The course of human civilization has always been shaped by transportation. The Mongols would not have swept across Asia without the horse, America would not have expanded west at lightning speed without the train, and modern trade would not be possible without ships.
Our methods of movement empower us. But they also, in other ways, restrict us. The modern automobile, for example, grants us freedom of movement. Yet it also consumes our time and forces the construction of sprawling cities.
The transportation of tomorrow may not solve all these problems, but it may solve some – and it’s important to give the matter thought now so we can plan for the future.
The Promise: Cars are, in some ways, inefficient. I’m not talking about the use of fuel but instead the use of time. Many people living in areas dominated by this from of transportation have to spend hours at that wheel. Individuals are also prone to traffic jams and can’t find alternative routes while paying attention to the road. An autonomous car could free up the driver’s time, automatically find alternative routes and could react more reliably to changing road conditions.
The Problem: Driving isn’t simple. It requires a person’s full attention because it is difficult. Creating sensors and software that are able to react as quickly as a human isn’t simple. Safety concerns only complicate the matter. Failure of an autonomous car’s hardware or software could result in a fatal collision, so the car has to be excessively reliable.
Reality Check: Autonomous cars already exist. The most famous example is Google’s fleet. It’s not clear exactly how many cars the company has retrofitted for autonomous driving, but at least one is licensed in Nevada and others have previously operated in California. One of Google’s autonomous cars was involved in a minor fender-bender, though Google blames that accident on driver error (all of the cars have humans on board).
Google is far from the only company researching the technology, however. Many automakers are also interested. It’s likely only a matter of time before autonomous cars become commercially available.
The Promise: The Vacuum Train, or Vactrain, is the classic sci-fi “thing-in-a-tube” method of transport. Take a tube, suck the air from it and then hurl a cylinder down it using magnetic levitation. This creates an extremely low-friction environment devoid of obstacles, making absurdly high speeds possible. Advocates of Evacuated Tube Transport, an organization promoting the idea, claim it could travel between New York and Beijing in two hours.
The Problem: Supporters state that these systems cost only a quarter that of a freeway. No system has ever been built, however, so these claims seem dubious. Even if true, the cost of building a system that spans from New York to Beijing would be extreme. Engineers would also need to find some way of weaving these tubes through major obstacles (like mountains) and across or under the ocean.
Reality Check: The concept of the Vacuum Train is sound and, if built and deployed wide-spread, it could even be reasonably affordable. The engineering and cost challenges that face the first production of the concept are extreme, however. It may be built, but even the youngest of our readers will have wrinkles by the time it’s deployed.
The Promise: Public transportation is often efficient, but not always. A bus or train with only a few people on it is actually less efficient than several smaller individual vehicles. Personal Maglevs try to solve this problem through the use of small pods that move along a track. This allows for the privacy of a car with efficiency beyond that of a bus or train.
The Problem: Personal maglevs, like most public transportation, makes sense when deployed in urban areas. The infrastructure required for this technology may be in conflict with those densely packed locations. Just like roads have never been properly introduced to the cores of some cities built before the automobile, it seems unlikely that this system could ever be properly introduced in urban areas constructed before its deployment.
Reality Check: The idea of a personal maglev isn’t that different from existing monorail trains. With that said, we’re unlikely to see this technology in any currently developed city – the autonomous car, which uses existing infrastructure, will make more sense. This idea could become real in cities that are still undeveloped, however.
The Promise: Electric cars face serious problems. They can’t travel long distances, they don’t charge quickly, and charging in a remotely reasonable time requires the use of special charging stations. Electric motorcycles share some of these restrictions but can move a similar distance on a smaller battery because of their low weight. This reduces charge time and reduces cost to levels acceptable for the average person.
The Problem: Motorcycles are not popular in some parts of the world because of safety and comfort. A person accustomed to the isolation of a four-wheel closed vehicle is unlikely to embrace a motorcycle unless they feel that they’re nearly as safe as in a four-wheel vehicle and it cuts time out of the average commute. This requires investment into safety research and infrastructure changes in urban areas.
Reality Check: Electric motorcycles with performance equal to gas variants already exist and some are able to charge using a standard electric outlet. One pioneer in the field, Brammo, is head-quartered near where I live. I see their nearly-silent motorcycles zipping around frequently. I think that vehicles such as these will eventually become popular in urban areas – but some laws need to be re-written and the technology needs to be a bit more affordable.
What Do You Think?
There are many other ideas like space elevators, orbital flight and even teleportation. Given a long enough timeline anything seems possible – so I tried to focus on ideas that could potentially be common in fifty years or less.
What do you think will power tomorrow’s transportation? Will you arrive to your commute by jet-pack or glide through the streets on an exotic hover-board? Let us know in the comments.