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Hydrogen-Powered Trains, Tunnels And Flying Cars: The Future Of Transportation In Charlotte

The Boring Co.
Elon Musk’s Boring Co. offers the promise of inexpensive tunnels beneath congested cities.";

We're looking into the future of transportation as part of our Rebuilding Charlotte series. No, the topic isn't light rail, but we will talk hydrogen-powered rail and tunnels, autonomous vehicles and even flying cars. Joining WFAE's "Morning Edition" host Marshall Terry is Ely Portillo, who has looked into these technologies for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. Portillo also writes for the newsletter Transit Time, which is a collaboration among the Urban Institute, WFAE and the Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter.

Marshall Terry: So first, let's talk about the possibility of highway tunnels, which has generated some discussion in Mecklenburg County. These tunnels have been driven by Elon Musk, right?

Ely Portillo: Yes, Elon Musk, one of his side projects is the Boring Company, which is about drilling — boring tunnels — not, you know, boring as in uninteresting. And he's been promoting these for a long time because building tunnels seems like an easy way to get cars, other vehicles off the streets. But it's really expensive. You know, Los Angeles' is Purple Line Tunnel is about $3.2 billion for less than three miles of subway tunnel. Elon Musk has said he can do it for $10 million a mile.

Terry: So has he actually built any of these tunnels anywhere yet?

Portillo: So the first operational tunnel opened in Las Vegas earlier this year, kind of carrying visitors around a single tunnel around the Las Vegas Convention Center. The thing is, there's not an autonomous vehicle. There's not a subway car or something that's high capacity that's carrying people around. So far, they've been transported in a fleet of Teslas driven by human drivers. You know, it's not really the mass transit efficient solution — it's more just one tunnel with some Teslas in it, so far.

Terry: Now, is there any momentum for these tunnels being built in Charlotte?

Portillo: This spring, the Red Line generated a lot of interest and controversy because there's still no way to build it to the northern suburbs. Norfolk Southern has not allowed anyone to use their right of way, and they've indicated that they don't plan to change that. And the mayors of the northern towns like Davidson, Huntersville, Cornelius have started talking about using the Boring Company to build one of these tunnels instead. And they've been really excited about it. I talked to Rusty Knox in Davidson and he said for him, it's as simple as 21st-century technology versus 100-year-ago technology. And they've gotten as far as having meetings with Boring Company representatives. Mayor Vi Lyles in Charlotte has said that they've had meetings. But right now there's not anything concrete on the books.

Terry: Well, let's move on to another possible future mode of transportation. Tell us about hydrogen-powered rail. What is that exactly?

Portillo: It's trains that are cleaner than diesel because they're powered by hydrogen fuel cells and cheaper than electrified tracks because you don't have to build miles and miles of high voltage electric line alongside them. So these are trains that carry onboard fuel cells, generate their own electricity with hydrogen fuel and hydrogen doesn't generate emissions. And actually, one of the biggest hydrogen rail supporters, a gentleman named Stan Thompson, happens to live in Mooresville, where he's been pushing this for decades and evangelizing for it, organizing conferences.

This is a mode of transportation that is being piloted in several places. There is the first passenger "hydrail" train planned to start service in a few years in San Bernardino, California. The promise of a hydrogen-powered economy was something that was talked about a lot in the George W. Bush years. It's faded a little bit. Getting the fuel is one of the biggest challenges. But the North Carolina Department of Transportation just last month did fund a study that was published which deemed that hydrogen-powered rail could be feasible on the Piedmont passenger corridor.

Terry: Now would this require the use of the Norfolk Southern rail lines that have been an issue with the proposed Red Line?

Portillo: Yes. So that is one of the biggest questions. These are trains that go on the same kind of train tracks as other passenger rails. So you would either need to build an alternative rail to the Norfolk Southern Red Line route, which would be extremely expensive and has been deemed infeasible for a long time. Or you would still need to get Norfolk Southern to allow passenger rail, whether it was hydrogen powered or not, on the Red Line.

Terry: Finally, Ely, let's talk about futuristic cars, the first being autonomous cars. And I say "futuristic," but that technology is already here in some form, right?

Portillo: Yeah. Autonomous self-driving cars are being tested in a lot of cities. Waymo, which is Google's self-driving car division, they said they've covered 20 million miles on public roads since 2009. It's not perfect. There was a very high-profile case in 2018 where a woman was killed in Tempe, Arizona, by an autonomous vehicle while she was crossing the street. But this is something that does seem to be coming, one way or another.

Now, advocates are really excited about this because they think you could really get two big changes in the transportation system. One is to build less parking because people wouldn't need their cars parked beside them all the time when they're at the office or at the store. They could, you know, get out of the car, send it to park somewhere out of the way, summon in it, when they're ready to leave. And in Charlotte, even along the light rail line, we're still building huge parking decks with basically every new development. So that's one change.

The other is congestion. You know, these cars, in theory, when we're all in them, will be able to go faster, drive closer to each other, have fewer accidents, because you won't have that human element. You won't have people getting distracted, texting, crashing, delaying everyone.

But there's skepticism, because if you have 40 people in self-driving cars, you still have 40 people in cars as opposed to, say, one bus or subway. Even if they're able to drive closer to each other, have fewer accidents, you still might only see a modest improvement on your drive time and congestion.

Terry: Finally, you also looked into flying cars. Really? Flying cars?

Portillo: You know, it's a little more futuristic even than self-driving cars. But there have been a lot of startups and companies who are trying to build these. You know, The New York Times had a big story in June noting that there's serious investor interest and startups are trying to make what they call, "Uber meets Tesla in the air." There are prototypes that exist. It sounds really futuristic. It sounds like "The Jetsons." But people are looking at this. We're a long way away from that, but maybe a little closer than people think.

Terry: Giving us a glimpse into the possible future of transportation. Thanks, Ely, for joining us.

Portillo: Thanks for having me.

Terry: That's Ely Portillo of UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute. He also writes for the newsletter Transit Time, which is a collaboration among the Urban Institute, WFAE and the Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter.

This conversation was produced as part of our series Rebuilding Charlotte, WFAE's look at how life has changed and the challenges ahead because of the pandemic.

Copyright WFAE 2021.  For more go to WFAE.org