The last decade has resounded with failed predictions about the future of transportation. Between hyperloops, underground tunnels, self-driving cars, electric cars, electric scooters, and other visions for the future of mobility, we have seen billions spent for, essentially, no gain. Some new ideas have worked but the new technologies have not fundamentally changed the way that America travels.
I can’t speak for other locations, but the Great E-Scooter Revolution of 2019 has both come and gone in the city in which I live. Last year you could see multiple scooters from three different brands on each corner. Today, you might find one on every other corner, and no riders. While a few cities might need these vehicles, on the whole, they wound up being a solution in search of a problem.
What about traffic congestion on city streets? Most of the people trying to solve the problem seem like the carriage industry in the 1800s trying to solve the problem of too much horse manure on the streets (see 1895 photo below of horse-drawn streetcars in New York City, 1895). That problem was actually going to solve itself when the nature of transportation changed dramatically.
Which technology would impact transportation the way the motor vehicle did? Consider online video meetings. I think the long-term impact of online video meetings on transportation has been radically underappreciated. Some elements of in-person meetings are hard to replace but the technology behind online video chats has expanded to such an extent that 80–90% of communication can take place as easily (or sometimes more easily) in an online video chat as an in-person meeting.
As online meetings become routine, so will the idea of remote working, including working from home. In the future, fewer and fewer jobs will require you to go anywhere at all. For many computer programmers, this is a present reality. In the future, lawyers, accountants, architects, life insurance brokers, and upper management of almost any company will be able to do their jobs quite well without leaving the house.
The change will probably impact commercial real estate. As offices depopulate, the need for square footage will certainly decrease. Where I work, our office has seen a decrease in usage even though the number of employees increased. Those of us who show up at work usually do so to circumvent non-work-related interruptions, not because we need to be in that specific location to get anything done.
Transportation is not going away and neither are changes in transportation. What is going away, however, is transportation as a major problem that needs to be solved. The future will see a decreased need for transportation across the spectrum, so the way it happens will matter less and less.
Even for jobs that require transportation, new technology will continue to hone transportation supply chains. Let’s take shopping online as an example. If you go out shopping, you might visit three different stores, driving there and back. If ten families on your street have similar needs, that’s ten times the trips. However, if you all shop online, the same amount of comparison shopping can be done without going anywhere. A delivery truck could, in theory, make one trip to your whole street. Because the goods are dispatched from warehouses, the truck skips the trip to the retail store.
In short, the future of transportation is, quite literally, not going anywhere. At least, not going anywhere that you don’t particularly want to go, except that you need to do or buy something. I imagine that the future means more walks to the neighborhood park and less driving through crowded streets.
Hopefully, the technology that helps us connect in a virtual way to people in the most remote parts of the planet will also enable us to stay home long enough to, once again, find our next door neighbors.
More from Jonathan Bartlett on transportation (when you do need to go somewhere):
New federal regulations favor a shift to 5G cars. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is abandoning the older DSRC protocol for cellular vehicle-to-everything (CV2X)
New tech to warn drivers and cars of cyclists ahead Most people I have talked to know (or knew) people who were struck by motor vehicles, either as cyclists or pedestrians.
Elon Musk walks back full self-driving claims. His Q3 earnings call with investors was a stark contrast to earlier claims about a robotaxi fleet