From Japanese bullet trains and electric sports cars, like Tesla, to passenger flights into space on Virgin Galactic (coming soon!), our society has made great advances in transportation during the last 50 years. Progress is always exciting. Unfortunately, it is the exact opposite for city planners and administrators. They have to make tough decisions on what new transportation infrastructure needs to be built, eminent domain decisions, and what to do with out-of-date and abandoned transportation systems.
What will be the future transportation needs of our society? The entertainment industry has already predicted our future.
No More Cars: HER (2013)
Can you imagine a city without cars where everyone uses mass transit? Although you might not notice it at first, the 2013 Spike Jones film, Her, predicts just that—a carless city. The futuristic comedy-drama about a man who has a love affair with his phone’s operating system, stars Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams with the OS voiced by Scarlett Johansson. In the film, the streets have become giant pedestrian sidewalks and regardless of socioeconomic status, everyone rides the subway.
In cities with comprehensive transit systems, like Manhattan, people from all walks of life use mass transit. It is often faster and more convenient than any other form of transportation. Even former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg routinely rode the subway to/from work each day during his 12-years in office.
However, a city without vehicles is not without problems. For example, how would goods be delivered to stores? Or how would you move to a new apartment?
Computer-Guided Cars: DEMOLITION MAN (1993), KNIGHT RIDER (1982-1986)
The autonomous or self-driving car has long been a favorite prediction in both television and film.
Although the reality of having cars with artificial intelligence, like KITT from the 1980's TV series (and soon to be movie) Knight Rider, talking and jumping through the air seem a little far fetched, it is likely only a matter of time until it is routine to see driverless vehicles on our roadways.
For the better part of a decade, Google has been experimenting with self-driving cars. Their efforts began in the build-up for the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge where 15 teams created self-driving cars to traverse a 150 mile course in the Mojave Desert. Google has acquired members of several DARPA challenges and they are not alone. DARPA challenge alumni are scattered throughout the auto industry, and all of the major auto manufacturers now have self-driving test labs.
As the technology began advancing beyond closed track experiments, state governments started paving the way for the autonomous vehicle industry. In 2011, Nevada’s state legislature passed AB 511, making it the first state in the United States to officially sanction driverless technology. Since then, three other states have followed: Florida, California, and Michigan. Texas will most likely be next as state legislators are currently reviewing a bill on the "operation of autonomous motor vehicles".
Google has been very forthcoming on its progress with autonomous vehicle technology. As of April 2014, the Google Chauffeur team had completed over 700,000 accident free autonomous-driving miles. Google’s “lidar,” or light radar, technology has the ability to watch for other vehicles, pedestrians, and other road hazards. While having the capability to be driverless, Google’s first round of self-driving car prototypes had a steering wheel making it possible for human passengers to take over if desired. This is similar to Sandra Bullock’s character in the 1993 film Demolition Man who takes over driving her car during her morning commute due to boredom.
Google’s engineers have since removed the steering wheel altogether. They found that expecting a human passenger to take over control of the vehicle during an emergency, when they were previously sleeping or otherwise occupied, would not work.
It is unlikely that computer-guided cars will eliminate 100 percent of all automobile accidents, but a driverless world would no doubt be safer and make our roadways less congested. It would also enable the elderly and blind to be more mobile and self-reliant. In addition, it would be a major relief to city and state police and emergency crews, to see the elimination of things like rubbernecking, texting while driving, and drunk driving. They would all become things of the past.
When will we see driverless cars become commonplace in our cities? Sebastian Thrun, project leader for Stanford's DARPA Urban Challenge team, believes we will see self-driven cars hitting the streets by 2030. That means city planners have about 15 years to prepare for the autonomous vehicle revolution.
Vertical Urban Transportation: MINORITY REPORT (2002)
In one of the most memorable scenes from the 2002 Steven Spielberg film, Minority Report, Tom Cruise jumps between vertical lanes of autonomous cars driving down the side of a skyscraper.
Will the cities of the future eventually become so crowded that we will have to use the sides of buildings for transportation? Although it might seem unlikely, it is a transportation concept currently being proposed for the city of London.
Architects Christopher Christophi and Lucas Mazarrasa’s Vertical Hyper-Speed Train Hub project would enable a major transportation hub to be added to any city footprint using a minimal amount of street space. To accomplish this, they would use the sides of specially designed skyscrapers as the passenger platforms. Train passengers would ride in compartments designed to rotate as the train changes orientation similar to a Ferris wheel.
The thinking behind the project is, as our cities get bigger and more complex, it will become increasingly difficult for city planners to find space for public transportation infrastructure. Christophi and Mazarrasa received an Honorable Mention for their Vertical Train Hub concept from eVolo’s 2014 Skyscraper Competition. They hope that a series of these vertical train hubs will be built around the world enabling people to travel on a hyper-speed network between cities in a matter of minutes.
Flying Cars: BLADE RUNNER (1982)
The idea of the flying car has been around for decades. And in the 1960s, the popular cartoon, The Jetsons, really got people thinking about the future of personal air-based travel. Fast forward a couple decades, and director Ridley Scott took a more realistic look at the flying car. In his 1982 film Blade Runner, the streets of Los Angeles are so overcrowded that flying vehicles are the primary form of transportation. But unlike other films with flying cars, Blade Runner’s skies are not a wild free-for-all. In the film, drivers wear helmets and communicate with air traffic control during their journey. Take off and landings are also computer guided.
If flying cars were plausible, the pilots would likely need both human and automated guidance. With this in mind, the aerospace company Terrafugia is not only working on a flying car concept, but one that does not require the operator to be a trained pilot. In theory, Terrafugia's main control center would do everything from planning complicated flight paths to avoiding other air traffic and air space restrictions. It’s a good thing too, as a fender bender in mid-air is a lot more serious than one on the ground.
But city planners should not start planning landing pads for public parking garages just yet. Terrafugia’s TF-X prototype, a four-seat flying electric car with vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) capabilities, is not expected to be a reality for at least another decade.
Commercial Space Flight: 2001: SPACE ODYSSEY (1986)
Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 groundbreaking film, 2001: A Space Odyssey envisions what commercial space flight might look like. In the film, a PanAm flight to a space station is such a common occurrence, that the main character, William Sylvester, sleeps through his journey while a stewardess has to retrieve a weightless pen drifting through the cabin.
Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson’s company, Virgin Galactic, wants to be the world’s first commercial space airline and are selling seats for a future trip into "space." Virgin Galactic is still building the plane that will make the flight possible, and there’s currently no set date for the first trip, but you can make your reservation now for only $250,000.
Flights on Virgin Galactic’s first “spaceship,” the SpaceShipTwo, Serial Two, are scheduled to begin before 2015. Stephen Hawking, Justin Bieber, Paris Hilton, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Ashton Kutcher are rumored to be among those booked on the first flight.
As it stands, space tourism has more in common with a roller coaster ride than a commercial flight. A trip on SpaceShipTwo, Serial Two will only last a few minutes as the craft skims the upper atmosphere. But once intergalactic destinations become a reality, it will only be a matter of time until our airports have three main terminals: domestic, international, and intergalactic.
When looking back on how much transportation has evolved during the last 100 years, there are two factors that remain consistent: faster and farther. And based on projects like the TF-X, Vertical Hyper-Speed Train Hub, and SpaceShipTwo, there’s no doubt these trends will continue.
From flying cars and vertical trains, to autonomous vehicles and intergalactic flight, the future of transportation is going to be a wild ride.
What modes of transportation do you think will be the most beneficial to the cities of the future? Tweet about it at #BigScreen.