The “Transportation Cloud” is Coming

The “Transportation Cloud” is Coming

Many are familiar with “the cloud” – that imaginary place up there in Internet “heaven” where companies and people can access file storage, computing power, movies or music instantaneously – on demand – whenever they need it. The computer cloud has disrupted conventional computing:

  • Companies no longer need commit to buying dedicated servers that they may only fully utilize a few times a year.
  • People no longer need to buy bigger disk drives to store their email – we have services like Gmail that seem to offer endless storage for mails we never seem to get around to deleting.
  • We no longer buy movies or music, instead we subscribe to on-demand services capable of instantly gratifying us like Netflix and Spotify

The Internet cloud, while seemingly imaginary and ethereal has transformed the computer industry – and the number are staggering:

  • Research firm IDC estimates that businesses spent over $100 billion on cloud computing in 2014 (Source: The Economist)
  • Amazon’s cloud services report year on year growth of 90%
  • Netflix is estimated to use 34.9% of all downstream Internet traffic during peak periods on North American Broadband networks, closely followed by YouTube with 14% (Source: Variety, Nov 2014)

Just as “the cloud” has disrupted and revolutionized business computing, communications and media consumption – so the coming “transportation cloud” will have similar radical impacts on the world around us.

What is the Transportation Cloud?

The Transportation CloudThe short version: think Uber, add car-pooling then throw in Google self-driving cars.

The longer version – imagine next time you need to leave your house to go shopping, go to work, get to the airport you’ll click on a mobile app. Your location and intended destination will be transmitted to a central service and a self-driving car, that may already have passengers traveling along a similar route, will be sent to collect you.

While today average car occupancy for commutes is 1.13 this number could dramatically be increased, reducing congestion and increasing road capacity.

Just as many now scoff at those who waste money and storage space on a CD or DVD collection – in 15 years time many will hold car owners in similar disregard. Of course there will be many who will insist on owning cars – perhaps for collecting or driving for pleasure at weekends – just like there are still die-hard vinyl record and DVD collectors.

There may be economy and premium car services. Executives may use an app to summon a personal  Mercedes or Tesla, while the rest of us bundle into the latest Toyota Prius with some fellow travelers going the same direction.

How Far Away is All This? 

The scary part is the technology is already here!

In December Uber launched Uber Pool. Claiming to already undercut taxis by 40%, Uber Pool suggests that by sharing an Uber with other passengers you can cut the fare by another 50%. Uber has clearly already developed the routing software necessary for directing cars to pick up passengers with common routings.

A great additional step would be to incorporate Google Waze traffic routing technology – Waze as many may already know crowd-sources insight into road congestion and directs users to the quickest route, bypassing congestion in real time.

The Self Driving Car is Already Here

Google Self Driving Lexus SUVSince mid 2012 a Google X software engineer, Anthony Levandowski has been commuting from Berkeley to Mountain View in a self-driving Lexus, taking highway 880 at speeds exceeding 70mph. Google X is the company’s top secret lab for experimental technology.

At this year’s CES Audi and Mercedes unveiled self-driving cars. Mercedes’ offering actually drove itself to Las Vegas:

Mercedes F 015 Drives Itself To CES Las Vegas Mercedes Self Driving Car Commercial CARJAM TV 4K 2015

While the technology may be here already legislation still has to catch up, but there’s now sufficient market pressure that the dam will surely burst soon.

Nevada opened up its’ roads to autonomous vehicles as far back as June 2011. California issued 25 DMV permits to self driving cars in 2014. Other states have been watching to see how this plays out. The most significant issue is who pays the bill if a self-driving car gets into an accident. The big picture is that self-driving cars are sure to have accidents, but on average they will be more safely driven and will be in fewer accidents, so allowing them is for the greater good. However car and software manufacturers are not going to sign up for major liability without a fight.

Suburbia is Our Enemy: The Planners Mindset

Conventional wisdom, conceived before the advent of the “transportation cloud” is that we must adhere to the ideology of “transit oriented development” conceived by UC Berkeley Professor, Robert Cervero where new development should be high density and focused around transit corridors.  This is woven deeply into the fabric of planning – it appears in many cities’ general plans.

The thinking goes that by marshaling new development to locations where it is easiest to provide public transit – major arterials – that people will be more likely to use public transit.

Reversing The Sin of Suburbia

Suburbia presents a fascinating quandary for planners. Some feel it is a mistake that should never have happened. Spread out with low population densities, suburbs are poorly suited to transit. Planners would sooner reverse trends and have the population conveniently move to a more urban configuration.

In order to be cost-effective with significant ridership transit generally needs to serve denser, more urban populations. The Sonoma Marin “SMART” train was proposed first and foremost to voters as a means “to relieve traffic” (Source: Measure Q).

In reality the “SMART” train was really about enabling development – and once that development occurred the train would become justified. This is outlined in the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Transit Oriented Development Policy – Resolution 3434. This directed significant high-density growth within ½ mile of train stations the length of the line. To qualify for funding cities along the line had to plan for at least 2,200 housing units adjacent to each train station. This is of course back to front. It overlooks that many, likely most, of the new residents will drive adding to instead of relieving already acute traffic congestion.

With the transportation cloud cars will retain their crown as the most popular and common mode of transit outside of cities. Imposing needless, expensive rail projects will prove even more unnecessary.

What Does this Mean for Future Planning?

The General Motors Autonomous Car, 1962

General Motors’ Firebird III on display at the Century 21 Exposition, Seattle, 1962.

Self-driving cars in “the transportation cloud” are much better suited to spread out suburban environments.  With a capacity of 5 instead of a bus seating 50 or a train seating over 200, self driving cars in the transportation cloud can be much more efficient, traveling nearer full capacity. Cars already emit far less CO2 per passenger mile than transit – in suburban environments. But with the transportation cloud car occupancy can be increased further lowering car emissions.

New transit projects in suburbs will be rendered needless, and those recently launched will be recognized as being short-sighted.

The End of Traffic Congestion?

The Future of TransportationPerhaps the greatest benefit has to be traffic congestion – the transportation cloud means:

  • With higher average occupancies fewer cars are needed to transport the population
  • Congestion caused by overtaking and unnecessary acceleration and deceleration can be minimized
  • Self driving cars can chain together closer than conventional cars, communicating wirelessly when they are accelerating or breaking, so the capacity of a freeway lane can be significantly increased. They become a convoy that acts as a single unit.

With diminished traffic congestion, existing suburban and conurbations will be able to support higher populations – but the populations need not be driven by “transit oriented development” adjacent to arterial roads and rail networks. Instead they can be distributed – still within the suburban footprint, without sprawling. The pressure to build up around “transit corridors” will be diminished and towns will be able to preserve a more low-rise character.

Provided population growth isn’t radically accelerated surpassing the additional capacity, such as by ambitious long range plans like Plan Bay Area, feasible commute ranges should increase. More people should be able to commute longer distances relieving the pressure on cities and more proximate city suburbs.  People who settled for living in a small house in Mill Valley due to long commutes will instead find it practical to move to a larger, more comfortable house in Petaluma. Silicon Valley workers will be able to commute from much greater distances.

If we drive longer distances – such as driving from Marin to Los Angeles, the local traffic will be diminished, but the Interstate traffic between cities may remain at similar levels.

What Does this Mean for Transit?

Transit will remain – we will still depend on transit in cities just as we will use planes for longer journeys. Transit may also work in conjunction with the transportation crowd. Now you can be dropped off at the station or bus that takes you into the city, instead of having to park your car at the transit hub.

Car Ownership

While car ownership is likely to slowly diminish over time there are good reasons it won’t go to zero. Cars are just too great a part of America’s 20th and now 21st century DNA. While a more progressive crowd may fully embrace the transportation cloud and go car-less, many, especially the older generation will cling to their 4 wheeled dreams.

For some journeys we may still want privacy, or to be able to travel together just with family members. We can either select an option when we summon a transportation cloud vehicle not to share it, or continue to own a car that we may not commute with, but use for weekend trips or family vacations.

Car companies that spend billions on advertising won’t go down without a fight. The characteristics of private cars may change. The need for utilitarian cars used for commuting and shopping should be diminished – so remaining car models may focus more on pleasure trips.

Diminished Need for Parking Spaces

The need for car parking spaces should diminish. This has significant implications for malls and town centers. Fewer people will drive to these locations and park. The need for parking to make a business successful will diminish (but won’t disappear entirely).

Malls will likely remain – they will now be even easier to get to – but the necessity of sprawling car parks will diminish. Instead there will be drop off points as you exit your transportation cloud vehicle.

The Commercial Transportation Cloud

If you buy a heavy item while shopping you may not need to drag it to your cloud vehicle. The commercial transportation cloud will take care of that. The store assistant will note your address and dispatch it via a parallel commercial cloud that is picking off and dropping off items.

The commercial cloud may also act like an accelerated delivery form of Let’s say you discover you need to fix something in your home and you need a part – you will order it and it will be dispatched via the commercial transportation cloud.

It will work like present day vehicle parts services offering “just in time” delivery for almost anything.

The Impact on Jobs

One of the downsides of this kind of disruption is going to be on jobs:

  • Uber drivers will be displaced (just as Uber drivers are displacing taxi drivers today)
  • Bus routes may no longer be needed so bus drivers may be replaced; some buses may be computer driven
  • Car manufacturing jobs will be reduced

There is not much that can be done about this. The commercial pressures to adopt the transportation cloud will be impossible to hold back as the population recognizes how much they could save by not owning a car any longer, and if anything they may gain convenience.

What does this Mean for how we Plan for Our Future?

This presents a conundrum for big planning and transportation agencies such as the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Their traffic modeling systems aren’t set up to acknowledge the transportation cloud’s disruptive shift affecting not just how people travel – but how and where they live. Agencies making major planning decisions need to be careful making long-term investments or plans that place too many assumptions that current patterns will continue.

History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes – attributed to Mark Twain

The ramifications of the transportation cloud will be far-reaching and likely unclear for some time. The old transportation planning rule books will need to be thrown out of the window. The change may be uncomfortable at first – there may some parallels with transit oriented development such as reduced need for parking, but roads and cars will preserve their dominant roll well into the 21st century.