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Dude, where's my jetpack?

By now, we were supposed to be living in a futuristic setting with skyscrapers, personal helicopters, and of course, jetpacks. What’s the holdup? Hint: It’s not the technology.

When people in the 1950s and 1960s envisioned what future cities would look like, their expectations had a lot to do with transportation. It’s not surprising, given what was going on at the time. The U.S. and Soviet Union were sending rockets into space, and the interstate highway system was promising to reduce traffic jams and make travel faster and safer.

Progress could easily be measured in getting there faster. Los Angelenos, tired of being stuck on freeways, dreamed of entering the third dimension. Soon, we were promised, every household would have its own airplane or personal helicopter, followed by personal spaceships, as imagined in the popular TV show “The Jetsons.” And of course, eschewing the vehicle altogether, there would be jetpacks, which even the mailman would use.

What happened? Shouldn’t we have our jetpacks by now?

Actually, transportation is moving closer to what we saw in science fiction. But at this point, the real roadblock has to do with policy, not technology.

Autonomous vehicles

If you saw the 1990 movie “Total Recall,” you’ll remember Johnny Cab, the robot cab driver. But what was science fiction just a quarter century ago is on the verge of becoming reality, with autonomous vehicles being explored for personal and shared use, public transit, and shipping.

Autonomous vehicles could do more than let you safely put on your makeup during your commute. They could actually reduce the number of vehicles on the road. Doing so would cut congestion and air pollution and ultimately save people money, says Greg Scott, government relations representative for the American Car Rental Association, a Washington, D.C., trade association. 

“Each major player is beginning to view themselves not as ‘car rental’ but ‘mobility provider,’ whether it’s a rental car or a crosstown trip,” Scott says. The lines of distinction between service providers like car rental outfits and shared ride services such as Uber and Lyft are also blurring, with several major car rental companies investing in shared vehicle services like Zipcar.

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That’s changing how people acquire and use automotive transportation. “Increasingly, you’re no longer going to an airport or a car rental lot,” Scott points out. “There may be a car on the street. You unlock it based on your reservation, drive it for three days or 30 minutes, leave it at an approved spot, and move on with your day.”

Autonomous vehicles are likely to be more expensive, and families may no longer need two or three cars. The result will be less personal ownership a decade or two down the road, Scott says. And even those cars might end up being shared when not in use; services like Turo and Getaround already exist today and are essentially Airbnb for cars, he says. “What percentage of time is a vehicle in use rather than in a garage or at home?” asks Scott. “In my case, it’s probably 20 percent of the time. Wouldn’t it make sense to share that with other people?”

So what about that jetpack?

The problem with jetpacks, personal helicopters, and other air environments is figuring out how they would all interact in the airspace. Road-based vehicles have enough trouble, and they’re all on a single level. There’s also the licensing issue. Would you need a pilot’s license to have a jetpack? How would the Federal Aviation Association deal with having lots of flying vehicles in a city?

What’s more likely is that flying vehicles would also be autonomous, says Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director of the Center for City Solutions from the National League of Cities in Washington, D.C.  “There’s lots still to be worked out there,” he says. “Everyone remembers the Jetsons' future and is still hoping.”

“The technology exists, but it’s a very different way of transportation,” says Sven Beiker, a lecturer at Stanford Business School and managing director of Silicon Valley Mobility, a consulting and advisory council that looks at trends in mobility. “We would need to figure out how to regulate it and make it safe. It could create quite a mess.”

What might be more likely is a personal vertical takeoff and landing vehicle, largely autonomous, that doesn’t require a runway or a pilot’s license and could take off from a rooftop, Beiker says. “We find the route from San Francisco to San Jose to be a pretty popular one for those scenarios,” he says. That trip can take up to two hours in a car but could be less than half an hour flying. Uber is also working with cities such as Los Angeles and Dubai on a potential flying car environment, he adds.

The problem is still one of congestion and safety, Beiker says. For example, San Francisco has already limited the use of delivery robots on sidewalks because of concerns that they could cause congestion and interfere with pedestrians. If Amazon succeeds in developing its drone-based delivery system, the airspace could become just as crowded.

Smart vehicles need smart roads

When the vehicles get smarter, the infrastructure needs to get smarter, too. In fact, making the roads smarter could mean that future autonomous vehicles don’t have to be quite as smart, because the infrastructure does more of the work for them, Rainwater says. For example, autonomous vehicles currently need redundant systems with cameras and light detection and radar (LIDAR) sensors because lane markings aren’t uniform across the country. “Creating more uniformity in infrastructure would help alleviate some of those challenges over time," he says.

While only 38 percent of cities have looked at regulations around autonomous vehicles—and that’s up from 6 percent in 2015, Rainwater says—some cities are taking steps. For instance, San Leandro, California, is building a “smart city” platform with sensors and a mesh network on all its streetlights that takes advantage of the city’s 10-gigabit, 20-mile fiber network loop, says Deborah Acosta, the city’s chief innovation officer. “If we put sensors on our streetlights, what kind of benefit can that provide for the future of smart driving?” she says. For example, the sensors could work with the cars, using machine learning, to help the smart driverless car know what kind of traffic flows it should anticipate, she says. In fact, companies have already started approaching San Leandro to work with them on such projects, she adds.

In addition, the city worked with six students from Harvey Mudd College this summer to help develop a smart garbage can, Acosta says. “If you have a big waste management truck stopping at every can three times a week, whether or not there’s anything in them, you’re blocking traffic on this narrow street and spewing carbon,” she says. Instead, the smart garbage receptacle is emptied only when needed, she says.

Policy, not technology

But all those sensors, and all those autonomous vehicles, generate a lot of data, and that exemplifies the sort of policy problems that need to be solved before next-generation transportation can take off. “Right now, the general concept is that you and I own the data in the cars that we own,” Scott says. “The question is going to start to arise, who should have access to and control that data?” For example, should it be the owner of the vehicle, the manufacturer, or in a shared vehicle situation, the driver?

At the moment, based on 2015 legislation around data recorders—similar to the flight recorders in airplanes but for cars—Congress has said that, in general, the owner of the car owns the data, Scott says. But the Senate currently is considering the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act, which now also includes an amendment calling for a federal advisory committee to provide recommendations on the ownership and use of this data. If the bill passes, a committee will be appointed within six months, which will then work on recommendations for two years and report back to Congress, Scott says.

Data also becomes a public policy issue because organizations ranging from cities and law enforcement to car repair shops also are interested in that data, Scott says. “From the point of view of cities, you want to make sure they have access to the data generated by cars, so they can change stop light patterns or access onto freeways based on the volume of vehicles,” he explains.

Once the policy issues get worked out, “there are lots of good development opportunities to shift toward people and away from personally owned automobiles,” Rainwater says. For example, because autonomous vehicles can follow more closely, that can bring down road sizes, widen sidewalks, and result in denser buildings because parking will no longer be required, he says. In fact, people building parking garages are now developing them differently so they can be more easily transitioned to other uses when they are no longer needed for parking, he adds. The result, ironically, could be a less car-dependent city than in the past century.

“We’re actually in one of the most exciting times for transportation and mobility,” Rainwater says. “Whether it’s autonomous vehicles or far-out ideas like Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, we’re no longer where the only thing we can do are planes, trains, and automobiles.”

Just don’t get too hung up on it being with a jetpack, though. 

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