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Transportation Sector forecast: Laying roads in the sky

Having finally managed to look up from the traffic jam, on the horizon we see sustainable transportation, air taxis and autonomous public transportation. We sat down for a chat with Dror Ben David, Director of Artificial Intelligence at Matrix Defense, about technological innovation in transportation.


We all know that the state of transportation today is catastrophic – we have plenty of time to think about it while we’re stuck in traffic jams, which have become even longer and more frequent over the Corona period; perhaps out of fear of infection, we are seeing a clear preference for private vehicles over public transport. Against this backdrop, futuristic predictions like air taxis and smart public transportation often sound like science fiction. But, thanks to an eye-opening conversation with Dror Ben-David, Director of Artificial Intelligence at Matrix Defense, we were able to look up from the traffic jam, and connect this futuristic vision to contemporary reality.


Traffic jams and road congestion were part of our daily routine even before Corona hit. In fact, in 2019, a State Comptroller’s report determined that traffic density in Israel was 3.5 times higher than the OECD average. We pay a heavy price for this: damage to our quality of life, damage to labor productivity, air pollution and more. Despite all this, most of us still choose to set off in a private car every morning.


“This is the situation in many places in the world,” says Dror. “Even if in Israel the situation is a little extreme, relatively speaking, we’re still faced with the same picture: large cities all over the world, blocked with traffic jams all the time, in every direction. The reasons for this are quite simple: most countries in the world are undergoing an accelerated process of urbanization, free capital is steadily rising, the ratio of cars to people is rising at a faster rate than there is capacity to build infrastructure, life expectancy is rising – and the result is an ever-increasing number of vehicles on the road, with everything getting clogged. Today in Israel, more than a million people enter the Gush Dan region every morning – and the same million people leave Gush Dan in the evening.


“The problem of traffic density does not have just one solution, but rather a whole set of solutions. First, morning and evening traffic to and from the big cities needs to be dealt with separately to the issue of inner-city traffic during the working day, because they have unique characteristics. We have answers to the question of how many people can be efficiently transferred to Gush Dan and back: Israel Railways, Metro, Light Rail, Train on Wheels, buses – in that order. Of course, it’s important to improve the accessibility of public transport in the periphery of the country so that it will offer a real alternative to travel by private car, but the solutions are relatively simple. In contrast, traffic within cities during the working day behaves differently. Analysis shows that the number of people traveling is inversely proportionate to the distance travelled – meaning that many people travel by car for short distances but, as the range of travel increases, fewer and fewer people are using their own cars. The answer to this situation is to change policy and move to sustainable transportation.”


A vision of sustainable transportation – getting private vehicles out of major cities


At the core of sustainable transportation is the desire to reduce the use of private vehicles, and to promote a range of alternative solutions, which will enable everyone to get from place to place, while preserving the environment and public health. This will be achieved by giving preference to pedestrians and cyclists while facilitating diverse shared transportation in a combination that is efficient, accessible and fair, and pushing private vehicles out of major cities.


Bridging the gap between the vision of sustainable transportation and practice, Dror says: “Given the inverse relationship between travel range and the number of people traveling, the first step towards resolving the traffic situation within cities is to reverse the ‘pyramid of priorities’. First preference must be given to pedestrians, then cyclists, scooters, etc., then taxis followed by buses – and only in places where there really is no choice should travel by private vehicle be permitted. Of course, the policy needs to be backed up with appropriate infrastructure. For example, in order to encourage walking in the long Tel Aviv summer, you need to make sure there are wide sidewalks and trees offering shade. Similarly, care should be taken to ensure that there is a wide range of alternatives to private car travel in the short term, so that every citizen can choose the mode of transport that is convenient for them.”


Innovative solutions already exist and are working successfully. In Gush Dan, for example, a range of shared transportation options are in place, including the use of a shared scooter to the bus or train station, customized public transportation services, shared travel coordination through dedicated apps, and more. Private car owners who opt for these solutions enjoy savings of tens of thousands of shekels a year, and probably also extend their life thanks to avoiding the nerve-wracking pastime of sitting in traffic – and yet, they are in the minority.


“At the same time as encouraging the choice of alternative means of transport, we must work to push private vehicles out of the big city centers,” says Dror. “This can be done by increasing the cost of parking, reducing the amount of carparks, increasing fines for illegal parking, reducing the number of lanes available for private cars, imposing a congestion charge that is proportional to the number of vehicles already clogging up the city, and so on.”


Medicines, mail and even pizzas delivered by drone


Until recently, drones and air taxis sounded like science fiction. But residents of Tel Aviv, Hadera, Herzliya and other places looking up at the sky in the last two years have been able to see drones flying high. This is an initiative of NAAMA – the Israel Urban Air Mobility Initiative (recently renamed the National Drone Initiative), a project that establishes a national network of drone lines that can transport any cargo, provided it is small and lightweight enough, from anywhere to anywhere, any time. Among other things, the drones will be able to transport medicines, mail packages, cosmetic products and even pizzas and food products.


“The process of building drone networks in Israeli cities is already underway,” says Dror. “For the first time in history, drone technology enables us to utilize the ‘very low altitude’ layer of 400 feet above ground level for the public’s benefit. As part of the NAAMA initiative, Matrix is supporting the Ayalon Highway in everything related to arranging, producing and operating simultaneous flights in managed airspace. At the same time, we are involved in a variety of activities related to the project, with municipalities, the post office and medical institutions. So far, there have been around 13,300 drone expeditions in Hadera, Tel Aviv, Ramat Hasharon, Herzliya – and we have even monitored flights in Brazil. The flight-per-day capacity demonstrated in this project makes it the largest exercise in the world in its field today, and we operate 16 companies for this purpose. In addition, since the project was established, the number of companies operating drones in Israel has increased from 100 to around 250, the companies that work with us have raised about $120 million, and in Israel as a whole (regardless of the project), about 4,000 drones are currently operated for ‘non-hobby purposes’. This activity is supported by the Ministry of Transportation, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Innovation Authority, the Director of Smart Transportation, and Ayalon Highways is the executive arm of the project.


“The day when the Israeli public will be able to enjoy the services of drones is not far away, and their integration in cities may significantly ease traffic congestion. The drones will replace a large proportion of vehicles carrying small loads, as well as being able to help with traffic monitoring, locating parking offenders, providing support for incidents that interfere with traffic – such as minor accidents – and more. At the same time, in order to enjoy drone services within the city, there must be appropriate management to ensure that public safety is maintained, and that the public does not suffer from noise hazards, environmental pollution and invasion of privacy.”


Photo credit: Dror Ben David
Photo credit: Dror Ben David


Coming soon: air taxis


“Hot on the heels of drones will come airborne taxis,” says Dror. “Factors that are already contributing to this are the technological developments in the field of drones, the development of ‘distributed electric propulsion’, and the huge investments that continue to flow into this field. There are now over 200 companies working to develop air taxis – that is, aircraft that can take off and land vertically on the one hand, with a relatively low cost per hour of flight on the other. In fact, air taxis are a cheap, quiet and non-polluting type of helicopter.


“If all goes well, the first air taxi test flights in Israel will begin as early as next year, and by around 2025 it will be possible to maintain regular routes to and from Gush Dan and the periphery, enabling passengers to fly comfortably, quickly and without traffic jams. In addition, air taxis will be able to serve as a ‘shuttle’ for people arriving by private car to and from huge parking lots located adjacent to highways, or major train stations.


Photo credit: Joby Aviation
Photo credit: Joby Aviation


Autonomous public transport and the DeLorean project


In July 2021, the Israeli Government approved a proposal to amend the Traffic rules, permitting autonomous vehicle companies to offer a commercial driverless shuttle service. In early 2022, the bill passed its third reading in the Knesset of Israel lately. This is a dramatic and groundbreaking event: the promotion of legislation that for the first time regulates the commercial activity of autonomous driverless vehicles. In Europe, Israel is second only to Germany in passing advanced legislation on the subject, and if the legislative process continues to proceed as planned, Israel will join leading states such as California, where many trials of autonomous vehicle companies are taking place.


“If we want the citizens of Israel to make public transport their preference over private vehicles, we need to increase the availability of public transport vehicles, and make the experience much more pleasant and faster when compared to private vehicles,” says Dror. “In this respect, there are many advantages to the integration of autonomous vehicles in the public transport system, including addressing the shortage of drivers, the possibility of automated operation on Saturdays, and more. Just recently, the approval process has begun for the Israeli National Initiative for Autonomous Public Transportation (also known as the DeLorean project), which will examine in depth how to integrate autonomous vehicles into Israel’s public transportation system.”


Summarizing the set of solutions that will promote sustainable transportation in Israel, and relieve us of punishing traffic jams and air pollution, Dror says: “We must invert the pyramid within the cities, putting pedestrians and bicycles first, while at the same time investing massively in railways and light rail. Autonomous buses should be integrated into public transport, lanes should be converted from lanes designated for private vehicles to public transport lanes, and congestion charges should be introduced. Most means of transport should be electrified. Together, all these measures can enable sustainable transport, greatly reduce traffic jams, noise hazards, greenhouse gases and air pollution, and ensure a future that can be sustained for a long time. If the autonomous vehicles are pleasant and comfortable, as on the train, it will be possible to take a nap or work, listen to music or surf the Internet while traveling, which will make travel a positive experience, and one that we look forward to.


“Matrix is honored to be a partner in advancing this vision. For several years now, we have been technologically and procedurally working with various bodies in the worlds of transportation in Israel. We are partners in turning the vision into real steps, by developing concrete plans for how to achieve it, by harnessing various government bodies, and by developing various components of the evolving ecosystem – supporting regulations, initiating requests for proposals (RFPs) and tenders on behalf of government bodies, running very large demonstrations, developing supportive information systems – all in an attempt to make these great ideas a reality in a matter of a few years.”

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