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March 10, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Come Fly With Me

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads. Where we’re going, we might need some roads. Where we’re going, we’re going to have to build even more roads, to keep up with the massive, almost absurd, demand for roads. Where the fuck are we going? Alexandra Hollis explores the future of transport.
 

Soaring High

Every year since the ‘60s, at or around New Year, people have been throwing up their arms, proclaiming the date, and crying “it’s [insert year here], where are our flying cars??!!?!!” Well, they’re here. Sort of. There are currently two main possibilities for the first flying car of the 21st century; the PAL-V ONE, and the Transition by Terrafugia. The PAL-V ONE is more of a three-wheeled motorcycle than a car, and is equipped with a fold-out propeller at the top, which, when driven to an airfield, can be unfurled to turn the ‘car’ into a gyropter. The Transition, when flying, looks like a conventional aeroplane; in ‘drive mode’, the wings simply fold up against the sides of the ‘car’. It’s pretty ugly.

The problem with these designs is that they’re not really flying cars; both options are designed for pilots and require the vehicle go to an airfield before taking off – they’d be better labelled ‘drivable planes’. Terrafugia (their slogan: “We make flying cars”) do have a design for a more versatile, Jetsons-esque flying car: the TF-X. This car would have a vertical takeoff and landing like a helicopter; theoretically, you would be able to fly your car from right outside your garage. But this is hardly the mass-market transport of the future; Terrafugia says that the “development of the TF-X is expected to last eight to 12 years.” At the moment, they’re encouraging interested buyers to invest first in the Transition, which they’re anticipating will cost around US$279,000.

It’s also likely that there could be governmental restrictions on this technology, if it is ever successful. Post 9/11, it doesn’t exactly seem like a great idea to have more vehicles flying around, especially in urban areas. I don’t want to crush your dreams, but flying cars probably aren’t going to happen, and, even if they are, you’re not going to get one anytime soon.

 

Taking You for a Ride

In the future, Google will either be a utopian, god-like enterprise, gifting the world with crazy inventions and holiday-themed doodles, or it will be the death of us all. It knows what you began to type into your search bar but then deleted. It knows the frequency with which you email your mother. It knows where you work and where you live. What’s scarier than a corporation which knows almost everything about you, and wields considerable wealth and power? That corporation, plus robots.

Okay, they’re not robots (but this is happening! See sidebar! Be scared!). They’re cars. Autonomous – self-driving – cars which Google has been developing since 2010, having successfully lobbied the governments of Nevada, Florida, California and Michigan for permission to test on the open road. They’ve racked up hundreds of thousands of miles testing this software, which is programmed with GPS (to give the car your destination), the speed limits of every road, and sensors, which enable the car to slow down at intersections and tell the person in the car if anyone is crossing the road. Just like with cruise control, the person in the car can step in at any time and override the autonomous controls, but, so far, Google says they haven’t needed to; apart from a Google car being rear-ended while stopped at a light, there have been no accidents.

The idea of autonomous cars, able to pull their passengers into the path of oncoming traffic, or drive off a cliff, or into the side of their own houses, is kinda terrifying. Computers break; computers can be hacked into. Who’s to say we should cede control to them? Well, according to NPR’s Alexis Madrigal, we may not even notice. “Futuristic visions distract us from the ways in which cars are already making decisions for us,” he says, pointing out existing autonomous software in cars today. This includes Nissan cars correcting your sloppy turns, and Volkswagen Passats “counter-steering” cars back into their lane if the driver drifts over the line. “By the time Google’s cars arrive in your driveway, you’ll be acclimatised to the idea of an artificial intelligence grabbing the wheel because you’ll have handed over control tens of thousands of times,” Madrigal says. This future is already creeping up on us.

 

It’s Grease Lightning

They may be the cars of the future, but electric cars are by no means a new invention. In fact, they’ve been around since the 1880s. (I know; they had cars in the 1880s? They had electricity?) Presciently, in 1911, a New York Times article stated that electric cars were “cleaner and quieter” than petrol cars, and that, being the “much more economical” version, they had “long been recognised as the ideal.” But life – and Henry Ford – got in the way. Prior to technological advancements to combustion engines, petrol cars were difficult to run, and their price had not yet been driven down by mass production. By the 1930s, competing against cheaper, easier petrol cars, electric cars had been phased out.

Now, they’re enjoying a renaissance. But they are no longer the cheaper option; while many governments provide grants or incentives to owners of electric cars, in 2011, a Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership report stated that electric cars will only match petrol cars in price by 2030. The poster child for electric cars, the Tesla Model S, is currently more than twice the price of the average US car. Given this, it’s a testament to the quality of electric cars and the clout that being green brings that the Tesla Model S was named Car of the Year 2013 by at least nine publications, and given Consumer Reports’ highest-ever score – 99 out of 100. Even despite their inflated prices, in Norway, electric cars topped the monthly ranking of new-car sales three times in 2013. This is the nature of the electric car in 2014; given the choice between electric or petrol, a considerable number of people are choosing to go electric. With battery life increasing and prices going down, it seems like this is only going to continue.

 

Droning On

But we may be beating down the wrong track when we talk about the transport of the future. Public transport, especially given a growing population, is doubtless going to be the mainstay of the cities. For commuters, however, there may not need to be any ‘transport of the future’ at all. Because at the same time as we’re seeing electric cars, driverless cars, flying cars, and a myriad of other types of individual transportation in various states of production, we’re also seeing an increasing trend of things coming to us, rather than us coming to them. The age of the commuter is in decline; with the internet, more and more people are working from home. We don’t actually need to go anywhere anymore; we already get our clothes from ASOS, order our groceries online, buy our books and DVDs from Amazon.

Amazon have recently unveiled their ‘Prime Air’ plan to drastically cut delivery times. Instead of boring old trucks, which can take up to five days to ship goods, they aim to get packages to customers within half an hour, by using unmanned aerial vehicles – drones. While it’s disconcerting to imagine the latest Jodi Picoult being whisked to your doorstep by the same sort of machine known to most of us for gunning down civilians in Afghanistan (and there is a worry that this may serve to normalise the use of drones in warfare), drones may well be the future of short-distance freight shipping. They’re quicker than driving a truck on a road, cheaper than hiring a truck driver for the truck, and greener than the emissions the truck would put out. They’re also kind of cool.

 

We’re Nearly There

Whatever the future is, it’s looking greener. Electric cars are poised to become major players in the next few years, and this is helped in part by some consumers’ eagerness to buy green; environmentally friendly sells, and car companies are aware of this. Making greener cars becomes not just an ideological stance, but a highly marketable strategy.

In fact, this ‘greener future’ might just be a side effect; while the Google car was not conceived as a green car, it has green side effects. The head of the project, Dr Sebastian Thrun, is “a passionate promoter of the potential to use robotic vehicles to make highways safer and lower the nation’s energy costs,” and John Markoff, writing for The New York Times, talks about the cars’ “potential to reduce fuel consumption by eliminating heavy-footed stop-and-go drivers and, given the reduced possibility of accidents, to ultimately build more lightweight vehicles.” We can see this again with Amazon’s use of drones; as freight vehicles, they are far more environmentally friendly than a truck, train or plane, but this seems to come second to Amazon’s main objective: getting shit to you on time.

We’ve got some really cool things happening in the next few years, as well as some potentially terrifying ones; things are going to get greener, and smarter, and more efficient. We’re going to get greener, smarter, and more efficient. It could be great. But we won’t have flying cars, and the robotic vehicles are about to descend; Google could still kill us all.

——

Revvin’ it up: other cool shit happening

(in order of least to most scary)

California High-Speed Rail – It’s going to cost upwards of $91 billion, and take at least 15 years to complete, but by 2030 there could be high-speed rail running between LA and San Francisco. It’s estimated that trains could drive at up to 350 km/h, taking less than three hours to complete the entirety of the track. Currently, the flight time between the LA and San Francisco is 57 minutes.

Martin Jetpack – Can you call something ‘new’ if it’s been in production for 30 years in a Christchurch garage? You can certainly call it very Kiwi. The Martin Jetpack has been a long time coming, but last year, the Civil Aviation Authority granted it permission to flight-test, and the company is currently looking for investors for their jetpack, which would cost around $150,000 and have a flight time of half an hour.

The Airlander – The biggest aircraft ever made, the Airlander is a hybrid blimp/aeroplane/helicopter that can stay in the air for THREE WEEKS. It uses hydrogen rather than helium (so hopefully no Hindenburg pt. 2), is green, and can carry up to 50 tonnes almost anywhere in the world. There are some really exciting ramifications for peacekeeping operations here, but also less peaceful possibilities: the Airlander can remain flying even with multiple bullet holes, so could be used for military purposes.

Boston Dynamics – Google owns them. The name sounds disturbingly like Massive Dynamic, the amoral corporation from the J. J. Abrams show Fringe (which was set in Boston). And they have a robot called the Cheetah which can run up to 46 km/h, surpassing Usain Bolt’s record for fastest human footspeed at 44.72. Other robots include: BigDog, which can carry 340 pounds over rough terrain, and is funded by the US military, and SandFlea, also funded by the military, which can jump 30 feet into the air. This, Boston Dynamics helpfully points out, “is high enough to jump over a compound wall, onto the roof of a house, up a set of stairs or into a second story window.”

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