The space capsule that can fly itself

Everyone's talking about autonomous driving, but that's just the beginning of the mobility revolution. The pioneers of the high-tech world already have air and space in their sights – and developments are progressing at breakneck speed.

Getting from A to B can be a pain, especially in Silicon Valley. My home in San Francisco is around fifty kilometres away from my office in Palo Alto, and the journey along Highway 101 (a five-lane motorway) takes at least 90 minutes. The only way to beat the traffic is to get up extremely early. The time difference in Switzerland means that I often have to do this anyway so that I can get in touch with business contacts over there. The roads are clear before 6 am, local time – and by then, it's already 3 pm in Zurich. 

Public transport in California is fairly under-developed, which is why Google and Facebook use a huge fleet of their own buses to get their employees to work. The first ones set off from San Francisco at 5 am, heading towards Silicon Valley. Although there is also a railway line that runs parallel to Highway 101, known as the Caltrain, using this kind of transport asks rather a lot of commuters. There's no guarantee of a seat, to say nothing of a table or plug socket so you can work on your notebook. The rolling stock is past its best, the engines are powered by diesel, and you've got to take an Uber to get anywhere from the train station, anyway.

That said, things are changing on the railways. The Caltrain line is currently being completely electrified. In two years, double-decker trains made by Stadler Rail (which you might recognise from the SBB's suburban railways) will roll through Silicon Valley. The process of modernising the rolling stock brought some of the high-tech metropolis' pioneering spirit to the fore, in terms of human-centred design: matters such as the trains' exterior colour and interior fittings were decided by large-scale online public surveys. One thing the surveys revealed was the need to reserve an entire floor of each train for bikes.

The second major project in terms of railway infrastructure is California High-Speed Rail, a high-speed railway that is slated to cover the 1,100 kilometres between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The project started in 2000 and was approved in a referendum held eight years later. Construction launched three years ago and is scheduled to be completed by 2033. This is an eternity by the yardstick of the Internet era.

Given that these development cycles take decades to complete, it's no surprise that the leading thinkers and businesspeople in this high-tech metropolis are desperately seeking quicker solutions. Why is mobility one of the main topics they’ve got their eye on? You almost need to live here, experiencing horrendous traffic jams day-in, day-out, to understand it. After all, innovation primarily comes about where there's a problem to be solved.

While all the world and his wife are still busying themselves with self-driving cars, this is yesterday’s news for the innovative minds of the Valley: the technology is already in use, even in Switzerland. In 2016, Postauto in Sion experimented with a driverless bus. One year later, Freiburg's public transport organisation started running Switzerland's first fully-autonomous public bus. Last year, SBB launched a pilot project in Zug using self-driving shuttles.

While autonomous driving primarily promises gains in terms of time and quality of life, it doesn't solve the problem of infrastructure failings – on the contrary, it is likely to create even more traffic. It does improve the flow of traffic, but it also increases the amount of individual traffic. As a result, Silicon Valley is already looking into the next major innovations.

Travelling to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich by hyperloop

The “Virgin Hyperloop One” project, a collaboration between the high-tech entrepreneur Elon Musk (known for Tesla and SpaceX among other enterprises) and the aviation magnate Richard Branson, is relatively well known. Their aim is to achieve exceptionally high speeds inside near-frictionless tubes that are kept in vacuum conditions. Cities can apply, with tangible projects, to be among the first users. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) has taken over the effort on this front for Switzerland, and is participating in the competitions under the name “Swissloop”. At the same time, Elon Musk and his Boring Company are planning to build a tunnel system in LA that has the capacity to move every resident of the United States from A to B, without any traffic jams. Chicago has won an initial contract in the shape of a concept study.

However, another technology that could radically change our lives is almost ready to be used: self-flying transport drones. The mobility company Uber is using its “Uber Elevate” project to develop a system that can transport passengers through the air by using a drone travelling at 150 to 200 miles per hour (240-320 km/h) to shuttle passengers between “skyports” run by the company. Tests are scheduled for next year in Texas. They are planning to launch commercially in Los Angeles and Dallas in 2023, but Uber wants to have all its “Uber Eats” food deliveries handled by drones as soon as 2021.

The aviation company Airbus is pursuing a slightly different approach, in collaboration with Audi. In this case, the customer buys a personal mobile capsule. The capsule can then either be used atop a base that can be drive like a car, or be flown from A to B by drones, like a helicopter. There's also another promising joint venture underway between the chip manufacturer Intel, a leader in software development for drones, and the start-up Volocopter from Germany. They're aiming to develop a drone with a passenger capsule.

Get from California to Zurich in 32 minutes

However, the mobility revolution is far from over, even when individual passenger transport has taken to the skies: its ambitions stretch all the way to the stratosphere. Elon Musk's SpaceX is now known as a leading (and profitable) rocket developer which even provides services to Nasa. Musk's engineers have managed to design a rocket that can return to Earth and land there, thereby solving a basic problem of space travel. Until now, each rocket could only launched once, with most of it landing in space as technological scrap. In the medium term, the aim is also to harness the technology for “earth to earth” transport. With Musk's rockets, it should only take 32 minutes to get from Zurich to San Francisco. This would make the trip from San Francisco to Zurich faster than my current commute to Palo Alto.

Amazon boss Jeff Bezos is also pursuing a major space project. His “Blue Origin” project aims to conserve the Earth's resources by exploiting raw materials from outer space and by moving industrial activities from Earth to space. In terms of overall vision, Bezos aligns with Musk, who wants to take the pressure off earth by using this kind of outsourcing to Mars. His first manned mission to Mars is planned for 2024. There is a likelihood that we will see the beginnings of the colonisation of the moon or Mars before the first high-speed train sets off from San Francisco to Los Angeles.


Five questions

Simon Zwahlen Vice President of Business Development & Innovation at Swisscom in Palo Alto, California.

Why has the development of passenger transport with drones moved forward at such a pace?
The major advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and computing power: AI ensures that drones can fly by themselves. This requires huge capacities in terms of data processing and computing power.

What kind of infrastructure does it need?
Drones are like flying smartphones. They get information about permitted routes by using the mobile phone network, for example. Swisscom is collaborating with the start-up Involi as part of a pilot project. We're mounting its sensors on our broadcasting masts to capture an aerial view of manned air traffic for the drones. This solves the problem of drones being “blind” in certain situations.

Why is Swisscom interested in mobility?
We want to help ensure that the infrastructure in Switzerland can now enable new technologies to be swiftly adopted. Autonomous driving is also interesting from the point of view of entertainment. It is associated with a great time saving, which opens the door to new possibilities on this score.

Where do you see the greatest potential in mobility in Switzerland?
We are currently evaluating various possible ways that smart mobility and the smart environment could be used. For example, we can use the data from our mobile network to visualise the flow of traffic (in an anonymised form, of course). We can then share this information for use in traffic and infrastructure planning. In terms of public transport, I think the potential primarily lies in better coordinating the various options on offer, and for covering the "last mile" between the train station or bus stop and someone's house. The use of drones is certainly very promising in the field of goods transport.

What are the biggest obstacles to the revolution you described?
There are lots of regulatory issues.

Florian Schwab


Glossary

Artificial intelligence (AI): artificial intelligence stands for machines that can learn from their environment and react to it.

Drone: an aircraft that is either remotely controlled by a human or controlled by an integrated or external computer.

Human-centred design: a philosophy in the field of product development. It focuses on including the human perspective in every step of solving a problem.

Launch pad: a take-off and landing platform for manned drones, such as the “skyports” developed by Uber.

Smart city: a vision of urban development whose goal is to use communication technology to make infrastructure more user-friendly and efficient.

Smart environment: the interconnection between the physical and digital worlds with the help of sensors, displays and computers.


Swisscom

Swisscom tracks what’s going on in the digital world around the globe, with their network stretching from Shanghai to Silicon Valley. Simon Zwahlen is one of their leading specialists. He provides Weltwoche with first-hand monthly reports on the hottest trends and most fascinating developments.

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