Billionaires and their transportation toys
By: Kevin Robillard
December 4, 2013 05:03 AM EST
Stodgy world of planes, trains and automobiles, meet the billionaires with “Star Trek” dreams.
Technology moguls are brimming with ideas for bringing flying robots, self-driving cars, people-moving tubes and space-traveling tourists to the sleepy realm of transportation, which hasn’t seen a major shakeup in decades.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos wants his drones to air-drop packages to your house, Google is putting big money into driverless cars, PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk has outlined a concept for shooting passengers through a giant “Hyperloop” and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic would launch tourists around the Earth.
But the people who changed the way you shop, send money and search for information are finding it won’t be as easy to change the way you drive, ride and fly.
They’re confronting a transportation sector where public investments are drying up, engineers complain about crumbling roads and bridges and it’s been ages since government initiatives created the likes of the Interstate Highway System. So the billionaires are trying to adapt their shared disrupt-or-die ethos to an industry marked by an obsession with safety, heavy regulations and a fear of failure.
If they succeed, these tycoons would go down in the history books not just next to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs but also alongside Henry Ford and the Wright brothers. But their visions vary wildly in their practicality — self-driving cars could be on the road as soon as 2020, while Musk’s Hyperloop is a pie-in-the-sky proposal that may never move beyond the idea stage.
Can these big-thinking magnates fill transportation’s innovation void?
“You clearly have got companies that are in it to disrupt the space,” said Scott Belcher, president of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a trade group that works at the intersection of technology and transportation. “They don’t want to get dragged down by the government or by the traditional provider.”
But he warned that no single company can single-handedly transform transportation.
Here’s a look at how each of the billionaires’ ideas may fare:
1) Amazon’s drones
Bezos’s announcement Sunday that Amazon hopes to use drones to deliver smaller packages in the next “four, five years” generated a wave of both gee-whiz headlines and skepticism. The FAA has been noncommittal about Bezos’s plan, and even industry backers said the technology needs to improve before drones can deliver DVDs and dresses to people’s front doors.
But Bezos was clearly reveling in the space-age nature of his plan when he revealed it to Charlie Rose on “60 Minutes.”
“I know this looks like science fiction,” he said. “It’s not.”
Deploying the drones would create a major challenge to UPS, FedEx, the Postal Service and other dominant “last-mile” shippers.
Amazon seems to know it will have to persuade the FAA to change its regulatory roadmap, which for now doesn’t include allowing the pilot-less autonomous drones that Bezos’s ideas depend on. The FAA confirmed to POLITICO that Bezos had reached out to safety regulators before Sunday’s announcement, and it’s unlikely Amazon will remain quiet.
How likely? It’ll happen, but Bezos will need cooperation from the FAA and local governments to meet an ambitious timeline.
2) Musk’s Hyperloop
Frustration with the delays and high costs plaguing California’s $68 billion high-speed rail project led Musk to seek an alternative.
“How could it be that the home of Silicon Valley and JPL — doing incredible things like indexing all the world’s knowledge and putting rovers on Mars — would build a bullet train that is both one of the most expensive per mile and one of the slowest in the world?” Musk wrote in a blog post introducing his idea in August.
What he came up with was as bizarre as it was futuristic: He wants to enclose people in aluminum pods and shoot them in a steel tube at speeds exceeding 700 mph, allowing them to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes. Engineers have said Musk’s plan would work — at least on paper. But not even Musk was willing to put up the money to make it a reality.
The lack of interest in constructing a Hyperloop points to a second major difference between Silicon Valley and the transportation world: Major infrastructure projects can’t be coded in a dorm room or a garage. Musk said constructing the Hyperloop would cost $10 billion — a fraction of the high-speed rail plan’s cost — but critics said the amount relies on savings that would never materialize in the real world.
“If and when Mr. Musk pursues his Hyperloop technology, we’ll be happy to share our experience about what it really takes to build a project in California, across seismic zones, minimizing impacts on farms, businesses and communities and protecting sensitive environmental areas and species,” the chairman of California’s High-Speed Rail Authority said at the time.
Raising that money, passing through environmental reviews, acquiring land and constructing a project take years. Since California voters approved the rail project in 2008, Apple has gone through five iPhone models.
“It’s hard to pull innovation into transportation just simply because the infrastructure is owned and operated by public entities for the most part and they’re political and they’re cash-constrained,” Belcher said.
Musk’s other major foray into the transportation world — the Tesla electric car — has met much more success. The company’s stock has had a strong year and Tesla paid back its government loans years early.
But the company has battled with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration over a series of three fires in its signature Model S cars. While the investigation is ongoing, NHTSA could order a recall if it identifies a major problem.
In the tech world, that kind of product failure could be quietly buried and even praised as an experiment. To safety-conscious auto consumers, it would be a permanent black mark.
How likely? With no prototype in development, the Hyperloop is likely to remain a theory for now.
3) Google’s driverless cars
Google isn’t alone in trying to create an autonomous car. But for now, when people think of a self-driving car they’re likely to associate it with the company that makes search engines — not car engines.
“It took Google to basically poke everyone in the eye to get GM to start talking about it and to get Nissan to announce that they’re going to have a driverless car on the road by 2020,” Belcher said. He noted that GM has been researching autonomous cars for the last 15 years and that some of Google’s employees on the driverless car project used to work at GM-funded university research centers.
Google certainly hasn’t been shy about its ambitions. “We want to fundamentally change the world with this,” Google co-founder Sergey Brin told the New Yorker for a piece on driverless cars last month.
Transportation experts say driverless cars are not only practical — they’d be an improvement.
Human error is responsible for about 95 percent of car crashes, a rate that computers could theoretically reduce significantly. A recent study from the Eno Center of Transportation estimated that driverless cars could save $447 billion and 21,700 lives annually by eliminating crashes, and could shrink the auto fleet 40 percent by making it easier to share rides and cars among multiple people. Autonomous cars could also better adjust to gridlock, speeding up commutes and saving gas.
But again, innovation will be slow. The full benefits of autonomous cars won’t be realized until they reach a critical mass. The nation’s automotive fleet turns over about once every 18 years — Google is only 15 years old — so realizing all the technology’s benefits will take decades.
The buy-in for driverless cars by industry and government is high. While automakers disagree on when autonomous cars will be ready, they agree on the goal. Federal safety regulators are expected to issue rules on connected vehicle technology — a key part of making cars autonomous — early in 2014. Earlier this year, Google hired former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Deputy Director Ron Medford as the safety director for the driverless car program.
How likely? Will definitely happen, but the timeline is still in question.
4) Private spaceflight
More than trains, planes and automobiles, billionaires really want to go to space. Bezos, Musk, Branson, Google co-founder Larry Page, ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen have all invested millions in various spaceflight companies.
In 2010, President Barack Obama cleared the field for space companies by announcing that NASA would stop flying astronauts to low-Earth orbit and instead contract out to the private sector. Musk’s SpaceX has had significant success, winning a NASA contract to supply the International Space Station. Hundreds of people have also put down $250,000 deposits to be able to fly on Branson’s Virgin Galactic whenever it begins offering flights.
But more ambitious plans — Musk wants to fly to Mars and Bezos has said he is “super passionate” about “mak[ing] it so that anybody can go into space” — remain grounded for the time being.
How likely? Already happening, but tourism in orbit remains years or decades in the future.