From the flying cars in movies such as Back to the Future series, to the increasingly realistic possibility of self-driving vehicles like those found in Demolition Man and Knight Rider, Hollywood certainly tried to imagine the future of transportation long before the industry caught up. If you’ve been paying attention to the first two quarters of 2017, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the future of transportation may very well bring the science fiction-like capabilities of autonomous and flying cars into reality. And while more grand forms of transportation—such as commercial space flight—are a bit more far off in the future, it is only a matter of time before the entire transportation industry looks like something out of a movie.
While I was certainly among those who were disappointed when Back to the Future’s prediction of flying cars by 2015 did not become a reality, the timeline is actually not too far off. As recently as 2016, companies such as German manufacturer Lilium Aviation are already in the development stages of flight-enabled vehicles, with flight tests set to begin this year followed closely by possible commercial development. While these flying vehicles appear to resemble miniature planes more than cars with flying capabilities, the accessibility of these vehicles could potentially reduce congestion in cities and lower housing prices in commuter hotspots, providing an affordable and short-distance alternative to commercial air flights. In fact, Lilium Aviation estimates that at their peak, these vehicles will have the ability to travel about 300 kilometers at a speed of 300 kilometers per hour, thereby increasing an individual’s radius for work, home, and leisure three-fold, all while reducing the increasingly concerning problem of city congestion.
A somewhat less-speculated but perhaps more applicable form of flying transportation is the “maglev” system—which stands for magnetic levitation—a form of transportation in which transportation relies on electromagnetic systems in both vehicles and tracks. In fact, contrary to popular understanding, costly maglev systems have been in place for years, with Shanghai’s maglev train beginning operation in 2004 at an estimated total cost of $1.2 billion to build. Despite the numerous benefits these systems offer—such as lowering emissions—the sheer cost often creates a barrier to making these systems more widely available. The question is not how to create maglev systems, but how to create them inexpensively.
Startup company Arx Pax—creator of the world’s first “hoverboard”—is currently developing a maglev system which uses an internalized electromagnetic system without a need for electromagnetic tracks, with the only requirement being a conductive surface such as copper—a surface that could be laid quickly and cheaply, with the ability to accommodate both maglev and conventional vehicles if used in conjunction with asphalt. And while Arx Pax’s system currently faces barriers such as the need for extremely powerful batteries, it is only a matter of time before revolutionary strides in the battery industry meet the hovering power of maglev vehicles, making flying cars an enticing alternative to traditional vehicles.
When it comes to the self-driving aspect of vehicles, which so many movies have envisioned, it appears that autonomous vehicles may be the first Hollywood transportation prediction to come true. In the past few months alone, Elon Musk’s Tesla series of cars have made revolutionary strides in autopilot systems, with this technology initially created as a driver assist system but quickly evolving into much more. With new Tesla models now consisting of, for example, eight cameras for 360-degree visibility, a new onboard computer system, and enhanced radar sensor and ultrasonic sensor technologies, the hardware itself appears to be preparing for more autonomous-centered driving—and with the brand new Enhanced Autopilot software being rolled out into newer models of Tesla cars, we may very well be already living in a society of automated driving.
Currently, Tesla’s new software system includes active cruise control, forward collision warning, and Autosteer software capable of self-driving up to 55 miles per hour. By the end of 2017, it is estimated that the software will be advanced enough for the ability to self-park, match speeds with traffic conditions, autonomously change lanes, and merge onto and off of highways, with the full self-driving system predicted to be advanced enough to create optimal routes to any destination, navigate more rural streets, and manage intersections with stop signs, traffic lights, and even roundabouts. With the future of autonomous cars literally months away, a revolution in the car industry is upon us.
Perhaps the most exciting form of future transportation we can look forward to is commercial space flight. With companies such as SpaceX—who are focused on the delivery of private commercial goods into space—making strides and others such as Virgin Galactic focusing on space tourism, the world of commercial space flight that movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey envisioned may not be too far from reality. With Virgin Galactic in particular, safety testing is ongoing for their SpaceShipTwo, a prototypical rocket ship with the potential for frequent suborbital space flights. While development has not yet been finalized and tickets for space tourism costing a probable $250,000 once commercialized, the potential for these flights to go orbital and pave the way for more inexpensive and frequent space flights is astronomical, and long-term space tourism and even exploration may one day be a staple mode of transportation.
The popularization of alternate methods of transportation in ground-breaking movies such as the Back to the Future trilogy and 2001: A Space Odyssey demonstrate that with creativity and determination the future of transportation envisioned in science fiction is about to enter the realm of reality. In fact, with flying cars, autonomous driving, and space flight now being developed for actual commercial use, we are mere months away from seeing technologies such as automated driving and flying cars, and only a few years away from accessible space tourism—something we will most likely see during our lifetime.
About the author: Ana C. Rold is Founder and CEO of Diplomatic Courier, a Global Affairs Media Network. She teaches political science courses at Northeastern University and is the Host of The World in 2050–A Forum About Our Future. To engage with her on this article follow her on Twitter @ACRold.