As far as transportation goes, we've got it pretty good. We can get around the world pretty quickly, if we so choose; our ability to hop in a plane and fly across the globe certainly comes in handy for business trips or quickie vacations. Or, we can use alternate strategies, as journalist Seth Stevenson did: for his book "Grounded," he opted to wind his way around the planet without using air travel. Along the way, he mused about the ways that transportation has evolved, and how our travel choices impact humanity. (Heavy topics, but he had plenty of time -- the trip took several months.)
Though Stevenson stayed pretty traditional and old-school, that approach, to many, seems outdated. We have to travel, right? So it should always be improved as much as possible. Faster, more efficient or more fun. Or maybe, in really rare cases, we can try something completely new.
Clearly, the concept of "futuristic modes of transport" leaves a lot of room for interpretation. The following list encompasses quite a range. Some fell sadly short of their potential. Others, we're still hoping the promises will come to fruition.
(And if you ever end up on a trip, confined by some deathly dull mode of transport -- covered wagon, perhaps? -- you'd be lucky to have a copy of Stevenson's "Grounded" on-hand to pass the time.)
The name alone, Segway Human Transporter, implies this vehicle was burdened from the beginning by great expectations. "Human transporter" simply sounds too grandiose for its own good. A bit of background on its creator, notoriously quirky inventor Dean Kamen, confirms this suspicion. He's a physicist and researcher who holds more than 400 patents. (Kamen is also known for buying a small island off the New England coast, creating his own currency, and joking about seceding from the United States.)
The problem is, buyers haven't exactly come flocking to Kamen's door. The Segway simply isn't well-suited to the day-to-day needs of urban residents (and it's an even harder sell for the rural lifestyle).
The Segway, it must be said, is rather graceful in its movements. It zips along at a maximum speed of about 12 miles per hour (19.3 kilometers per hour), taking up only slightly more room than an upright, walking human, and a complex computer system keeps it (and the rider) balanced. A bunch of microprocessors calculate the rider's center of gravity to make sure it stays upright, and the handlebar-based turns are easy and intuitive.That's how hapless George Oscar Bluth (aka GOB) was constantly performing flamboyant Segway waltzes.
Perhaps the problem is this: It's not necessarily a good thing to move with so little effort. For all their computerized prowess, they still just look hazardous. It's the bane of many a lakefront visitor in downtown Chicago, where the tourism industry seems to depend on Segway rental revenue (and where it's just as easy to walk or take mass transportation).
So, where will the Segway's legacy lie? It couldn't even provide enough jokes for another season of "Arrested Development." Maybe the Segway really is a genius device that simply hasn't found its time or place. But for now, it's most commonly used for urban police patrols, college campus security and enabling large groups of clumsy tourists to terrorize innocent pedestrians in the most scenic areas of our nation's great cities.
The Prop-driven Car
Maybe it's not as versatile as the flying car, but it's way cooler looking. It was considered "futuristic" in the 1920s because it fit the vibe of the time. Airplanes were revolutionizing travel, so why not make a car that shared a little of the technology and a lot of the style?
The prop-driven car was land-bound despite its aviation-inspired silhouette. The most popular and well-known propeller car, the Helica, was designed by an actual airplane designer -- perhaps no surprise there. Another non-shocker? This glamorous contraption was of French origin. Engineer Marcel Leyat made considerable advancements over previous iterations -- his prop-driven car was designed from the ground up (most others simply consisted of a car with a propeller stuck to the front), an approach that allowed him to incorporate aerodynamic styling and efficiency-improving techniques that contributed heavily to the car's future-forward appeal.
It worked like this: The car's motor turned the propeller and the propeller thrust the vehicle forward. It lacked a transmission to help control power, steering and even brakes. Also conspicuously missing from most versions? A way to protect pedestrians, onlookers, and other innocent victims from the propeller's rapidly spinning blades. Again, a vehicle that seemed destined for mass-market success suffered an untimely demise.
Seems like one of the characteristics of futuristic vehicles is that people just don't give up on them, even though it's easy to see the countless reasons why a modern version of this car wouldn't work. Half a century (and more) later, though, hobbyists are still working on propeller cars to use as land speeders. There's a thrill to it, they've said. Find an open, flat area and let it go -- relatively uncontrolled. There may not be any transit-altering revolutions from these kinds of DIY garage projects...but the human desire to experience speed cannot be denied.
The Aptera 2e is a three-wheeled plug-in electric car, cozily built for two.
Or rather, it was.
Aptera Motors was founded in 2005, when the advent of a true mass-market electric vehicle was a happy, optimism-inducing thought...well before the industry began to see the situation in a more realistic light. So what made the Aptera different from its predecessors, or from its own kin, for that matter -- other electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, which are also not meeting sales expectations?
Well, the looks, for one. Sleek, glossy white and globular, like a car Apple might design, all in the name of aerodynamics. (That's why the car had three wheels -- adding a fourth reduced efficiency by 34-percent.) The car's actual mechanics were also considerably different (whereas today's electric cars try to make the driving experience as conventional as possible). To maximize efficiency, Aptera cut down on the typical drivetrain power loss by simply trimming down the drivetrain -- there was no transmission. Instead, power output was selected via dashboard control, letting the driver choose from maximum efficiency, normal driving, or improved acceleration modes. All these design elements added up to huge energy savings -- Aptera guaranteed a full battery charge would be good to travel 100 miles (160.9 kilometers) with two occupants and a couple hundred pounds of cargo. Constructed of a honeycomb-like composite material several times stronger than steel, the car was designed to exceed federal crash standards, and complemented by sustainable, eco-friendly interior design. And, the Aptera Web site says, the cars were designed to be built in the United States, with over 90-percent of its materials sourced from American suppliers.
A 2009 "Wired" article said Aptera 2es would start being delivered by the end of that year, at a sticker price between between $25,000 and $40,000 -- but it didn't happen. Even though Aptera had a waiting list of eager customers, the company said in 2011 that investor funds had dried up and they couldn't keep the doors open any longer. And that's it, apparently -- they were done. After the company's closure hit the news in a rather controversial fashion (online videos showed Aptera employees smashing prototypes, raising the Internet-based ire of expectant owners who thought the display was disrespectful), a longtime member of an Aptera online forum told ABC News that thousands of people had placed deposits on the cars.
The Aptera Web site is still up, featuring a screed to sustainability and betraying no sign of its failures. But all the optimism in the world just couldn't get the job done to their standards. Now they have one more chance -- a buyout from Chinese automaker Jonway Group in spring of 2012. Aesthetics aside, electric cars may no longer be seen as "futuristic," but they still have potential.
The People Mover
A people mover is traditionally defined as a light rail system, usually elevated, almost always automated. (In some areas, it's become a generic term for a lot of different types of commuter rail line.) They were designed to accommodate places where a more complicated rail line might be overkill. Basically, it's a monorail, a friendly alternative to faster, more complex, more utilitarian subways and elevated rail lines. It seems cleaner and, frankly, happier, than descending a staircase to a dark, fetid underground subway platform.
Generally, people mover systems work best over limited areas, like the small, driverless airport trams that shuttle passengers between terminals. They also work well if they're meant to convey a sense of nostalgia, like at Walt Disney World. They aren't always particularly competitive when they're meant to supplement, or compete with, other forms of urban mass transit, like subways or buses. Just ask the city of Detroit, where the Detroit People Mover serves an under-populated downtown area, circling around 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) of tourist attractions and commercial districts, with costs far outweighing collected fares. In this struggling city, taxpayers waste a few bucks for each mile ridden by a passenger. And studies show that most passengers are tourists in the city, so the people mover isn't even moving the people who actually live there.
Not trying to bash Detroit, here -- after all, any poorly planned transit system is likely to fail, and even the well-designed and popular ones aren't often revenue generators. Miami's Metromover People Mover, which connects busy parts of the city, is a good example of how the system can succeed. The people mover concept just goes to show how a mode of transportation might seem somewhat promising and look really cool, but that doesn't guarantee success.
If we ever see a personal-sized submarine fit for human travel, we can thank military researchers and developers around the world. Small submarines were first engineered for research and warfare, and, truth be told, they didn't hold up very well. A 1775 version known as the American Turtle required the operator to steer by hand, while also using hand cranks to propel the watercraft along. It was slow, tiresome work. Despite the cute (and appropriate) name, and a design that seemed destined for steampunk fame, the American Turtle was retired rather quickly.
But using one of the modern versions available would still be fun, though they're generally marketed as playthings for the very rich (the late adventurer Steve Fossett and his pal Richard Branson are known enthusiasts). To be fair, a personal submarine (or even a larger submarine) might not serve much of a practical purpose. Today's submarines, like those of yesteryear, are mainly used for military and research sectors; old models sometimes fall into the hands of drug dealers to be modified for stealth transport. For transportation, realistically, it would be less useful than a boat. It would probably be slower, it would definitely be a lot more expensive and its recreational bonuses have less mainstream appeal. (There'd be killer underwater panoramas, for sure, but no sunbathing, waterskiing or fishing.) People who live in some areas do have commutes over significant spans of water, like bays, rivers and lakes, but there have been no known movements to bring small submarines forth as an alternative to bridges and ferries. As experts point out, though, when military technology gets retired to the civilian sector, we often end up with things we never knew we needed that can do things we never anticipated.
The Self-driving Car
Every few years, we're promised the impending arrival of self-driving cars. Finally, estimates are getting a bit more conservative (which implies they're more realistic). The latest projection? The year 2019.
They've been tested for ages, by engineers and developers, traditional automakers and even Google. Self-driving cars will work based on super-complex systems that are comprised of technology that, for the most part, we already have. GPS, for example, will keep the car on course. Cameras around the perimeter of the car will constantly scan for obstacles, and they'll be connected to sensors that monitor other road conditions. This network will provide feedback to the car's computers and electrical system, so the car can stay on its scheduled path of travel while maintaining a safety cushion from everything else on the road. Most new cars already boast some of these benefits, in features like bumper-mounted reverse cameras, parallel parking assist and traffic jam assist. They're intended to improve safety, of course, but have the side effect of reducing the driver's need to concentrate, pay attention and react quickly. The ultimate achievement? Experts say the target is to get drivers in a fully automated car that will never crash, possibly by the year 2025.
There are other implications to be considered, too. Once most cars are self-driving, what will be the joy of car ownership? Of course, a lot of people will argue that there is no joy, especially in commuting. The car is just a way to get from one place to another, not an achievement in itself. So, fine. Hit a button that will tell the car to head to work, sit back and enjoy your coffee along with the morning's news streamed to the in-dash console. Might as well be on a bus. But at least the workday can be started a bit earlier.
But what about the thrill of lacing up your driving shoes and cranking the ignition of a Karmann Ghia or a vintage Porsche, or taking a scenic cruise in drop-top American muscle, or hearing an exotic sports car zipping by? What about driving for pleasure without a destination in mind? ("Sorry kids, we can't stop for ice cream -- the car said so!") It's reasonable to assume that at some point, the car industry will become completely homogenous, and self-driving cars might accelerate that disintegration of culture.
It'll take a long time before driverless cars are actually safer and more efficient than the traditional prone-to-human-error variety -- we need to know computers are up to the challenge, costs need to come way down, and we have to redesign roads and write new laws. So far, there's no timetable for conversion that indicates that we will be forced to abandon our current cars and jump on the computer-driven bandwagon.
The Shweeb Monorail
We've seen our fair share of elevated-track transport systems, but the Shweeb is a little bit different. It's like a bicycle track, except it's built 19 feet (5.8 meters) above ground level where it barely impacts existing road use. And the bicycles are recumbent, built inside clear pods, adding an element of comfort. The founder, Geoff Barnett, got the idea while traveling in Tokyo, where, he says, everyone rides bikes and almost everything is encapsulated.
Shweeb prides itself on its efficiency -- though the pods are pedal-operated by the user, they go a lot faster than walking, using a lot less human effort than walking. (Even though Shweeb touts the aerobic benefits, they point out that the effort needed to pedal is minimal, so users should be able to maintain a comfortable body temperature while traveling better speeds and distances.) Shweeb says that speeds achieved on its curved prototype track indicate that on a long straightaway, the pods are capable of being pedaled faster than an Olympic cyclist. They're extremely aerodynamic and have low rolling resistance, so that a faster rider will be able to push a slower rider from behind with minimal extra effort. Shweeb also claims that most disabled riders will be able to use the pods, and there are no weight limits, so the pods should be comfortable for everyone. There's also the energy factor. The Shweeb rails are powered to enable sensor and safety systems, but the pods themselves move under human power. Shweeb says the system is zero emission -- more energy efficient than other modes of mass transit.
Once the systems are installed and achieve widespread use, Shweeb expects them to handle a high capacity of users. There's no buffer distance required between pods, and users can exit the track at stations without disturbing other pods, so in theory, the line can be completely full without affecting the speed of travel. Shweeb pods require no steering or mechanical input other than pedaling, so busy commuters would be happy. The pods are cushioned from impact, so they're safe (a buffer converts an impact from behind into forward motion). The pod's wheels are enclosed within the track, so Shweeb claims a derailment incident is simply impossible. And a series of computer sensors and human staff will always be watching to ensure there are no emergencies within individual pods. And the pods themselves allow 360-degree views from above -- definitely a different perspective on the morning commute.
For now, Shweeb's prototype system, installed in a New Zealand amusement park, is accessible to the public...but its capabilities are being tested by recreation-seekers who race the pods against each other. In 2010, Google invested a million bucks, hoping to make the system more widespread by 2012 for urban commuting, corporate and college campuses and possibly even tourist attractions in scenic areas. It hasn't happened yet, but the Shweeb Monorail still shows promise for a fun and engaging transportation system.
Here's to all the kids who dreamed of flying.
And here's how it might happen. The U.S. Army began toying with jetpacks in the 1940s, and hired Bell Aerosystems in the 1960s to push along progress. The results were disappointing, though: Although Bell had made a lot of progress, they simply could not promise the fast, nimble, safe and distance-capable machines the military envisioned. After that, large-scale jetpack development basically ground to a halt. But a handful of hobbyists and investors held on to the dream, even if seems perpetually stuck in pre-launch mode.
Okay, technically, a jetpack can already get you off the ground, under the right circumstances. But today's jetpacks can't support a person in flight for more than a few seconds (and if you weigh more than 175 pounds (79.4 kilograms), you're out of luck). A handful of companies have worked on jetpacks, and have achieved similar results, but New Zealand-based Martin Aircraft seems to be the most likely to achieve commercial success. Martin was formed in 2004, specifically to complete and market an existing jetpack prototype.
Martin describes their jetpack as both "aviation" and a "recreational vehicle." Two concepts at odds with each other? Well, perhaps. After all, a Fortune 500 CEO commuting by private helicopter fulfills both criteria. However, they also think it's "practical," and that's a bit harder to swallow. Practical for whom or what, exactly (at a projected price of $100,000)? Millionaires? Billionaires? The environment? But, more important, for every kid who fantasized of owning a jetpack one day (whether inspired by comic books, video games or LEGO sets) does practicality factor in at all?
No fear -- gasoline-operated mass-market jetpack use will be safe and easy, according to Martin, with automated hover, stability in "reasonable weather," and a parachute. Pilots will be trained by simulators, and, once in flight, will be supported by automated and computerized controls that will determine and maintain a safe height. Martin also anticipates that pilots will undergo some kind of licensing requirement.
Martin hopes to complete a flight by the end of 2012, begin delivering to corporate and government customers in 2013, and get jetpacks on the backs of private citizens in 2014. They're currently restricted from use in populated areas, which, for now, is just another roadblock on the path to commuter use. Despite claims of growing interest by actual groups who will actually use these (like government defense programs, law enforcement teams, and rescue services), it seems like Martin's mostly making them because they can. Which is fine, of course. Jetpacks exist, and we've achieved a flight-of-fancy milestone. Maybe someday you'll actually get to touch one.
The Flying Car
Maybe we should be surprised that the jetpack has apparently beat the flying car. It seems like flying cars have been promised much longer. We have cars and we have airplanes, so making a mash-up shouldn't have taken this long.
So what is the benefit of a flying car, and how would it differ from, say, a helicopter? And why don't we see flocks of flying cars?
Foremost, the hybrid approach (land plus air) is more practical (in relative terms) than a single-purpose vehicle. But let's clarify that by saying, if you're stuck in a traffic jam, it would be more practical for you to press a button that allows your car to sprout wings and whisk your family off the ground, than it would be for you to own a helicopter or small plane. So, in other words, it's not very practical at all. (Still in doubt? Just think of how many people can barely drive safely down a straight road.)
But that hasn't stopped people from trying. There are about 80 patents on file for flying car technology in the United States and a handful of prototypes have actually achieved air.
The first experiment took place in 1917, and since then, there's usually been a project or two underway. Most inventors attached wings and propellers to a car and crossed their fingers; a few others tried to make small aircraft road-worthy (one of which could be converted in just about five minutes -- take that, Transformers!) but all suffered from similar problems. They're too heavy, too expensive, unlikely to ever meet safety standards and simply too hard to imagine ever actually working.
But of all the flying cars made, the Aerocar came closest to success. It could cruise above ground at 120 miles per hour (193.1 kilometers per hour). It also achieved FAA approval as a flight-worthy vehicle (one of only two flying cars to accomplish this feat). Ford was close to putting the Aerocar into production, but the oil crisis of the 1970s dashed those dreams.
It's hard to believe that it'll ever be cost-efficient compared to other transit options. A mass-market flying car will cost about $300,000 and will consume a lot of fuel. Tired of paying fuel surcharges when booking a plane ticket? It takes a lot more energy to achieve that height and stay aloft!
Still wistful? (You must really hate traffic jams.)
If we had the ability to disappear in one place and reappear somewhere else, this entire list would be for naught. Sure, there would be practical limitations (by comparison, a jetpack would probably seem cost effective) but just imagine what could be done.
Now, reel your imagination back in just a bit, and think about fantasy and science fiction. Even Harry Potter and his friends usually chose more traditional methods of travel, because teleporting took a little bit of effort. A wizard needed a specially equipped fireplace and magic powder to teleport via machine. Objects could be bewitched to serve as a temporary teleportation device, but it required a lot of advance planning for just one trip. And only licensed adults were allowed to simply disappear and reappear in a different place (which they called apparition). Did you ever wonder why, despite flying cars and flying brooms and flying dragons and apparition, the kids still spent a full day on a train to get to school?
So, oddly, the fantasy world does illustrate some of the practical problems. In the real world, though, science gets involved, and science has even more restrictive real-world limits. A team of Chinese physicists made the news in spring of 2012 for a huge advancement in teleportation technology. And the accomplishment? Transporting a photon (a particle of light) 60 miles (96.6 kilometers). The previous record for photon teleportation, set in 2010, was 10 miles (16.1 kilometers).
The photon teleporter works by harnessing the energy of a laser beam to get from point A to point B. But, here's the key: The photon is duplicated at point A, and it's a mirror image of the photon, not the actual original photon, received at point B. It was discovered in 1993 by a team of IBM researchers that it was only possible to transmit a duplicate of an object if the original object was destroyed, which obviously makes it unethical to research on anything alive. To replicate this ability on a human subject, the brave soul would be analyzed by the teleporter at the point of departure. They'd be scanned, and every single molecule of the person would be sent at the speed of light to another machine at the point of arrival. If anything went wrong, anything at all, there'd be severe consequences for the traveler. After all, they'd be stuck with their new, reassembled form -- the original would be gone for good.
In short, these scientists are talking about using this device to quickly and securely transmit coded, classified data for government operations. We can duplicate photons that contain coded data, but we can't accomplish that feat with anything solid. We're nowhere near the technology necessary to teleport humans. We aren't even close to teleporting a Wonka bar.
In other words, start saving up for your jetpack... or just enjoy your six-speed sports car while you still can.
The quantum internet would use the quirky behavior of tiny particles to enable applications not possible with today's internet.
Author's Note: 10 Futurist Predictions in the World of Transportation
After a few years as a freelance auto journalist, I became a little wary of "futuristic" promises and predictions (and based on the blogs and glossies' output, not much has improved.). Everything was revolutionary. It was easy to lose perspective.
My initial research yielded a stockpile of photos of monorail-esque designs, and I had another flashback: A post-college trip to Walt Disney World with an old friend. (Clearly, this was before I suffered the aforementioned disillusionment.) And that was when I discovered the glory of the PeopleMover. There was no line, so we ambled aboard and rested while we drank coffee and enjoyed the park scenery.
My friend filled me in on the PeopleMover's past life as the "Tomorrowland Transit Authority," which I found a bit baffling: even primitive monorail designs seemed more efficient and useful. Even considering Disney's tendency to take itself way too seriously, how could this amusement park ride have any serious potential as a method of mass transit? But, I soon learned, and as you know by now, there is another PeopleMover in Detroit, where again, it serves no greater purpose than amusing tourists.
At least I can look at the PeopleMover and be glad I've got Chicago's El tracks instead. Now if only I could commute to work on something like the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Get on that, Disney.
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