Mar 17, 2022 - Business

Arkansas' global transit goals will require dense support network

A three-screen demonstration of Einride's virtual driving system.

Einride's system allows a virtual driver to act as a back-up to its autonomous trucks. Photo: Worth Sparkman/Axios

I drove a truck on a test track in Sweden. I was sitting in Austin.

What's happening: Reps from companies working to build the next big thing in mobility were at SXSW in Austin this week. Tech ranging from electric vehicles to planes running on hydrogen, from flying cars to bicycles were part of the conversations that took place at the conference.

  • The demo I checked out was for Einride, which is developing systems so that licensed, experienced truckers can act as virtual human back-up for as many as 10 unmanned electric trucks.
  • Technically, I only controlled the truck's throttle on a predetermined route, but hey, I had to tell it when to move through an intersection.
A screen that shows how an autonomous truck can be controlled virtually
A view out the windshield of Einride's autonomous truck in Sweden. Photo: Worth Sparkman/Axios

The big picture: If Arkansas is going to be a global transportation leader by 2030, as a group of companies recently pledged to support, there's more to tackle than recruiting entrepreneurs and EV makers.

  • Sort of like toy slot cars, the vehicles and planes of the future will have limited range without a dense network backing them up. Plentiful and strategically located charging stations, and better — or dedicated — communications networks to help with navigation and safety will be a large part of future mobility's needs.
  • And, delivering even more juice will likely require upgrades to aging electrical grids everywhere in the U.S.

Driving the news: Gas prices, the environment and labor shortages are key motivators behind the evolution of transit. There was no doubt by anyone I heard from or talked with at SXSW that how we move people and products is on the cusp of a major shift.

  • Many said the war in Ukraine and its impact on energy prices will be like tromping on the accelerator for those who've been slow to adapt.
  • Sustainability and lowering carbon emissions figure large in conversations about adopting new ways to power transportation. People want to feel they've made a personal contribution to mitigate climate change.
  • Shortages of qualified pilots and truck drivers were frequently cited as reasons to double-down on autonomous tech.

Yes, and: Underscoring all of the conversations was the reminder to make the future of mobility equitable. The entry-level price points for EVs likely will remain higher than for combustion engines until the industry is able to build at scale, which alienates marginalized communities and those with lower-incomes.

  • Autonomous vehicles that can be booked like an Uber, and subscription services that effectively offer short-term leases on EVs could expand access.
  • "Transportation is mobility and mobility is freedom," Selika Talbott of Autonomous Vehicle Consulting, told one group in a panel discussion.

Worth's thought bubble: I'm not sure when we'll all have access to a flying car, but it's clear the industry is maturing rapidly.

An autonomous flatbed truck
A prototype of Einride's unmanned flatbed truck. Photo: Worth Sparkman/Axios
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