are green too.”
This also applies to companies seeking investors. This past January, BlackRock’s Larry Fink said in his annual letter to CEOs that environmental factors pose investment risk. His company’s evaluation criteria now include a business’ strategy to become part of a net-zero economy.
Therefore, to be relevant in supply chains and to appeal to investors, companies are supporting the overall cultural shift to electric vehicles. The good news is that as EVs become more readily available, incorporating them into fleets will get even easier. Several of the top OEMs are poised to introduce electric versions of their most popular commercial vans and LD trucks, and innovators such as Lordstown Motors are working to introduce vehicles specifically designed for vocational fleets.
Deployment is in high gear for autonomously transporting both people and packages. Currently 40 states have legislation or executive orders allowing for some form of AV adoption. In fact, you could pass a truck on the road today that is delivering groceries to local customers all on its own.
This next section focuses on uses for delivering goods. See “Purpose-built Vehicles” below for more on AV people-movers.
Autonomous trucking and deliveries fall into three categories. Here’s a look at each along with examples of where and how these technologies are in play today.
1. Long-haul trucking – Millions of highway miles have already been driven moving freight from depot to depot. For now, each truck still has a human present but starting later this year, those “drivers” may be obsolete.
- TuSimple is the autonomous leader at this level. Their 40 rigs have been executing runs across Phoenix, Tucson, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, and San Antonio since 2018.
- Also in this field are Aurora, Embark, Locomation, Plus.ai, and Waymo.
2. Middle mile – This mode takes goods from warehouses to stores, micro-fulfillment centers, or other distribution points. The main characteristic here is these are fixed, repeatable routes.
- Gatik’s self-driving vans started delivering from Walmart’s main warehouse to its stores in 2019. After completing 70,000 miles with no issues, they plan to rollout a pilot program this year for a two-mile route in Arkansas using larger box trucks with no safety driver onboard. This test will be followed by a pilot on a 20-mile route in Louisiana.
- Walmart is also conducting pilots with Cruise in Arizona and Nuro in Texas. Other partners include Udelv, Waymo, and Ford.
3. Last mile – Here, goods are delivered to a final destination.
- Last February, Nuro was the first company allowed to operate its self-driving local grocery delivery vehicles on public roads in California, Texas and Arizona without a human present.
These on-demand, autonomous electric vehicles will be put into action for the purpose of ride-sharing. Concepts for these vehicles have imagined them with swiveling seats, adjustable lighting, foldable tables, pivoting screens, and accessible temperature control so that paying passengers will experience a fully productive, social, or relaxing ride.
- Waymo became the first driverless ride-hailing service, premiering in Phoenix last year and will be rolling out this year in San Francisco.
- Amazon’s Zoox is a four passenger model with face-to-face seating and bi-directional driving ability. It has passed major crash tests but has not yet been approved for public use. It is currently being tested on private roads in Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Foster City.
It’s old-school thinking that curbside parking meters are big revenue generators. Many business owners mistakenly believe their customers need access to nearby parking. For example, the National Association of City Transportation Officials found that merchants in Los Angeles assumed a third of their customers drove themselves. Actually, only 7 percent drove and nearly half arrived by transit.
This is 2021, so single-occupancy vehicles are competing for curb space with ride-hailing drop-off and pick-ups, plus e-commerce food and shopping deliveries. Also in the mobility equation, pedestrian and transit traffic now includes e-bikes and scooters.
Given all these modern-day complexities, curb management strategies include:
- Varying charges for use of curb space based on demand.
- Regulating deliveries to off-peak hours, moving delivery zones to less trafficked areas, or charging higher rates for peak-time deliveries.
- Enforcing penalties for double parking using license plate readers and data tracking.
- Adding more ramps for people with disabilities, passengers with carts, bicyclists, and of course, sidewalk delivery robots.
Here are a few leaders in curb management:
- CurbFlow is helping Columbus, Ohio and Washington, DC reduce double parking in loading zones and promoting smoother delivery procedures.
- Coord and partner Sidewalk Labs have helped four cities pilot “smart zones.”
Urban air mobility
Need a shuttle to the city airport from your suburban home? How do you feel about getting in an eVTOL aircraft (Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing machines) – that you’ve requested through your smartphone?
Urban air mobility is everything mentioned above but with autonomous helicopters. With road congestion expected to keep growing – even as ridesharing takes off, mobility specialists are seeing air as the next great transportation route for people and goods.
The FAA is on board. They’re working with mobility planners and aircraft companies to plan how cargo drones and air taxis will utilize existing helicopter infrastructure (routes, helipads, and air traffic control services).
- Archer, EHang, and Joby Aviation are among the companies who are in the testing phases with their automated aircraft.
- Terrafugia’s Transition® is basically a flying car. The FAA has granted the company approval for it to fly. The next step is gaining approval from the NHTSA for it to be street legal to drive.
We don’t know! That’s what makes this all so exciting! So many of these developments are things we dreamed of as kids, and now here they are. It’s almost like the future is driving itself…
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