More can be done to
change the way we move around the world. The four decades that ended in 1969 were a Golden Age of
Transportation. Innovation since that time has fallen short of our
(this is a reprint of an article I wrote this week for BusinessWeek: http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/sep2009/tc20090930_048677.htm)
We're constantly on the move. But the planes, trains, automobiles, and
other machines that get us from place to place haven't changed much in
the past 40 years, especially in comparison with the four decades that
Many of today's modes of transportation had their roots in what I
consider the Golden Age of Transportation, a period stretching from
1929 through 1969 when innovation abounded. An era that began with
rickety cars and planes came to a close with interstate highways, vast
networks of roads and bridges, and commercial air travel that could
whisk you from New York to California to Hong Kong to London in a
matter of hours, not weeks. We built jets, broke the sound barrier,
harnessed nuclear energy on land and sea, sent monkeys and men into
space, and capped it all off with a lunar landing. It was a marvelous
era of risk-taking, imagination, and optimism.
Those who lived in that era might have confidently predicted that
innovation would continue. They may have optimistically hoped that in
the succeeding four decades, humankind would be capable of such
breakthroughs as jet packs, flying cars, civilian space travel, and
landing a human on Mars.
But instead, in the past 40 years we've traded innovation for stagnation. We live in an era where few risks are being taken.
Make no mistake that the transportation industry has made advances in the areas of efficiency, comfort, safety, and reliability.
Strides in Energy Efficiency
Today's cars, planes, trains, and other vehicles certainly are more
energy-efficient than their 1960s counterparts. They go farther on less
fuel, burn much cleaner, and need less energy. Transportation is also
considerably more comfortable than it was 40 years ago.
Air-conditioning and CD players are standard; advances in suspension
and interior design make the ride smoother.
Cars are safer, resulting in fewer accidents per capita. Fatalities
as a percentage of driving hours have steadily fallen because of
features such as seat belts, air bags, and antilock brakes. And from a
design standpoint, air and sea travel are also safer—even if the
threats of hijacking and piracy remain all too real.
Finally, travel is more reliable. Cars don't break down as often; my
nine-year-old Toyota has never had a problem to speak of. The Tokyo
metro is a model of efficiency. And thanks to GPS, FedEx tracking, and other great software, we're better at keeping track of where we and what we care about are headed.
And there have been some technological advances worth noting. Segways,
with their ease of use and automatic load balancing, are truly an
engineering marvel. But with no disrespect to Dean Kamen, I'm not sure
Segways are all that useful except in limited recreational settings.
Prosthetic arms and legs have come a long way, too, offering
life-changing functionality to people who have lost limbs. Thankfully,
however, most of us do not need them.
Longer Cross-Country Flights
Yet what about all the other areas where we might have made great
strides but haven't? Think about how long it takes to get from point A
to point B. I've been regularly traveling from New York's JFK airport
to San Francisco for the past 17 years, and in that time the flights
have actually gotten longer. Because airlines now generously pad their
schedules, a flight from JFK to SFO is listed at 6.5 hours today; it
used to be regularly scheduled to last fewer than six hours.
The Concorde was a great first step toward getting people around
faster, but it has been shut down. Where are the other attempts at
supersonic transportation? Even the U.S. military cannot transport more
than two people supersonically.
I recently rode a bullet train from Hiroshima to Tokyo in 4.5 hours,
and it was a wonderful experience. It was comfortable and convenient. I
had Wi-Fi. We should be able to fly from Tokyo to San Francisco in less
than that amount of time.
What about personal flight? Flying cars and jet packs seem further
away today than in 1969. In fact, I doubt many people would predict
that personal flight will be commonplace 40 years from now.
Time to Take Chances
For all the hard work going on at places such as NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and General Motors, there appears to be a general unwillingness or inability to take risks.
We need more people willing to try something crazy. This is why privately held Space Exploration Technologies,
or SpaceX, is so cool. And yes, in the name of disclosure, I am a tiny
investor in SpaceX. They are willing to try things that sound
outlandish. And since you have to fail a lot before you can invent
something truly groundbreaking, they are also not afraid to fail. But
there are very few endeavors like SpaceX.
You could blame the transportation innovation drought on companies'
unwillingness to invest the money and time it takes to achieve
breakthroughs. Maybe it's the public's unwillingness to back
large-scale public works.
Perhaps some have come to rely so much on innovations in other
areas—such as high-speed multimedia communications—that they're simply
less needful of truly innovative approaches to transportation. After
all, it is far easier to move bytes than people.
But those reasons be damned. We can do better.