Robo Taxis or high tech tunnels..

Robo-Taxis or High-Tech Tunnels? The Race for Traffic Utopia

After six years covering Silicon Valley, our correspondent asks if Big Tech’s big ideas can survive reality

The Financial Times

Nov 26, 2018 · 11 min read

Illustration: akinbostanci/Getty Images

By Tim Bradshaw in San Francisco

On my first day as a reporter in Silicon Valley, I witnessed what I thought was the greatest product unveiling I had ever seen.

It was a sunny morning, late June 2012. From an airship hovering over downtown San Francisco, a team of stuntmen wearing Google Glass headsets started to leap out into the Californian sky. Inside the Moscone Center, where Google’s annual developer conference was being held, we in the audience watched in awe as they plunged to Earth, the Glass cameras beaming a live video feed of their descent. After landing on the roof and abseiling to the ground, the stuntmen then rode BMXs on stage, where Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, was waiting for them.

It was an exhilarating start to more than six years in California covering the tech industry. But while it was a brilliant piece of theatre, it also turned out to be a distraction. Google Glass was a bust.

I now realise that I should have focused not on the skydivers or their eyewear, but on the airship they jumped out of. Brin, the head of Alphabet’s experimental X lab, has a bit of a thing for blimps. Using his estimated $50bn fortune, Brin has been investing in a start-up that is building a new kind of airship in the heart of Silicon Valley. Job ads for the secretive venture, LTA Research & Exploration (an acronym for “lighter than air”) reference “large experimental flight vehicles” and a motto of “build a little, test a little, learn a lot”.

It is just one of several efforts personally backed by tech billionaires to solve a problem that afflicts even the wealthiest of entrepreneurs: traffic.

Gridlock is the great leveller of the 21st century. Whether you founded Facebook or work in the cafeteria, be you in Los Angeles, London, Beijing or Delhi, you can’t get far without hitting congestion. Ride-hailing services such as Uber, Lyft, Didi or Grab have only exacerbated the problem.

If all of us experience it, few have the combination of imagination, resources and arrogance needed to think we can innovate it away. Tesla and SpaceX boss Elon Musk has his Boring Company digging tunnels underneath Los Angeles and Chicago. Larry Page, Brin’s co-founder at Google and now Alphabet’s chief executive, has invested in at least three start-ups building electric “vertical take-off and landing” vehicles — better known to the rest of us as flying cars.

Tesla, Alphabet-owned Waymo and many others have invested in autonomous driving. Some investors are betting that the solution is simpler: electric scooters and bikes that can be rented via smartphone apps.

Indeed, if billionaires agree on the scale of the problem, they are still arguing about the correct solution, the showboat Musk and his tunnels battling the media-shy Page and his air-taxis.

“This is the only way we can think of to address chronic traffic issues in major cities,” Musk told a Los Angeles “community meeting” to rally support for the Boring Company in May. “The problem with [air-taxis] is there would be zillions of these things flying all over the place. They are going to drop a hubcap and it’s going to guillotine somebody.”

Debates like these — pitting one outlandish idea against another — are the reason I wanted to report from San Francisco.

For the most part, I loved living in a Petri dish of tech experimentation. Venture capitalists are willing to burn cash just to test an idea, allowing local consumers to get a free “on demand” car wash or have that one thing they forgot to buy at the supermarket delivered to their doorstep at zero cost.

But the tech takeover of San Francisco has also meant that its more bohemian side is being pushed out. From dinner parties to the beach, conversations about funding rounds or stock options are inescapable. Too many people seem to forget that the real world existed outside the Silicon Valley bubble.

Yet even if recent years have demonstrated that “move fast and break things” innovation can cause significant collateral damage, Silicon Valley’s ambitions continue to soar. Its denizens want to “cure” death, colonise the solar system and build machines with real human intelligence.

Next to those ideas, congestion may seem more trivial. But even tech workers who can afford San Francisco’s skyrocketing rents can’t get from the trendy Mission district to Palo Alto any faster than the next engineer. Some tech millionaires have crafted their own “hack” to crawling down Silicon Valley’s 101 freeway: decking out nondescript vans with mobile offices or dens, sofas, whiteboards and PlayStations invisible behind blacked-out windows. Who needs driverless cars when you can afford a private driver 24/7?

But behind the obsession with flying over or digging under traffic, perhaps there is also a realisation that Big Tech needs to solve some of the problems it has created. And one of those problems is Uber.

When I arrived in Silicon Valley in 2012, Uber was used only for hiring black limousines. Venture capitalists were more concerned with photo-sharing apps than ride-hailing.

But as the company grew, it made me realise that tech could step out from behind the screen and exist in the physical world, moving atoms as well as pixels. It was a revolution, but not one without harmful effects.

A 2017 study by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority found that average travel speeds at peak times through key arterial routes have fallen by more than 25 per cent since 2009 — the year Uber was founded. App-based services such as Uber and Lyft have quickly grown to make up 9 per cent of all trips made by individuals around the city, the authority found. While population increases are also culpable, the study blames these “transportation network companies” for 50 per cent of the change in congestion between 2010 and 2016, as measured by increased delays and falling speeds.

In San Francisco, many companies even pay for their employees’ Uber rides to and from the office. Not only does this add to congestion, it deprives the public transport network of passengers and revenue.

Mindful of these issues, Uber is investing in both autonomous and flying cars, in the hopes of boosting its long-term growth prospects. Yet it is far from clear that autonomous cars can alleviate congestion as long as human drivers also remain on the roads.

Earlier this month, I took a ride around San Francisco in one of the self-driving cars being tested by Silicon Valley start-up Zoox, which has succeeded in raising almost $800m in private financing. I have been a passenger on autonomous test rides before, but not approaching rush hour nor on streets as narrow or as busy as San Francisco’s North Beach and Telegraph Hill districts. The Zoox SUV waited for pedestrians, took tricky left turns and wound around steep alleys — all without clipping any wing mirrors. I’m not sure I could do as well.

Musk’s Boring Company has a snail as its mascot, and speed is its problem — snails move at 0.03mph; Musk’s fastest tunnelling machine at 0.003mph

But when my Zoox robot pulled up behind a FedEx van that had paused on a sharp corner, it was flummoxed. The double yellow line on our two-track road made it illegal to drive around. The bend up ahead meant that even a remote operator scanning the car’s sensors and cameras could not tell for sure whether it was safe to overtake.

This is the point at which human drivers start honking impatiently. After a long pause, the safety driver — who sits behind the wheel ready to take control if something goes wrong — took the wheel and around we went.

Zoox says that the “double-parked vehicle” problem is solvable with better software and handling from the “tele-operator” that will step in from central command. But even so, it makes me worry that robo-taxis will just end up frustrating human drivers.

Zoox’s co-founder and chief techno­logy officer, Jesse Levinson, insists that his robots (he doesn’t like calling them “cars”) can alleviate congestion. “Most people can’t afford to pay someone to drive them around all the time,” he said. “No matter what, we can be significantly cheaper than Uber and Lyft.”

Cheaper robo-taxis could mean fewer people cruising around looking for on-street parking, which, Levinson says, makes up one-third of traffic. In time, responsive robots will be able to drive closer to the car in front of them than a distracted human. “If you have a fleet of autonomous vehicles and you can optimise for their reaction times, you could probably double the number of vehicles on the highway without any new infrastructure.”

Five years from now, you may well be looking down on these problems from the sky, if Uber’s predictions are correct. It reckons it can begin operating commercial “air-taxis” as early as 2023 in its chosen testbeds of Dallas and Los Angeles. The “Uber Air” idea is to operate a network of electric aircraft that are a hybrid of helicopter, drone and private jet. Uber does not want to build or own the flying vehicles itself, but there are already dozens of start-ups building such craft. These will hop between “vert­iports” that Uber can strategically position by drawing on data from its car-routing business.

All it needs are people to manufacture the vehicles, build the vertiports and oversee the swarming airspace — and several more Larry Pages to fund them all. Sounds bonkers, but Uber is taking it seriously. The “Uber Elevate” summit, which convenes entrepreneurs, manufacturers and regulators in the aerospace industry, has just held its second edition.

Jeff Holden, then Uber’s chief product officer, told the Elevate attendees in Los Angeles this May that: “Just as building up with skyscrapers solve the problem of residential and commercial density in cities, moving transportation to the sky will alleviate transportation density on the ground as well … Three-dimensional space is much higher bandwidth than moving on the ground.”

But it’s a vision that demands scale. Uber’s number-crunching suggests that in a city with 40 “nodes” or launch pads and 1,000 vehicles, the cost per passenger could be as little as 44 cents per mile — cheaper than what the American Automobile Association estimates is the true cost of car ownership, including depreciation, fuel and maintenance.

Yet as Uber itself admits, there are only a few hundred helicopters made every year — “nothing close to the scale that we need”, said Eric Allison, Uber’s head of aviation programmes.

And then there’s the noise. Anyone who has flown a camera drone can imagine how loud a fleet of 1,000 four-person vehicles might be. And that is before considering the complex safety and regulatory requirements.

Uber and its allies have managed to convince me that flying cars, though still pretty crazy, are not impossible.

They have not convinced everybody.

“I actually don’t know any way to make the physics of this work because of the sheer amount of wing force to carry the weight of a person,” Elon Musk told his acolytes at his own LA event, held soon after Uber’s. “If you can’t go 3D up, what about going 3D down?”

Musk’s vision for the Boring Company is no less ambitious and outlandish than Uber Air. “In theory, you could have hundreds of levels of tunnels,” he told attendees. “We get to use rocket technology to build tunnels.”

So far, the reality seems more modest — an underground rail link between downtown Chicago and O’Hare Airport and a proposed 3.6-mile “dugout loop” to ferry Los Angeles baseball fans to Dodger Stadium.

Musk admits that digging tunnels is not quite as challenging as space flight. “We are using a really first-rate engineering talent to solve problems that I think are pretty straightforward,” he said.

Uber just needs people to manufacture the aircraft, build the vertiports and oversee the swarming airspace. Sounds bonkers, but it is taking it seriously

But speed, as indicated by the Boring Company mascot, is a problem. Gary the snail was chosen because snails move at 0.03mph. The fastest boring machine runs at 0.003mph.

“We do want to be faster than a snail,” declared Musk. “It’s way harder than it sounds.”

Both the Chicago and LA loops will be privately funded, so the company will need to make a return on fares. The “dugout loop” will run under “public land” but emerge on sites that the company already owns. This, Musk hopes, will reduce costs and bureaucracy.

David Levinson, professor of transport engineering at the University of Sydney, reckons that Musk’s tunnelling stands a higher chance of success than air-taxis. But he thinks the best way to prevent traffic is to charge for road use.

“It’s a political problem,” he says. “You can implement road pricing faster than you can build new infrastructure or new technology.” If only the idea were not so unpopular with electorates.

Sitting in the audience at that Google event in 2012, fresh off the plane from London, I felt catapulted into the future. Watching YouTube replays of the jump today makes me nostalgic for that more naively optimistic era in Silicon Valley.

But it was revisiting Page’s appearance at the following year’s Google I/O conference that really brought home to me how much Silicon Valley has changed. The Alphabet chief was asked by a young developer how to “reduce the negativity” and focus on “changing the world”.

Page was quick to blame “old institutions” for failing to adapt to Silicon Valley’s innovations. “A law can’t be right if it’s more than 50 years old — that’s before the internet,” he answered. “There’s many, many exciting and important things you could do that you just can’t do because they’re illegal or they’re not allowed by regulation.”

His proposed solution, however, was not to fix the law or win people outside Silicon Valley around to his way of thinking. Instead, it was to “set aside a small part of the world” where “a few people can try out different things and not everybody has to go” — a space he likened to the freewheeling arts festival Burning Man, held in the Nevada desert.

“Because I’m worried we’re not making some of the fundamental changes we need to make fast enough,” added Page, who owns an island in the Caribbean.

It is hard to imagine any tech executive voicing such an idea today, in the thick of the tech backlash. Against the backdrop of calls for tighter regulation of the industry it may seem that the era of “move fast and break things” is on the wane. Yet many in Silicon Valley still harbour escapist ambitions.

I for one am delighted that billionaires are throwing their money at making their sci-fi dreams come true. Unfashionable as the view is right now, I remain excited by the promise and potential of new techno­logy. The question is how to ensure it is used responsibly. Its innovators must learn to tell the difference between legal gridlock and common-sense rules of the road.

Tim Bradshaw is the FT’s global technology correspondent

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Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

© 2018 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

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