This Guy Wants Us to Commute in Autonomous, On-Demand Pods
When Tommaso Gecchelin envisions the future of urban transportation, he, like many people, imagines a system of driverless electric cars. But in Gecchelin’s vision, the system is modular. Its boxy vehicles are flat-sided, identically sized, and can link up and disconnect on the fly. He calls the concept “Next,” and foresees it providing both on-demand rides and shared public transportation, like a futuristic cross between Uber and the city bus. Imagine a Next pod pulling up to your house in the morning, before scooping up your neighbor, and then, once it’s on a main road heading for downtown, affixing itself to another couple pods. Everyone goes to work, together.
Next also calls for a third feature: privately-owned pods, owned and operated by businesses, that riders can summon to indulge in on-the-go services like grocery pick-up or coffee delivery. This, combined with its personal- and public-transportation features, makes Next a veritable sundae of Silicon Valley-flavored lifestyle goals. On-demand rides and services? Check. Electric vehicles? Check. Autonomous electric vehicles? Yes, of course.
Gecchelin, an Italian engineer and industrial designer, came up with the idea for Next while working for another design studio on a “bus of the future” style project. Once, while interviewing bus riders in Venice, Gecchelin talked to a woman who said that, in her ideal future, public transportation would be more than a way of getting from place to place. Gecchelin was inspired.
“The future of transportation is life in motion,” says Gecchelin. To explain this idea, he draws on the ever-popular analogy of the iPhone and the App Store: If he can provide the right hardware, third parties can use it as a framework for developing new businesses and services. Imagine a company that retrieves your checked luggage, then delivers it straight to the Next pod you’ve hitched a ride home on from the airport. Or a business that lets you summon a bathroom on-the-go. What if Starbucks could deliver coffee to your car? These ideas were too futuristic for the firm he was working for at the time, so he struck out on his own and founded Next.
For now, Next is just a concept. Gecchelin says he has “the virtual part—the blueprints, the engineering,” and that the modules he’s designing can be built with off-the-shelf parts and powered by existing software. The modules, he says, will behave like Google’s self-driving cars, and make similar use of sensors and LIDAR. Gecchelin won’t disclose names, but says Next is in talks with a “major German player” for the hardware, and that a few German cities, and one Lithuanian one, are potential civic partners. And he’s ambitious. Gecchelin estimates Next will be up and running by 2020.
But Costa Samaras, a Carnegie Mellon engineering professor and co-author of Autonomous Vehicle Technology: A Guide for Policymakers, says 15 to 30 years out is more realistic. For one thing, self-driving vehicles are still in the development stage. “What we think of as a level four autonomous car, one that drives itself even if you’re sleeping in the back, that is a possible technology but it’s not one that’s without error,” Samaras says. Autonomous cars are still learning to sense, plan, and act. Modular autonomous vehicles, like the ones Gecchelin envisions, would need to be able to do all those things in concert with eachother, while also navigating the obstacles of the road. That’s an entirely new layer of tech development.
Next would also require new infrastructure. The vehicles Gecchelin has envisioned are spacious enough to accommodate six seated passengers and four standing ones—and any vehicle with room for ten people is going to require a lot of energy. “You’ve gone from a small, electric car to what’s essentially an airport-style shuttle,” Samaras says. These modules will need big batteries, and more charging stations. To solve for that, Gecchelin envisions a system of swappable batteries that pods can deliver to other pods in transit. Then there’s the issue of coordinating these pods. Think about optimizing the logistics of the Next network: it’s like mashing up Uber’s highly evolved map with city bus routes and schedules (which are already never on time). That’ll require new software.
Then there’s the matter of the people actually riding in Next’s modules, and what they might be asked to pay for it. Car ownership is still common in the United States. “We sell 16 million new vehicles and about 40-million used ones every year,” Samaras says. “Is everybody going to need a self driving vehicle in the beginning? Absolutely not.” But a system like Next, depending on its price, “could prevent people from buying their first car, if they live in a city.”
Next may be a highly speculative concept, but Samaras says a lot of Gecchelin’s ideas make sense. We’re increasingly mobile, and more and more, we like our services that way, too. We might not all want a driverless vehicle right now, but then, many of us are already comfortable abandoning agency as we travel from place to place. (How often do you see, or even think about, the conductor operating your train or subway car?). All in all, says Samaras, “the concept is powerful.”
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