Archive for May, 2015

Silicon Valley transportation technology for the rest of the world

Sunday, May 31st, 2015

Silicon Valley is trendy, has lots of mindshare and lots more of press-share. Unfortunately, its ideas are sometimes best suited for Silicon Valley and not much else, and this is frequently the case with transportation technologies as the Valley’s built form is very different from most of the world. But some of the technology can be useful with a bit of refocusing. In particular:

Better batteries

An American on HN told me in 2013 that Silicon Valley companies are the primary force working to electrify world transport. They must not have heard of that “train” thing; but at the same time it would be nice to have easier, cheaper, more complete-lifecycle-environmentally-friendly road vehicles. Some things will continue to run on roads for a while and we might as well try to improve those.

This is primarily my carbon guilt speaking, but I’m thinking of places like Iceland in particular. It seems ideally suited: there is lots of renewable electricity to charge the cars, most of long distance trips are within a 400 km range, and most users would be able to charge overnight – whether at houses, at assigned parking lots, or in case of truckers and tourists (hence my carbon guilt) at hotels/hostels/destinations.

Apparently there’s been lots of deployment in Norway, but Norway is a rich country even by Western European standards – it would be good to have this more widely.

Beyond rides for tourists, there’s lots of room to improve electric and hybrid delivery vehicles and buses where conversion to trolleybuses or streetcars is not feasible. Central London is choking in diesel and could really use better buses and taxis. Batteries will also help off-grid applications and help smooth out grid electricity usage peaks.

A lot was made of the California-built Tesla cars initially, but it looks like in the long run their battery technology will have more impact. Still, whoever does the best batteries, many will benefit.

Last mile

It seems pretty clear that trunk services are better off operated with trunk transit, and plans to combine last-mile with trunk (such as individual pods joining up into a train) are largely in sci-fi gadgetbahn stage and might never be practical due to size/mass-per-passenger inefficiency.

Of course the correct solution for last-mile woes is walkable communities where a transit stop with good service is within an easy walk, but redeveloping areas not built like this will take a long time, and smaller improvements can be made in a shorter timeframe.

Self-driving cars don’t solve inefficiencies along trunk routes and they are poorly suited for dense downtowns/city centres. On the former, with much closer vehicle spacing we might get 16-lane freeways down to six lanes, but it will still compare poorly with passenger throughput of a two-lane transitway. In the latter, a certain level of assertiveness is needed to balance avoiding obstacles with, well, getting anywhere: imagine pedestrians if they know a car will stop.

But sprawling, low-density suburbs should be well-suited for self-driving operations. It will be particularly useful if demand road pricing is allowed. It will turn out that it is, say, 2-3 times cheaper to accept a ride to a transit terminal and transfer onto a mass transport vehicle than to stay in the self-driving car all the way to the destination. If working in a lower density area, there would be a second transfer at another terminal close to the destination. This will work regardless of how the vehicles are powered, too, due to pricing of space. (Just consider how many houses could be built on the area of a medium-size freeway junction.)

Flexible transit

Suburbs, exurbs, and smaller towns are currently served by a mix of infrequent scheduled transit and paratransit. Demand dispatch technology could help reduce waits and increase usage. Rather than concentrating on cities where you are competing with classic bus service, it would be good to look after the long tail and allow some degree of car independence in smaller towns. A Lyft Line-like service that, with a living wage and reasonable job security for the drivers, could improve upon traditional infrequent bus service in lower density areas.

As an example, Grand River Transit is starting transit service in Wilmot township outside Kitchener – having it flexibly scheduled and with shorter waits for users as a result would be nice. Knowing that you won’t have to compete with big names like Uber anytime soon can only be a bonus.

This probably won’t get billions in VC money, but will be good.