The problem with going to college in Saint Paul is that the terms “academic year” and “Minnesota winter” are, give or take a month, synonymous. And so, by the time I grabbed a diploma in 2010, I had a solid education in both the liberal arts and the difficulty of getting around town in single-digit temperatures. Biking was a health hazard. Public transit meant shivering waits for buses that rarely came. Taxis were expensive and hard to come by. By senior year, I and most of my friends had cars, which meant lots of driveway shoveling, arguments over who would stay sober and drive to the bar, and debates of the exact definition of “sober.”
When I returned for my five-year reunion, getting to all my favorite haunts was a non-issue. It wasn’t because the school was smart enough to invite us back in June, so we could bike or walk everywhere. It wasn’t because the public transit system had improved, or because I was old enough to rent a car. It was because moving from one side of town to the other, once such a pain, had become a matter of pulling out a smartphone. And that was 2015—just the halfway point of the decade in which the software-loving tech industry charged into the physical world of transportation.
Ten years ago, moving people here and there was the province of a few huge automakers and public transit agencies. But a few trends—chief among them worsening traffic, the climate crisis, and the spread of the smartphone—primed Americans for alternatives to enfeebled transit and the car monoculture. And since those Americans spend more than $1 trillion a year on transportation, the rewards were obvious for anyone who could make it happen.
Come calling they did, and the results have fueled a wider transformation of how people move through their lives. But the guiding notion of Silicon Valley—that good software and fresh eyes can turn even the rustiest industry into a mint—hasn’t proved quite as true as many had hoped.
The boldest bid to remake transportation with tech was also among the earliest, and so far, the most disappointing. In 2009, Google cofounder Larry Page tapped computer scientist Sebastian Thrun to build a self-driving car. Make a vehicle that moves people safely and efficiently, Page said (in Thrun’s telling), and you could have a business as big as Google itself. The resulting effort, now known as Waymo, helped trigger a global race for autonomy, one that many predicted would bear fruit by the decade’s end. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said a Tesla would drive itself across the country in 2017. General Motors promised to launch a robo-taxi service in 2019. Nissan targeted 2020 for the market debut of its self-driving car. Former Waymo lead Chris Urmson said he hoped his sons would never need to learn how to drive.
But billions of dollars and thousands of engineers haven’t produced a robot that can match, let alone eclipse, the ability of the human driver. AV developers have retreated to quiet suburbs and simple interstates, hoping they can master at least some corner of a profoundly complex world. GM pushed back its debut date indefinitely. Nissan has stopped talking about self-driving. Waymo is just starting to take the human backups out of its cars in the Phoenix suburbs. Musk never made his road trip.
Musk was behind a similarly bold effort that dates to 2012, when he first floated the idea of what he called the hyperloop, a tube-based transportation system that could run on renewable energy and make high-speed rail look ridiculously slow, expensive, and wasteful. Musk had shaken awake the electric car market with bold thinking and a tech-heavy approach, and this even fresher concept galvanized a coterie of startups to gather funding and realize the whoosh. The physics of Musk’s proposal are sound. But the fact that nobody has yet to take a ride in a hyperloop makes clear that glossy renderings and venture capital haven’t eroded the deep-seated difficulty of building infrastructure—securing rights of way and funding, powering the thing, convincing regulators it’s safe—especially for an entirely new form of transport.