The Future of Transportation

August 4, 2014

To all intents and purposes, today’s transportation is mostly the same as it was in the 1950’s. More electronic gadgets and gizmos, admittedly, but fundamentally, the cars, trucks and trains of 2014 are still based on the same design concepts. But ten years from now things could be very different.

Forget those concept cars that look just like today’s sports cars: transportation is all set to change.

Atomic cars – for real! (Well, maybe…)

Way back in 1958, when atomic everything was hip, Ford came up with the Nucleon, a uranium-powered steam-engined car. For obvious reasons it was never manufactured – but the concept of the nuclear car refuses to die.

Ford Nucleon 1962

The latest idea is to use thorium instead of uranium. Laser Power Systems claims to be developing an engine that uses a thorium-powered laser to drive a steam turbine. Thorium is cheap, abundant, and in theory, just 8 grams of the stuff could power your car for a century. Even better, it causes far less pollution than even electric vehicles.

But will it actually work? (Warning, some profanity.)

So… that’s a no.

Driving around with a miniature nuclear reactor between your legs doesn’t look like it’ll be happening any time soon. Somehow, that doesn’t seem like a bad thing.

Sorry, you don’t actually get to drive any more

The most likely development in transportation will be the elimination of the most unreliable part of the whole shebang – the driver. (That’s you.) No matter how good a driver you think you are, humans are prone to falling asleep, driving dangerously, getting lost, and driving inefficiently. So let’s take them out of the equation and let the cars drive themselves.

As soon as the lawyers and politicians can figure out the regulatory issues, you’ll be able to jump into your Google car, tell it where you want to go, and sit back while it speeds you to your destination – safer, quicker, and more energy-efficiently than you could do it yourself. Your goods will be delivered by unmanned drones instead of trucks. But that’s just the start. Within cities, you’ll be able to hop into a personal self-driving pod like the Transport Systems Catapult, soon to appear on the streets of Milton Keynes in England.

Although we’re all used to the idea of having our own vehicles, mass transit will take a big leap forward with the development of new technologies. Magnetic levitation, or maglev, trains are about to hit the USA: the first one was greenlighted May 19th in Orlando, Florida. The $800m system will take tourists between the airport, the convention center, and, of course, Disney World. The technology’s proven: maglevs are already in use in China and Japan, reaching speeds of over 300 mph and providing superfast intercity transportation.

Not fast enough for you? Then take a look at Elon Musk’s planned Hyperloop, which will hit an incredible 800 mph and go from LA to San Francisco in just 30 minutes – faster than a plane. Musk is the guy behind the Tesla and SpaceX, so his plan to fire passengers at supersonic speeds down vacuum tubes may not be as crazy as it sounds.

And then there’s Skytran, which combines both the maglev and autonomous vehicle concepts. Being developed by NASA, it’s likely to make its first appearance in Tel Aviv, Israel within the next few years. A fleet of small pods hangs from a network of maglev tracks high above the streets: you simply climb into a vacant pod, tell it where you want to go, and it whisks you there at 150mph. Powered by solar and wind, it has the potential to be the cleanest and most efficient urban transport system yet.

But where’s my flying car and jetpack?

Ah, yes. The legendary flying car, beloved of science fiction writers since the 1930s. Well, they’re still working on it. The Terrafugia TF-X is about the closest we’ve come yet, and technically, it’s getting there. That is, it’s a car, and it flies. Which is cool, but…

The problem with flying cars is – and always will be – that they fly. That means you’re going to need a pilot’s license, which is going to cost you a whole heap of money, somewhere in the region of $10,000. And it needs somewhere to take off and land: your typical residential suburb won’t do. And it’ll need a lot of regular maintenance and servicing before the FAA will let it into the air.

Terrafugia is aiming to sidestep all those regulatory hurdles by designing a vehicle that does all the flying for you. It’ll avoid other cars and planes, handle adverse weather, and even make an emergency landing. In other words, they’re aiming to solve all the problems faced by autonomous cars and all the problems faced by drones, and then convince both legislators and the public that it’s a perfectly safe idea to have two-ton vehicles flying over our homes crewed by passengers who don’t know how to fly. That seems highly unlikely.

As for the jetpack, if you’ve got NZ $150,000 (US $130,000) lying around you’ll be able to purchase one from Martin in the next couple of years. As long as it’s not dark or windy, you’ll be able to commute up to 10 miles each way, at a massive speed of 40mph. Oh, and it’s not actually a jetpack. It’s a V4 two-stroke. Sorry.

But a hoverbike? Okay, you can have that, courtesy of Australian outfit Aerofex, although you’ll have to wait till 2017. The Aero-X will zip along 12 feet off the ground at a sprightly 45mph. Perfect for those trips into Mos Eisley.

Image Credit: Washington Post