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Technology and Future Travel

Society changes in direct and rapid response to the evolution of technology in general and the internet in particular. We launch an occasional series of blog articles about health, education, employment, transport, entertainment, defence, sport, finance and policing, all areas under exponential change pressure through technology.

The Car

A person’s car used to be the place for a period of out-of-touch calm, as the journey was completed without benefit of any technology over and above the needs of the actual car.

The mobile telephone, SATNAVs and an increasing range of digital paraphernalia put paid to that. The very notion of being ‘out of touch’, beyond reach of others by instant communication is now a quaint idea.

It is set to vanish further down the road of history. The car will be linked to the web in a way that will be standard provision. This is beyond the technology to create the driverless car, the lateral parking car or the flying car.

The KPMG’s Global Automotive Executive Survey has found that most automotive executives expect ‘a convergence between the car industry and telecommunications, information technology and entertainment’. This too is beyond infotainment.

They found the view that as people become accustomed to instant access at home, they will demand the same level of service on the move in their cars. This will mean that connectivity will be ‘intrinsic part of the vehicle’, not a desirable add-on.

For consumers, this feature will be as important as safety and driving reliability.

A Techno Future or Sci-fi Fantasy?

We can see and therefore say, that intelligent transport systems (ITS) are arriving, ICT applied to transport infrastructure and vehicles. In the near future, we assume, transport outcomes, safety, productivity, reliability and punctuality, informed travel choices, social equality, environmental performance and network operational resilience will be improved.

Beyond that, predicting the future with regard to technology’s impact, is a real challenge. What is clear, perhaps, is that most transport’s reliance on fossil fuel has to decline. These fuels a concentrated, relatively compact energy, but they are limited (and diminishing) and are heavily polluting.

Renewable energy (mainly wind, solar and sea/tide) are coming on steam, but few believe they will solve the world’s insatiable energy hunger. Despite the Japanese tsunami damage, nuclear energy is being pushed forward in more places. The need for electricity to drive cars is going to be enormous, and can only grow.

Some future ideas that are bandied about as runners for the future, include the air-propelled train, first proposed by writer Ray Bradbury in 1953. This would be an atmospheric train using air pressure to provide propulsion. In the same decade, US sci-fi author Robert A Heinlein dreamed up bounce tube pneumatic travel, rolling roads, slidewalks and copter harnesses.

The dual-mode vehicle is coming to some areas, including a mass-transit system pioneered in Cambridgeshire. Vehicles run on roads from batteries and on dedicated guideways from track-fed power.

Supersonic Travel

The jet pack, podcars (personal rapid transit) and the flying car (literally, a cross between a light aircraft and a helicopter) may not actually be feasible, but the vac-train will be. The vacuum tube train would build maglev (magnetic levitation) lines through airless (evacuated) tunnels, very deep under ground and oceans.

No sonic boom, lack of air resistance and with gravity to assist acceleration, trains would achieve very high speeds for little fuel (up to 5000 mph). London to New York would take less than an hour, killing the entire aviation industry at a stroke. The only thing holding it back, is that tunnel technology has lagged some way behind, so far.

If space travel continues to expand and get more personal, then the conventional rocket may not do it. The launch loop would be a 1,240 mile cable attached to the earth at both ends and suspended above the atmosphere in the centre by the momentum from a belt that circulates round the structure, transferring the weight onto a pair of magnetic bearings, one at each end, which support it.

The orbital ring is a variation on this theme. The first space elevator was proposed by Russian astronautic theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1895! Solar sails (also known as light or photon sails) use radiation pressure from a star or laser to push ultra-thin mirrors, like sails attached to space craft, up to high speeds. In 2010 IKAROS was the first spacecraft to launch using solar sailing propulsion.

It is not a giant step to imagine such technology could fire cars of tomorrow. However, whether the ultimate futuristic travel – teleportation (transferring matter from A to B without traversing the physical space between them) – will come about, time only will tell.

KPMG, Global Automotive Executive Survey 2011.

Photo: NASA