Journey To The Future: Three Innovations To Change Cities Worldwide

by Laetitia Drevet

After taking your delivery sandwich out of the robot waiting at your front door, you check your phone to see when your flying taxi will stop to pick you up: your shuttle from London to Edinburgh is leaving soon, and if you catch it, you will be in Scotland in just 40 minutes. Sounds unreal? Maybe for now, but these technologies might well change the way we live in the city in just a couple of years.

Delivery robots

2018.03.08 Starship Robot Activation Intuit
Starship Delivery Robot// Photo Courtesy: Starship Technologies

It is a cross between a vacuum cleaner and a dog on wheels. But forget its appearance, we better get used to this bizarre object: delivery robots are about to start rolling in our cities soon.

Since the end of April 2018, the six-wheeled robots operate food and coffee deliveries across a Silicon Valley office park in what is the first commercial use of this type of technology. The robots can roll at 4mph and carry up to 10kg (22lb) of food, laundry or any other commodities.

At the moment, manual handlers watch every operating robot very closely, but the final goal is to make them entirely independent.

The system has many advantages in terms of reducing pollution rates and easing traffic, but robot deliveries also raise important concerns. At the top of the list is the amount of public space required by these rolling newcomers.

“When pavements are crowded, there is competition for space. In busy environments, delivery robots will stop regularly to avoid collisions, but this might cause clashes with pedestrians,” says Professor Renia Ehrenfeucht, of the School of Architecture at University of New Mexico.

“We already see conflicts among street users, for example between pedestrians and street vendors. But the difference is that people are very responsive to other people, while delivery robots might not be as responsive.”

These concerns encouraged some big tech companies – Amazon, UPS – to bet on drones rather than robot delivery, even though they are still far from up and flying.  

The Hyperloop Technology

Laetitia Hyperloop
Photo courtesy: Hyperloop One

Its name sounds more like a rollercoaster than a form of transport. But Hyperloop technology might well change the way we travel from one city to another.

The futuristic concept is the brainchild of tech-tycoon Elon Musk. It aims at magnetically propelling shuttles that will be able to run at around 760mph (1200km/h).

A plane currently takes 90 minutes to fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but Hyperloop will cover the distance in a mere half hour. The six-hour car trip to get from LA to the Bay Area will soon sound very unappealing.

“We are not selling transportation, we are selling time,” says Leslie Horwitz from Hyperloop One, one of the companies rushing to build the Hyperloop.

But we might have to wait a couple more years before challenging the speed of sound. At the moment, and apart from a few small-scale experiments, the Hyperloop technology is still being worked on.

“Our goal is to have the first phase of our commercial system built by 2021 and to fast track regulatory and safety certification. We are in continuing discussions with a number of governments to study the most ideal routes,” says Horwitz.

Hyperloop requires a vast network of under and overground tunnels. The US, Slovakia, Abu Dhabi, the Czech Republic, France and Sweden have all expressed interest in building them.

Flying Taxis

laetitia - flying taxis
Illustration by Axelle Ponsonnet

There are very few things more iconically tech than flying cars. From the Jetsons sitcom in the early 1960s to Harry Potter’s legendary flight to Hogwarts, un-wheeled cars have become films stars. And in just a few years, they might become reality.

The ride-sharing company Uber dreams to replicate the existing on-demand car service in the air and set up a “fly-sharing” system. The company have already invested millions of dollars in different startups that hope to build small passenger-carrying aircrafts by 2023.

“They have some benefits in terms of reducing emissions: they are fully electric and could supposedly reduce congestion,” says Lucas Snaije, content manager at LA CoMotion, an event focused on the future of urban transportation.

“But full service by 2023 seems unlikely in big cities or over large networks. Some major hurdles are looming: first of all infrastructure repurposing. How will Uber actually deploy its fleets, ensure smooth access, build skyports in time?”

The location and construction of a multitude of “skyports” across the city is an architectural and urban challenge. Passengers will need practical and secured infrastructures in order to be picked up and dropped off the planes. Yet, one thing tech companies cannot yet create is some space in our crammed cities.

Another major concern is the partition between the cities’ sky and ground that the technology might create. The wealthy happy few who could afford it would then fly upon the crowd, as in a doomsday science fiction scenario.

“A lot of discussion today is focused on shiny innovations and forgets about some efficient and sustainable, yet not “sexy” modes of public transit. But these innovations remain extremely exclusive,” says Snaije.

Featured Image by Valentina Cipriani

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