September 24


The Future of Transportation by Peter Diamandis

By Mike Spack

September 24, 2015

autonomous vehicles, Diamandis, future of transportation, transportation, X Prize

Dr. Peter Diamandis is a pretty smart guy (master’s in aerospace engineering from MIT and M.D. from Harvard Medical School) in addition to being pretty gutsy (I love his story of how he started the X-Prize Foundation without having the prize money secured).  Needless to say, I’m a fan of his.

BeamPro from Sustainable Technologies
Photo Source: Sustainable Technologies’ BeamPro

So when his post the Future of Transportation hit my inbox, I read it closely and have been thinking through the implications ever since.  You should read it.

His thesis is that Autonomous Vehicles, Telepresence Robots/Virtual Worlds, Hyperloop, and Point-to-Point Aerial Transport will radically change where we live, work and interact.

His thoughts around autonomous vehicles are sound.  Not sure if we’re going to see the Hyperloop train system, but it would be pretty awesome to commute from Minneapolis to Chicago in less than half an hour.  The two things I hadn’t thought much about are Telepresence Robots/Virtual Worlds or Point-to-Point Aerial Transport.

Diamandis uses Beam robots to virtually login to meetings between Los Angeles, Mountain View, San Diego, and Seattle.  Sometimes on the same day.  It’s kind of like using a video conference, but I imagine it’s actually a much better experience.  It would be a strange world, but I wonder what it would be like to have my Avatar at a conference instead of going in person?  I’d go to more conferences if I didn’t have to deal with the hassles of travel and time away from my family.

Point-to-Point Aerial Transport are basically drones that can carry humans.  I didn’t know these existed, but apparently there are already working prototypes.  This is the first step towards having flying cars that the Jetsons promised us 50 years ago.  Or maybe Iron Man.

No one can predict how successful all of the technologies are going to be, but as a transportation professional these concepts reinforce two things I’ve been saying for a while:

  1. Vehicle Miles Traveled will not continue to grow at 2% the way they did from 1985 to 2009. Although vehicle miles traveled are up over the last year, I don’t think this trend will continue.  We need to stop trendlining past traffic growth twenty years into the future.
  2. I’m not encouraging my nine year old son Mitch to become a traffic engineer because I don’t think there will be many traffic engineers with a civil engineering degree working in 30 years.

What do you think the future holds for traffic engineers? Leave a comment below.

  • Interesting post!
    Mike, considering that I am perusing a graduate degree in transportation engineering, what skill-sets do you think I should work on to be able to continue working in this field for the next 30 years?

  • Hi John,

    We’ll still have transportation infrastructure that will need to be designed, built, and managed. Here are transportation industry related skills I think will be relevant in 30 years: working with “big” data, economics, electronics/computer design, road design, general city engineer related skills, complex modeling, infrastructure planning. Things like signal timing will not be done by people in the future – we’re already transitioning to computer systems that do it based on real time conditions. If we have a 100% autonomous vehicle fleet, we actually may not need traffic signals in the future. A lot of the infrastructure traffic engineers with civil engineering degrees currently design/build/manage likely won’t be needed or will be better suited to being done by electrical/computer engineers.

    I’d try to focus on how technology integrates with existing transportation engineering. I think the traffic/transportation engineer of the future will need a more broad based education, adding in classes from other disciplines per the above list. Basically, broaden out your engineering skill set instead of narrowing it to something that will likely be obsolete in ten years.


  • Hey Mike,

    I actually kind of disagree with you on both points. Go figure. I see autonomous vehicles creating the opposite effect on VMT. Over the centuries we have seen bursts in VMT as technology advances and allows additional mobility and freedom for travel. Autonomous vehicles will be to the automobile what the automobile was to the horse/carraige or the train.

    People will always take the path of least resistance to get from point A to point B based on their own internal calculus. Time, cost, convenience, reliability, safety, all play a key role in that math.

    On your second point, I think traffic engineering has a bright future as we transition from an auto focus to a more broad based person-transport focus. Then when you throw in freight… I think all of our industry is fairly secure. But it will definitely require a transition away from being a branch of Civil Engineering (very few things I do on a daily basis are Civil focused) and more towards a Computer Science/Electrical Engineering focus. Someone is still needed to understand neighborhood concerns with traffic, or program the adaptive timing algorithms, or tweak the autonomous vehicle protocols. Data analysis to determine the most effective use of funding in improving our roadway network will remain a valued commodity.

    We also have public transit and optimizing that system as a key component.

    I don’t know what the future holds, but I think we’re probably just coming down the current hill and looking toward the next summit our profession needs to climb.

    – Adam

  • Adam – I think we actually agree more than we disagree. I wholeheartedly agree that we will see an increase in VMT/person with all of the technology coming on line. I also agree with you that there will still be professionals working on traffic issues. Based on your comments, you actually agree with me – it is unlikely that professionals with Civil Engineering degrees will be the traffic professionals. Urban planning, electrical engineering, computer science, and statistics degrees will be more important in the traffic profession than civil engineering degrees.

    The one part we may disagree on – I don’t think we’ll be adding significant capacity to accommodate the increase in VMT. I expect huge gains will be made operationally when we take humans out of operating cars. At free flow speeds on a freeway, we will likely be able to move 4x the ADT by greatly reducing the following distances human beings need (and we can restripe every 8 lane freeway as a 10 lane freeway with narrower lanes). We will also be able to balance out the system better if computers are making routing decisions based on real time traffic data.


  • I know a little bit about the carplane thing since, for the past 5 years, I have been editor of a website devoted to it. Carplanes are definitely coming, as is point-to-point aerial transportation, but the two are not the same as is incorrectly implied in the article. For example, when unflyable weather is encountered, a carplane can land and drive through it; a point-to-point aerial vehicle cannot. Also, you can drive around town in your airplane without worrying about violating restricted or prohibited air space – you can’t do that in a “drone”.

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    Mike Spack

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