South by Southwest used to be just a little festival in Austin, Texas where music industry types would trek every March to sign the next big thing – as well as to get some sun, tacos, and barbecue. But SXSW – pronounced “South-by” by locals and attendees – has evolved into the modern equivalent of the World’s Fair where people come to discover the technologies that will transform their cities, and nowhere is this more evident than in the future of urban mobility. If what’s in display in Austin is any indication, how people move around cities is about to radically change.
“South by Southwest started as a music festival,” Hugh Forrest, the Chief Programming Officer for SXSW, told a gathering of mayors from the U.S. and Canada this morning. “What you see out there took 30 years to build.”
What those mayors are seeing is a future for their cities in which taxis fly, garbage trucks analyze trash, and traffic is managed in real time not by traffic engineers but by artificial intelligence.
EmbraerX, a Brazilian aviation company, came to SXSW to tout its vision of taking ride-sharing to the next level, in this case literally, with its eVTOL, or an electrical Vertical Take Off and Landing vehicle. Basically, we’re talking flying taxis.
Even building a flying taxi – sorry, an electric, and possibly pilotless flying taxi – requires EmbraerX to build an entirely new ecosystem to deploy, park, regulate, and manage eVTOLs.
But the first step is to get people used to the idea, which is what convinced EmbraerX to create a Prototype Room at SXSW where people could build flying taxis out of Legos, use VR headsets to take a virtual ride or have to company’s head designer sketch out your own particular vision of what it should look like.
“It will only be possible if we ignite people’s imagination and show we are not offering product, but a social transformation. SXSW is an obvious stage to spread this message,” said Antonio Campello, CEO of EmbraerX.
The imminent arrival of automated vehicles in cities has journalist Malcolm Gladwell, who spoke at SXSW on Saturday, worried. While he quibbled with describing driverless cars as autonomous when they can’t exercise decision-making powers, his major concern is that introducing computer-driven cars onto public roads before we’ve solved cyber security poses a significant risk to cities.
“People in Silicon Valley are a little bit too blasé about security,” said Gladwell. “At a time where I wake up to news about $200 million hacks every week, it is irresponsible to bring about such a societal shift” like driverless cars. “If the NSA can’t protect itself, who can?”
Cities will likely work through that and many other questions with driverless vehicles before we ever take our first ride in a flying taxi. Between now and that point in the not-too-distant future how we get around cities is going to undergo a period of rapid and perhaps disruptive change. The only thing that won’t change with urban mobility is that it will be discussed every March in Austin at SXSW.
Jason Stanford, Senior Vice President of Global Communications, lives in Austin.