What can self-driving pods do for air travel?

By Rebeckah Flowers

Your flight leaves in two hours. You should probably already be at the airport. Instead, you're stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on the interstate, in a traffic jam more than likely caused by the hundreds of other people also racing to meet their flights. If you're lucky, when you do finally make it to the airport, T.S.A. will be fully staffed and the lines won't be too long. You missed your last flight waiting to clear security and you really don't want that to happen again...Hmmm, do you have anything in your carry-on that could be a problem?

Does that scene sound all too familiar?

As the summer of 2016 began, T.S.A chief Peter V. Neffenger was already warning of delays and missed flights due to problems with staff. There are too few to handle the growing numbers of travelers. Add to that the fact that T.S.A. staffers have been accused of being poorly trained, abusive of their power, and further slowing the lines unnecessarily, and you have a recipe for travel disaster.

Most passengers agree that air travel has become an increasingly tedious undertaking, but were you aware that it isn't just individual passengers that pay for the inconveniences of modern flight? Airport delays and inefficiencies are also a serious economic problem — one that can bring a city to its knees.

The role an airport plays in the healthy growth of a city's economy may surprise you.

"To understand how much wealth creation is generated by airports, one must simply look at landlocked cities like Dallas and Atlanta whose fortunes have been transformed by their enormously hyper-connected airports. In the master-planned suburb directly abutting Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), Las Colinas, over 2,000 corporations and 400 corporate headquarters have made their homes. Proximity to the airport is a key reason why companies choose Las Colinas over downtown Dallas..." —Air Travel is the Future. It Needs to be Not Miserable.

With information and trade now traveling at the speed of the Internet, business demands that people and goods be moved nearly as quickly. Speedy and efficient airports attract tourism and corporate investment; congested airports leave entire regions of the country underdeveloped and underserved. Can't get to the airport due to traffic? Reroute through a city with green-lighted, dedicated rail lines! Need to move thousands of orders from warehouses to consumers? Put your warehouses in a city with the most efficient package screening and handling operations!

"In a digital world of immediate gratification – speed matters – and airport cities have speed."

—Air Travel is the Future. It Needs to be Not Miserable.

As city planners adopt increasingly sophisticated smart city plans to secure their economic futures, they also need to seriously consider the fate of the modern airport. But, how could they possibly hope to fix the many problems that plague airports and air travel, from traffic delays on the highways to T.S.A. lines that seem to stretch for miles?

Anthony Barrs and Baiyu Chen have an award-winning proposal for them. The two UC Berkley students are the authors of "Air Travel Is the Future. It Needs to be Not Miserable," the paper which was one of the winners of the Dream Phase of the Infrastructure Vision 2050 Challenge sponsored by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers in June.

 In the paper, Barrs and Chen laid out a unique and revolutionary vision:

Your flight leaves in two hours. That's no big deal, you have plenty of time! After all, you're just a block from one of the dozens of airport "front doors" spread across the city. You can literally walk over and quickly check in bags for your flight, since these decentralized front doors have fewer travelers and multiple, fully automated check-in systems. After check-in, you hop into a comfortable, self-driving pod, which whisks you along a priority route directly to your terminal, so you arrive on time, every time. While you travel, you and your bags are being auto-scanned, sniffed for explosives and cleared by security. When you arrive at the terminal, your bags are automatically transferred to the plane, and all that's left to do is walk to your gate! The terminal is no longer frantically busy either, because not all the terminals and runways are located together. In fact, when tourism took off last year, the city put in several more runways in a reclaimed part of the warehouse district on the Southside, and now most of the East Coast flights fly out of there—a simple plan really, since the automated pods will easily take passengers from the airport's front doors to any airport destination in the city.

Sound like a better way to travel? This idea was so appealing to us here at Directions that we wanted to learn more about the young men who proposed it. Baiyu Chen graciously spoke with us by email.

Q. Congratulations on your win! I read through your submission and was very impressed by both its creativity and your vision. Naturally the first question that came to mind was how did you come up with this idea of multiple airport front doors and automated pods?

A. Frankly, we both love to travel! And by traveling, we have personally witnessed how some airports are more seamlessly tied into a city’s transportation fabric (e.g. Tokyo, Amsterdam) while others are much more fragmented (New York’s JFK). We couldn’t help but wonder what a system would look like that took some of the best airports, like Amsterdam, and amplified their ease-of-use by leveraging emerging technologies. We both are transportation nerds and keep a pulse on what’s happening – so we knew, for example, that self-driving pods were being tested, and that explosive “sniffing” security technology was being perfected, etc. All we did was map out the process of air travel from A-to-Z and layer in these new technologies in a manner that reduced friction and eliminated non-value lead time.

Ultimately, we were looking to services like Instacart and Uber for inspiration in terms of using technology to reduce frustration…but for air travel!

Q. Where will this idea go now? Are either of you planning to expand on this idea in the future, or perhaps integrating this type of work into your careers?

A. We would love to! Baiyu has a Master’s in Transportation Engineering, and is currently pursuing a second Master’s in Computer Science with a focus on Machine Learning (Artificial Intelligence). He believes that there is a lot of opportunity at the intersection of transportation and computer science – as this project highlights.

Anthony meanwhile, has a background in management consulting and corporate strategy and enjoys thinking about what cities can do to drive economic growth – after he finishes up at Berkeley Haas, studying business, he wants to pivot into urban economic consulting. For both of us, this project would be a natural extension of what interests us – but deep down, we believe that the most likely way to implement a project of this size and novelty would be small scale, starting at the airports first. For example, an airport like San Francisco International might have pods that extend to portals at the economy parking garage, rental car agencies and nearby airport hotels. Over time, this network would grow and extend deeper into the city – until it eventually looks akin to that which we shared in our dream project.

Q. Please tell us about the nature of your partnership. How did the two of you become a team? How did you work together to develop this idea? Will your partnership continue?

A. We actually met at the student fitness center here at Berkeley and became friends – so the whole thing was pretty organic. What really helped was the complimentary nature of our skills: Baiyu has a technical background and was able to provide insight and details from that vantage point. Anthony’s focus is business – and so he was able to bring a design thinking and business case-oriented perspective to the project. And yes, our partnership will continue. We have actually been discussing that since learning that we won and how do we develop from here and build on this momentum. More to come!

Q. What motivated you to participate in the challenge?

A. When we saw the challenge topic, it was a no-brainer. On one hand, we love the world of transportation and technology – so it was personally gratifying for both of us to explore these ideas. But at a deeper level, we are also troubled by the breakdown of infrastructure systems – especially in the U.S. – and loved having the opportunity to really think big and bold on what technology might do to help solve the painful and frustrating challenges that our current infrastructure systems create. Even if the portals and pods as we envisioned them are never fully implemented, we want to use this project as a starting point for conversations on incremental solutions that can be deployed slowly and over time.

Q. How has winning this competition changed things for you?

A. Two things. The first is that it has inspired us to embrace our ideas more confidently (even the ones that feel too big, too radical) and to think about how we can pursue them more robustly going into the future. It really feels great to know that the judges of the Infrastructure Vision 2050 challenge and AEM shared in our dream and vision. That’s very inspiring for us. 

Secondly, it helps us when we talk to other people and organizations to have the credibility that comes from winning a competition like this – especially given the competition and the backing of AEM. We aim to invest that “credibility capital” into developing more partnerships in the future.

Q. What will you do with the $9,000 prize money?

A. The prize money helps us so that next summer, we can take a month off from teaching and instead do research on a topic of our choosing. That freedom to explore is pretty thrilling!


What Chen and Barrs come up with next could be thrilling for all of us! In the meantime, contest sponsor AEM told us that their ideas, and others from the competition, will be incorporated into the CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2017 Tech Experience scheduled to take place in Las Vegas March 7 – 11, 2017. From there, these innovative ideas will be incorporated into a set of recommendations that AEM will present to the new Congress and Administration next year.

The Dream phase competition was the second of a three-part challenge series sponsored by AEM as part of the organization's thought-leadership program, Infrastructure Vision 2050. Learn more about the winning projects of Phase 1 and Phase 2, and become part of Phase 3 at HeroX.

Published Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

Written by Rebeckah Flowers

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