Driverless cars are the future of transportation. Scratch that, the future is flying cars. Or maybe we should just go full steampunk and embrace giant airships. Actually, when you really think about it, who needs to travel anywhere when delivery drones will soon be able to transport any item imaginable to our doorsteps in a matter of hours?
Tech companies have become so enamored with changing the way we travel that they’re now stacking transportation revolutions on top of transportation revolutions. Even as Alphabet is finally introducing its driverless car fleet to actual customers in Phoenix, CEO Larry Page has also quietly invested in a pair of startups that are building flying cars. Amazon is entering the autonomous vehicle game to improve the efficiency of its logistics business, but it’s already been hyping delivery drones for years to fulfill the same purpose. And I wasn’t kidding about that airship: Google cofounder Sergey Brin is apparently building a giant zeppelin in a secret hangar in California.
It’s all enough to make your head do a doughnut. It’s time we parse through the hype to see when (or if) these society-reshaping technologies will ever be available widely to the general public.
Earliest Arrival: 2020
What seemed like a Silicon Valley lark just a few years ago is now one of the least outlandish transportation technologies in development. Uber is allowing normal passengers to ride in small fleets of autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh and Phoenix, while Alphabet-owned Waymo began driving people around in self-driving cars in Phoenix last month. Dozens of other automakers, tech companies, and parts suppliers are racing to prove the viability of self-driving cars, and they’re often greeted by state and local governments with open arms. With so much time and money being poured into self-driving tech, fleets of self-driving cars deployed through a ride-sharing service are expected as soon as 2020, according to research firm IHS. Individually owned driverless vehicles available from car dealerships may come a bit later, between 2023 and 2025. “It’s a spectrum,” says Jeremy Carlson, senior autonomous driving analyst at IHS. “We’re not going from one vehicle today to 100 vehicles tomorrow. You’re going to see a gradual scaling up.”
Earliest Arrival: 2020
Hype about commercial drone flights reached peak insufferability in 2013, when both startups and major corporations tried to trick us into believing we’d soon have tacos, beer, and textbooks delivered to us via tiny unmanned aircraft. Amazon even landed a huge feature on 60 Minutes for Prime Air, a theoretical drone-delivery service that looked more like a marketing ploy than an announcement of an imminent new option for customers.
Finally, we’re seeing more practical drone implementation this year. Prime Air made its first delivery over public grounds in the U.S. in March, and even the goofy taco-by-drone dream may become reality now that Alphabet is using unmanned aircraft to deliver Chipotle to college kids at Virginia Tech. But we’re still nowhere close to widespread drone use thanks to the Federal Aviation Administration, which requires that drone operators keep their aircraft in their line of sight (companies can apply for individual waivers to the rule). The rulemaking process for drones has been slow going, and could be slowed even further by a White House administration that is trying to eliminate regulations rather than adopt new ones. Aviation experts say delivery drones might be implemented at scale by 2020 at the earliest, but this is a sector that’s been notorious for missing deadlines in the past. The future may be on hold for a while yet.
Earliest Arrival: 2021
It’s been nearly four years since Elon Musk first unveiled his design concept for the Hyperloop, a mass transit system that would send people hurtling through low-pressure tubes in pods like those mysterious capsules at a bank drive-through. A pair of American startups are now racing to implement Musk’s ambitious plan, but they face challenges ahead. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies originally said passengers would be able to ride on its tracks by 2018. Now the company has pushed the date back to 2020. Hyperloop One, the competing startup, presented 11 potential transit routes around the U.S. in April, including lines between Miami and Orlando, Boston and Providence, Rhode Island, and Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Houston. Hyperloop One has at least completed a test track in Nevada, and it’s raised considerably more money than Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. Musk’s startup wants to build three of its U.S. tracks by 2021. That’s still a wildly ambitious timetable given challenges in purchasing land, ensuring passenger safety, securing government contracts, and attaining more private investment. But even if American development doesn’t pan out, the startups may be able to turn to foreign markets that are more eager to invest in experimental forms of mass transit.
For now some experts are skeptical that the transit option will ever be implemented broadly, especially if driverless cars make moderate-length trips less of a hassle first. “It would have to be in a place where there’s a lot of demand for traffic over a distance that is maybe too far to conveniently be driven by an autonomous vehicle but maybe not quite far enough for it to justify getting in an airplane,” says Tom Fisher, director of the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota. “It’s not going to be widespread. We’re not going to see massive hyperloops being built around the world.”
Earliest Arrival: 2023
When someone gripes, “We were supposed to have flying cars by now,” they’re really bemoaning the fact that the American thirst for innovation that compelled us to literally shoot for the stars has devolved into serving people targeted online ads while they’re bored at the office. Well, guess what, disaffected youth of Twitter: We’re getting our goddamn flying cars. Kitty Hawk, an aviation startup backed by Alphabet CEO Larry Page, showed off a prototype of its first flying car in April and expects to begin selling the vehicle later this year (though it looks more like a contraption you’d hunt gators in than a Jetsonsesque car). It’s not just Alphabet that’s taking flying cars seriously either: Airbus showed off a flying car concept at an auto show in March, and Toyota has invested a small amount in a Japanese startup that wants to launch a flying car fleet in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. If the technology advances as fast as its proponents hope it will, a regular person could be riding in a flying car as soon as 2023, the year Uber hopes to launch a flying taxi service. But there are plenty of hurdles to clear before that can happen, especially in the U.S. If the FAA is struggling to settle on regulations for small drones, it’s hard to imagine cars blackening the skies anytime soon. “I’m really skeptical that we’ll see large populations of people flying around in low-altitude vehicles,” says Fisher. “The hazard for that — not just for people in the air but for anybody on the ground — would just be too great.”
Earliest Arrival: TBD
In a clear sign that he’s hoping to boost his supervillain bona fides, Google cofounder Sergey Brin is secretly building a massive airship near his company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. The airship project, officially operated by Brin rather than Google or its parent company, Alphabet, is being managed by a former NASA engineer named Alan Weston, according to Bloomberg. Weston has spoken publicly in the past about how a helium-powered airship could move freight at a cheaper cost than airplanes or even trucks. Airship delivery would also simplify logistics systems by allowing products to be delivered directly to their final destinations without being routed through airports or trucking lanes. No word yet on if or when this technology will ever actually be implemented, but it’s not just a Brin-backed moonshot. In December, Amazon was awarded a patent for a blimp warehouse that would float in midair and serve as a home base for delivery drones. Somehow or another, Silicon Valley appears hell-bent on getting a lot more people and things airborne over the next decade.