Hyperloop, Lyft Execs Predict Profound Shifts in Personal Mobility

The day after 'Back to the Future' 'Day, leaders at the GloSho15 conference predicted a near future of self-driving electric cars and 15-minute trips from L.A. to Vegas: "We don't have to reinvent the wheel — this is existing technology."

Personal transportation has lagged behind the technologies that have transformed the information industries, but that is about to change, leaders at the GloSho15 conference said Thursday.

"Transportation is one of the areas that has not advanced--we were supposed to have flying cars by now," Afshin Pishevar, the chief legal officer of Hyperloop Technologies, told an audience of venture capitalists and tech entrepreneurs at L.A.'s J.W. Marriott hotel.

Smart phones are now more powerful than the computers used to send rockets to the moon, he added, but transportation has remained stagnant. "And it is costing our nation trillions: $120 billion in highway backups, $50 billion in airport delays," he said. "Demand is increasing, but infrastructure is not keeping up with growth that will triple by 2035."

Hyperloop, first revealed in a 2013 white paper to considerable — and continuing — skepticism by Tesla Motors and Space X CEO Elon Musk, is a tube-based ground transit system that would reduce the travel time between city pairs, such as L.A to San Francisco and Las Vegas, to as little as 15 minutes.

"People think this is a far-fetched concept, but I'm here to tell you it's not far-fetched at all," Pishevar said. "We can go 10 times faster compared to today, at one-tenth the energy usage."

One of the themes of the conference was how big data, the so-called "Internet of everything" and the sharing economy can improve personal transportation within the current infrastructure.

"Our founders were motivated by the idea that the personal vehicle is used incredibly inefficiently," said Emily Castor, director of transportation policy for ride-sharing service Lyft, launched in 2012.

Most cars sit idle 95 percent of the time, she added, and Lyft's application can dynamically match two or more parties with common destinations in a single vehicle. With millennials, whose diffidence toward car ownership terrifies auto executives from Detroit to Stuttgart, increasingly setting social agendas, Castor said it was plausible that drivers would shift to thinking in terms of individual trips, in much the way iTunes unbundled songs from albums.

"The new ethos of the Millennials is that you reduce your carbon footprint," said former Ebay executive Steve Westly, founder of the clean-tech venture capital firm the Westley Group. In 16 months, Westly predicted, "Millennials will become the largest buying cohort on the planet — they will be the driving force of the economy."

Autonomous and electrically powered cars — and combinations of both — are arriving far earlier than expected with profound implications, the panelists said. 

Westly cited Tesla's Gigafactory, a 2.4 million-square-foot plant the company is building in Nevada to supply batteries for its Model S, Model X and upcoming Model 3, a $30,000 mass-produced sedan.

"When this one plant comes online in 12 months, it will more than double lithium-ion battery capacity on the planet today," driving down prices and making low-priced cars with 200-mile ranges ubiquitous, Westly said.

Big data is revolutionizing the auto industry, he added, making not only a startup like Tesla Motors possible, but opening the industry to tech giants like Google and Apple, both deep in development of automotive technology. "Google and Apple are moving faster than they every dreamed," Westly said.

Citing internal sources at Apple, Westly said that Apple's Project Titan would produce its first electric car in 48 months. And not just the software: "They're making the whole damned car." 

Pishevar pointed out that while the transportation infrastructure in the U.S. needs to be modernized. "We don't have to reinvent the wheel," he said. "The Japanese have had high-speed rail for 50 years with zero fatalities."

The combination of new players and consumers with priorities more aligned with green technologies will be transformative, Westly said. "This is the future of the global economy."