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The future of transport — debunked!

What do personal rocket ships & railways, flying cars and house robots all have in common? They’re all stupid futuristic ideas, that’s what. But for the sake of argument, let’s take a jaunty look into this strange future, just to see what these daft ideas would need to be made real…

What do personal rocket ships & railways, flying cars and house robots all have in common? They’re all stupid futuristic ideas, that’s what. But for the sake of argument, let’s take a jaunty look into this strange future, just to see what these daft ideas would need to be made real…

Of flying cars, monorails and other stupid “transport of the future” ideas

Flying Car

The thing is, these crazy futuristic ideas often sound good, but the practicalities involved in making them real are truly daunting.

As I’ve said before, the one big idea is rarely sufficient. It’s often a requirement to surround that one big idea with lots of equally important but smaller ideas, if you want the big one to enjoy any kind of success.

There are many economic implications to predicting the future, most of which are often either skirted around or totally ignored for the sake of painting a pretty picture of a future world.

Flying cars

So let’s have a look at flying cars. These are the stuff of Dan Dare and The Jetsons, but could they ever be made real?

In terms of technology, yes. There’s absolutely no reason why a flying car couldn’t be made. We have single-seater micro-light aircraft, so why not add three more seats and some fold-up wings?

With that in mind, the clue to whether flying cars are a practical means of conveyance can be characterized by the complete lack of interest on the part of either automobile and aerospace manufactures. Or did I miss a ground-breaking deal between BMW and Lockheed Martin?

I’ve seen several such concept flying cars over the years, none of which were particularly remarkable. I’m sure all could fly and drive, but that’s only the beginning of the problem with flying cars.

Here in Britain, we have some astonishingly bad drivers. These people struggle to guide their cars along the flat two dimensional road infrastructure. So I can only imagine what utter chaos would ensue if we gave these people an extra dimension to fool around with.

Pilots have to accrue many hundreds of flying hours before they’re allowed to fly commercial aircraft. Learning to fly isn’t cheap, either. Neither of these situations are going to suddenly change with the advent of flying cars, no matter how sophisticated flight management systems become.

Then there’s the not inconsiderable issue of flight plans, air traffic and the management thereof. Right now, air traffic controllers are struggling to manage a relatively small number of large aircraft entering British air space.

So let’s be conservative and assume that only a million people have flying cars. That’s one million people flying around all over the place. Even if we imagine these flying cars have sophisticated flight management systems, that’s still one million people thundering all over the country, filling the air like flocks of birds, soaring across the skies.

Then there’s the accidents, of which there will be many. We’re not talking about a simple prang or a nose-to-tail shunt. No, we’re talking about mid-air collisions at altitude, which may also include wreckage being rained down onto suburban areas.

Dare I even ask about the pollution? Or what about the monumental increased potential terrorist threat? How do we police the air? And are these flying cars equipped for vertical take-off, like a Harrier jump jet, or do they need a runway? All pressing questions that are often like a voice in an empty room, left unanswered by these so-called “visionary” thinkers.

Monorail systems

To be honest, I don’t really have a better name for these things. They’re a singularly persistent theme in science fiction. Unfortunately, as a concept, they’re also singularly flawed, too.

First off, let’s be clear about our relationship with cars; most people don’t love their cars, they love the freedoms they provide. Of course, some people actually do love their cars, but we don’t talk about such silly things here on Blah!

For most people, however, this freedom to travel is an illusion. Most people will travel to and from work and that would be the extent of their excursions. But in their mind, one day they could go anywhere they wanted!

So the idea of asking people to give up their cars for some model railway system is just unthinkable. Even with the weight of fuel prices and pressure of environmental Armageddon leaning on us all, to affect such rapid social change really isn’t feasible.

But that’s only the very surface of the problems with monorail systems.

Leeds is a large city local to me. They had planned to take government funding to build a tram system in key areas of Leeds, in similar fashion to Sheffield, another neighbouring city and their tram system.

The costs involved are truly spectacular. However, because Britain is hosting the Olympics in 2012, the several billion pounds that had been earmarked for the Leeds tram system was redirected to London.

When anything big needs to be done, London is the first place the government thinks of, with very little consideration for anywhere up north, and the money goes south — literally. But I digress.

This tram system wasn’t suspended in mid-air, it was to be tracks laid into the road surface, much like you’d expect to see with any other tram system.

But that’s not good enough for our fearless prognosticators. No, they want some kind of personalized monorail system, like you’ll have seen in the movie Minority Report. Do you remember the scene where our hero is jumping from one rail car to another?

Do you recall the size of the roadways? I do.

To make something like that work, we’re talking about a colossal re-planning of entire towns and cities, dwarfing the costs of the actual system, which would be considerable in itself.

Then there’s an entirely new traffic management system and the maintenance costs to consider.

To dignify this insane idea, we’re talking about forgoing the existing road infrastructure and instead building a new one suspended in mid air atop the old one, requiring a massive re-development of whole districts, possibly displacing many tens of thousands of people and hundreds of businesses.

The costs associated with the economic disruption alone would probably rival if not dwarf the total cost of implementing such a totally crazy idea.

And why are we doing this again? Oh yes, because fuel prices are high and we’re damaging the environment. Wouldn’t it be more cost-effective and environmentally friendly to just keep developing alternative fuels? Of course it would.

If we factor in the environmental costs of all this furious and ernest development to build something akin to large-scale version of the Epcot monorail, the carbon footprint would like a drunken giant walking across the surface of the Earth.

But don’t let the minutia of the real-world practicalities get in the way of a great idea, eh? Or all these flights of fancy will just end up in the shunting yard of futurism, along with coal-fired Nazi death-ray space weapons — and we don’t want that, do we?

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

8 replies on “The future of transport — debunked!”

Sorry – I probably misunderstood! I thought someone had actually proposed the kind of monorail system you were writing about… it wouldn’t surprise me, to be honest.

I think the writer here is correct if you’re thinking about the next 10-20 years, but beyond that history has proven without a doubt that in times of drastic change anything could happen. Science fiction explores this very well if it’s shed the burden of short sighted thinking.

I don’t think the flying car or personal monorail car is just around the corner, but I do believe that similar technologies could be a commonality in the next century. Doubting that at all is shortsighted thinking, just like saying such technologies are debunked. Just look at what advancements the computer revolution brought? Who knows what’s next.

Randolph Lalonde

Hi Randolph and thanks for the comment!

When it comes to sudden and dramatic change, there are some fundamental forces at work, society itself being one of them.

In an earlier article, I discussed how sudden change is often either prevent or absorbed by society.

But that itself has nothing to do with either flying cars or monorails. As I outline in my article, neither concepts are at all practical now or in the near future. And that’s not because of technology, but because of people — the very basis or society itself.

The computer is a poor example for comparison, since it is a logical progression from earlier systems and methods, whereas superficially flying cars and monorail systems might seem that way, but they really aren’t at all.

They’re no more a logical next step than personal rocket ships or personal air balloons…

Now tell me why we shouldn’t build the Eiffel tower and the Pyramids or the wall of China. These and many others like them are now great treasures of the world. A monorail would be the same

Rob, those are exceptionally poor examples. First of all, the great wall of China was a barrier to the tribal people of the north. Given the engineering technology of the day, that was the only way a wall could be constructed. Also, the portions of the wall that we see in print, on post cards and publicity shots represents only a small section, the rest is quite plain and not built from such fine stone bricks.

As for the Eiffel and the Pyramids, they are architectural edifices, with absolutely zero practical purpose. So quite how you hope to draw a comparison between them and a system of mass transit is beyond me, or how you manage to come up with the idea that a city-spanning monorail system would, over time, become a “treasure”.

I’m sure the tax payers of which ever city such a thing should reside in would be the first to disagree with you.

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