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The Car of the Future: A Skateboard with Bigger Wheels?

And mass transit agencies test new ways to disinfect vehicles and riders, and more in this week's The Mobile City.

(Photo: Ree)

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Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of newsworthy transportation developments.

In the fight for the future of urban form, the electric car is actually a double-edged sword. As an emission-free form of transport, it promises a future with cleaner air and fewer carbon emissions. Combine it with shared mobility and it could give cities a fighting chance in the battle to reclaim urban form from the tyranny of auto dominance. But once it becomes affordable for the many, it could actually breathe new life into the auto-dominated, pedestrian-hostile urbanscape produced by the internal combustion engine.

Two developments actually make that other future more likely. One of them, however, holds out the prospect of urban transformations we haven’t yet imagined. That one is the car-as-skateboard. An Israeli company recently demonstrated four-wheeled, electric-powered platforms maneuvering around a test track, a development that could lead to radical redesigns: Cars without front hoods. Offices and shops on emission-free wheels. Modular vehicles that could change functions much as you change clothes, depending on what module you place on the chassis. And who knows what else?

The other is more energy-dense batteries that enable electric cars to run further between charges. Tesla founder Elon Musk says they’re key to producing a $25,000 car, and Tesla’s competitors are also betting heavily that longer-lasting batteries will make electric cars cheaper. Whether Musk can keep his promise to deliver a $25,000 Tesla within three years, however, remains an open question.

Meanwhile, back on the bus and train, one of the big stumbling blocks to mass transit’s return to health is the need to maintain social distancing between riders. The capacity reductions needed to maintain safe spacing mean that buses and trains cannot operate at maximum efficiency. Thus cities around the world are experimenting with ways to keep public transportation safe by continuously disinfecting the vehicles, stations, and even riders and workers.

Elon Musk’s Next Frontier: The $25,000 Tesla

As the above Fast Company article notes, electric cars offer all sorts of advantages over their fossil-fuel-powered counterparts. Not only are they quieter than ordinary motor cars, they offer better acceleration and lower emissions. And a recent Consumer Reports study, cited in this Ars Technica article, finds that they save owners anywhere from $3,000 to $16,000 in maintenance and operating costs over the life of the vehicle. Even plug-in hybrids save their owners money compared to their gas-powered counterparts.

The lower operating and maintenance costs, CR says, more than offset the higher purchase price for a battery-powered electric vehicle. But as long as that purchase price remains north of $35,000, fully electric vehicles will remain luxuries. (California offers a rebate program for low-income residents to trade in a gas-guzzling car for an electric one.)

According to a recent New York Times article, Elon Musk has made changing this fact his next big goal. The biggest maker of battery-electric vehicles is working on technological advances that Musk says will cut battery costs by 50 percent and increase their range by a similar amount. This, he told a group of approving Tesla owners at a socially distant event — made so by the fact that the attendees were still in their Teslas — lays the groundwork for Tesla to produce a “compelling” $25,000 car three years from now.

The article notes, however, that Musk has a track record of overpromising and under-delivering on his breakthroughs, and Wall Street reacted to his announcement with less enthusiasm than the Tesla owners who showed up at the company’s California assembly plant to hear it. But that doesn’t mean that Musk is talking through his hat, for Tesla’s rivals are working to achieve the same goals.

Tesla already has a model that can go 400 miles between charges, farther than electric cars from any of its competitors. And it says that buyers will be able to obtain a version of its flagship Model S next year that can cruise for 520 miles before requiring a recharge for a mere $140,000. But a rival startup, Lucid Motors, founded by the engineer who developed the Model S, says it already has a sedan that can go for more than 500 miles on a single charge; it demonstrated the car, the Lucid Air, last month.

But with battery prices falling already, demand for electric cars continues to surge, and General Motora and Volkswagen are both at work on cheaper battery-electric cars too. Whoever crosses that $25,000 finish line first is sure to reap huge rewards.

A Solution for the Mass Transit Safety Problem: Disinfect Everything, All the Time

As this column has noted, research has found that riding mass transit is as safe as anything else one can do to get around. But one of the reasons it’s so safe is because many fewer people are riding it. The lower passenger counts allow transit operators and their riders to maintain and observe the social distancing medical experts recommend to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Keeping those distances, however, will also keep transit operators deeper in the hole. And it also keeps mass transit from performing at peak efficiency. The spread of work from home will also keep mass transit ridership below its pre-pandemic levels, but transit systems would still benefit from more riders returning to the buses and trains.

This is not just an American problem, either: Transit systems worldwide are grappling with the problem of keeping more, and more closely spaced, riders safe. Modern Diplomacy recently took readers on a world tour to see how systems are responding to the problem.

One of the ways systems are responding to the challenge of cracking down on COVID-19 is with robots. Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway has robots that can disinfect even the most difficult-to-reach parts of its railcars and stations, and Ningbo Lishe International Airport in China has robot thermometers that can both scan the temperatures of up to 10 people at a time from 5 meters (16.4 feet) away and spot passengers not wearing face masks.

Another innovation some transit systems are deploying are gates and entrance tunnels that disinfect people passing through them. One of the manufacturers of such gates and tunnels claims they are “a tested, safe, and effective method to sanitize people and objects in just 5 seconds, killing up to 99% of any pathogenic microbes on the surfaces, including COVID-19.” The Moscow and Dubai metros have deployed and tested such devices.

Ultraviolet light is another weapon being deployed. The Moscow Metro and MTA New York City Transit have both installed UV lights on trains that provide continuous disinfection of the air and surfaces. And Moscow’s newest subway cars have automatic air disinfection built into their air-handling systems.

And at the same time, technology is also being deployed to help maintain social distancing. Panama City’s metro uses a system called Mastria to measure railcar loads and waiting passengers through a combination of weight sensors, contactless-ticket data, signaling-system data, video cameras and mobile-phone data. The system helps maintain social distancing while reducing passenger waiting times by up to 12 percent.

And, of course, the spread of contactless fare payment is itself another tool in transit’s COVID-fighting toolbox.

The article concludes by saying that these harm-reduction methods have contributed to keeping the COVID death count, high though it is, from rising even higher.

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #mobilecity.

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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

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Tags: public transportationcovid-19carselectric vehicles

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