Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
July 7th, 2008

Trains, Planes and Electric Automobiles

Two weeks ago I said that I would be writing several columns about transportation in the U.S. This is the final one of that series, at least for now. In the life of this blog I have written about the future of transportation and what it will and should look like. I am sure I will revisit the topic again as it is one of the most critical transitions this country will have to make over the next ten years.

In January, I wrote about high speed trains with the recommendation that they become a cornerstone in the new foundation of U.S transportation. That column was followed up by suggesting a vision of what transportation in the U.S. could look like in 2015. Since that time of course oil has continued its price climb, and the pain at the pump has translated into significant changes in behavior, noted here and here. It is now a fact that $4 a gallon gasoline was the pain threshold needed. As citizens of the U.S. and the world we need to act with certainty that this will be the price floor for gasoline long-term.

In the above referenced columns I wrote about a new vision for transportation in this country. In the North – South corridors of the country that are highly populated, such as the Boston – Miami corridor, the Minneapolis – Indianapolis corridor, the Denver – Houston corridor and the Seattle – San Diego corridor there should be frequent high speed train service. With air travel being what it is these days, any journey less than 300 miles is more comfortable, affordable and less environmentally damaging on a high speed train that on a plane. Have these high speed trains that run North and South connect at airports for the longer East-West air routes. Also have these high speed train routes connect to networks of regional and local transport systems, running on electricity, solar and other forms of alternative energy.

It is wireless technology that will allow this to happen with ease. Along all these high speed train routes and regional and local transport systems there is cellular and WiFi connectivity. This means that one can travel on trains and be productive. It is no longer time lost. On the Acela there are quiet cars for those that want that and other cars for those that want to talk or be on the phone. I have had several very productive NY – Washington DC train trips working digitally while be transported in the analog world.

It will become essential for America to adapt to more work being done at home. Telecommuting will increase. Companies that can will restructure work weeks so that employees have days to interact with each other physically and days when they interact electronically. The ever increasing sophistication of on-line video interactivity will also start to cut down on business travel as the costs and time saved will be well worth it as the cost of flying continues to rise.

Airplane travel will no longer be inexpensive and there will be less of it. There is no alternative because of the price of oil. This means that while there might be less congestion in the skies, there will be many smaller cities that will have dramatically lessened airline service or none at all. The negative economic consequences may well be severe. This points to high speed rail and regional transportation systems that connect to it.

The personal transportation part of this of course is the automobile. The Big Three, as written about in the prior two columns must rapidly adapt from big to small vehicles and from gasoline powered to electric and hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles. What is wonderful to see are the start-up companies that are emerging with viable high mileage vehicles that will come to market soon. The Aptera is a space age looking electric gasoline hybrid. The Aptera prototype, the Mk-0 got 230 miles per gallon at a constant 55 miles per hour. In addition, it has tested at a 40-60 mile range on a single battery charge. That is the average driving per day for the great majority of Americans. They are now taking orders at an estimated price of $30,000. Tesla Motors has received a lot of publicity for its’ roadster, which can go from 0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds, is completely electric, has a 220 mile range per charge and is now in production. It is a high performance two-seater at a high $100,000 price. These cars represent the current low and high ends of the market.

What I find most interesting about this new entrepreneurial industry of low cost electric and electric hybrid vehicles is that they show that 100 MPG is achievable. This has been the vision that drives such entrepreneurs, to get triple digit miles per gallon. As gasoline continues to climb in price 100+ MPG will become a new standard of measurement in America. These entrepreneurial companies are showing the way. While Detroit was resisting legislation raising fleet averages from 25 to 35 MPG, these new companies were providing true perspective on what is possible. The Big Three will hopefully get on track and will start to bring scale to the marketplace starting in 2010. If they don’t, some other auto companies will step in, pure and simple.

Of course a key ingredient in this new transportation vision is the need to convert the landscape from one of filling stations to one of filling/charging stations. Roadside restaurants and shopping centers will offer fast charge-ups while one eats or shops. Imagine life in America where the only time you use gasoline is when you fly or you go on long car trips and will need to use a few gallons of gas between battery charges. In ten years it will be truly possible that the average American will spend less on gasoline in a year than she now spends in a month or a week, even if the price of gas doubles or triples. Imagine that!

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In times of global uncertainty and disruption it takes a futurist to provide context and understanding.

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