Some may argue we can already journey from Sydney to London faster than Brighton to London, but the reality of new travel technologies may soon be here.
Nothing stands still. In the modern era life has been transformed dramatically by railways, then cars and finally planes – each of these disruptive technologies changed not just the fabric of our cities and countries but the whole culture, where we lived and how we worked. Mobility has been essential for business, for trade and for communication. Fortunes were made and lost too. Business travel in the future could be drastically different – we might see such radical ideas as commercial space travel or teleportation coming to fruition. But that’s a guessing game. What’s certain is that the evolution of trains, cars and planes will happen, and the question with these innovations is not if but when.
For all the talk of grandiose schemes, many of these new transport technologies could well change things on a local level – challenging car ownership, for example. Dr Sally Cairns, Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Engineering Science at University College London (UCL), tells Strategies for growth: ‘I think future transport options will include a much greater range of low-energy use and encourage active travel options – so more electrically assisted bikes, trikes and quadricycles, and a greater development of scooters.’ She also foresees ‘more shared mobility options – shared taxi schemes, car clubs, ride-sharing’.
“Today’s traveller is faced with an ever- increasing set of choices when planning a trip, with new technology-led alternatives borne out of the popularity of the sharing economy.” Yvonne Chappell, Head of Travel, Tourism and Leisure, Grant Thornton UK LLP
Andrew Allen, Policy Analyst at the UK’s Campaign for Better Transport, says: ‘Just over 50 years ago, Dr Beeching published his infamous report which led to the closure of a third of Britain’s rail network. Fast-forward to the present day and more people travel by rail than at any point since Victorian times, and we’re spending tens of millions putting back connections that Beeching closed.’ UCL Transport Institute’s David Metz argues that if we’re to respond to this, public-sector investment and political support need to focus less on speed and more on capacity – that means more and better mass transport, and less focus on sole-occupancy cars.
Mass transport could include driverless metros, automated buses or even cycle-pod monorails like the Shweeb (shweeb.com), which has a test track in New Zealand. Users ride recumbent cycles inside pods that hang from a monorail, travelling at up to 25km/h. Uber and Google have been working intensively on driverless cars; Sweden has motorways that can power electric lorries; and Ultra’s personal rapid transport system, which runs between Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and the business-class car park, is another possibility for getting people around cities. A similar driverless pod concept is underway at Milton Keynes.
UK Chancellor Philip Hammond even announced a £390 million funding programme for future transport technology, including automated and electric vehicles, in November 2016. ‘Mobility will be increasingly electric, connected, shared and immediately available,’ argues Mohamed Mezghani, Deputy Secretary General of the International Association of Public Transport. ‘What is important will be the software managing mobility demand and supply rather than the hardware of the vehicle. The exchange of data and the algorithms optimising routing will be the brains and the fuel of the system. ‘In other words, as soon as you decide to go somewhere, you’ll use a smartphone – or the successor of this device – to express your desire, according to your user profile.
All cars will be potentially “shareable”, all being in the public domain and assigned to routes according to demand.’ Of course, we will still need to cross countries and continents to meet and send cargo. Maglev – trains lifted and propelled forward by electromagnets – was once seen as the successor to rail and is now making a comeback. The Japanese are building a 500km/h Maglev line from Tokyo to Nagoya, opening in 2027. ‘Maglev represents disruptive technology,’ believes Larry Blow, President of MaglevTransport Inc in Washington DC. ‘Maglev systems have a far better potential for fast and comfortable travel than any other form of high-speed transport known today.’
FLIGHTS OF FANCY?
Planes grew to dominate long-haul travel in the 20th century and aviation keeps growing. But what innovations will we see this century? The British-built Airlander airship could transport people from London to Amsterdam using landing areas on water and ‘helipads’ (hybridairvehicles.com). A German startup, FlyShip, is trying to raise interest in its plane-hovercraft-boat, which can shoot over the waves and through the clouds (theflyship.com). Boom, where Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson has joined forces with a startup based in Denver, Colorado, wants to launch supersonic planes that will offer London to New York flights taking 3.5 hours (boomsupersonic.com). Tesla’s Elon Musk has his ideas for space travel and for Hyperloop, an update of the vacuum-tube railway technology of the Victorian days, which could transport people through tubes from the likes of Dubai to Abu Dhabi in minutes (hyperloop-one.com).
The UAE system looks like it might well get built. ‘In terms of future transport there are perhaps two categories of technology: those that we see evolving from the way that we currently travel and those which would be truly revolutionary,’ says professor Sarah Sharples, Associate Pro-ViceChancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange at the Faculty of Engineering, University of Nottingham. ‘Highly automated vehicles, whether for road, rail or aviation, are evolving. However, where we really start to capture the imagination is in transport that truly transforms the way we travel.
The technology of this type that is being looked at most closely is Hyperloop. ‘When we look at such rapid motion as is proposed by such technologies, we need to think about what the human experience would be of travelling like this – would it induce travel sickness, for example?’ And while we’re on the big questions, what about teleportation? ‘From a personal perspective this would be great; it would help my productivity,’quips Sharples: ‘But I can’t see it happening in my lifetime.’ ‘Hyperloop – in wide open spaces – perhaps.
In most parts of Europe, conventional wheel and rail will do,’ says Bob Gwynne, Associate Curator, Collections and Research, at the National Railway Museum in York. ‘Plus, rail has a long way to go in development – witness the new hydrogen-powered trains in Germany. Driverless cars also have more chance of making an impact, if only because of the low development costs.’ Or maybe things won’t change as much as we think? ‘Extraordinarily, considering how much technology (and life) has changed in other fields, travel looks set to continue much as before,’ reckons Simon Calder, Senior Travel Editor at the Independent. ‘In 50 years’ time I might be using a jetpack to access a magnetic levitation train, a nuclear-fuelled airship or a hypersonic spacecraft but, more likely, I’ll just be grateful if the airport security ordeal is a little less painful.