Like many, I have seen countless visions of the future, from car-less roads to skies filled with drones and air taxis. And, quite frankly, it’s all a bit much. It might be exciting for the public to see worlds reminiscent of Blade Runner, but it just isn’t going to happen. We need to find a balance between futurism and realism.
Unfortunately, this is incredibly difficult as no one actually knows what future mobility will look like. The industry has a rough idea, but there are hundreds of companies all pushing different solutions through new products and software. All of this variety is great for a journalist like myself, which does sound hypercritical, but this must stop immediately to avoid a false sense of hope. Now, I’ve found a company which is aiming to have its self-driving pods on public roads by the end of this year, through a futuristic-yet-achievable design for urban transport.
NEXT Future Transportation is an advanced smart transportation system based on swarms of modular self-driving vehicles, designed in Italy. Each module can join and detach with other modules. When joined, they create an open, bus-like area among modules, allowing passengers to stand and walk from one module to another. The modules can drive autonomously on roads, join and detach from one another when in motion and allow passengers to walk among each cabin.
These features, which can be seen in the video below, illustrate just how different this innovation is to other autonomous projects, providing logistic, consumer and business solutions into urban ecosystems.
To find out more, I spoke to Tommaso Gecchelin, the Founder, Inventor and Chief Technology Officer at Next Future Transport. Gecchelin first thought up the idea when he was studying physics at the University of Padua, in Italy. During his time in education, he dealt with logistic optimisation algorithms.
“You always have the same number of passengers within each car, from the origin to the destination point, even when most of the people congesting the roads, especially during commuting time, are going to the same destinations,” he says. “The problem is, they are coming from sparse origin points and so they do not take public transport or use carpooling, because it takes too much time.”
This created an idea that even Gecchelin himself says was crazy at the time: “jumping into the car next to mine, while on the road, if we are going to the same destination.” In existing vehicles, this is insane. But not if someone was to re-imagine what a vehicle should look and operate like. His goal was simple: to increase passenger density to decrease congestion, costs and consumption, while maintaining the same ubiquity of a taxi service.
“When I finished my graduation in Physics and started my Bachelor in Industrial Design, I started trying to figure out how to make this ‘car jumping’ a feasible thing,” he adds. So, Gecchelin thought up the idea of creating autonomous ‘boxes’ with doors at the front and back to create a corridor between units when connected. This would allow passengers to move freely between each cabin as they joined together at different points in transit. Gecchelin’s “crazy” idea had quickly become a lot more achievable.
Gecchelin believes that trying to solve just one problem in transportation may be safer, but it will not create a radical change. Next Future Transport has addressed this through its pods, working towards an overall solution to mobility. “This is more of an infinitely flexible platform, but one that can be adapted to niches in case we need to suit specific goals,” he says.
By working towards this new vision, companies like Gecchelin’s can help shape cities through more efficient transport networks. But there is a long journey ahead, so it is vital that autonomous and mobility companies understand that they need to be a part of the transition.
From the first concept created in 2012, a lot of research and development has been done by the Next Future Transport team. Gecchelin explains that the 2015 design we see today is able to operate during the transition from privatised cars to mobility services.
“In the first period this system can live along all the other means of transportation, but ultimately private cars, especially cars owned just to go from A to B, will decline. These will be substituted by a more flexible and efficient transportation system like ours.”
By doing so, Gecchelin can work towards overcoming any challenges that will be faced down the line, both inside and outside of the vehicle. “At the moment the certification of these vehicles is a big challenge, but we are doing our best, and the entire mobility ecosystem is moving in this direction, so we are pretty confident,” he adds.
Intertwining The New and Old
It is impossible to remove every vehicle from a city, which means that it is important to create mobility solutions that intertwine with existing transport. Gecchelin understands this and says that it will not be trying to force cars off of public roads.
“It is not our goal to remove all vehicles. Our vision is the co-existence of our system with conventional ones to deeply alleviate traffic congestion and consumption,” he says.
A project on this kind of scale must cooperate with authorities within each region it is operating in. However, due to a technology-overhaul, there is no need for these cities to implement physical infrastructure to cater for autonomous vehicles.
Gecchelin and his team are trying to create a vehicle that adapts to the city and not the other way around. The process does not require any new infrastructure; it doesn’t even need a network of charging stations in the city due to a clever battery swap system between the autonomous pods.
“We don’t even need dedicated lanes or self-driving permits to run our system,” he continues. “And, thanks to the modularity and ‘car jumping’ benefits, we can half the ride price compared to Uber and move more than double the number of people with half the number of drivers. This is all while waiting for self-driving vehicles to be legal and safe everywhere.”
The Logical Answer
Next Future Transport already has full-scale prototypes, proving that it will soon realise its vision. As mentioned previously, the first fleet could hit public roads as soon as the end of this year, becoming one of the first full-scale legal autonomous services operating on public roads.
This news clearly reflects the logical approach of Gecchelin and his team in an industry full of wild ideas. There have been a lot of different companies that have ‘re-imagined’ the future of transportation, producing ideas that may never be possible, whether that is down to general safety or passing strict government restrictions.
Next Future Transport has separated itself from this crowd, looking at what is achievable rather than wowing the industry with elaborate ideas. This isn’t to say that this idea isn’t elaborate – in fact, it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before – but you can understand the process and ideology behind this innovation. This is, at some point in time, an achievable mobility solution.
“Many future transportation ideas started from a ‘futuristic-for-futuristic-sake’ point of view,” adds Gecchelin. “Our vehicles seem futuristic, but they are ultimately a logistic optimisation system, very down-to-earth and close to the needs of the common people and less to the sci-fi movies.”
Following its initial roll out, it will be interesting to see how Next Future Transport’s Self-Driving boxes will expand across cities across the world, soon becoming the optimum mobility solution in a world desperate for more efficient, safe and clean travel.