I’ve published a fair amount of material on driverless cars, but haven’t had much to say about other forms of conveyance, which could also have real effects on jobs and the economy. Which ones am I talking about, and what’s happening with them?
Starting with the largest, in addition to his other escapades, “Musk floats possibility of hyperloop tunnel between Austin, San Antonio” (Andrew Miller, Fox Business, August 23rd). The transit form, which uses generally underground tunnels and magnetic-propulsion capsules, has been successfully tested at 100 miles per hour with humans aboard and 200 mph unmanned, and if implemented for longer distances could go over 600 mph. It could work and could be built, but “Is the Hyperloop Doomed?” (Eric A. Taub, The New York Times, September 22nd). Taub related that “some industry observers believe that regulatory, financial and political hurdles may doom hyperloop as a viable high-speed alternative to air travel,” mainly because “a hyperloop system would require creating an entire infrastructure,” involving “constructing miles-long systems of tubes and stations, acquiring rights of way, adhering to government regulations and standards, and avoiding changes to the ecology along its routes.” Various planned efforts, from Alberta to the United Arab Emirates, have stalled or fizzled out also from a lack of capital. Overall, a few isolated routes could be built, but constructing a tunnel network matching the complexity of European rail lines would be daunting even in an age of adequate civic-project will.
Without changing the logistics of air travel, we have had efforts to ease its hassles. One is hitting controversy, as if you are “Annoyed with Clear, the Company That Fast-Tracks Its Customers Through Airports?” (David Zipper, Slate.com, December 20th), you will need to “get in line.” Customers of that product, designed to jump TSA PreCheck priority lines, have their fingerprints and retinas registered and are escorted to the front. Zipper called it “a way for a company – and airports themselves – to make money at the expense of passengers,” said “its insertion into aviation security undermines a core government function,” and, unlike PreCheck, provides “no public benefit.” Although Clear had a successful 2021 IPO, its survival does seem uncertain.
In the age of hybrid and variable work schedules, what new forms is commuter transportation taking? Per its communication pieces, the Via company has been offering alternatives, now in Germany, Tokyo, Canada, and America’s Silicon Valley. Via’s on-demand “corporate shuttles” allow employees to walk to nearby points for rides to large corporate building complexes. Their BASF Standort Shuttle also deals with the problem of getting around a huge office park, and BlueVia works like Lyft or Uber, but is company-provided. These innovations, which could be called gap-fillers, may become more and more common, and there will be more.
The most basic electric vehicle problem is the inability to power them up, and, as Mark Phelan put it in the August 17th Detroit Free Press, “EV drivers aren’t happy with public chargers, new survey says. Neither am I.” What may seem like the number of charging stations not keeping pace with the faster growing number of electric cars has, per Phelan, been worse than that. He reported that “just this month” he “had a charger stop working long before the battery was full” and had “been double-billed for a single charge.” Even an industry president asked, “what if one of every four times you went to the gas station, the pumps weren’t working?,” and called the current state of charging facilities “totally unacceptable.” These malfunctions have been particularly irritating to users shopping during charging and then discovering they had received little or no power. In general, drivers expect the same readiness and reliable refueling, and refilling times almost as short, as they get from gas or diesel-powered vehicles. They don’t have that yet.
However, per Jack Ewing and Peter Eavis in the November 13th New York Times, we are seeing “Electric Vehicles Start to Enter the Car-Buying Mainstream.” Sales for the first nine months of 2022 made up 5.6% of new vehicle sales, up from 2.9% for the same time last year. Although this article took a more favorable view of electric cars than the previous one, it still pointed out that “chargers are few and far between outside coastal urban areas,” that planning trips is much harder since the locations of charging stations and the time they take need to be incorporated, that they use more power when more loaded, that many owners also see a need to have gas-powered vehicles, and that home charging, the cheapest and most convenient method, usually takes “all night.” Electric vehicles are most suitable when they are in cities and driven limited miles, but any idea that most people will be happy to trade in their liquid fuel-powered ones is not yet justified.
Finally, we have the smallest transportation form. Are you ready for “Green Technology” (David Zipper, again in Slate.com, August 15th)? He’s not kidding – he’s talking about golf carts! Some places, notably Sun City West in Arizona, allow them on roads, while others, such as Peachtree City, Georgia now have many on bicycle routes and other paths. There, these roughly $10,000-when-new items do not require licenses or insurance and can be driven by people aged 12-15 with adults on board and by anyone 16 or older. I could see these becoming popular nationwide, and, yes, they do consume less power. It may be that the best and most practical new transportation form is the smallest – be ready.