Could flying cars & pod travel through tubes eliminate urban congestion?

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Will highways become obsolete? New modes of transport could replace need for traditional cars

By Terri Hall
September 21, 2017

You’d think it’s counterproductive for Elon Musk to support something that could eliminate the need for his own Tesla self-driving cars, but innovators tend to be on the cutting edge of new technologies and Hyperloop is certainly one to watch. Hyperloop is a new form of transportation that propels a pod (whether people or cargo) through a tube across an elevated track using magnetic levitation technology. The company claims it could take a passenger from Houston to Dallas in under 30 minutes — at airline speeds of 620 MPH without turbulence or drag — at a fraction of the cost. At least that’s how it’s being promoted.

That beats high speed rail systems, including the one being planned by Japan-based Texas Central Railway, whose speeds top out at 205 MPH. The advantage of a Hyperloop type of system over the traditional high speed rail is it would not require the massive taking of rural land, eliminating the eminent domain for private gain problem, since it’s elevated and could potentially be built within existing highway real estate. Nor would a Hyperloop create the noise problems of high speed trains because it’s inside a tube without air drag.

Hyperloop just announced the ten teams and winning routes it chose from a field of hundreds of applicants to move forward with prototypes and feasibility studies, with one route being between Houston and Dallas. The company conducted its first successful test in July 2017, and it will continue to test the technology for longer distances and at greater and greater speeds. It plans to have a system fully operational by 2020. The company has already raised $160 million for the task.

While Hyperloop technology could transform the future of transportation, it still has many of the challenges of traditional high speed rail. How do you get passengers from the outskirts of urban centers to their final destinations inside city centers? So far, Uber and rideshare companies have solved the door-to-door problem just fine without the fancy-dancy, hi-tech Hyperloop track. But to some extent, ridesharing contributes to the road congestion. Hyperloop would bypass it.

The Colorado Department of Transportation has already entered into an agreement with AECOM to explore the Hyperloop’s feasibility to help address the state’s mobility issues. The open question remains, who’s going to pay for such a system? Will it be entirely private funding? Aren’t the Colorado taxpayers footing at least part of the bill by entering into a public private partnership (P3), a controversial contracting method often considered corporate welfare?

Ready for the Jetsons?
This week in Dallas, Uber announced its plans to use Dallas as its test market for a new flying car. Your read that right. It’s called Uber Elevate and it would create a fleet of cars that can do vertical take off and landing or VTOLs. One of the reasons the company chose Dallas as its testing ground is its high concentration of aviators, with Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and Bell Helicopter based there.

Jeff Holden, Uber’s Chief Product Officer says it expects to begin testing as early as 2020. While many skeptics quickly emerged with the obvious concerns about commuters encountering the same potential for congestion while in the air along with safety concerns for those who have no experience in flying, the meteoric rise of drone users demonstrates the capacity for such new flying technologies to find a niche, if not a mass market in the future.

Out with the Old, In with the New
With the White House and state highway departments scurrying to enter into long-term P3 contracts for toll roads, it’s seems so yesterday when taking the vast possibilities of new technology and travel innovations into consideration. Just a few years ago, driverless cars were all the rage and many thought that would take driving into the 21st century — and it will, with the potential to use platooning vehicles and driver-to-driver communications to eliminate much of today’s urban congestion. While new technologies like the Hyperloop and flying cars seemed like outlandish futuristic pipe dreams even a decade ago, real companies and real investors are putting up serious cash to make the unthinkable a reality to help solve the endless scourge of road congestion.

So note to policy makers. Before you rush into 50-99 year sweetheart deals with private, mostly foreign toll operators using today’s limited old school data and thinking, buyer beware. Technology’s rapidly changing landscape will transform the way we travel in the next decade, much less the next half century. Sure as the sun rises, private innovators like Elon Musk will ensure outmoded travel will be obsolete in the near term. So toll roads and the long arm of government attempting to manage our morning commute through toll ‘managed’ lanes won’t be necessary. Bureaucrats need not apply.

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