UPFRONT Toy story

Imagine travelling the world talking about toys. Big boys’ toys. Mouthwateringly expensive, cor-blimey high-tech ones. That’s the not-so-unhappy lot of Paul O’Neill, Deloitte’s director of global aviation and transport services.
Based in London but on the road for jumbo-sized slice of his working life, O’Neill touched down in Auckland recently to update colleagues and clients on the future shape of air, road, rail and water transport.
His insights are culled from similar conversations around the globe. For O’Neill’s job encompasses talks with top-notch transport types, many of whom want to think the unthinkable and test the outrageous in the safe and objective environment that O’Neill can provide.
It is, he says, lovely position to be in. “I get to hear some very strange things that are purely hypothetical and other things that actually happen.”
Security issues and fuel costs will remain the key drivers of change for some time to come, he says. Globally, progress with the former has become bogged down by American legislators and regulators who have yet to settle on security standards. Technologists continue to wait for their signal on future direction. The decision, says O’Neill, has been at least six months away since 9/11. “Every month it goes back by month. They won’t draw the line. But there’s no such thing as perfect security system and it’s best just to implement something.”
Running parallel to the need to beef up security systems is the desire to curb costs as jet fuel prices continue to rocket skywards. Past prices of US$35 barrel now look positively benign against today’s dynamic averages of around US$60 and an “admittedly extreme” forecast of US$120 within the next six months. “Fuel used to be about 21 percent of an airline’s operating costs,” points out O’Neill. “Now for many airlines it’s about 30-40 percent.”
Hovering in the wings are raft of new notions about how we should zip about our planet in the future.
Take mobile telephantasy, for example. That’s cute name for people using their mobile phones at traditional air travel touchpoints such as buying their ticket, checking in, and pre-picking their chicken or beef option for their mile-high munch.
Low-cost operator Air Asia has already travelled some way down this track. Savvy founder and current CEO Tony Fernandez gives passengers the choice of buying their tickets via the SMS technology on their mobile phones.
Mobiles could also soon form part of digital fast track for passengers being security checked at airports. Carrying coded photographs and/or fingerprints of passengers, they could provide an additional layer of identification. Back that up with iris scans, and terrorists’ plans to slip through security screening become just that little bit easier to foil.
Not impossible, of course. No technology is entirely foolproof. O’Neill tells the gory story of the Mercedes and the fingerprint – recounted to him by “the chap from Mercedes who’s involved in security” – in which the car company’s supposedly burglar-proof fingerprint ignition system was beaten by someone with nasty mind and sharp implement. “The car turned up in Baghdad with the fingers of the owner.”
Perhaps the best boys’ transport story is the one now regularly hurtling to and from Shanghai’s Pudong Airport. China’s magnificently extravagant Maglev – it’s short for magnetic levitation – is train without wheels. Official estimates say it cost around US$2 billion. Observers reckon you could safely multiply that figure several times over. It runs over few kilometres, not even reaching all the way into town. And it goes like the clappers. Around 434 kilometres an hour to be precise.
“Just to put it into context,” says O’Neill, “the fastest trains in the world, Eurostar and Japan’s Bullet train, hit 260 kilometres an hour. And Boeing 777 takes off at 234 kilometres an hour.
“It’s disgustingly expensive. The train itself produces no waste but the electricity you need to generate the electro-magnetic field to run it uses huge amount of electricity which is produced in China by coal-fired power stations. So it’s not clean. It’s not cheap. But it is shockingly fast.”
By all accounts, Maglev is so magnificently over the top that even the ambitiously showy Chinese are unlikely to dig into their pockets for another one in the near future. Its potential significance could lie way forward in future in which Maglev switches to low-cost nuclear power and prices airlines out of the market.
If it attracts the market that airlines supply at the moment, says O’Neill – not for the routes over the sea but for land-based journeys such as across Europe, the Americas or even domestically within New Zealand – this could become workable option for the future.
“At the moment, aircraft don’t have valid alternative to using fossil fuel. The bio fuels that Richard Branson is talking about are long way off. They’re at the embryonic stage. And this is operating technology.”
With so many options in contention, it’s hard to tell which one will have the happy ending.

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