Planes, trains, and automobiles: The cutting edge of technology on the go
High tech and trickle-down consumer IT make travel a more pleasant experience
The urge to climb the next hill and see what's over the horizon is as old as human existence. To seek out strange new resorts and new souvenirs: that is the voyage that we all seek to undertake, with hopefully a nice, sandy beach at the destination.
But getting from here to there is often a journey fraught with complications and stress. Timetables, security lines, and long endless stretches of highway punctuated by "Are we there yet?" can be the lowlight of any trip.
New technology and new implementations of familiar tech is making travel less stressful and helping to remind us that sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination.
Up in the air
If any mode of travel has more dread associated with it than air travel, one would be hard pressed to find it -- camel riding in the Sahara, perhaps? Crowded terminals, lost luggage, and security lines are all part and parcel of traveling by air, once a luxury and now a royal pain. But already we are seeing ways that technology can help alleviate that pain and bring a little more calm to the aviation storm.
In-flight entertainment (IFE) is a hit-or-miss feature for airlines. There are contraints on what features planes, particularly older ones, can support, and many airlines don't want to invest much in IFE, which means that passengers can have very inconsistent experiences with IFE from airline to airline.
But now some airlines are bypassing the cost and space limitations of legacy IFE systems and going with a much more consumer-oriented option. Singapore Airlines subsidiary Scoot is one of a handful of airlines that have recently started renting iPads to economy passengers for US$17.65 per flight, pre-loaded with 50 GB of movies, TV episodes, games, and music. (They're free to business-class customers.)
Giving every passenger an iPad may seem rather excessive, even with the nominal rental fee, but do the math in terms of a airline's most precious factor -- weight -- and it starts to makes sense. Scoot operates 402-passenger Boeing 777s. Typically IFEs weigh about 13 pounds, which includes equipment in the seat back and underneath the seat. Swapping iPads for these on-board systems would save 4,647 pounds or 2.3 tons, per flight, assuming a full plane.
That's a lot of weight -- and a lot of fuel -- saved. Plus, the airline gets the benefit of happier customers who get a chance to while away the miles in the air doing something they want to do, with far more choices.
Back in the terminal, smartphones are already stepping up to ease the trip. Many airlines have implemented mobile boarding passes, which are emails or custom web pages sent to flyers' phones that display the boarding information and confirmation codes for that passenger, usually shown as a QR Code.
TSA lines in major US airports are already accepting this technology, as are airline gate check-ins. But there are trials in the works to have smartphones act as tickets, passes, and information delivery systems for the entire airport experience using near-field communications and GPS. Everything can be managed through the phone, from finding the best parking spot out in long-term parking to check-in to boarding. Even buying food and sundries in the terminal and baggage claim will eventually be handled by phone.
"The intention is to provide useful services to passengers at all stages from the planning until the end of their return trip. It will be like having your own personal concierge, travel agent and tourist guide available to you anywhere and at anytime during your trip," explained Jim Peters, CTO of SITA in a 2010 whitepaper.
Airlines are also working to alleviate the stress that greets you right inside the front door of the airport. Instead of queuing up to face a line of ticket counter agents, you'll instead encounter airline agents equipped with tablets that will enable them to walk around and greet departing passengers to get them checked in and on their way.
Baggage, another aviation bugaboo, can in this scenario be checked in via serlf-serve kiosts; the bags will be fitted with RFID-equipped permanent tags that will not only carry information about their final destination, but also the contact information for the passenger. Automated checks should reduce the chances of luggage getting lost, but when those fail, the airline would know immediately whom to call to coordinate delivery of the bag. Depending on the level of information shared, they may already know where you're staying and deliver it with little to no input from you.
Not so unstoppable
Trains, at least here in the US, are not a widely used method of travel beyond intra-urban subways, light rail, and commuter lines out to the suburbs. With all national train travel consolidated under Amtrak, which is beset by problems of its own, traveling by train is often not the first choice in the US.
Slowly, Amtrak is working to change this, catching up with its European and Asian counterparts. Tracks are being updated to accommodate faster service when possible, and on-board systems like Wi-Fi have been added to East Coast lines that service the densely populated Northeast Corridor.
Entertainment systems, like those found on airlines, are also being added to trains, particularly outside of the US, where rail travel is used much more.
Sadly, as long as fuel costs remain low and Amtrak is hampered by the constraints of having to share tracks with freight operators, US rail travel will not be growing any time soon. The application of better train technology, such as dedicated high-speed lines and faster signal and switching systems, may help rescue trains from their current doldrums, but for now, passenger train technology seems stuck in the station.
Bring on the thunder road
While trains aren't high on the list of American travel trips, road trains may be a concept that pops up on the travel scene within a few years.
A road train is a developing technology that enables a line of cars to follow a large van or truck driven by a professional human driver. The cars, programmed to follow the lead truck's every move, will follow each other very closely in a long train that not only cuts down on fuel consumption for the cars (since they encounter far less aerodynamic drag as they cruise in the slipstream of the cars and truck in front of them) but also compresses more cars in a smaller area of road.
Because of the automated nature of the road train, passengers and drivers alike can sit and relax in the comfort of their own cars and let the head of the train do all of the driving. Drivers can read, eat, work on a mobile device, whatever they want -- all while maintaining a steady pace. When they want to leave the train, drivers simply take control of the vehicle and pull out from the train onto an off ramp.
This technology is still being worked on by various car makers in Europe -- Volvo being one, as you can see in the video below -- who are trying to work out the kinks in the process.
If successful, this might be a huge application of technology for Americans, since we have a vast network of roads, but sometimes don't have the stamina to make the trips across the country.
You have now arrived
With the exception of the road train technology, much of the tech described in this article is already in existence. It only needs to be implemented. The missing piece for these solutions, until now, has been big data. Without a reasonable way to store and manage the huge amounts of data such systems would entail, the transportation industry was held back.
But that is not the case any longer, and travels around the globe will become easier and more pleasant, with more journeys made in better style.