A Call for Transportation Innovation

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
dream.

(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
preceded those.

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. 

Jetpack

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.

14 thoughts on “A Call for Transportation Innovation

  1. Dave Stock

    Auren, you are spot on with your observation. I worked for PayPal when Elon was CEO, and then for Peter (one Elon left), and worked (in both Omaha and Palo Alto) from May 2000 to December 2001.
    As a midwesterner who moved to California (in May 2001) I didn’t know what to expect, but let me tell you that living in Silicon Valley and working with supersmart (and hardworking) people change my life. The intensity of the Bay area was exhilarating. One of my engineers at PayPal was Steve Chen, who of course is a great engineer. I was most impressed with the networking that occurs and the huge amount of ideas (not just in hi tech) that come out of Silicon Valley. Unfortunately, after living in several other places across the US and overseas, I can tell you that excitement for change and innovation severly lacks most places. I hope to make it back to SF area soon, as that experience is amazingly good for the soul.
    Your article reminds of me the saying of “Fail fast, fail often.” Keep up the blogging and facebook updates, they keep a lot us (me included) motivated to keep that innovation “fire” alive.

    Reply
  2. Alec Andronikov

    You know what I think the reason is?
    End of the Cold War. Transportation innovation has always been driven by the military and then the leftovers went to civilian. Hegemon on the world arena = less need to beat someone in innovation

    Reply
  3. Antoine Bello

    Great article. I could have written it, word for word. If I try to nuance it though:
    – car: they’re have been real improvements in that area. A trip between Paris and Carnac takes less time now than 40 years ago, thanks to better roads and signage, faster and more reliable cars. I’m not sure the pace of innovation has ever slowed down in the car industry. In fact, I think that the public is not clamoring for faster cars (although it would obviously be nice to travel twice as fast just as safely): people mostly want more consistent (i.e. less uncertain) travel times and more pleasant rides.
    – train: yes, the railroad industry seems stuck in the past… in the US. In Europe, it’s quite the opposite. In France, the TGV now connects tens of cities to each other and has virtually replaced flying for distances of less than 400 km. I don’t have to tell you about Japan, you obviously know all about it.
    – airplane. This is where I wholeheartedly agree with you: we are regressing here. It takes longer than it used to to travel between Paris and NY (although you could argue that this is offset by shorter travel times between midsize cities thanks to point-to-point carriers like Jetblue or Southwest). Actually, the whole flying experience is deteriorating on multiple accounts. Security checks are getting more humiliating every year, accessing airports takes longer and is more expensive than ever, etc.

    Reply
  4. Todd Dubner

    Auern,
    A good question to ask is why hasn’t innovation in transportation persisted on its own? I would argue that there have not been out-sized profits to any new entrants, so no compelling reason for an innovator to take big risk. In that 40 year span, true innovators have not shifted significant share – it seems that competing on the margin has been good enough. Boeing and Airbus have essentially become an oligopoly for large scale air transport. The auto industry has settled into 5 or 6 players competing for niche positions, but without dramatically different offerings (except maybe Tesla?). To drive real innovation investment there needs to be spoils. Think pharma, think (much to my dismay) financial products, think retail (Wal Mart in particular).
    I am not saying it can’t or won’t happen – it likely will. However, to warrant that capital spend there will likely need to be some sort of system shock or system imbalance.

    Reply
  5. Benjamin Abram

    Auren, you’re spot-on to point out that transportation-related innovation has been slow for the past four decades… though I take a different perspective on what has been slow to materialize / what we should demand in the decades to come. My view is that we need to bring the information age to transportation infrastructure… more efficient routing of traffic; large-scale ride-sharing; GPS-enabled (rather than RADAR) airplane tracking systems that would allow planes to land closer to one another, and not circle the skys for minutes on end; etc. Classic infrastructure investment is massively expensive… we can leverage our existing infrastructure much more efficiently… though commercial space-flight and bullet trains are great advances, too. Thanks for bringing attention to the issue. //Ben

    Reply
  6. Andre

    In a nutshell:
    1. Sales cycles measured on a geologic time scale
    2. Agency workers so risk averse you’ll sooner see actuaries take up bungee jumping en masse
    3. A ‘good old boys’ network of glad-handers who:
    a. Recycle the same specs for new clients literally for decades
    b. “I’ll write the spec so you get this one, then you write the spec so I can get the next one”
    c. Enforce a waterfall model for software development (http://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/seitsguide/section3.htm)
    d. Steal source code and push would-be innovators out of their accounts to crush them (ask me how I know)
    The interesting thing about 1-3 is that it’s a Maginot Line, IMHO. There is a great deal of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and if the Obama has any walk to go along with their talk, they would be game for something that would cut costs and improve mobility.

    Reply
  7. Jason Kay

    Well said. my question is what is right model?
    The bullet train exists in Japan because the government of Japan funds public transport (they have to, the island would die without it). The US government in recent years has not spent money in a cost-effective manner on transport – but it seems like Space X model of a private company which can receive government grants is a much better way to innovate.

    Reply
  8. Steve Garfink

    While I am not familiar with efforts to innovate in air transportation, I can speak to surface transportation where I recently spent five years studying the problems. While many clamor that better public transportation (including high speed rail) is the answer – it is not. Public transit (overwhelmingly by bus) accounts for barely 1.5% of our daily passenger miles of travel. The automobile is the vehicle of choice and will remain so in the U.S. and throughout the world (with the notable exception of Hong Kong). Contrary to the “accepted wisdom” of how wonderful public transit is in Europe, European driving habits vary little from our own; in fact, annual vehicle miles of travel (VMT) per capita correlate most strongly with per capita income.
    People drive for good reason: time is money, even in simpler economies, and the automobile dramatically expands the job opportunities available to users and creates time efficient and cost effective access to education, healthcare, big box stores, etc.
    Getting back to your central point, the lack of innovation in the automobile is remarkable. As you point out, incrementally, sure we have come a long way since the Model T. Yet, a model T today still would deliver the same quantum leap in transportation effectiveness vis-à-vis a horse and buggy as compared to a Lexus.
    Still, there are a few buds of innovation that may yet yield some major breakthroughs. Transportation visionaries will often point to four primary problems associated with the automobile: dependency on oil for fuel, more than half of which is imported; pollution, including GHG emission; congestion that currently costs $70+ billion annually in lost time and wasted fuel; and safety and related deaths, injuries and property damage. Several initiatives are underway to address disrupt disruptively alter the fuel story, from the plug-in electric cars beginning to reach the market (Tesla, GM, Toyota, Nissan/Renault and many more) to companies like Better Place and Coulomb Technologies that are rapidly pushing out the recharging infrastructure needed to service a growing electric vehicle fleet. In the same vein the VC plunge into battery technologies (and other alternative fuels – not so sure about those…) is well documented. These technologies can eliminate foreign oil dependency in decades and realistically attain an 80%+ reduction in GHG emissions and other pollutants well before 2050.
    Congestion and safety call for a different solution that has been defined in various spheres, yet lacks the push to get momentum. In short, introduce automation to the driving process in order to reduce headways between vehicles, thereby allowing increased vehicle capacity for the a given segment of the highways (5 or more times the capacity per lane mile). Most of the time lost in congestion is concentrated on the urban interstates which make a surprisingly small fraction of our roadway infrastructure. Solutions envisage “dual mode” vehicles capable of operating under special controls while on the automated segments of the highway, yet are also capable of operating in “manual mode” on the other streets. And, when you take the driver out of the equation by automating, accidents can be reduced by an order of magnitude or more.
    The technology exists for such a system (DARPA Grand and Urban Challenges, LDWS, Adaptive Cruise, etc.). It can also be shown that such a system can be built privately and funded quite inexpensively with tolls. Instead of technology and funding, the problem is aligning the constellation of public and private interests needed to coordinate such a complex vision of transition from the current transportation paradigm to the new one. (I have been banging my head on this challenge for some time…) We are convinced it will take someone like a Shai Agassi to spin up the critical mass needed. If you know anyone like that who wants to solve these problems, please send them to me!

    Reply
  9. spUdsPud2

    Simply reducing the number of single occupancy vehicle trips would reduce congestion, fuel consumption, and pollution.
    Americans are not going to give up their cars anytime soon. We also don’t have the ability to build more freeways/lanes. We will rock the (already knackered) electrical grid with more (plugin) hybrids, but that won’t make much of a dent in the problems.
    Good luck in getting government agencies, especially DOTs and MPOs, to innovate, especially when their technologies and methodologies are of early 1990s vintage.

    Reply
  10. spUdsPud2

    Please remember also that any strategy that lacks a legislative component will epic fail.
    Left to their own devices, agencies will continue to lumber along with the status quo. Trust me, it is a tar pit from which there is no escape, unless…
    …the electeds mandate change.
    Then, the agencies will be held accountable for achieving the right goals.

    Reply
  11. Fabrice

    What would be your specific recommendations to generate innovation?
    Do you think we need a government committee to steer transportation innovation? 🙂

    Reply

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