Underground, overground, carbon free. The future of transport is soon to be.

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For those based in the UK and over forty years old, you probably read the article’s title with a particular theme tune running through your head. For those who don’t fall into that category, you need to get acquainted with a ground of furry, subterranean eco-warriors called The Wombles, who graced UK TV screens in the early-mid 1970s. Here are the opening credits for those who fancy a trip down memory lane. The Wombles were the original circular economy advocates, collecting, reusing, repurposing and recycling waste 50 years before it became fashionable. Unfortunately, they limited their sustainability activities to just one common in southwest London (Wimbledon), which probably explains why they aren’t more well known.

Anyway, as the theme tune goes, underground and overground are where these eco-warriors reside, and it is also where the next phase of this wave’s sustainable transportation revolution is focused, as I shall explain.

Techno-Economic Paradigm Shifts

As I detail in Transition Point, the waves of progress (Kondratieff Waves) that have allowed us to move from a population of farmers and artisan craftspeople to video game streamers and TikTok influencers are driven by technological breakthroughs in 4 major areas – power, communication, production, and transportation. These are often combined, creating a techno-economic paradigm shift and initiating the processes of creative destruction. Whole new industries emerge based on the new paradigm at the expense of the incumbent businesses that were based around the old one. But that’s progress.

The following diagram shows the different power sources, transport mechanisms and communication mechanisms created in each of the previous five waves.

Source: Transition Point: From Steam to the Singularity

However, these large-scale technological advancements are not adopted immediately but follow the same adoption pattern and rules of diffusion as smaller innovations, especially Amara’s Law, based on researcher, scientist, and futurist Roy Amara’s observation that ‘we tend to overestimate the impact of a technology in the short-term, but under-estimate it in the long-term.’ Basically, we get all excited about the potential of a new technology when we first see it, but then interest wanes when the early versions underwhelm, have unforeseen problems or take longer than expected to become industrialised. Technology diffusion models such as Gartner’s Hype Cycle explain this well – first, the innovation enters the Peak of Inflated Expectations, then falls into the Trough of Disillusionment, and then, if it survives, it reaches the mass market and spreads across society. If the technology fails to cross the chasm, it disappears or becomes a niche product. If it does manage to escape the trough of disillusionment and cross the chasm, then it can rapidly shift from a novelty to a utility.

I have been thinking about Amara’s Law and the diffusion of innovation a lot recently (I know, get a life), especially around the areas of power generation, communication, production, and transportation that cause these techno-economic paradigm shifts. As I’ve written many times, the first phase of this wave’s new innovations is approaching a tipping point and are set to exit the trough of disillusionment and reach mass adoption. However, there is a second phase of more disruptive innovations that are either still in the early stages of development or stuck in the trough. What I’m going to do over the coming weeks is an analysis of the state of play of the key innovations in each of these sectors, starting with transportation because it was reading headlines about advancements in this area that caused me to think about Amara’s Law and the innovation diffusion process.

Phase One Transportation Innovations

In the first phase of this wave’s transportation paradigm shift, we have seen numerous advancements in vehicles that travel ‘on the ground’, mostly focused on two areas: cleaner fuel sources (such as electric, hydrogen and biofuels) and autonomous driving capabilities. The latter is an excellent example of Amara’s Law in practice, as huge levels of excitement and expectations were generated when it emerged. Back in 2012, Google’s constant testing of their autonomous Toyota Priuses across the streets of Mountain View led people to believe (me included) that fully autonomous cars would be a regular sight by 2020. This belief was compounded by bold statements by people such as Elon Musk and Uber’s then-CEO Travis Kalanick, who predicted a world of autonomous taxis was just around the corner. The Japanese government also announced that attendees to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo would be ferried around by robo-taxis. As it happened, not only did Japan not have robo-taxis in 2020, but they also didn’t have the Olympics then either. This optimism wasn’t limited to personal vehicles either. In my keynotes back in 2012/13, I often showed a video of Volvo’s truck platooning initiative called Project SATRE, where they demonstrated multiple trucks wirelessly connected to and autonomously following a lead truck that was driven by a human. A decade has since passed, but I’m yet to see platoons of autonomous trucks gracing the roads.

Electric-powered vehicles (EVs), however, have managed to escape the trough of disillusionment. The technology is not new, but for years the only mainstream representative was the very boring Toyota Prius hybrid. Tesla changed all that, making EVs cool, and expansions to the charging network have helped to alleviate range anxiety. As a result, EV sales have exploded, increasing 55% YoY from May 2021 to May 2022 and reaching 12.6% of all US car sales in Q2 2022. Trucking is another area that is excited by the prospect of alternate fuels, and not just electric. While we wait for Tesla’s Semi truck to be released next year, hydrogen and bio-fuel trucks are slowly increasing. McDonald’s now advertises that all of its trucks run off bio-fuels, whereas hydrogen is increasingly looking like a viable fuel source for road haulage, with Toyota announcing just this month that they plan to release hydrogen fuel-cell trucks to the Japanese market next year.[i] Likewise, Volvo is also developing hydrogen trucks, partnering with Danish company Everfuel, which is supplying green hydrogen and fuelling solutions in both Northern Sweden and Spain for their testing program.[ii]

But what if the future of transportation involves a different mode of transport, not just a different fuel source? This is where the Wombles reference comes in (I got there, eventually), for it looks like underground and overground is where logistics is going. Let’s take a look at the transportation technologies that are starting to ascend the hype cycle and which will likely become the emissions-free means by which we move goods and people in the 2030s and beyond.

We’re going underground (going underground)…

I’ve written about the potential of underground logistics before (in 2020 and earlier this year), but recent headlines have highlighted just how transformative this transport mode is likely to be. The idea of moving freight transport off the roads and underground is one that excites many because it combines speed with sustainability, using clean energy to move goods at ultra-high speeds. It also frees the road system from much of the freight traffic, removing traffic bottlenecks and shortening travel times for commuters and other travellers. As governments commit to Net-Zero initiatives while correspondingly looking to lay down strong foundations for the future, the idea of creating a network of tunnels that connect ports and major fulfilment centres together becomes increasingly appealing. Some of these are very ambitious in size, such as the Cargo sous terrain project in Switzerland, the first phase of which is a 10-stop, 70-km (43-mile) series of underground tunnels which is due to start moving cargo in 2031 and will link the main distribution centres around the village of Härkingen-Niederbipp to the Zurich metropolitan area.[iii]

Source: Cargo sous terrain

Most people have heard of the Hyperloop – Elon Musk’s idea to revitalise the centuries-old concept of moving people and goods around in underground vacuum tunnels, only this time by using ultrafast, clean MagLev technology instead of pneumatic tubes. This technology has made the leap from concept to prototype and is now being developed by several different companies around the world. Focus has shifted to the movement of freight, not people. Virgin Hyperloop has recently announced that it will focus on carrying cargo and claimed that more than 100 countries have inquired about the construction of over 2,600 hyperloop tunnels, including Canada, Europe, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, India, China and Russia, as well as the US. Japan has already started building a super-speed maglev levitation train system linking Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. They are in competition with Hyperloop TT, who announced plans to build the HyperPort, their vision of the hyperloop-connected port of the future and which will allow 2,800 containers a day to be moved at airplane speeds at freight costs with zero emissions. A video of the concept can be seen here.

In Canada, TransPod has begun the next phase in its ultra-fast hyperloop project in Alberta. Scheduled to run between Edmonton and Calgary, its construction is predicted to create up to 140,000 jobs and add $19.2 billion to the region’s GDP.[iv] Over in the US, the signing of the $1 trillion Infrastructure Act has enabled Hyperloop Transport Technologies to apply for future funding, something that was holding back the development of hyperloop projects. And in the UK, Magway has launched a new funding program aiming to secure £750,000 to continue its development of an underground network of tube logistic parcel delivery services to enable organisations to move goods between distribution hubs while reducing the reliance on delivery vehicles and drivers. There were 4.17 billion parcel shipments in the UK in 2020, so removing the bulk of that transport off the roads would bring enormous benefits. The market for underground transportation is looking promising, with a June 2022 Research and Markets report on the global hyperloop technology market predicting it to be worth US$7.19bn by 2027, exhibiting a CAGR of 40.79% during 2022-2027.

Magway Concept. Source: Magway.

Boring.

Cars require a road network, trains a rail network, and hyperloops require a sophisticated way to drill a network of large tunnels through the earth with various degrees of rock hardness, from soft to almost impenetrable. However drilling tunnels is an expensive, complicated, and very time-consuming business, which is why Elon Musk created a separate company – the Boring Company – to specifically focus on that aspect of the development. Tunnels are traditionally dug using massive, mechanical rotary boring machines, which scratch cutting wheels against rock and evacuate the debris behind them, lining the tunnel walls as they go. The whole process is painstakingly slow and very expensive, and the cutting heads and drill bits need changing and maintenance on a regular basis.

However, a headline last week caught my eye and made me think that these underground transportation projects could arrive a little faster than originally planned. A new plasma boring robot has been developed that can dig tunnels 100 times faster and 98% cheaper than conventical tunnelling techniques, drastically increasing the speed while significantly reducing the cost of underground tunnelling projects, making previously unfeasible projects economically viable. These new robotic systems use thermal drilling, which uses a combination of heat (27,000 degrees Celsius) and high pressure to destroy rocks by vaporising & spallation (breaking the rock into little bits) without touching the rock walls. It is capable of boring 1km a day through the hardest rocks on earth, stuff that would normally destroy traditional drilling equipment. Two US start-ups – Petra and Earthgrid – are competing to develop this technology. While Petra is focusing on tunnels for underground utilities (sewage, water, electricity) and communication piping, Earthgrid’s Rapid Burrowing Robot (RBR) has the potential to be used on larger tunnels, such as those needed for cargo transport.[v] These new tunnelling tools have very low operating costs because they don’t require the drill bits and cutter heads to be changed multiple times a day, are emissions-free as they run purely on electricity, and because they are robotic, require less human labour. There is also significantly less debris to dispose of as the rocks are shattered and vaporised.

So that’s cheaper holes, but what about the things that travel through them carrying the cargo? Maglev trains have historically been hard and expensive to build, despite lower ongoing maintenance costs than regular trains. However, Chinese engineers have developed a solution that uses superconductive levitators that don’t require extremely low temperatures to maintain their electromagnetic properties. The prototype for this new maglev train was demoed at a test track in Chengdu on January 13th, 2022, and they believe that it could be commercially available by 2028. It is expected to be able to achieve speeds of 800km/h (497mph) on above-ground tracks, which means that if implemented in airless, below-ground tubes, speeds of 1,000km/h should be possible.

Superhighways in the Sky

That’s ‘on-the-ground’ and underground – but what about moving things overground, i.e. in the sky? There’s been a lot of air freight movement as a result of the pandemic and the supply chain issues that blighted sea transport, but it’s the traditional, high-cost, not very sustainable sort of transportation. What happened to the vision of moving things by autonomous drones, as promised by Jeff Bezos in his 60 minutes interview back in 2013? After a peak in the Hype of Inflated Expectations around 2015/16, the idea of regular drone deliveries has languished in the Trough of Disillusionment since then.

Well, nearly a decade later, it looks like this technology is finally ready to make its move. Both Alphabet and Amazon have achieved approval to commence drone deliveries in the US. Alphabet has unveiled a series of new prototype aircraft designed to handle a variety of payloads, and their Wing drone delivery service recently completed its 200,000th delivery from operating in three countries: the US, Finland, and Australia. Amazon has also announced plans to start delivering packages via drone for residents in California, and this month confirmed that that service would be expanded to Texas, competing directly with Alphabet for that market. Alphabet’s Wing has stated that they are currently focused on incremental improvements but will ‘pull the lever on wide-scale deployment’ in the next 12-24 months.

But perhaps the most eye-grabbing headlines were surprisingly from the UK. The first was that the Royal Mail is planning to create a fleet of 500 drones specifically designed to deliver mail to remote communities across the UK, such as the Isles of Scilly, Shetland Islands, Orkney Islands and the Hebrides. These drones will produce 30% fewer emissions than comparable piloted aircraft and are less likely to be affected by bad weather.

The second headline was somewhat more ambitious and caught most people (including me) by surprise. Last week the UK government announced a £12m investment in Skyway, a 10km wide and 265km long drone superhighway that will run between various UK cities and which is being developed by communications provide BT and software company Altitude Angel.[vi] The city of Oxford will be the superhighway’s central node, connecting airspace above Coventry and Rugby to the north, Cambridge to the east, and Milton Keynes to the south.

Rather than each drone using its individual onboard sensors to navigate the route, all drones flying in this dedicated corridor would tap into a ground-based network of sensors that control and guide their journey. This network collates data from multiple sources to create a real-time, ultra-high-resolution moving map of the low-altitude airspace and guide the drones to their destinations. And it won’t just be delivery drones that use this superhighway – it is also planned that Fire service, Medical and Police Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Avs) could use it to rapidly respond to emergencies.

Once successfully launched, the plan is to expand this superhighway to other cities. As Richard Parker, CEO of Altitude Angel, stated, “Skyway gives us not just the opportunity to ‘level up’ access to green transportation across Britain, but we can benefit first and export it globally”. For an overview of Project Skyway, you can access their launch video here.

While the sixth wave’s first phase of new, clean, transport methods may be at ground level and look familiar to what we have right now, to see the real transformation that is taking place, one needs to look to the skies and deep underground.

Sean Culey is a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield School of Management, Cranfield University; a Fellow at the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (FCILT); a global keynote speaker on the topic of disruptive technologies and their impact on businesses, the economy and society; and the author of ‘Transition Point’.

[i] https://www.cnbc.com/2022/07/21/toyota-plans-to-develop-light-duty-hydrogen-fuel-cell-trucks.html

[ii] https://www.h2-view.com/story/everfuel-joins-volvo-in-hydrogen-truck-tests/

[iii] https://newatlas.com/transport/cargo-sous-terrain/

[iv] https://electronics360.globalspec.com/article/17960/transpod-receives-funding-for-hyperloop-project-in-canada

[v] https://newatlas.com/energy/earthgrid-tunnel-boring-robot/

[vi] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-62177614

Feature Image Source: Author sourced

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