In the past few weeks, we’ve seen the introduction of an amazing variety of transportation marvels seemingly ripped from the plots of science fiction novels — everything from hypersonic jets to a Star Wars-inspired hovercraft cruising around the Mojave Desert. There are stories of Google driverless cars navigating around our cities as well as new plans for a high-speed "Jetsons Tunnel" connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles, or space elevators connecting Earth with the cosmos. Oh, and don’t forget about that robot cruising around the surface of Mars, either.
So are we headed for a new Golden Age of transportation?
The encouraging news is that we seem to have reached an inflection point in the innovation cycle where everything seems to be pushing us to innovate at record speed. The price of gas is not getting any cheaper, roads seem to be more clogged with congestion than ever before and air travel, if anything, is less glamorous and more frustrating than at any time in recent memory. From an industry-wide perspective, America’s largest airlines are under relentless pressure to consolidate in order to survive, while Detroit is seemingly on its last legs. Talk about the perfect conditions for a new disruptive technology to emerge.
On top of all that, something fundamental has changed in the cultural zeitgeist. There is a greater sense of how our everyday transportation choices impact the environment and why we all have a greater responsibility to reduce our collective carbon footprint. Witness the rise of car-sharing networks such as Zipcar and the willingness of municipalities such as New York City to embrace citywide bike-sharing programs among other innovations.
In short, the time is ripe for rapid innovation within the transportation industry. There is certainly no shortage of brilliant entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who keep coming up with (literally) out-of-this-world ideas.
The ideas are certainly there. In fact, The Economist estimates that no fewer than 12 flying car concepts are in development. If you’re playing the odds, it seems like one of those flying car concepts — take the $279,000 Terrafugia Transition, perhaps — is bound to stick. (What better way to prove that you’re part of the “1 percent” than to show up at your neighbor’s summer home with a flying car?)
The bad news is that we've been hearing versions of this same story for nearly 40 years. Every time we start to hear about high-speed trains levitating magically over rails or super-clean cars powered by renewable energy sources, something always seems to get derailed or unplugged. If you had asked the leading science fiction writers 50 years ago, they would most likely be deeply disappointed by the failure of our modern transportation system. It would seem tame relative to anything they had once imagined, such as the bounce tube for pneumatic travel, the air-propelled train or teleportation rooms. Anyone still remember the vision for personal jetpacks that were supposed to be part of a modern tech utopia?
Ultimately, the future of transportation is all about the ability to create and harness network effects. Think about the greatest transportation innovations of the past two centuries: the train, the plane or the automobile. All of them benefited from the creation of nationwide networks (e.g. the U.S. interstate highway network) with hubs-and-spokes for maximizing logistical efficiency and achieving economies of scale. So, when you hear about the future of the electric car, keep an eye as well on the entrepreneurs trying to create a vast network of charging stations around the country. When you hear about the future of land rover hovercrafts or hypersonic jets or Jetsons tunnels, keep any eye on how entrepreneurs or government officials plan to scale these so that the underlying economics work. In the world of transportation, as in the digital world, network effects matter.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web's first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called "Endless Innovation, Most Beautifuland Most Wonderful."
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