Cars of the future will drive themselves, and talk to one another

By Kimball Perry The Columbus Dispatch

As Michael Stevens guided his 16-year-old son, Ted, through a driving lesson, he wondered if his son would ever have the same opportunity.

"I said, 'You realize you probably won't be doing this for your child,'" said Stevens, chief innovation officer for Smart Columbus.

That's because Stevens, 45, isn't sure automobiles will be used in the same way when his son is his age.

"Now," Stevens added, "I ride in my car by myself most of the time. I don't think that will be the norm."

Tell us what you think Columbus should look like in 20 years

Experts agree. They think that in the next 20 years, transportation will take a leap similar to the transition from horses to automobiles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

While flying cars may not be ubiquitous in the skies of 2037 as in the futurist cartoon show "The Jetsons," rapidly evolving technology will drive many changes to how people and goods are moved.

"By 2037, 99.9 percent of vehicles will be capable of moving around and talking to each other," perhaps without needing a human driver, said Giorgio Rizzoni, chairman of Ohio State University's Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department and head of its Center for Automotive Research.

Smart Columbus is investigating how transportation will evolve. Last year, the partnership between the city government and local business leaders won a $40 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant. So far, Smart Columbus has received pledges of an additional $600 million in projects and money, with a goal of $1 billion.

Its mission is to create an integrated intelligent transportation system that enables different components — vehicles, streets, traffic lights, etc. — to communicate with one another  to reduce congestion and increase efficiency.

City officials made inroads toward commuter rail during the administration of former Mayor Michael B. Coleman. But now, they prefer to be one of the first cities to implement newer technologies, not one of the last cities to build light rail. Already, officials have been to Europe to study transportation systems, and more trips are planned.

I-670 east during rush hour traffic in Columbus. Experts expect vehicles to talk about one another in the future, causing traffic to flow more smoothly. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

Still, some think some form of rail will be an important transportation option in 20 years.

"We cannot simply go on building freeway lanes. That won’t work," economist Bill LaFayette said. “I certainly think that we’re going to have to have some sort of major improvements in mass transit, whether it’s light rail or interurban rail."

No matter the mode, speed and efficiency are musts.

"Technology will increase capacity. It could be bumper-to-bumper at high speeds. Technology will make it safe to be closer together," said Curtis Stitt, CEO and president of the Central Ohio Transit Authority.

Any transportation change, Stitt added, must include public transportation. The short-term future includes buses and likely several other options such as Chariot, a 3-year-old, crowd-funded shuttle network, and increasing point-to-point services such as Lyft and Uber. Uber is partly owned by General Motors, which also is working with Lyft to produce self-driving electric cars this year.

Stitt sees a time when a work commute means walking a block or two to enter a self-driving pod. The pod would take riders, who could read, answer emails or organize their days, to a place where it links to similar pods, forming something like a train that uses a dedicated high-speed lane to whisk riders to an area near their destination. A personal human drone, kind of like a flying car, could take commuters the last mile or less to work.

"Things that we thought were George Jetson are really happening," Stitt said. "From imaginations to reality."

He also predicts driverless COTA buses in as few as five years.

Elaine Roberts sees rapid changes in air travel, too. She's the president and CEO of the Columbus Regional Airport Authority, which operates John Glenn Columbus International Airport, cargo-focused Rickenbacker Airport and Bolton Field on the Far West Side.

A new terminal at John Glenn will be completed within 15 years or so, Roberts said, to replace the current 60-year-old terminal that underwent $80 million in makeovers over the past few years.

It's needed to handle the 10 million trips projected by 2030.

Roberts also is deeply interested in how fliers get to and from the airport, now and in the future. A new road is planned that would link John Glenn with Interstate 70 and make it easier for passengers to travel to the airport, she said.

A new terminal at John Glenn Columbus International Airport will be completed within 15 years or so. [Eric Albrecht/Dispatch]

Still, the airport faces a loss of parking and rental-car revenue over the next 20 years as fewer people drive to and from the airport.

"You'll have more passengers, but you'll have fewer people driving," Roberts said.

Parking fees are the airport's top revenue generator. Roberts was startled to find there were more than 500 Uber pickups per day at John Glenn last year when they were so insignificant the year before that the airport didn't even count them. Fees that rental-car companies pay to operate at the airport are another major source of revenue. With fewer cars generating money for the airport, Roberts sees the airport having to work harder to generate "non-aeronautical revenue."

The biggest potential for growth might be at Rickenbacker Airport, the cargo-focused airport located next to a rail yard on the far reaches of the South Side.

Already, it's a hub for importers and exporters, including those who deliver textiles for local clothiers. It's cheaper to fly products to Rickenbacker and store them in adjacent distribution facilities easily accessible by rail and trucks.

Automation already is used at Rickenbacker and likely will be standard by 2037.

"I can see a time in 20 years from now where a container is offloaded (from a ship) in Norfolk, Virginia. It's put on a train. It zips up to (Rickenbacker). A crane unloads it onto a flatbed truck that follows Rickenbacker Parkway, where it is offloaded" and never touched by humans, said Jim Schimmer, head of Franklin County Economic Development and Planning.

With some businesses such as retailers relying less on brick-and-mortar stores and more on e-commerce, Roberts thinks Rickenbacker is well-suited to capture much of that and other business.

Rickenbacker now serves four international cargo lines and has the space and runways to handle "the biggest cargo planes in the world," Roberts said. Its 12 scheduled outbound international cargo flights each week are half full. By 2037, she predicts, there will be  twice that many international flights — all full.

That compares with 61 domestic cargo flights per week, mostly FedEx and UPS and 29 weekly passenger flights serviced by Allegiant.

More distribution and logistics centers are planned for the 1,500 acres surrounding Rickenbacker. They all are expected to use driverless trucks, fork lifts, trains and other modes of transportation.

Airports might have to compete with the Hyperloop, pods enclosed in something like a pneumatic tube that could propel people and goods at 700 miles per hour. Magnets make the pod hover, reducing drag and friction and allowing for super speeds — without a driver. That would shorten to 30 minutes the trip from Columbus to Chicago, but the project is more concept than reality right now.

Earlier this year, a Chicago-to-Columbus-to-Pittsburgh route was chosen as one of 35 international semifinalists in the Hyperloop One Global Challenge. The project is being pushed by billionaire businessman Elon Musk.

While Ohio State’s Rizzoni is excited about talk of flying cars and fully driverless vehicles, he suggested 20 years isn't enough time to see it become reality, much less common.

Automobiles, he said, still will dominate because of the flexibility and freedom they provide, but they likely will be combined with other modes of transportation or have more uses, such as ride-sharing. Increasing technological advancements, he said, will result in electric or largely electric cars becoming predominate.

Electric, Rizzoni added, isn't a new technology for automobiles. The first car to exceed 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph) was electric and accomplished that in 1899, 118 years ago.

The key to improving the future of the car has been the electrification of their powertrains, Rizzoni said. By 2037, "the percentage of vehicles that are either hybrid or plug-in hybrid will be significantly higher," maybe 90 percent, he estimated.

The next big break will be technology that greatly increases the power and longevity of batteries in  electric cars. Once costs for plug-in hybrids drop, sales will spike, Rizzoni said. He expects an increase to 30 million such cars by 2025. That's a reason Smart Columbus plans to install 300 electric charging stations, Rizzoni added.

That will go hand in hand with, or quickly be followed by, driverless cars. Initially, they will be along specific, consistent routes for mail, bus stops, college campuses or malls. Driverless golf-cart-sized shuttles already are planned for the Easton shopping centers. Rizzoni's department is developing its own autonomous cars.

"It won't take long to achieve the reliability and safety we expect" in autonomous cars, Rizzoni said. "Today's cars already have some level of automation."

After that could come true autonomy, when cars have no steering wheels, brakes or accelerator pedals. They communicate with one another as well as all parts of the transportation system to get us and our stuff to more places more efficiently.

Today, big automakers are heavily investing in artificial intelligence as part of the future for autonomous cars. Four months ago, Ford announced it plans to develop a fully self-driving car by 2021.

"Things are changing," Rizzoni said, "and people are getting used to it."


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