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The Future of Mobility: Autonomous Cars, Hyperloops, and Drones

November 27, 2017

Earlier this month, Tony, Bill, RJ and I had the pleasure of attending Geography 2050, the American Geographical Society Annual Fall Symposium, at the beautiful Columbia University in New York City.

Geography 2050 is a multi-year strategic dialog that asks the question: “What will the geography of the world look like in 2050?” The event, now in its fourth year, is attended by hundreds of scholars, teachers, geographers, technologists, and forward-thinkers from various industries.

This year’s symposium, themed “The Future of Mobility,” explored the impact that innovations in mobility and transportation will have on the local, regional, and global landscape in the years ahead. Considering that, back in the 1800s, the railroad turned what had been a six-week trek into a one-day trip, today’s technology has the potential to reshape our lives in ways we can barely even begin to imagine.

“What’s happening in mobility is mind-blowing, game-changing, and awesome,” said AGS CEO Dr. John Konarski as he welcomed the symposium attendees. “But what makes it so incredible is the speed at which all this is happening.”

RJ and Bill at Geography 2050

RJ and Bill at the kickoff of Geography 2050 at Columbia University in New York

Over the two-day event, all modes of transportation were discussed — bikes, cars, trucks, trains, boats, planes, and hyperloops — but the three words that can best summarize the event are electric, autonomous, and shared.

Here are some of the highlights:

In the opening session, James Arbib from think tank RethinkX offered a compelling case for the end of personal car ownership. He posited that in 10 years, Transportation as a Service (TaaS) will be the norm, with electric, autonomous vehicles (AV) handling 95% of passenger miles.

Some interesting facts to consider:

  • Our cars spend 96% of their lifespan parked (!)
  • 1.2 million people die of auto-related deaths annually
  • 95% of accidents are caused by human error
  • 3 million premature deaths per year are tied to auto-related air pollution
  • Electric vehicles last longer than gasoline-powered cars, and have fewer moving parts
  • It costs far less to use TaaS than to own a car

“We love our cars, but we love our money too,” Arbib said in conclusion, garnering a hearty laugh from the audience.

In the second session, Linda Bailey, Executive Director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials presented “Envisioning Great Cities with AV Technologies.”

“We want city streets to be great places — not just for cars,” she said, and asked the audience to consider how difficult it is for people in wheelchairs to get around in the city. She shared a vision of future streets where vehicular traffic utilizes only a fraction of the thoroughfare and the rest is dedicated to sidewalk space, cycling lanes, and concessions.

Carlosfelipe Pardo, Executive Director of Despacio.org, a Colombian nonprofit dedicated to promoting sustainable cities and improving quality of life, took a break from the “technology talk” and made the case for walking and biking.

We need technology to help us improve safety and share information, he said, “But machines won’t solve everything.”

To illustrate his point, he shared this still from the animated film Wall-E:

Wall-E lazy humans

Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

The first day concluded with a series of Ignite Talks — 5 minute presentations where each speaker gets 20 slides (that automatically advance every 15 seconds) to make their case.

Mapillary’s Vice President of Business Development Janine Yoong delivered one of our favorite talks, “Crowdsourcing, Computer Vision, and the Future of Mobility.” Expect to hear more about Mapillary in the near future!

To kick off the second day of the symposium, the conversation shifted from the ground to the air with “Mapping and Managing the Skies Above,” a session about innovations in air mobility, with a heavy focus on the capabilities of unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

For example, drones are already being used to inspect railroad infrastructure from 400 feet in the air, explained Todd Graetz, Director of Technology Services at BNSF Railway. Then, Padina Group Senior Partner John Walker reminded the crowd of the human element to UAS technology — for example, bringing medical supplies to the billions of people around the world living without sanitation infrastructure.

Geographer of the United States Dr. Lee Schwartz introduced the keynote speaker, global strategist and author Dr. Parag Khanna, whose presentation was titled “Connectography and Our Future World’s Regions.”

Keynote Speaker Parag Khanna

Geography 2050 Keynote Speaker Dr. Parag Khanna talks about connectivity

Dr. Khanna began his speech by challenging our assumption that it’s natural to divide ourselves by political boundaries, which we do, he said, because political maps are the first ones we see as children.

“We think we’re inherently tribal people,” he said, “but how do you reconcile that with our urge to connect?”

He suggested that rather than 200+ countries, the world really comprises 50 mega-cities, that the more connected we are across the globe, the better, and that global mobility should be a human right.

The following session, moderated by Symposium Chair Dean Wise, focused on intercontinental and intercity transport of both freight and people.

Shailen Bhatt of the Colorado Department of Transportation discussed the benefits of autonomous trucks, which would include speed, fleet optimization, fuel consumption, and safety.

Bruce Upbin from Virgin Hyperloop One explained the mechanics of a hyperloop and the possibilities it opens up. For example, workers could commute from Chicago to St. Louis in 20 minutes in a magnetically levitating train inside of a vacuum chamber!

This year’s Geography 2050 event offered a fascinating glimpse into the future of mobility — and mankind. It’s thrilling to think about what our streets — and our world — will look like in the decades to come.

Year after year, we are proud to be sponsors for Geography 2050. We’re already looking forward to the next AGS Fall Symposium, Powering our Future Planet.

See you next year!