If you weren’t sure the 1980s were all the rage before, there’s no doubt now that American Airlines has signed a deal to purchase 20 Boom Supersonic jets. Scheduled to roll out by 2025, it’s a throwback to the super-fast, ultra-luxury travel that Concorde promised and delivered from its founding in 1976 until insolvency in 2003.
Aspiring to be in passenger use by 2029, this purchase gives us a glimpse of just one of many future modes of transportation that could evolve over the next two decades. The name of the game for current and future transport will be speed and efficiency, together with consideration of sustainable transport (most of the time). Let’s dive in to find out some of the cutting-edge, convenient transportation that could soon be hitting a road or track near you.
Uh no ? Well, the first self-driving car concept dates back nearly 100 years as part of GM’s Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair. And the self-driving (flying?!) car has been growing ever since.
Now that pseudo-autonomous cars are here, the Society of Automotive Engineering (SAE) has defined five levels of driving autonomy. These range from cars without driving automation at level 0 to “full self-driving service available in all conditions” at level 5. Most modern semi-autonomous cars are level 1 vehicles that can help acceleration, braking and steering.
Some rides, like the Tesla Model S, have made the jump to Level 2. Tesla’s Autopilot, for example, includes all the features of Level 1 cars and comes with an optional “Full Self-Driving” package for offer lane change assist, highway navigation and self-parking. You also have the option of hailing your Model S from the parking lot at the main entrance.
While Level 2 still requires the driver to maintain control of the vehicle, Levels 3, 4 and 5 will allow fully autonomous control of the car, although Levels Three and Four make exceptions. These first three tiers will take a while to appear commercially, but you can bet your cheapest auto companies are working hard to be the first to put these self-driving vehicles on the road.
Improving automotive gas mileage and user function is essential for future transportation, but if we’re really going to sustain ourselves as a species, it’s the trains that will have to connect us. It’s not obvious in the United States, but North America is far behind its Asian and European brethren when it comes to futuristic travel. Part #1? Maglev trains.
The magnetic levitation (mag-lev, get it?) of powerful electromagnets pushes these trains forward along electrified guideways. A lack of friction allows these trains to travel at high speed with much less noise and a smoother ride than traditional gauge trains. It is an understatement to say that these trains are “high speed” when they are able to reach speeds at least half as fast as jet planes. A maglev bullet train that debuted in Qindao, China, for example, can reach speeds of 373 miles per hour. Developed by the state-owned China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation, this maglev is considered the fastest train in the world.
Britannica lists six commercial maglev systems currently in use – one in Japan, two in South Korea and three in China. Because these super lines are not powered by burning fossil fuels, they have a much lower impact on the environment. America’s first maglev train is still in development, in partnership with a Japanese company, with plans to link Washington DC with Baltimore and, eventually, New York.
It may seem that drones have appeared on the scene in the last 10 years, but the first automated flying machine actually appeared in 1935. The history of unmanned aerial vehicles dates back to the provision of bogies as training targets aircraft for Royal Air Force fighter pilots. It started with towing gliders behind manned aircraft. When this failed to provide a realistic simulation for engaging enemy fighters in real combat, the RAF developed the Queen Bee aircraft – a radio controlled drone.
The following year, US Admiral William Harrison Standley gave Lieutenant Commander Delmar Fahrney the responsibility of developing a similar program after witnessing a test flight in the UK in 1936. Fahrney first used the term “drone” as a sly nod to the queen bee.
Eight decades later, the first UPS drone delivered prescription drugs to American homes in 2019. However, drones still have a long regulatory way to go before flying machines are deployed for large-scale commercial use. Currently, delivery is limited to rural areas and hospital campuses because drones pose a risk to life and property. Each US state works with the FAA to develop drone testing, restrictions, and regulations.
Now we’re going to start having a little fun with future visions. Imagine attaching yourself not to a train, but to a glass tube which, closing its doors, propels you through the Earth at almost the speed of sound. Welcome to the hyperloop.
Elon Musk is credited with conceiving the modern idea of the hyperloop, first addressing the idea of a high-speed system in 2012, and in 2013 published a white paper with plans for a super tube from Los Angeles to San Francisco. It was an update of a two-hundred-year-old idea, first suggested in 1799 when English inventor George Medhurst patented a system of iron pipes that used compressed air to propel goods through pneumatic tubes.
Musk’s hyperloop offered pressurized pods that could carry up to 28 people and pull them through a system of glass tubes powered, in part, by vacuum, and generating speeds of up to 600 miles per hour on skis hovering on a cushion of air. Although open source design has so far only achieved what amounts to a Las Vegas themed ride, there are a host of companies and countries building hyperloop prototypes.
With an expected arrival date around 2030, India and Middle Eastern countries are deeply advancing technology that could transport cargo cheaper and more efficiently from place to place via the hyperloop.
The Virgin Hyperloop, being developed in Nevada, aspires to a number of routes across the United States carrying passengers with 10 times less energy than jets and traveling at “500 miles per hour for less energy (per passenger) than an electric car doing 60 miles per hour.”
Yes, flying taxis. Imagine zooming above traffic and spinning above endless traffic jams via electric propellers. More than 20 companies and dozens of the world’s best engineers are working to make flying taxis a reality.
Earlier in August, the Wall Street Journal reported that United Airlines Holdings Inc. had placed a $10 million deposit for 100 electric flying taxis with Archer Aviation Inc. It’s one of many signs that the fledgling technology is very popular, especially among already established airlines.
As of 2021, at least 14 flying taxis and cars were in development. The biggest hurdle, of course, is regulation. It is going to be quite difficult to balance FAA requirements with local zoning ordinances for these electric craft to be used for commercial purposes. The goal is for air taxis to provide safe, inexpensive and greener rides than sitting in traffic. With volocopters and autonomous aircraft on the horizon, it may not be long before we can fly home from the airport.
Beyond price and safety pressures, the biggest challenge will be ambition and the spirit of collaboration to achieve these transport visions. In the 20th century, the United States helped introduce private automobile use, commercial theft, industrial agriculture, and much more to the world. Along the way, inventors have turned into oligarchs, creating barriers to competition or outright destroying competitors like automakers did with mass transit systems in Detroit, LA, and more.
Many of these ideas have been around for decades, even centuries. Now that we are on the verge of creating a system of sustainable and efficient means to move people and things around and off the planet, it remains to be seen if humanity is capable of harnessing these powers in a sustainable and equitable way. .