WIRED Brand Lab in collaboration with TE Connectivity
Image credit: Thomas Porostocky
Orginally published on Wired.com
Enter the age of personal transit. While we may sit back and admire the artful complexity of the London subway map or the go-anywhere efficiency of the US interstate highway system, all we really want when making travel plans is a better way to get home before dinner gets cold, or make it to date night with that special someone on time.
“Ultimately, travel plans are all about efficiency,” says Pete Smith, senior manager of sensor product knowledge and training at TE Connectivity. “People need to move from point A to point B via the quickest means possible.”
As such, researchers are spending a lot of time thinking about so-called “last mile” transportation concerns — a term often used in supply-chain management to describe the final step in which goods (in this case, weary travelers) are delivered to their destinations. These personal transit solutions go beyond the broad strokes of mass transit, which move groups of people over scheduled routes through crowded areas. That’s efficient, in a big-picture sense, but for passengers it also means wasted time waiting for the next scheduled vehicle to arrive, then plodding along as it stops for other passengers along the way and arriving at your destination through an indirect route.
Last-mile solutions often interlock with and complement established steel- and pavement-based mass transit systems, bridging the gap between a transport nexus and the single traveler’s final destination. Now they’re finding a new life in urban settings, where people pour into hubs using shared mass transit before heading off in small vehicles, some of which don’t even require a driver. Examples in the works include a new breed of electric bikes and motorcycles, urban pods, small and lightweight cars, and even electric surfboards that skirt briskly over water (like this one, which looks like a blast).
Mike Marciante, TE Field Application Engineer, discusses how TE's Linear Variable Differential Transformer (LVDT) position sensors are manufactured with precision to withstand some of the harshest environments.
Really personal transit
A variety of short-distance vehicles occupy this new category, parked squarely at the intersection of technology, transportation, and energy. They go by many names: personal transportation devices, personal mobility vehicles, personal rapid transit, even rideables. While the history of this category is checkered—from clunky and costly self-balancing people-movers to the more recent spate of low-cost/low-quality hoverboards—short-distance vehicles are catching on. There are a variety of motivating factors, including increasing population shifts to urban environments as well as the high cost of individual vehicle ownership and maintenance.
In addition, these affordable options could open up opportunities for isolated and low-income urban neighborhoods that face economic and mobility challenges that have limited their residents’ ability to access good jobs, health care, and education.
The ultimate goal, in the words of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, is to “get the greenest, most affordable trip choice in two minutes and easily get anywhere in the city within 20 minutes.”
One of the primary driving factors: sensors. “Sensors are going to play a key role in all of this,” says TE Connectivity’s Smith. Most of these new short-distance rides, he says, will integrate a variety of sensor and connectivity components that result in safe, efficient, and useful personal transportation. “The good news is that sensors are everywhere, and that’s going to continue. People are going to coat their products with sensors because they’re trying to make them smart.”
And they will go one step further, adds Petrina Zaraszczak, director of global sensors accounts at TE Connectivity. “We’re going to see a lot of multifunction sensors that have a very small footprint and will collect a whole range of measurements while consuming very little power.” Driven by lithium-ion battery technology and newfound connectivity and sensor systems, these single-occupant solutions will change how we travel short distances.
So many options. People may still want to use cars to enjoy long drives or to reach places outside the public transport network, but experts believe that within the next two decades millions of these smaller personal vehicles will be the main transit in major cities worldwide. Some of the most innovative include the following:
- Short-range mini vehicles. Companies like Electra Meccanica and Organic Transit produce plump little urban cars that come in electric, solar, and pedal-powered models. Their unconventional looks resemble large runaway jelly beans, but you can swallow your pride for short trips.
- Electric bikes. “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bikeride,” John Kennedy once said. Electric bikes from Elby and FlyKly provide a high-tech update to JFK’s truism while offering a simple and inexpensive way to connect your dots while traveling.
Motorized skateboards. Every kid has dreamed of coming up with a flying hoverboard. Products like Hovertrax, OneWheel, and ZBoard still can’t match the magnetic levitation of the soaring planks seen in movies, but they’re still a portable way to whoosh past sidewalk shufflers.
- Personal Rapid Transit (PRT). These futuristic transportation systems represent a new category of driverless, automated public transportation that operates on a network of specially built elevated guideways. METRINO, for instance, will ferry passengers throughout the city in high tech pods. Like a taxi, each pod can ferry up to five passengers between any of the small stops spread across town. They’re now being planned for use in Dubai, New Delhi and several other cities.
- Electric motorcycles. Get your motor running. Head out on the highway. Another intriguing option is a high tech variant on the motorcycle. The STORM Wave, for instance, has been developed by a team of Dutch students with the goal of improving the image of sustainable transport around the world. A special battery pack, along with high-endurance connectors and relays from TE Connectivity, enables the motorcycle to have a range of 380 kilometers on a single charge.
The Wild West awaits
Ultimately, the future of personal transport’s greatest challenge may be less about the technology and more about people, community, and culture. Technology enables change, but values shape technology. While designers dream big, they are also gambling on massive behavioral experiments. Specifically, how do you get people to change their driving habits?
The plan to try to lure people from their own individual cars to shared, clean-running electric vehicles may look great on paper, but we have a love affair with our autos that might be hard to break. “That’s the big question: Are we ready for this?” notes TE’s Smith. “My guess is not yet, but we’re heading there. And it’s going to be the Wild West for a few years as technology providers gauge customer demand and work to build solutions to address that.”