Planes, trains and automobiles (of the future) are becoming a reality. Here are some of the most innovative developments to watch for in transportation.
People have been talking about self-driving cars for years, but they’ve yet to become mainstream. Companies like Google’s Waymo, General Motors’ Cruise and Tesla have been testing prototypes for a while, but in order for self-driving vehicles to be safe, they need to know both the rules of the road and how to react to unpredictable real-life scenarios like accidents, potholes and roadblocks. Self-driving cars rely on artificial intelligence, which needs to learn from millions of hours of driving situations – and that’s a lot of data. While some newer cars have “self-driving” features, a fully autonomous vehicle is simply not ready to hit the road just yet.
Travelling at high speeds through a tube is not a new concept. In fact, in 1845, British engineer Isambard Brunel envisioned a tube that would propel trains at 110 km per hour. In 2013, Tesla CEO Elon Musk released technical plans for the hyperloop – a high-speed pod that hovers in a vacuum tube and travels as fast as 1,220 km per hour – for companies and universities to research and develop. In late 2020, Virgin performed the first hyperloop test drive with two passengers. At the DevLoop test track, located in the Nevada desert, the passengers were buckled into the pod and transferred into an airlock while the air in the vacuum tube was removed. Then they sped at up to 160 km per hour along the 500-metre track.
Imagine a train that floats above the rails and travels at hundreds of kilometres per hour. Maglev, or magnetic levitation, trains are propelled at tremendous speeds by powerful electromagnets. There is no track, but rather a guideway that the train essentially floats over. As a result there’s no friction or vibration, which helps to reduce noise and increase speed. Japan is currently working on the LO series maglev train to eventually connect Tokyo and Osaka, but you can already catch a ride on a maglev train in China. The Shanghai Transrapid runs from the Shanghai Pudong International Airport to connect with the city’s metro system.
Concorde comeback (supersonic jets)
When you think of supersonic jets, you might remember the doomed Concorde. After being deemed financially unfeasible – on top of a high-profile crash in 2000 – these planes were permanently grounded in 2003. But United Airlines recently announced plans to add supersonic jets to its fleet. These jets can travel at around 1,800 km per hour, faster than the speed of sound, taking about three and a half hours to fly from New York to London instead of the usual seven. Known for the loud “boom” as their aerodynamic design and powerful engines let the planes break through the sound barrier, supersonic jets burn through massive amounts of fuel. Luckily for the environment, Supersonic Boom, the company producing the new jets, is concentrating on ways to increase fuel efficiency. Its plane, called the Overture, is due to begin passenger flights by 2029.
New technology doesn’t just lead to new methods of transportation; it can also help improve transportation infrastructure, such as roads and highways. Some innovative ideas in the works include fibre optic sensors in the pavement that transmit real-time information – on things like traffic congestion, accidents, or weather and road conditions – via Wi-Fi to drivers and emergency responders. There’s also solar road paint that collects the sun’s energy in the daytime and glows for up to eight hours at night, increasing visibility and safety. Finally, as the number of electric vehicles on the road increases, it only makes sense to start installing lanes that charge electric vehicles while they drive.
With roughly 68 per cent of the global population expected to live in urban areas by the year 2050, technology will become more instrumental in helping to improve social, economic and environmental aspects of city life. And it’s this evolution of technology that is driving the concept of “smart cities.” The idea is that data and technology can be used to optimize various aspects of urban life, such as garbage collection, traffic flow, energy distribution, citizen safety and transportation systems, for example. Here are just some ways a smart city could make lives easier:
- Apps that help drivers find a parking spot and pay for it digitally – this can also help with traffic congestion
- Bicycle sharing and ride sharing systems, intelligent transport systems and traffic light sensors to help improve traffic flow
- Smart grids for a more efficient way to provide solar or wind power to residential or commercial buildings, which, in turn, can store or “sell back” unused energy to the grid
- Energy conservation, like streetlights that dim when roads or sidewalks are empty
- Waste management systems that use sensors to monitor and plan more efficient garbage collection
- Closed-circuit television and other tech to help monitor high-crime areas
- Sensors for early warning signs of natural disasters such as hurricanes or floods
- Smart buildings that offer structural monitoring to alert the proper people when repairs are necessary
- Sensors that can detect infrastructure problems such as downed wires or leaking pipes
 www.twi-global.com/technical-knowledge/faqs/what-is-a-smart-city; www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2020/07/02/the-smart-cities-of-the-future-5-ways-technology-is-transforming-our-cities