Hyperloop, Urban Cable, PRT and Flying Cars…Oh My! The Future of Transit Is Closer Than You Think

SXSW 2018: Overhead Transit Panel Recap

argo’s own Jared Ficklin pulled together an incredible SXSW “power panel” of folks leading the charge on transportation innovation, which is a topic that will only continue to grow in complexity and influence. Be sure to follow the hashtag #OverheadTransit to keep up with and contribute to this ongoing conversation.

At a high level, the panel focused on the mobility problem we’re facing all over the world. Mobility directly affects our quality of life, and frankly causes a lot of frustration. The question is, how do we add to the supply of mobility options available? Furthermore, how can we deploy effective technology to create useful routes, without displacing the existing supply?

The secret is looking up — literally — to visualize and consider overhead transit options. The overhead technologies featured in this panel share a few common features:

  • Ability to capture previously unattainable routes
  • Fits into developed areas
  • Lower cost and reduced disruption

Now, let’s dig into what each of these overhead transit technologies look like in practice, and the incredible impact they could each have on transportation as we know it today.

There are already a slew of different companies working on hyperloop technology. In short, hyperloop is a next generation high speed mobility system centered around the idea of having a pod floating on magnets, moving through a vacuum tube at Mach 1 (~650–700 MPH). It allows people to move about in a type of high speed rail transit system, while adopting a lot of the newer technologies that have come to fruition since.

To clarify, hyperloop is not just a fantasy — it’s very real. The technology is advancing quickly, and there is pent up demand for what it brings to the table. Companies that are actively working on hyperloop development include Virgin Hyperloop One, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, SpaceX, AECom, and Arrivo.

Hyperloop One is using the DevLoop test track in Las Vegas to polish and refine their technology. Inside is the XP-1 pod, which is the first hyperloop one pod anywhere in the world.

There are several types of Hyperloop competitions that you can find online, including:

  • Hyperloop pod competition, hosted by SpaceX, strictly focused on designing technology for the pod itself
  • Planning economic study, hosted by Hyperloop One, to help answer where in the world you can actually put a hyperloop

Texas was one of the ten corridors identified globally that make sense to start doing feasibility analysis for hyperloop technology. When you can move that quickly through Texas, you effectively allow all major Texas cities to operate as suburbs of each other. The idea would be to get from Austin to Dallas in 19 minutes, or from Austin to San Antonio in 8 minutes. When you think about it like that, it becomes very apparent that the way we design, plan, and think about our cities will radically change.

Environmental impact studies are expected to start in Texas this year.

Urban cable is the use of high-speed detachable gondolas on roadways overhead, in order to create mass transit lines in urban cities. A cousin of the technology used to support ski lifts, the engineering required for urban cable has been raised to a level where it can support operation at scale.

This is also very real, with several positive deployments internationally:

  • One of the most successful urban cable systems in the world exists in La Paz, Bolivia. They currently have four lines carrying about 22 million passengers per year. The goal is to eventually expand to 14 lines as a primary form of mass transit.
  • Another example is the Seilbahn in Germany. With this system, there are 25 second headways, with each car carrying ~40 passengers and traveling at 12 MPH. The throughput is massive.

Leitner Poma and Doppelmayr, the two primary companies working on this worldwide, are focused on deploying urban cable systems in Asia, Europe and South America — but they haven’t yet turned their attention to North America.

Why is this? Well, we have some extra complexities here, one of which being the way we regard property rights. Unlike other international cities, we may not have the political will to fly over people’s homes. However, the good news is you don’t need to do that to start deploying urban cable. It is possible to capture high capacity fixed route mass transit without any displacement. Think of it like ‘subway lite’ at about 1/10th of the cost.

Substantial progress on this method has already been made, and is continuing to move forward:

  • The city of Austin, along with the CTRMA and Capital Metro, commissioned the Texas A&M Transportation Institute to do a study on urban cable and what it could do for North America, specifically related to the Wire One project.
  • Several urban cable feasibility studies have been completed, and it’s expected that the first full deployment will happen in the next 2–5 years (though likely not in Austin).
  • There is a group working on a lobbying effort to create parity between urban cable and surface rail system, with the goal to create eligibility for federal matching funds that doesn’t currently exist.

Personal rapid transit is made up of fully automated small pod cars that ride on overhead guideways, each sized for one family unit. They travel on demand, so when passengers get to a stop they simply press a button signifying where they want to go, and the car takes them from point A to point B at maximum speed (30–40 MPH).

There are 6–10 makers of this around the globe, each innovating with different approaches to create the best version of personal rapid transit. Heathrow in London is among the best and has been in use with an operational assistant for about 5 years.

Richard personally funded a study with the University of Texas at Austin to see how PRT would work locally and also prove out economic and functional viability.

Using UT Austin as the immediate “web”, they looked not only at routes themselves, but also examined ridership data from Capital Metro. It became clear that with personal rapid transit, passengers wouldn’t have to go to a station and wait. They would instead walk right up, and be immediately whisked away to their destination at full speed. Time from one loading to the next is under a minute, and service quality is far superior to walking, taking the bus, etc.

PRT gets us off the roadways and moving in this third dimension, but importantly has the potential to become more powerful over time as we explore additional use cases and remove the boundaries/limits of the near-term web.

Uber started with the concept of pushing a button and getting a ride. This was met with a ton of demand for more mobility, which evolved into a network concept of pooling riders.

It became clear that there is only so much public transit that exists, all of which is met with increasing demand. Taking that into account, they started thinking about expanding our options to the sky, which uncovered an opportunity for Vertical Takeoff and Landing vehicles (VTALs).

The ultimate goal is to create an on-demand network for urban aviation in the same way they did for ridesharing. Thinking specifically about large cities with high congestion or supercommunte routes (e.g. from San Jose to San Francisco or Baltimore to Washington D.C.), the idea is that passengers could travel from 10–50 miles at the push of a button, moving at speeds upwards of 200 MPH.

This method of transit would offer several key advantages including:

  • Quiet: electric motors, low top speed prop-rotors
  • Safe: failure-tolerant, BRS-capable, fly-by-wire
  • Eco-friendly: all-electric, zero operational emissions
  • Cost-effective: leverages pooled network, efficiency due to fixed wing and electric motors

The plan to scale is ambitious, but achievable:

  • 2020: demonstration flights in Los Angeles and Dallas
  • 2023: initial commercial flights with pilot + 4 passengers
  • 2025: early scaled operations, international and domestic
  • 2030–2035: fully-scaled operations, leveraging autonomy and removing the pilot

In conclusion…

There are a number of hoops to jump through if we are going to make any of these overhead transit options a reality in North America, especially here in Austin.

If you believe Austin should be actively involved in transportation innovation, panel moderator Brigid Shea encourages participation from each of us. Make your voice heard by tweeting @MayorAdler, and urge him to get the city onboard with these key transportation innovations.

For more from the session, check out Georgie Ferrell’s post on Paper City here.

To keep up with each of these projects, follow each of the presenters and their companies on Twitter below:

We are a product design firm. We love design – for the technology, for the simple joy of craft, and ultimately for the experiences we create.