Driving In to the Future

On a recent business trip to Silicon Valley, I saw the future. Learn what I saw and why I’m excited about it.

Proof: The future is here.
Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Have you ever experienced something that left you feeling like you glimpsed into the future? One hundred years ago, you could have attended a World’s Fair. Today, it could mean riding a high-speed train, donning a virtual reality headset, or ordering a Big Mac at a digital kiosk for the first time.

It was a late Tuesday morning in April. I hopped into my colleague’s 2020 Chevy Bolt and hit the mean streets of Los Altos, CA.

We began casually chatting about the day’s itinerary. Pulling up to the first intersection, I felt as though I transported five years in the future.

Coming to the stoplight, a sleek Porsche all-electric SUV caught our eye as it stopped in the adjacent lane. Straight ahead, an autonomous Lexus sedan adorned with cameras and computers quietly approached from the opposite lane. Behind it loomed a futuristic all-electric Amazon delivery van.

“Where are we?!” I couldn’t help but think.

Less than a mile down the road we spotted several Rivian pick-up trucks. My colleague astutely noted our present proximity to Rivian’s headquarters.

As expected around San Fransisco, a Tesla emblem adorned about every 4th vehicle.

Place Your Bets

Continuing down the road towards Palo Alto, we glimpsed a yet-to-be-released Rivian SUV. The camouflage shape-concealing wrap felt even more futuristic. Watching my colleague become giddy with excitement, who I learned has been an EV nut since high school, told me this was special.

I felt like a tourist spotting Sylvester Stallone from a double-decker Hollywood tour bus.

In a two-hour tour spanning Mountain View to San Jose, we caught a Kia self-driving electric SUV, Ford’s Mach-E mustang, and hundreds of other EVs strolling the streets.

It was as though we entered a high-stakes gambling hall, witnessing billions of high-tech R&D chips placed on the future of America’s roadways.

Going All In

Home to many of the world’s most prolific tech companies, Silicon Valley holds a long history of technological innovation and early adoption. The community seems to be on an eternal “Manhattan Project” mission to construct the glasses that gaze upon the ‘what could be’.

The future I witnessed didn’t fill me with the usual dystopian dread felt after contemplating the decades ahead – a society unwittingly barreling towards the edge of a steep cliff. It was less Wall-E and more The Good Place (the actual good place!).

I felt elated, optimistic, and jubilant with anticipation of what may be around the next bend. This future felt amazing.

It was a future filled with hope. Better yet, it felt doable.

Alternate Reality

Growing up in the Midwest, I’ll be the first to note that Silicon Valley is not Cleveland, Ohio. Similar to the virtual reality headset, it doesn’t accurately portray real life for most of us. But ideas starting in the Bay do seep into the national mindset over time.

The area has long been Petri dish for new ideas, harboring a rare combination of technological innovation and highly-educated nerds (admittedly too many of the male variety), and an eternal optimism grasping for utopia – and unicorns.

Some of the world’s most transformative ideas have emerged from the Valley. Notable favorites include personal computers, smartphones, the internet, and fidget spinners.

This relatively tiny patch of land nestled between a coastal mountain range and the San Francisco Bay has brought the world HP (1939), Intel (1968), Apple (1976), Google (1998), Uber (2009) and lured Facebook shortly after it’s founding (2004) – among others.

It’s also the graveyard of countless hopeful “game-changers”, where promising tech startups softly wither into obscurity.

Charging Up

Pulling up to our first stop for the day, I felt transported.

Had I glimpsed the future on this Tuesday morning? Could this be where our world is heading? Will America’s roadways from Boise to Birmingham someday resemble the cruise around Los Altos? If so, we have a lot of work to do!

I have no doubt automakers will be ready, but what about drivers? Where will we refuel all of these massive mobile batteries? How must our cities and electric grid transform to accommodate a future of mass electrified transport?

Will it happen quickly enough? Will we be ready?

In Search of the Holy Grail

If you’re old enough, you may remember life before the smartphone era.

Before 2007, nobody had a smartphone as we know it today. Then nearly overnight, everyone had an iPhone (thanks to Silicon Valley tech). It necessarily changed the way we experienced the world, and the expectations for infrastructure to support our new lifestyles.

More realistically, many may recall how ill-equipped our public places were for our new devices. Take airports, for example. Many of us know the creeping anxiety hunting for an open terminal outlet to revive our dying electronics before the next flight.

Over the last fifteen years, our homes and public spaces experienced a massive shift to accommodate our changing social norms. Now, airport outlets are nearly as prevalent as Starbucks (I said ‘nearly’). Today it’s near commonplace to find an outlet at 30,000 feet!

Same Blueprint, but Cleaner

Tailpipe emissions are the largest source of carbon emissions in California. Aggressive EV adoption requires electric vehicle charging follow the modern airport outlet design scheme – put it freakin’ everywhere!

Grocery store – charging stations. Movie theater – chargers. The office – you better believe lots of chargers. My apartment – yup, a plug for every car. Maybe two!

Doctors’ offices, the mall, hotels, you name it. Anywhere we park and leave our cars for more than a few minutes should include ample charging options. And like parking lots, we should demand charging be made a civic right.

As a wise man says: When it comes to EV charging we should move electrons, not vehicles.

Fast Charging Ahead

Unlike smartphones, EV adoption is more gradual. That provides the opportunity to proactively plan for EV charging infrastructure instead of frantically reacting after it’s unbearably inconvenient (i.e. device charging at the airport).

Yes, we have a lot of work ahead. It will take a careful combination of thoughtful public policy, technological innovation, and some painful moments for new EV drivers searching for charging ports.

We have a chance to do this right and build a cleaner, greener, more resilient transportation system we can all get excited about.

The future is knocking – how will we respond?

About the Author

I’m working alongside a talented team to provide organizations with intelligent onsite solutions that enable carbon-free electrification and transportation.

If you’re considering onsite solutions such as electric vehicle charging stations, solar, or battery storage to reduce corporate greenhouse gas emissions and improve operational efficiency, let’s see if we can help. You can reach me at alex.kaufman@powerflex.com.

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