Planes, Trains And Flying Automobiles
Gemma Milneon 25 October, 2016 at 10:10
The future of travel is a hot topic right now. With Elon Musk’s Hyperloop fuelling conversation around super-fast trains, Tesla’s electric cars, and SpaceX leading the commercialisation of space, the race is on to disrupt the way we get from A to B.
At the Hello Tomorrow Summit in Paris, deep tech and science entrepreneurs gathered to discuss how to build the future. The conference not only showcased some of the most forward-thinking movers and shakers, but also tackled head-on some of the key issues that arise when we attempt to disrupt the status quo.
One of the big questions posed at Hello Tomorrow was how to power our world using renewable sources of energy. When it comes to planes, this means making flying possible without the use of kerosene. Stéphane Cueille, Senior Executive Vice President of Research, Technology & Innovation at Safran, spoke about how they are working to reduce CO2 emissions from aircraft. Hydrogen fuel cells are often the go-to solution posed by those intent on reducing fuel consumption (which, by the way, accounts for a third of airline costs, and is the chosen research area for Easyjet). With hydrogen in abundance, it makes sense to try and utilise it wherever possible, but Cueille was hesitant to call it a game-changer due to the implementation costs of such a new fuel system.
He also spoke about the recent hype in solar-powered planes; after Solar Impulse 2 took to the skies to complete a round-the-globe flight in July, pressure has continued to mount on commercial airlines to innovate. But when thinking about carrying people and cargo, the weight of a Boeing 737 is vast in comparison to solar-powered aircraft, so unless you increase the number of solar panels on the plane (making its wingspan a similar length to a runway!), we still have a way to go when it comes to replacing the kerosene we rely on for flight.
Cueille stressed that Safran is looking to the startup world to seek out ways to advance their low emissions programmes, saying: “To go where we need to go, we need new stuff.” It seems Safran aren’t looking to the usual suspects when it comes to disrupting their systems – Cueille spoke about Safran’s interest in changing the way we travel by air altogether, rather than simply the way we fuel them.
Elsewhere at the conference, Skytran showcased their elevated levitating trains, in a bid to convince the audience that the future of city transit lies in their technology. There is a lot of interest in self-driving cars, but the problem of congestion still exists even when you employ the right data analysts to manage traffic flow – there are simply too many vehicles on the road, all going to different destinations. Former CEO of Skytran, Jerry Saunders, spoke about the issues of moving this congestion elsewhere, noting that the last underground line in New York to be built took 10 years and cost $2bn per mile. Skytran have instead proposed a system whereby personal rapid transit pods are elevated above the roads on raised lines, powered along at high speed using maglev technology.
Image courtesy of: www.skytran.com
They’ve come up with a neat system which allows for reduced congestion due to multiple-level lines; pods can exit at junctions or stops without slowing the main flow. This issue around passenger stops is problematic no matter how fast you build your transportation: what’s the use in creating a super fast train like the Hyperloop if it has to stop every 10 minutes to let people on and off? Maglev technology is nothing new, but with Skytran starting with the issue of congestion as opposed to speed, it shows that sometimes it’s not new science we need, but new execution.
Uber were not one to shy away from the conversation around congestion, with their Head of Operations in EMEA Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty talking out their recent research which found that 1 in 10 Millennials who use Uber in the US haven’t ever bought a car, or have recently sold one. As the ‘sharing economy’ of cars grows, with people opting for convenience over ownership, the stress put on cities will begin to lessen. Erik Coelingh, Senior Tech Lead at Volvo, built on the autonomous cars case, envisioning a future where space in cities expands through the reduced need for parking and road signs.
But Hello Tomorrow didn’t stop at levitating trains, autonomous cars, and planes flying without kerosene – the hunger for innovation in the travel sector couldn’t have been more obvious when the winner of the Startup Challenge (with a cash prize of €100,000) was announced. Lilium Aviation is the world’s first electrical vertical take-off and landing jet. Or, in other words, a flying car.
The conversation around the future of travel is a complex one – with issues ranging from renewable energy and robust technology, to questions surrounding ownership and regulation; how do you decide what height to drive at when there are elevated rails for transit pods, and thousands of autonomous flying cars also occupying the air above the road?
By starting with the key problems that lie at the heart of getting from A to B — how long it takes, how busy it is, and how much it is damaging our planet — it seems that brand new solutions, as opposed to building incrementally on existing infrastructure, will really disrupt how we get about.