Join a discussion about “The Next Big Thing” and you most likely will be talking about computing and digital communications—the next phone, the next tablet, the next connected watch. But consumers have a dismal record of anticipating The Next Big Thing when they look at the world beyond their mobile devices.
At one point, for example, flat-panel displays seemed to offer the ultimate in TV watching, but then HDTV emerged and changed everything. Today, rapidly evolving Ultra HD offers four to 16 times the resolution of HDTV. The same “failure of foresight” can be applied to DVDs/streaming video, automatic coffeemakers/K-cup pods and two-day home delivery/same-day drone delivery.
Now many of us seem to be suffering this same limited vision in the way we perceive the transportation industry. The focus of media and consumer attention has been drawn to autonomous vehicles, the self-driving cars that companies like BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Google are racing to get on to the world’s highways and autobahns. But while driverless cars may be the next big thing, the next next big things in transportation already are taking shape.
Uber has led the parade of consumers who suddenly have taken up car sharing. What we once thought was the ultimate convenience of taxis and limos is being supplanted by tapping a smartphone to request a ride that, according to Uber, is better, faster and cheaper than alternatives. The next big thing for car sharing will be technology from auto suppliers that automatically adjusts the unfamiliar car-for-hire’s seating and environment to match the individual needs of each passenger. We can envision this personalized, spur-of-the-moment type of transportation extending in the future to everything from motorcycles to private airplanes and train cars.
Just off the highway, the next big thing in railroad transportation is likely to be high-speed bullet trains zipping Texans between Dallas and Houston, a distance of 240 miles, in just 90 minutes for a fare that is 70 to 80 percent of the cost for a regional flight. Planning is well underway by Texas Central Railway, which hopes to begin operations by 2021. While hopes for similar trains in other parts of the country have derailed or diminished considerably, the private funding of the Texas train is propelling it forward.
But wait—don’t fail to foresee the next big thing beyond bullet trains. Elon Musk, the innovator behind Space X and the Tesla, is working with partner developers to create what he calls the Hyperloop. This transportation system that seems to have materialized from the pages of a science-fiction novel consists of a steel tube through which passenger-bearing pods are propelled by linear induction motors along the track to speeds of 600 to 800 mph. The pods float on a layer of air like the puck on an air hockey table. Musk anticipates a Hyperloop in California could shoot megacity commuters from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes—about the time it takes to drive to downtown Detroit from the city’s outer suburbs. Just 18 months after announcing the concept, Musk is ready to build a five-mile test track for the Hyperloop (again, most likely in Texas) as a place for companies and student teams to test out pods.
The Next Big Thing is lifting personal transportation off the ground, as well. Despite a disastrous crash during a test flight last October, Virgin Galactic continues to promote its SpaceShip Two as the flagship of the world’s first “spaceline.” It’s designed to carry anyone who can afford the $250,000 fare on suborbital trips into space, just for the thrill or for more substantive purposes, like conducting research and experiments in zero G. Virgin Galactic expects to launch a replacement ship later this year to move its spaceline system forward.
With projects—and projections—like these, the transportation industry is poised to rival the wireless industry as The Next Big Thing in the evolution of technology.