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The Report

Why The Future Of Air Travel Is… Roads

How autonomous cars could revolutionise the way we take long-distance trips (and save us the hassle of airport queues)

  • Volvo 360c. Photograph courtesy of Volvo

There are big changes ahead in the travel industry. We used to get from A to B either on, or pulled by, a horse. The internal combustion engine then came along, yet nothing really changed much, especially in our cities. Our “horses” – now engine-driven – just got a little faster, and were controlled by a steering wheel instead of reins. The biggest advance in this department, in fact, arguably occurred in 1903, when bicycle repair guys Messrs Wilbur and Orville Wright became the first humans to achieve powered flight. They would never have guessed that a little more than 100 years later there would be around a million people in the air at any given time. Or that those million people, for the most part, aren’t caught up in an ecstatic mood of dreamy wonder at the fact they are flying like birds, but instead are checking their watches, cursing airline delays, and irritably trying to find the most comfortable position (clue: there isn’t one) in which to become unconscious for the whole experience.

Yes, this is the thing about flying: it’s quick, but it’s not pleasant. Which begs the question: in a future-era of autonomous vehicles, might self-driving be the better option? It may sound a little crazy at first, but it’s not as conceptual – or retrograde – as it sounds. In the US alone, there are approximately 700 million individuals on domestic flights a year, and roughly a third of those are on short-haul journeys of around an hour or two in duration. Yet as we all know, the time flying through the air is usually the shortest, least painful part of the trip.

Imagine, if you will, an alternate universe where you pick up your smartphone and tap in your destination. You could also order your meals in advance for the journey. Let’s envisage that you’re travelling from London to Edinburgh for a morning meeting. Instead of a 3.00am alarm call for your 6.00am budget-airline flight, you are instead picked up at your front door at midnight to travel in your own personal autonomous transportation pod. You settle into your first-class seat and maybe catch up on an episode of the latest Netflix binge-watch before reclining and looking at the night sky through the clear glass roof, maybe even projecting some pre-recorded Northern Lights on to it instead if the real sky is a little too cloudy or boring for you. You drift off to sleep confident in the knowledge that your vehicle will be arriving outside where you need to be at the desired time in the morning.

  • Audi Pop.Up Next. Image courtesy of Audi

This is one of the scenarios that Volvo is asking us to imagine in its new 360c autonomous concept. And that’s not the least of it. When you start to think of a car as a replacement to air travel there are other factors to consider, specifically, how to get a (possibly unconscious) passenger to his or her destination in one piece and with as little harm to the environment as possible. In the 360c, Volvo is even engineering and patenting a blanket that you can snuggle into and, in the unlikely event of a crash scenario, be safely cushioned in upon impact.

This all sounds very Mr Philip K Dick. But it’s not actually that far-fetched. By which I mean to say if the project works, the economic and environmental benefits may actually stack up. The electric pods would be a lot kinder to Mother Earth than an aircraft burning tons of kerosene. It would also ease pressure on our overcrowded airports, and while prices have not been suggested or released, it should be a lot more cost-effective than a modern-day aircraft that costs approximately $1m per seat to buy and requires an army of staff to run. Having tried the VR version of this concept vehicle, I know which option I would go for if both were available: it would be my own private jet on wheels. The logistics and bookings may very well be done through an established travel provider, as airlines already handle complex people-movement. Or perhaps it could work in partnership with logistical disruptors such as Uber? Either way, it’s a radical reimagining of our future travel needs and possibilities. “It’s a glimpse at how autonomous drive technology will change the world as we know it. The possibilities are mind-boggling,” says Mr Mårten Levenstam, senior vice-president for product strategy and business ownership at Volvo Cars.

  • Volvo 360C concept interior. Image courtesy of Volvo

Eradicating the domestic short-haul flight business is just one of the aspirations of autonomous carmakers. Other noble goals include reducing congestion and making our roads more efficient. And it’s a confluence of the new tech of electric-power trains, artificial intelligence and smartphone connectivity that’s fuelling this optimism and could pave the way for a genuine revolution on our roads. Yes, we may still be restricted to lanes built for the width of two horses, but the standard car platform would not require the space for an engine or a driver cockpit. Instead, space could be given over to the occupants, be it for practical or pleasure purposes.

For its particular take on the idea, Volvo is proposing four broad variants. First up is the long-distance sleeper pod described above. Then there is a general-purpose and commuting vehicle. And then, in line with modern-day habits, a work pod – essentially a central desk with four seats wherein the vast panoramic glasshouse could double as a digital work screen. It’s not too much of a stretch to think of it as an alternative to renting an office. The mobile pod could pick everyone up – either a work colleague or the person you are meeting – and return you all home without a minute being wasted on a crowded commute. Finally, of course, there is also a party pod for letting your hair down. Ordered for the night, it does the job of picking up the whole crew and taking them to wherever they need to be with a freshly stacked, pre-ordered bar, and delivering everyone safely home – all before heading back to the depot for a clean-up.

Of course, Volvo is far from alone in this developing space. Aston Martin’s recently released Lagonda Vision Concept offers up its interpretation of your own exclusive space on wheels, with lavish interiors from renowned craftsman Mr David Snowden and bespoke seats (with optional epaulettes!) by Savile Row tailor Henry Poole. “It’s your seat, your chair, your piece of furniture – but you can share it, just like you invite people to your private club,” says Mr Marek Reichman, executive vice-president and chief creative officer for Aston Martin Lagonda. “It’s the part of luxury we have lost. The luxury of time and space.”

  • Aston Martin Lagonda Vision Concept interior. Image courtesy of Aston Martin

Slightly more modern-day and down-to-earth, Tesla’s Autopilot hardware allows you to channel your inner Mr David Hasselhoff with your own personal Kitt. The car can find its owner when summoned, and once reunited can whisk them off to a destination by taking a look at the calendar without anything needing to be said or done by the person in the now-redundant “driving” seat. This technology exists today and is wired into Tesla vehicles, with only regulatory approval being required before it can be “switched on”.

Maybe in the not-too-distant future we will see car brands vying for customers based on the best interior space – with neither horsepower or acceleration figures advertised or considered. BMW may have to reconsider its “Ultimate Driving Machine” slogan and adopt something more like the “Ultimate Wellbeing Space”?

I expect we have a long way to go before we can confidently switch off the bedside light and cuddle up to sleep in a pod travelling driverless at 80mph along the fast lane of the motorway. Mind you, if I were to sleep in any car, it would probably be a Volvo. What’s the worst that could happen?

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