Five Tech Trends

The Future of Transportation

Robert E. Calem

From land to sky to orbit, transportation is undergoing a major makeover, much of it centered on the dual trends of electrification and autonomy. The vehicles of this transformation are multitudinous, ranging from trucks and buses to passenger-toting drones to rocket ships.

In many instances, the endeavors are being undertaken by companies that cross industries.

Fuel Cells and Batteries Gain Ground with Trucking

“We are on the verge of a paradigm shift in the transport industry,” says Lars Stenqvist, CTO and member of the Group Executive Board at Gothenburg, Sweden-based Volvo Group, which makes trucks, buses and construction equipment under many brand names including Volvo, Mack and Prevost. ”A lot if not all will be engineering and technology driven,” Stenqvist says, “so for young engineers who want to work with something cool, the transport industry is definitely a place where it’s going to happen.” One of the major trends in this context is the move to “fossil free” vehicles, which he says will be completed worldwide by 2050 at the latest. But while that may seem like a long time away, he adds, because Volvo Group’s typical customer keeps a vehicle operating an average of 10 years, “that means everything we deliver from 2040 onwards must be fossil free, in all kinds of applications.” 

One way to accomplish this transition is to use traditional internal combustion engines powered by synthetic diesel, biogas or hydrogen, which Volvo Group has already introduced.

Although he foresees “no end date” for internal combustion engines (ICE) in heavy commercial vehicles, Stenqvist says, the company believes there ultimately will not be sufficient biofuel in the world to support all demand for road transportation. “So we have come to the conclusion that the absolute majority of our vehicles by then will be electric,” he says. “They will be battery electric (BEV) and they will be fuel cell electric (FCEV).” Other manufacturers in the heavy commercial vehicle space are getting behind either BEV or FCEV, but Volvo Group is unique in that it’s backing both for the future, “and we think that the sweet spots for these technologies are a little bit different,” he asserts. 

Mack LR Electric

BEV technology is best for city applications such as garbage trucks and local or regional delivery vehicles that return to the same garage or depot where they can be charged overnight. By comparison, FCEV tech — or a hydrogen-powered ICE — is ideal for tractor-trailer trucks that travel long distances nationwide, on different routes and variable schedules. These trucks can handle heavier payloads, offer greater range, and are more easily refueled, he explains.

These distinctions are not absolute, Stenqvist observes. For example, depending on their country or region of operation and its available infrastructure, some customers might opt for a fuel-cell powered city vehicle rather than a battery-electric version. In general, he says, BEV powertrains are more mature than FCEV equivalents, with the latter expected to be better developed by the second half of this decade. 

“The trucking and commercial side of electrification is incredibly exciting because the economics of it for the end customers are very positive given the fuel savings, and from the environmental aspect also,” says Tal Sholklapper, CEO and co-founder of Voltaiq Inc.,

a Berkeley, CA-based “enterprise battery intelligence” (EBI) software company that applies a big data analytics approach to battery product development, production and operation — for consumer electronics, stationary power and the transportation industry. Its customers include Ford, GM, Mercedes-Benz Research and Development of North America (MBRDNA), Stellantis and Proterra, which provides battery and electric drivetrain technologies for BEV school buses (Thomas), coach buses (Van Hool), delivery trucks (Volta) and excavators (Komatsu).  

“Even last year, a lot of talk was around ADAS (advanced driver assistance systems) and connected vehicles. Right now the budgets are shifting towards electrification and EVs (electric vehicles) pretty broadly,” and commercial vehicles in particular “really prove the larger scale economics around EVs” by virtue of extensive utilization each day, Sholklapper says. Longer term, he adds, it’s the battery pack that will contribute most to the residual value of an EV, “and that’s where analytics are key.” It’s important to know not only the state of the battery cell when it’s installed but “to continue to ascertain its health over time, both for early service reasons and ensuring reliability and safety, but also to underlie those economics and residual values for those products,” he says.  


Voltaiq’s cloud-based EBI software platform captures data about each battery from the beginnings of its design in a laboratory through manufacturing and continually during its operating life in a vehicle. The company does not do this analysis itself, but rather, “we work directly with [vehicle manufacturers] and their supply chain and provide them with this capability,” Sholklapper says.

FCEVs are ripe for innovation, too. “When people talk about electric vehicles, they tend to use that as shorthand for battery electric vehicles. Fundamentally, an electric vehicle is one that has replaced the conventional powertrain [based on an ICE] with one that’s using electric motors to turn the wheels. But what generates that electricity? You can either have a bank of batteries that you recharge with electricity that’s generated elsewhere, or you can actually generate the electricity on the vehicle using a fuel cell,” says Thomas Stephenson, CEO and chairman of Pajarito Powder, LLC, an Albuquerque, NM- based company that has devised and supplies a proprietary catalyst used to make fuel cells.

Within a fuel cell, hydrogen stored in a tank is combined with oxygen that comes from the air, and through a direct chemical reaction accelerated by a catalyst, generates electricity and emits pure water out of the vehicle’s exhaust pipe. Normally that catalyst contains a large amount of platinum, which makes fuel cells enormously expensive. 

Pajarito Powder’s innovation for the catalyst is a special spongelike, carbon-based material in which platinum particles can be suspended, enabling 50% less platinum to generate more power per square centimeter of surface area, cutting the total cost of the fuel cell system by 20% and making FCEVs more financially feasible, Stephenson says.

For big-rig trucking, “it’s where the future is, you want the fuel cell,” declares R. “Ray” Wang, principal analyst and CEO of Constellation Research Inc., based in Palo Alto, CA. Both batteries and fuel cells need to be recharged — the latter in the sense that it requires refueling at a hydrogen station and both can be swapped out for new ones, when necessary, Wang points out. “It’s a real question of who can get which power source to a distribution point faster,” Wang says. Tesla has the capacity to produce battery packs and swap them in its Tesla Semi within 15 minutes, but FCEV truck makers like Volvo “will get there with fuel cells,” and that will lead to a race between the two technologies, he predicts. But “fuel cells don’t degrade” like batteries do and “fuel cells in the long run could actually cost four times less than lithium-ion batteries” and so therefore are preferable, he says.

The remaining challenge for fuel cells is to make them more efficient from start to finish, Wang says. Today, “only 25% to 30% of the energy [from the source hydrogen] makes it to the wheel of a fuel cell car,” versus 70% to 80% of the energy from a battery pack in a BEV, he adds.

One of the greatest advantages of FCEV over BEV for heavy duty trucks is the fueling infrastructure, which resembles diesel’s, says James Kast, a business development consultant at Toyota Motor North America’s research and development facility in Gardena, CA. Toyota began exploring fuel cells for these vehicles with a first prototype in 2017, a second prototype followed in 2018, and then the company debuted a “platform” demonstration truck with Kenworth at CES 2019. Now, the platform is incorporated in six Kenworth “Ocean” trucks distributed to customers who are using them regularly, as part of a test program operating out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, CA. They’re able to travel 300 miles on a tankful of hydrogen, carry 80,000 pounds when fully loaded, and refuel in less than 20 minutes (compared with six hours to recharge an equivalent BEV truck), Kast says. Refueling time is expected to improve further, he says. The fleet is slated to increase to 10 Kenworth Ocean trucks in the future.

Additionally, Toyota’s subsidiary Hino has developed a light duty FCEV truck based on the automaker’s second-generation fuel cell technology for cars. The first prototype of this Hino truck debuted this summer at the Advanced Clean Technology (ACT) Expo in Long Beach, CA. It improves on the fuel cell’s power density, efficiency, weight and “packaging” — putting it up front where the engine normally sits — to “target diesel parity,” Kast says.  

We are on the verge of a paradigm shift in the transport industry.
Lars Stenqvist, Volvo Group

To be sure, fuel cells don’t obviate batteries, says Pajarito Powder’s Stephenson. In fact, it is standard for any FCEV to contain a combination of a fuel cell and a battery, which is used for acceleration and energy saving features such as regenerative braking.

“You need to have batteries and fuel cells to truly meet the breadth of mobility solutions that’s required in the electrified world we’re headed toward,” says Charlie Freese, executive director of the global hydrotech business at General Motors in Pontiac, MI. “The way to think about this is, today things that are moved by internal combustion engines that are gasoline driven tend to be well suited to battery electric propulsion systems. The bigger vehicles that have long haul requirements or heavy payloads – where diesels operate today and those technologies – will start to be replaced by hydrogen fuel cells coupled with the batteries for regenerative braking.”

A big-rig truck would have to jettison about 22% of its payload to accommodate the weight of a BEV powertrain, but only about 3% for a FCEV powertrain, Freese says, illustrating hydrogen’s efficiency over batteries in this application.

Nevertheless, he contends, not every big-rig needs a fuel cell powertrain or could be a BEV, and the expected haul makes the difference. “If I’ve got a truck full of potato chips, I might be able to live with a BEV. But if I’m moving heavy payloads — steel, water, things like that — that’s where hydrogen is providing the maximum benefit.” GM’s strategy overall has been to “develop a leadership position in both technologies and apply them where they fit,” he says. Besides trucks, GM is integrating fuel cell propulsion systems in locomotives and aerospace vehicles, he notes.  

Flying taxi
Archer’s all-electric Maker enables urban aerial ridesharing

Flying Taxis: eVTOLs and the Spread of Vertiports

Beginning by the middle of this decade, a ballooning number of passengers are expected to take to the skies in air taxis, generating skyrocketing revenues for related businesses and employing millions of people worldwide. At the core of this is a new type of electric vertical takeoff (eVTOL) aircraft. And the industry it serves is known alternately as Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) or Urban Air Mobility (UAM). 

According to research from Deloitte Consulting LLP published last January, the AAM market space in the U.S. alone is estimated to generate $115 billion of revenue annually by 2035 and 280,000 “high-paying” jobs. The article tags AAM “the next disruption in aerospace” by dint of eVTOL aircraft — either piloted or autonomous — carrying cargo or passengers, linking urban centers with remote communities, and operating as air taxis within city boundaries. The passenger-carrying portion of the U.S. AAM market will generate $57 billion by 2035, Deloitte predicts, and grow significantly thereafter.

“Transporting people in autonomous eVTOL aircraft could build on the success of transporting cargo,” Deloitte says. “Further, the success of initially piloted eVTOL operations will be the major driver for advances in autonomy. It could take off as an alternative mode of transportation, with operations primarily at airports and some dense urban systems. But over time, as the technology and infrastructure evolve, with denser vertiport buildout across cities, trips could become progressively longer, driving down the cost per mile to more affordable levels.”

More, a report published in November 2020 by the management consultancy Roland Berger, based in Munich, Germany, forecasts worldwide revenue from UAM at $90 billion by 2050, with about 160,000 commercial air taxis flying in that year. Airport shuttle and inter-city services together will account for about 90% of those revenues, the company projects. “As a result, we expect a transition to a premium model of public transport in which UAM services will become increasingly similar to today’s taxi services,” the report says. There were 110 passenger UAM trials in cities globally last November, it says. It also portrays the development of an entirely new UAM ecosystem that encompasses airfields, flight operations, ticket brokerage and repairs. 

Airlines long ago adopted a hub-and-spoke business model “because they need to get passengers en masse to one location,” says Constellation Research’s Wang. Yet, since an eVTOL aircraft requires only “a point” instead of a runway for takeoffs and landings — and that can be anywhere, including a strip mall parking lot — AAM does double duty for airlines, he says. It could provide new transportation options in remote places, plus add connections to a hub.

“We think this is a $60 billion market by 2032,” inclusive of aircraft manufacturers and their suppliers, passenger travel and cargo, and maintenance, Wang says. “This is a real market.” As populations shift from cities to suburbs and farther away, and “we start moving away from density as a business model,” he expounds, “we need transportation solutions like this.”

One of the leading eVTOL aircraft makers is Joby Aviation, based in Santa Cruz, CA. Last year it acquired Uber Elevate, which had kickstarted the idea of eVTOLs as a would-be service provider, and Eric Allison, who led Elevate, is now Joby’s head of product.

The goal is a “vertically integrated service” with Uber, underpinned by a “vertically integrated manufacturing approach,” Allison says. Joby will have “first class placement into the Uber app,” and Uber’s “ground-side service” will be available via the Joby app, he says, adding “we’ll have multiple entry points into our service when we launch it, in every market” where it’s offered.

Joby plans to launch its service commercially in 2024, with pricing initially set to be on-par with Uber Black car rides, eventually falling to UberX level. The company was founded in 2009, flew its first full-scale prototype eVTOL aircraft in 2017, and in 2019 began flight-testing a production prototype to pursue FAA certification. This year, Joby flew a full-size prototype 154 miles and performed a vertical take-off and landing all on a single charge. That set an AAM industry milestone and proves that Joby’s aircraft “has the flexibility to do both” short-range UAM flights and long journeys “that are really hard to do with any existing form of mobility in an efficient way right now,” Allison says.

“It’s about the everyday person taking these aircraft,” says Brett Adcock, co-founder and co-CEO of Archer Aviation, another leading AAM aircraft maker, based in Palo Alto, CA.

Archer is particularly targeting cities for a self-branded UAM ridesharing service, to help overcome traffic jams. Around Los Angeles, for example, trips under 50 miles can take more than one hour in a car but “we can just fly there in minutes,” Adcock says. To that end, he says, Archer intends to charge just $3.30 per passenger per mile when its service scales. “This is needed in the world and it will happen,” he proclaims, outlining a plan to transition Archer’s eVTOL aircraft from piloted to semi-autonomous — surveyed by a pilot on the ground, like a drone — by the end of this decade, and later to fully autonomous flight.

In June, the company unveiled Maker, a two-passenger, fully autonomous demonstrator eVTOL aircraft. It has a range of 60 miles and a top speed of 150 miles per hour, and is 100 times quieter than a helicopter. It is being used as part of Archer’s FAA certification plans ahead of commercial launch in 2024. But the aircraft Archer finally flies commercially will carry four passengers plus a pilot.

The auto industry sees the benefits of AAM and UAM, as well. Toyota has invested in Joby, and Stellantis has invested in Archer. Meanwhile, Hyundai has built an entire subsidiary to pursue the category — formally the Urban Air Mobility Division of Hyundai Motor Group, known as Hyundai UAM — which launched with a mock-up aircraft named S-A1 at CES 2020.

Of course, “UAM is just a fancy flying science project if you don’t have infrastructure for it to take off and land, and regulation to support it, and an air traffic management system that keeps the [flights] deconflicted and keeps us safe in our skies,” says Pamela Cohn, chief operating officer and U.S. general manager at Hyundai UAM in Washington, D.C. So, Hyundai UAM, like Archer and Joby, is building ecosystem partnerships simultaneous to developing its aircraft, Cohn says. To whet the appetite of potential customers, Hyundai UAM is expanding its outreach to the public. Next April it will host a two-week expo in Coventry, U.K., where visitors can experience augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) simulations of a trip on an S-A1.

“There’s still a pretty long pathway before the public is really ready to be getting onto these aircraft, and to have these aircraft fly over their homes and businesses and schools,” Cohn says. Hyundai UAM is planning for commercialization in 2028, which is when the company believes “everything coalesces,” she says.

Up, Up and Away

Beyond the sky is space — the final frontier in the future of transportation.

Overall, “the space economy” will grow to almost $1 trillion over the next couple of decades, from $340 billion in 2019, says the UBS Chief Investment Office, a research arm of the global financial services firm UBS AG. “While much of the excitement is focused on space travel, the Chief Investment Office sees opportunities in addition to tourism,” including the deployment of more satellite networks needed to satisfy bandwidth demand by proliferating automated cars and other internet-connected things, UBS wrote in an article it published in July. “Further into the future, CIO also sees the potential for asteroid mining and space-based manufacturing,” UBS says. “Over the next decade, launch costs are predicted to decline 10-fold. Part of this decline will be driven by the mainstream adoption of reusable rocket technology.” Both SpaceX (founded by Elon Musk) and Blue Origin (founded by Jeff Bezos) are expected to send medium-to-heavy payloads into geostationary orbit with their Falcon 9 and New Shepard reusable rockets, respectively, the UBS article notes.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard was launched into sub-orbital space in July for a 10-minute flight above Earth, with four passengers aboard. Earlier in the month, Virgin Galactic (founded by Richard Branson) and five crew members ventured even higher, to the edge of space, in that company’s own space vessel.

Topping those trips, SpaceX on September 15, conducted a mission named Inspiration4 to take a crew of four space tourists higher into actual orbit on its Dragon Capsule spaceship. The three-day excursion raised money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It splashed down off the coast of Florida on September 18. A Netflix documentary series covers it from run-up to homecoming.

“The challenge was getting to low-cost rocket launches,” says Constellation Research’s Wang. “We went from a model of government run to some light version of privatization to full public-private partnerships, and this is probably the most exciting business model that’s going on in space,” he says. “But the real goal is doing space mining and space manufacturing,” and leveraging tourism to offset the costs, he declares. Space manufacturing may comprise growing human organs or new types of fiber optic cables; space mining on asteroids and the moon can yield a mother lode of metals and rare earth minerals, Wang says.

Aside from Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, another emerging contender is Sierra Space, a subsidiary of the Sierra Nevada Corporation, whose forthcoming Dream Chaser spaceplane is designed to take off and land on a runway like an airplane and carry both cargo and people into low-Earth orbit. It is expected to begin cargo missions to the International Space Station next year, Wang notes. It also will be showcased in a new Space Tech category at CES 2022.

U.S. colonization of space and the manufacturing and mining that go along with it may be only 30 to 40 years away, he anticipates.

“Tourism is only a small piece” of what’s coming up in space, says Anthony Navarro, principal engineer at AstroNav Consulting, based in Littleton, CO. “If you can have a $500 flight [through space] from New York to China and it takes you 30 minutes, that will be very utilized” for global commutes, Navarro says. “If you can wake up and have your meetings in China, or go to Europe for lunch, you’ll do that.” But “the bigger, long-term piece is logistics,” he says, invoking Jeff Bezos’ intent for Blue Origin to be the basis for a space travel infrastructure akin to the internet, upon which future entrepreneurs could build any business they imagine.

Trucks, eVTOL aircraft and space craft all share the same transportation foundation, Navarro concludes. “They have to get their occupants from point A to point B safely — even if it’s cargo.”