To even guess at the more distant future, you have to consider the driving forces. First you should ask: what in your wildest dreams do you want, that isn't already available somewhere? Can you only imagine more of the same: faster, cheaper, smoother, quieter, safer? Most auto owners probably don't think much beyond that. Second, and more significant, what changes are the environmental and political pressures going going to create? Pollution and petroleum consumption will eventually overcome the inertia of our old attitudes and infrastructures. Third, technologies are usually adopted from other fields, like electronics, aerospace, chemistry, materials, and maybe even genetics and neuroscience. We are inundated with answers in search of markets. And finally, consider all the possible alternatives to transportation, like virtual reality, instant universal communication, home offices, and even not working at all. This sort of competition makes us wonder if transport will even be significant in 50 years.
Fifty years from now, people will still need an enclosed self-propelled wheeled vehicle to transport their family from point A to point B. We can do it today with a 1947 Ford, and they will be able to do it then with a 1997 Taurus (perhaps converted to non-petroleum fuel). Yes, there will always be the exotic, astronomically expensive pleasure/performance vehicle, with almost unimaginable capabilities. But not for the masses.
The evolution of known technologies leads to a relatively predictable future over the next 20-30 years. I've already published an entire book, called AUTO2010, about the near term -- those advancements we could see in our own lifetimes. It simulates an automotive magazine written in the year 2010, describing over 100 advances that have only been mentioned in Road & Track's 50-year anniversary.
The most popular questions about future automobiles are their power source and power conversion system (otherwise known as engine or motor). Since every possibility is full of compromises, the most likely scenario is "all of the above" -- or hybrids. You may have a walled multi-cell fuel container that can take any ratio of petroleum, alcohol, hydrogen, natural gas, or battery cells, and each is consumed as appropriate (in addition to having solar panels). You will probably have some combination of reciprocating or rotary internal combustion engine, electric motor, and perhaps turbine, if not also fuel cells, and human pedal power and roadway linear induction motors. Instead of conventional brakes, inertial energy will be recovered and stored in either a battery, flywheel, or ultra-capacitor.
Having all these possibilities means that fuels and powerplants will always be very competitive. Although petroleum has a tremendous current advantage in its subsidized true cost and established infrastructure, it seems doomed by the inherent flaws of poor efficiency and a non-renewable source. It will need a revolution to stay ahead. Regardless, only the industry and environmentalists will note or care. To the rest, it will be another transparent technology that gives you what you want without any awareness of the process -- except for selecting the right refuelling source.
Another popular prognostication is the enivitable automatic guidance system, whether electronically controlled on existing roadways, or directed onto overhead or roadway rails. Either would seem to need a political revolution to implement, because of the immense necessary infrastructure. However, AUTO2010 includes an explanation of how innovative capitalists could evolve a system of commercial mechanically-coupled platooning vehicles with today's technolgy.
More extreme proposals would require the construction of new guide-ways. The CALSTART/CyberTran "very light rail" system would run rails down existing freeway medians, for 6 to 32 passenger on-demand vehicles. Doug Malewicki's suggested network of even less expensive overhead monorail (very, very light rail) with 1-2 passenger pods would have a more extensive grid. But these will have to be demonstrated first on a smaller scale, such as an entertainment park. However, all this is the mundane predictable future. What about ....
The sources for realistic ideas about the future are rather limited. The traditional interviews with auto industry leaders are pointless, since even if they could see a decade ahead, they aren't willing to reveal anything even one model year ahead. One of my favorite futurists is Syd Mead, perhaps the most famous of the unfettered artist dreamers of transportation. Another stimulus is science fiction, and actually movies rather than books, where transportation has to be visually obvious rather than implied. But in all the movies, imagination seems to be limited to four basic concepts. Levitated vehicles: Back to the Future, Star Wars, Blade Runner. Anthro-peds such as the AT-AT and AT-ST walking machines in The Empire Strikes Back. Voice command, such as Night Rider's KITT. And of course, that familiar necessary ingredient for interplanetary fiction, "warp speed."
A few technological revolutions will be required for the following great leaps in transport. First is complete, absolutely reliable computer control of stability and guidance. This makes it possible to have any configuration of unstable or humanly uncontrollable vehicle, such as a VTOL or monocycle. Second is the perfection of virtual reality, such that whatever human control of the vehicle were necessary, would not have any visual or position requirements of the occupants. That is, the "driver" could be lying on his back in a windowless pod, and yet direct the vehicle from any apparent viewpoint, even overhead. Finally, and most important, is computerized absolute collision avoidance. A master overall control overrider, or complete vehicle interactivity, would allow a free mix of otherwise incompatible vehicles, such as bicycles and semis. An impact protective structure, or the location of the occupants, would no longer be of any concern.
In fact, let's go one step further, and consider the one-wheel vehicle, which again Syd already illustrated, back in 1969. Here we have the ultimate in footprint reduction for one-passenger transport. Using computer control of its basic instability, it could be automatically weight-shifted for balance, the same as a unicycle rider does. This eliminates any need for multiple wheels and therefore any width or length. To accelerate, it first reverses to allow the mass to fall forward, and then accelerates to catch up. Although Syd was originally influenced by Alex Tremulus' "Gyronaught" vehicles, computer-controlled balance seems more practical than the weight, power, and complexity of gyroscopes.
One step further would lead to the no-wheel vehicle, the old familiar ground-effect machine, or GEM. Just one (also familiar) problem: riding on air doesn't provide much traction for sudden changes in either direction or speed. Therefore, even a large footprint air-supported vehicle should have at least one central wheel, whose load would vary with the amount of traction required for acceleration, braking, or cornering. In fact, given the air-support plenum and air pump or fan, flow could be reversed to provide a major traction increase in emergencies -- just like the old banned racing technology of suction-traction.
The goal of attaining more freedom from prescribed earthly paths, requires a corresponding increase in operator responsibility, as every licensed pilot knows. The alternative is potential disaster. There is no such thing as a free lunch -- yet. Current obstacles to unlimited freedom in the air are: the need for better traffic controls in crowded airways, the need for training in control skills and weather interpretation, and the necessary nuisance of preflight checkout. Actually, the previously defined computer revolution in control systems could eventually take over all these functions -- but then there goes the feeling of freedom again.
A vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) automobile would still be a great advantage sometimes. Trouble is, with known technology, the high mass and low footprint area requires an incredible amout of power, not to mention noise and air blast. On the other hand, breakthroughs in mass reduction and air flow science are likely. This might include more efficient prop design, using micro-flaps on the blade surfaces, and using ducted fans and "virtual ducts" which would make the lifting area apparently larger. Remember, it's simply a problem of making the average difference in air pressure between the top and bottom surfaces (in pounds per square foot) equal to the weight divided by the footprint area.
The ultimate in mass reduction for VTOL might be something like the "rocket belts" that are currently in the demonstration stage -- although they are currently limited by a 25-second duration, at thousands of dollars of fuel per hop. More likely is some sort of ducted fan on a stand, such as the Hiller Helicopter prototype flying platform in the late fifties. In either case, sudden loss of power would be fatal. It will be mandatory to have the sort of two-stage ballistic chutes which fire the chute upward, and then fire the gores outward -- not to mention also having an airbag in the base.
Imagine the sensation of riding a real Jaguar down Sunset Boulevard. Not just straddling it like a horse, but laid out prone on its back on a custom harness, arm to leg and leg to leg, to give the ultimate in control and feedback. Would it be safe? Would new laws have to be devised? If it were under control, the potential for sudden death or destruction might be less than in a 400-horse Cobra.
Control is the issue. Genetic changes may be too slow and imprecise, compared to electronic/chemical/surgical manipulation of the brain. Sure, the SPCA would rant, but is an implanted chip any more inhumane than a bit and spurs? It certainly wouldn't be for everyone -- considering food supply (you wouldn't want it to cost an arm and a leg), the inefficiency of energy conversion, and waste disposal -- but then a Lamborghini isn't for everyone either.
The proper feedback-controlled device should merely amplify your power and speed, with smoothness and grace, not the jerky motion needed for movie effects. With a suitably condensed energy supply and power conversion device, it should allow you to run faster and longer, and jump higher, with the precision and skill of the best athelete. In fact, it should theoretically be possible to propel a quadriplegic in a conventional walking gait, or you while you were sleeping. It could give sleep-walking a good name. If appropriately programmed, it should even be able to smoothly guide you through a decent waltz step. If this defies the conventional concept of "automobile," then let's just add a couple of retractible powered wheels at the ankles.
But why be restricted by the bulk and hardware of a strap-on exoskeleton? I want to be freeee! To fly like a bird -- or a Superman! Give me an "ampliflyer" that floats and supports me by some non-contact system such as super-conducting magnets. Something that is behind me, out of sight and awareness, that can allow me to sail quietly and effortlessly along at some limited altitude. Some sort of wearable magnetic material might be able to float me along on a guideway, propelled by its linear induction motor. It should be something that responds to my mere gesture -- or even my mere glance and thought pattern. Is this the stuff of dreams, or the stimulus to invention? I'm beginning to regret that I won't be there.
The ultimate limits to human transport is not technolgy, but the frailty of our biological packaging. Speed is not so much a problem, as the change in speed, or acceleration/deceleration. The performance of jet fighters and aerobatic planes is limited to less than 10 g's solely because no human can tolerate such loading. Race car design is artificially restricted to keep lateral loads below about 3-4 g's, not to mention the common barely survivable impact loads of over 50 g's when hitting a wall at 60-80 mph. Perhaps encasing the occupant in a fluid would distribute the loads as overall pressure, but there goes your freedom of movement again, and it still doesn't solve the problem of the inertia of internal organs such as the brain. We are limited by our own packaging.
Then again -- maybe not. This whole exercise was based on the oversimplistic assumption that there will be any reason to travel in the future. In the time you took to read these pages, you have traveled into the future, you have experienced previously unimaginable vehicles, and you have educated yourself, with almost no effort and minimal cost to you or the environment. And that was via the primitive media of the printed word. It won't take 50 years to make such experiences indistinguishable from reality. You might feel you prefer real physical sensations -- but you probably wouldn't be able to afford them.
Will our brains be able to tolerate the acceleration forces of technology?
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