Our artist's impression of the future.

What comes after Uber? The future of transport is light, electric and on-demand

The skies are opening up, the car is unbundling, autonomous vehicles are in and fossil fuels are out. We are entering the shared mobility era where each trip you take is available at the touch of a button. So how is your commute set to change?

Science fiction has long fantasised about the possibility of flying cars. The Jetsons had the family spaceship that packs down into a briefcase. The Fifth Element had cars that sped along invisible highways in the sky. Blade Runner had anti-gravity spinners that freely navigated airspace. At the time, these visions of the future probably seemed a long way off. But the 1982 version of Blade Runner was set just a few months from now, in November 2019. So how much longer do we have to wait before we’re making our morning commute in a flying car?

Opening up the skies 

Zephyr Airworks country director Anna Kominik isn’t prepared to put a timeframe on it. But her vision of the future is one where flying cars are “a common part of everyday life, just as people now might drive to work, or catch a cab.

“Using the skies will be commonplace, and no longer confined to covering large distances or incurring large costs. Flying will be affordable, accessible to all, and super convenient.”

Zephyr Airworks’ autonomous, electric flying car, Cora, is one of many in development around the world. Cora doesn’t need a runway (it takes off like a helicopter), it doesn’t need a pilot, it doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, and it never gets stuck in traffic.

The California-based company arrived in New Zealand in 2017 and has been flight testing Cora in the South Island. It’s formed a partnership with Air New Zealand “to one day bring the first-ever air taxi service to the sky” and is working with the government to ensure the right ecosystem is in place to support autonomous aviation vehicles.

“We do believe that New Zealand has an amazing opportunity to keep leading the world in this emerging industry and become a centre of excellence,” Kominik says. “Air travel is one of the fastest growing forms of transport globally. The challenges of limiting mobility to the ground are well known and experienced every day by anyone moving in and around our larger cities. The skies offer a three-dimensional solution – the ability to fly at different altitudes.”

The benefits of opening up the skies above the Auckland motorways to autonomous, electric vehicles should be clear to anyone who commutes to work in the city between 6.30 and 8.30am. They will be faster, more convenient and better for the planet than petrol cars. But before we’re all zipping around in flying cars like Bruce Willis trying to save the world from a great evil, we’re going to see major disruption to how we get around on our roads. AI and automation, public transport, and the rise of mobility as a service are already shaping the future of transport in New Zealand.

Flying cars could do away with the problems of congestion. Photo: Patrick Pellegrini

Driverless and on-demand 

Companies like Uber and Zoomy are early indicators of what that future might look like – less private car ownership, more vehicles on-demand. That could be hailing a taxi ride from a smartphone app, peer-to-peer car sharing services like Roam and YourDrive, or options like Cityhop, where you can pay to use a car by the hour for shopping trips or weekend adventures. Uber only arrived in New Zealand a little over five years ago and it’s already transformed the way we travel moderate distances in big cities.

The biggest wave of disruption to transport will come from automation – driverless vehicles powered by artificial intelligence. In the future, when we “call” an Uber we won’t have to also give the driver a star rating, at least not a human driver. And the car won’t be a Toyota Prius hybrid. It probably won’t resemble a car as we know it and it will be fuelled by 100% renewable energy.

New Zealand’s first driverless vehicle, Ohmio, is already in operation. Ohmio is a 3D-printed autonomous, electric, self-learning shuttle. It’s not fully autonomous in that it can go anywhere you want it to. It follows “virtual tracks” that are programmed into its operating system. It’s being trialled at Christchurch Airport where it could be used to ferry passengers – up to 20 at a time – between terminals. Vehicles like this will likely play a part in the smart cities, university campuses, airports and retirement villages of the future.

Ohmio head of research and development Mahmood Hikmet says the biggest benefit of autonomous vehicles is they have the potential to be much safer than human drivers.

“In New Zealand, we have roughly one road death per day. The introduction of autonomous vehicles will allow for the approach towards our ‘road to zero’. Being able to update the intelligence of vehicles via a software update will allow for lessons learned by one vehicle to be spread across the entire fleet.

“On top of that, autonomous vehicles can work on an on-demand basis around the clock. They don’t get tired or drunk. They’ll also be much more efficient and convenient to run. Both in terms of energy and in terms of capital.”

Ohmio head of research and development Mahmood Hikmet. Photo: Supplied

Hikmet says New Zealand authorities are dragging the chain when it comes to paving the way for autonomous vehicles on public roads with updated laws and regulations. Autonomous vehicles are coming – in his opinion they’re already here, and we need to start preparing for that, he says.

“Regardless of what one’s personal opinion on the viability and possibility of autonomous vehicles, there should at least be a framework in place for them to exist.

“At the moment, we are having to find our own way forward and are targeting places with private roads in New Zealand such as airports, campuses, retirement villages. We’ve had a lot of interest in operating on public roads in other countries, and we are in the middle of those talks now. It would be good to have similar discussions in New Zealand.”

From public transport to shared mobility

Automated shuttles like Ohmio will be a part of our public transport future, too. Ohmio shuttles can form connected convoys that could replace buses. The convoys could contract and expand based on fluctuating demand. But, while companies like SpaceX and Virgin are working on hyperloop systems that could hurtle passengers in pods through underground tunnels or vacuum tubes, New Zealand’s public transport will play catch up over the coming decades.

The Ministry of Transport’s Public Transport 2045 working paper concludes that public transport will still be relevant in a world where autonomous taxis and shuttles can be hailed at the touch of a button. New Zealand’s public transport system will evolve over the coming decades to become part of the wider “shared mobility” ecosystem, a smart, interconnected network of vehicles that users can tap into on-demand. For example, rapid transit such as trains and buses that run on dedicated corridors or right of ways will be seen as a means of connecting passengers with other modes of transport.

“Our conclusion is that public transport will become even more important – if it evolves and adapts,” the report says. “New technologies such as fleets of shared autonomous vehicles do not signify the end for public transport. They could be part of a new chapter in the story of shared mobility.”

The report also says fossil fuels will be phased out, most likely in favour of electric vehicles.

Micromobility and unbundling the car 

Tying all of this together is the rise of micromobility. New Zealand angel investor and co-host of the Micromobility Podcast, Oliver Bruce says micromobility represents a “fundamental rethink of transport as we’ve known it”. 

It’s defined by three traits: electric, utility, lightweight (under 500 kilograms). In case you’re wondering – yes, that includes Lime scooters. In a recent tweetstorm, Bruce, who previously worked on strategic projects at Uber, presented his thesis: the car is unbundling. 

“What does this mean? A car is a bundle of trips that you buy,” Bruce says. You might spend, say, $30,000 on a new car that allows you to take about 5000 trips at your convenience. 

But those 5000 car trips are now being broken into smaller trips that can be purchased when people need them. “You don’t need to own a car to get access to one, or to get a ride.”

Oliver Bruce says micromobility represents a “fundamental rethink of transport as we’ve known it”. Photo: Supplied

We also use cars to travel really short distances, like from home to work, or to attend a business meeting a few blocks away, or to get to our favourite cafe in our lunch break. It’s in this context that micromobility is coming. Vehicles like electric scooters, bikes, autonomous pods, Segways and more are the future of short-distance transport, according to Bruce. They will be accessed on-demand at low-cost and contribute to reducing fossil fuel emissions. Increasing urbanisation and higher-density housing will also fuel this trend.

“All in all, the future of electric vehicles looks like Jump bikes, not Teslas,” Bruce says.

“But this is also what disruption looks like. It sneaks up on you. It looks like cars did to people with horses – trivial and annoying initially till they just overwhelmed them.”

So from cars in the sky to scooters on the sidewalk, the future of transport looks more like an autonomous, flowing network of purpose-built, smart and sustainable vehicles than gridlocked cars carrying one or two people on the way to work and school on a Tuesday morning. 

It’s chaos, reorganised.

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