This March, Prague hosted the SingularityU Czech Summit, a conference centered around the latest cutting edge technology from Silicon Valley. We spoke with Tommaso Gecchelin – co-founder of NEXT Future Transportation Inc., a company that introduced to the world self-driving vehicles NEXT – to talk about the exciting future of urban transportation.
Tomasso, your company designs modules that can be put together and create a kind of chain bus. While it seems interesting, it doesn’t really seem like a new idea. Why do you think now is the right time?
I think now is the right time because we have finally the technology that differs from the train. I mean, even if the train is going on rails you cannot safely join two train cars while they are in motion.
We are using the same technology we have now that will give us fully self-driving vehicles and the ability to go on the road to give our vehicles the capability to capable to couple and decouple in motion in a completely safe way. We finally have enough computing power to allow this kind of solution.
I saw the test of your prototype in Dubai, but will this work in traditional non-modernist cities that have completely different concepts of roads such as Prague or Milan?
Well, as you can see in the video, the distance to the ground is quite low. You can lower or raise [the suspension] as needed. We have adjustable suspensions that allow you to adapt to almost any kind of terrain. We are also thinking to use this kind of solution for military purposes, so in that case, the suspension system will, of course, be extremely useful to adapt to the terrain.
So, there is no real obstacle to using this kind of vehicle in Italy, or in Europe in general, even though, of course, in Dubai, it’s much easier to deploy a fleet of these vehicles because all the roads are completely flat and completely new.
What are the biggest obstacles you see to actually making this work on some bigger scale in the cities? What about legislation, for example?
Exactly, the main reason why we’re doing a vehicle that is completely different from the existing self-driving vehicles is that we are not focusing on the driverless things - we are not trying to get rid of the driver from day one. We are deploying a fleet that, even with a human driver, is extremely useful, extremely profitable, we're just leveraging on the modularity.
When you have a huge fleet of vehicles that can run on the road without any kind of legal roadblocks, then you can easily upgrade the software to fully self-driving when the technology is completely safe, and the legislation allows cities to have this on the road. So, at the moment when we don’t have these kinds of roadblocks, the legal framework is absolutely not a problem.
What about safety? The whole structure looks rather fragile.
The construction is actually very tough, as you’ve seen in the real vehicle we showed in the last video. It’s crafted completely of steel and aluminum, and the passenger platform is raised from the bottom.
In case the vehicle crashes with a normal car, no critical part of the body will be in the crash zone. That means, in terms of safety, you can compare the safety of our vehicle to that of a small bus.
Imagine that the city of Prague decided to join and try to prototype in the real traffic, what first steps should the city take?
The first step the city should try to take is to determine the best places to leverage the main component of this system. They should not try to have the traditional pilot project that you would typically have with the self-driving shuttle, they should instead imagine using a longer vehicle.
The commuting aspect of this project is very interesting. Say, for example, you want to connect an urban area where it is very dense, like the center of a city, to the suburbs.
When going outside the city in a traditional bus, the single bus would have to go to the first, second, third and the fourth destination.
With our situation, you can start with 3 or 4 units coupled together with a lot of people inside, but then split the bus into multiple units with all the units going to the very doorstep of the people riding.
This interesting scenario will be useful for Prague or any other cities in Europe that have a commercial or historical center in the heart of the city, but workers or commuters who live outside the city. You can easily start with a very compact system, and deliver people to their very doorstep.
Coming from the user’s perspective, if I’m living in the suburbs and I call for a ride, I’m not actually going to a bus stop, correct?
Exactly, in the first or last mile, we will not work as a bus, we will work as a taxi. As a sort of taxi, the unit will come to your house and pick up you and anyone else riding with you. Later, before coming into the congested city center, the vehicles will dock together, and the people, as seen in the video, will consolidate and redistribute to fill just one or two units.
Ideally, we want to bring the smallest number of units necessary to the city center as possible. When you have completely full units, that conjoined group will transport the people to some point in the center of the city, and the other empty units will continue the taxi service. This is how it works from the suburban units to the center.
From the center to the suburban areas, we work exactly the opposite way. It starts as a long bus, and all additional vehicles will come join to help redistribute the people outside the city.
Now urbanists usually say that you need a certain density of people living in the city in order to make public transport economically sustainable - usually they claim it’s 100 people per hectare. How does this cope with your solution?
Interestingly enough, when a community buys a 12-meter bus, it is usually rated to legally hold only 60 people. During peak times, however, you typically see more than 60 people, you see something like 70 people or more, which means it’s not even legal to operate the bus. After peak times, these numbers dissolve. So now, you’re moving an entire bus, a completely empty piece of metal, consuming fuel and contributing to pollution, traffic, the price of the driver. All of this, just to move, in the best case scenario, ten percent of that, so about six to ten people.
What we’re doing in this scenario is, instead of buying a complete bus, we're making it so that you can you buy just six units. In peak times, you can use six units or ten units. After peak times, any units that are not being used can be repurposed.
The most intelligent thing you can do is let these repurposed units charge in different places of the city and park them where you want, like in regular parking lots. The size of one unit is the same height and width as a bus, but the length is just 2.5 meters. This means you can even park two units in a space for a regular car. This is quite different than traditional buses that you have to park or charge in very specific parking lots.
Is your ambition just to design and improve the concept of the vehicles, or to produce them in the future?
Well, of course, after this pilot in Dubai, we are now starting to industrialize and mass produce the vehicle. We know this is completely different from self-driving shuttles, we’re not just producing one or two for pilots. We want to really scale up and bring thousands of these units to public transportation entities.
Is there anything you need, like people or resources?
Well, of course, resources and people are always good. The more resources and people you have, the quicker you can get the results. Let’s just say to reach the 2020 goal we’ve set in Dubai, we have everything we need at the moment.
We are at the conference of Singularity University. Singularity is about faster and faster growth, an exponential technological growth which is just happening. I know that is not an easy question but what do you think the world look like in this context in 2030?
Well, in terms of transportation, I think it will be divided into two categories. Previously, life was always the same paradigm of horses and cars. Within the same paradigm, I think normal city cars will almost disappear.
On one hand, we will have self-driving public transportation buses, like our solution, being delivered with the same ubiquity as a taxi, otherwise no one will use this, and on the other hand, you will have a lot of niche high-end cars, like a very fast Tesla or Ferrari. That niche will grow and will become almost the same as someone riding a horse today as a hobby.
If you just need to go from A to B, if you just want to avoid the traffic and enjoy the travel, you will not have any need for driving, you will just need to stay inside the room that moves on the road.