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Some companies are working on different concepts and strategies to reduce the cost of sending material into low Earth orbit, or LEO, but for destinations beyond, there remains an essential problem of propellant mass that these technologies do not address: that is, even if the rocket is reusable, if all the propellant needed for the entire journey is taken along from Earth, there is a tremendous disadvantage, because most (for a round trip to Mars, more than 99 percent) of what is lifted into orbit is propellant. Is this a fundamental limitation?

Is it cheaper to buy a kilogram of European white truffles, or send a kilogram of rocks into low Earth orbit (LEO)? The answer may surprise you: while the average cost of sending a kilogram of anything into orbit varies considerably (anywhere from approximately 5,000 to 45,000 US dollars), the truffles actually cost less, if one assumes a representative launch cost to LEO of 20,000 US dollars per kilogram. Lowering the cost of space access has been one of the major goals of the space transportation industry, but what technologies can help to reduce the cost of access to space?

Two emerging trends in personal transportation - automated vehicles (AVs, also known as self-driving or driverless vehicles) and on-demand mobility (also known as carsharing, bikesharing ridesharing, ridesourcing or transportation network companies, and e-hail services) - may provide important alternatives to conventional personal transportation, and they could even dramatically disrupt the status quo, if accepted widely. Both are enabled by recently-available technology, such as high-performance cloud-based computing, widespread deployment of smartphones, and for AVs, sophisticated image-processing, decision-making software and the proliferation of inexpensive sensors.

While people are currently excited over the emergence of mass-market electric vehicles, the promise of autonomous travel, package delivery drones and other new transportation technology, another revolution may be around the corner that could quickly eclipse these others over the next 20 years: space transportation.


Urban Mobility

How are we moving people from point A to point B?
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Autonomous, electric and connected technologies are likely going to disrupt the auto and related industries. These technologies will transform the urban transportation landscape aiming to provide benefits not only for consumers, but also positively impact the environment. In our interview, Jeffery Greenblatt, an energy and environmental scientist who has explored pathways for reducing California’s greenhouse gas emissions, has recently begun exploring potential impacts from autonomous vehicles. He explains how shared autonomous taxis will make a positive impact on the environment, energy consumption and traffic congestion and safety.