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What’s driving disruption in transportation?

At the Fast Company Innovation Festival, innovators pointed out four ways the industry is transforming

What’s driving disruption in transportation?
Ben Baer of FastCo Works, Sherry Aaholm of Cummins, Michimasa Fujino of Honda Aircraft and Roger Harris of Amtrak discuss the future of transportation, new innovations along with the challenges and opportunities they present at the Transportation 2025 panel presented by Cummins.

In the transportation industry, efficiency is crucial. Passengers want to get from point A to point B as quickly as they can, and transportation companies want to make that process as efficient—and cost-effective—as possible.

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Technology has helped fuel the push toward efficiency. In recent years, that pursuit has seemingly clicked into hyperdrive. Companies are experimenting with new fuels, new technologies, new devices, and new ways of analyzing data in hopes of getting goods and passengers to their destinations more quickly and more safely.

During a recent panel discussion at the annual Fast Company Innovation Festival leaders from three transportation industries discussed the trends shaping the future of mobility. Here are four key takeaways from the panel, “Transportation 2025: What’s down the road?”

ALTERNATIVES TO TRADITIONAL FUELS ARE DRIVING CHANGE

Sherry Aaholm, vice president and chief information officer of Cummins Inc., a global power company that produces engines, power systems and components, said a shift in power sources represents one of the biggest changes affecting the transportation industry today. From global to local, there is growing momentum in calling on the public and private sectors to radically overhaul the way we consume resources—and a lot of that attention is focused on the environmental impact of transportation. Engine manufacturers are looking at new sources for generating energy, from hydrogen fuel-cell technology to greater electrification, hybrid, natural gas, and advanced diesel technologies.

The electrification of industrial, commercial, and consumer vehicles is one of the most complex, ambitious global transitions in play today. Electric commercial vehicle adoption is reliant on the same factors as the electrification of passenger cars: technological maturity, economic reality, regulatory surety, and infrastructure capacity.

Figuring out which new power sources to adopt and when depends on particular use cases. For example, Aaholm pointed out that, in many cases, the energy density for batteries hasn’t advanced far enough to supply a lot of energy, cost effectively, all at once. In practice, that’s meant electrification works for “return to base” vehicles (buses, delivery vans, etc.). But for larger-scale, coast-to-coast, commercial-fleet transport, the relatively limited range of batteries (compared to diesel) and lack of widespread rapid-charging stations remains inefficient.

“If you’re doing long-haul freight shipments, that’s really hard for a driver to be effective and plan where they [need to] recharge,” Aaholm said. “Losing 20 to 30 minutes each time they have to charge is not a simple thing.”

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That’s why Cummins is focused on providing its diverse customer base with what the company refers to as “the power of choice” when deciding how to operate, including more traditional energy sources such as natural gas and advanced diesel. But in all cases, the company is devoting resources to making these sources even more efficient, and the balance may shift in the future. “A mixture of technologies is what we’re going to see over the next five years as we continue to push innovations on the way,” Aaholm said.

AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES ARE COMING…

Breakthroughs in sensor technology and information processing are paving the way for autonomous vehicles. So where are we seeing big advances in automation and autonomous vehicles? The answer is at 30,000 feet, according to Honda Aircraft Co. CEO Michimasa Fujino. The airline industry, he said, has already incorporated advanced elements of automation and autonomous technologies in aviation, and he sees more in the future. These days, a press of a button can set a jet’s course and lead it directly to its destination; in the near future, pressing a button could actually land a plane. And in an emergency, that button could direct the plane to land safely at the nearest airport. “I’m very optimistic about autonomous airplanes,” he said. “I think it [will] come sooner than autonomous cars.”

“There are fewer obstacles in the air than on the road,” Aaholm added. “So it makes sense for autonomous airplanes to scale faster than commercial freight trucks. We do see autonomous equipment advancing in other sectors as well.”

Roger Harris, chief revenue officer and executive vice president of marketing at Amtrak, said autonomous vehicles might solve a broader range of transportation problems. For instance, a self-driving car may be the best way to safely ferry passengers from less populated areas to more centrally located train stations, opening up rail service to many more potential passengers. “So instead of rail and electric autonomous vehicles competing, which would potentially create a big congestion problem,” he said, “we can actually work together to create better utility for customers.”

…BUT DRIVERS STILL MATTER

Fujino doesn’t think autonomous pilots will ever chase humans from the cockpit, even if humans are simply there to provide the perception of safety to passengers. At the same time, Harris and Aaholm concurred that while new technologies may lead to self-driving trains or cars, the more exciting developments may be how these technologies can actually help drivers.

For instance, Harris pointed out that autonomous rail systems typically only operate in enclosed, highly controlled environments, such as the trains that take you from one airport terminal to another. In less controlled environments—like a city street or a commuter rail line—automated technology often is used to help drivers focus more on the task at hand. And in turn, that helps drivers deliver a better experience to customers—whether they’re train commuters on their way home or a manufacturing client waiting on a load of materials.

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Aaholm said Cummins has been looking at ways to use artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms to develop engines that can detect and diagnose issues while they operate. Such a system could lead to vehicles that locate potential issues and detour to the nearest service location that has the parts necessary for a repair, reducing costly delays. “If you can take some of the stress off the driver and make some of the things easier on them, then the value of that job becomes higher,” Aaholm said.

SPEED IS IMPORTANT

From supersonic jets to hyperloop projects and high-speed trains, the transportation industry is exploring creative measures to slice travel times for passengers. Harris sees a big opportunity to ramp up train speeds around the country. Amtrak’s high-speed Acela service already operates in the Northeast, with new Acela trains expected to debut next year. And Amtrak trains regularly reach speeds of 110 mph in some areas, such as between Detroit and Chicago. But Harris said there are many areas where existing rail infrastructure can be upgraded to deliver higher-speed trains to consumers. “We have about 30 different opportunities around the country where we can build on existing infrastructure,” he said.

But speed is complicated, whether on the ground or in the air. Harris said huge investments—both public and private—would be required to roll out high-speed rail across the U.S. Those funds would help overcome a range of roadblocks, from property ownership to environmental impacts. Meanwhile, Fujino said efforts are underway to solve some of the biggest challenges with supersonic air travel, including the public backlash caused by these aircraft’s sonic booms. The good news, both Harris and Fujino pointed out, is that these are all temporary hurdles. Transportation will continue moving forward as it always has—though it will do so more efficiently and safely thanks to new technologies and innovative approaches to mobility.

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FastCo Works is Fast Company's branded content studio. Advertisers commission us to consult on projects, as well as to create content and video on their behalf.

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