November 27, 2018

Future Commute: Transportation or Teleportation?

Andisheh Ranjbari

I vividly remember that night about nine years ago, when four friends and I were stuck in one of Tehran’s crazy evening traffic jams, our car moving only about an inch every five minutes. We were griping about the congestion, and one of my friends desperately said that he wished we could convert people to 0’s and 1’s and teleport them from one place to another, so that one wouldn’t have to waste time in stupid traffic congestion like that. We all laughed at him and started to fantasize what we could do with such technology, one of which (for us as a bunch of students studying in a city far from our hometown) was to teleport from dormitory room to home every night and and to have dinner with our family. Fast forward a decade, and suddenly my husband’s work as a research scientist at Facebook’s Oculus unit is giving me a front-row seat watching this fantasy approach reality. You will not be able to taste any of that delicious dinner, but with the help of virtual and augmented reality technology you can teleport home and sit at the dinner table with your family.

As creepy – and to a good extent scary – as it may sound, it is real. This September, in Facebook’s Oculus Connect developer conference (OC5), the company presented a demo where you could attend a meeting with your colleague in a mixed reality environment, and they also unveiled their recent jaw-dropping progress in the area of face restructuring, where your teleported image would look, talk, move and make eye contact exactly like you, and not a cartoonish avatar anymore. And this is a huge step forward in bringing that fantasy to the real world. Microsoft is also working extensively on its HoloLens mixed reality technology, and so are other augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) companies like Magic LeapSony PS VR, and HTC Vive. And soon, these technologies will be reshaping the way people interact with each other.

Facebook’s latest progress in building virtual humans. Left: The actual human face; Right: The restructured face in virtual reality (Source: OC5 Video)

There is a lot of research going on for estimating the adoption of autonomous vehicles (AVs) or shared AVs, the future travel demand for them, and what people will choose as their mode of commute in a future where AVs will be available. There are also parallel discussions going on about emerging non-surface transportation modes, like Hyperloop, passenger drones and air taxis. Given this focus, it is surprising that so little attention is being paid to VR and AR, which have at least as much potential to mess with all the future travel forecasts.

Many analysts expect AVs to enter the market by 2025 and to become the primary means of transportation by 2050. But tech companies move at a much faster pace than vehicle manufacturing companies do. Just look at how far they have come only in the past five years: Now you can have a virtual human version of you that looks, talks, moves and makes eye contact exactly like you! And even if AV technology does move at a similar pace, there will be plenty of safety concerns to address and a whole set of traffic regulations to be made in order to prepare for a future with AVs – all of which would take a while. In contrast, AR and VR have the potential to be adopted much faster than AVs, and they are much cheaper; all you need is good internet connection and the AR/VR device, which you could buy for a couple hundred bucks.

With the advance of telecommunication, many people these days telework and have their meetings online or over the phone. Yet, many still prefer to be there in person, as they like interacting with their colleagues, or they need to be in the same room with their team for various work purposes. But the future of AR/VR may eliminate that need by making it look like a “reality”. Then, there would be the question of would “you” go to work (in an AV) or would “your avatar” go there (virtually)?

According to the 2017 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS), work trips account for 438,062 thousands of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per day, which would roughly translate to ~263 million dollars of wasted time [1] and ~156,000 tons of COemissions per day [2]!! I believe VR/AR technology will significantly reshape the future of commuting (among other things), but even if it results in only a small percentage of VMT reduction, it could have a measurable economic and environmental benefit. And this isn’t even considering the crash rate reductions (as a result of eliminating vehicles from the road) and their corresponding implicit/explicit costs.

You can be at your home, and a second later at your workplace, chatting and collaborating with your co-workers, and then again return back home in a second. No commute time, no waste of time in traffic congestion, no carbon emissions, no traffic crashes, and yet no missing out on group meetings and interaction with your colleagues!

And maybe one day we can actually convert people to 0’s and 1’s, and you can teleport the real you (not your avatar) to your family dinner table to actually have that delicious dinner. Sure, it is scary, but it is 2018, and anything sounds achievable.



[1] Assuming an average speed of 30 mph and $18/hour value of time

[2] Assuming 25 mpg fuel economy and given 8.89×10-3 metric tons of COper gallon by EPA

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