What would a genuinely futuristic transportation system look like? From land to air to sea, from human-powered to nuclear-powered, and from everything in between, our options for transportation are much more expansive than the cars and trains that have gone from revolutionary to routine over the past century or two.
“Where’s my flying Car?”
The question is often asked jokingly, but it is a real issue. In real life so far “roadable aircraft”, and indeed general aviation more broadly, has been primarily obstructed by government regulation; the technical ability has long been here.
The gyrodyne, an aircraft that has both a helicopter-style rotor at the top and airplane-style engines at the wings, was tested for urban transportation purposes as early as 1957 in the form of the Fairey Rotodyne. Although very loud noise was a problem at first, that issue had largely been solved by the time the project was cancelled in 1962.
In the six decades since we can easily envision in some other timeline the bus-sized gyrodynes becoming more sophisticated, perhaps to the point of evolving into tiltrotor aircraft, and spawning smaller family-sized models for personal use. Even now the general idea resurfaces occasionally, most recently in the form of Uber Elevate. Why we don’t already have futuristic transportation services like this buzzing around in every major city is something of a mystery to me.
Nevertheless, given political or technological changes, depending on your point of view, “flying cars” or, as I like to call them, personal aircraft (Frank Lloyd Wright, who incorporated the idea into urban (or rather antiurban) design as early as 1932 (!), preferred “aerator”), will almost certainly become prevalent as a means of transportation in the relatively near future. The logic of a personal vehicle that can travel in a straight line unconfined by roadways or railways and at high speed unobstructed by curves and slopes is just too obvious and compelling for every society to ignore forever.
Much the same logic applies to delivery drones, automated aircraft whose purpose is to deliver small or (in more advanced versions) large cargo directly to people’s homes. Progress to date has been pathetically slow, with medical applications being the only realm in which it’s taken off much at all; by now our skies should be laden with packages delivering themselves to eager customers. Nevertheless, we should expect any futuristic transportation system to include these as a component.
Nuclear Reactors: futuristic Vehicle Engines
We should also expect more and more vehicles in the future to be nuclear-powered. Existing reactors have long been a great option for powering large ships at sea (they work well with icebreakers right now), and without our collective radiophobia large cargo ships and cruise ships would be predominately nuclear-powered right now.
As early as the 1970s nuclear-powered aircraft were economical, but only if the planes massed millions of tons; by now further technical advancements have no doubt brought that economical mass down substantially. Fourth-generation reactors on the drawing board could easily power today’s large jumbo jets economically; at the rate of progress seen to date, fifth-, sixth-, or at most seventh-generation reactors will be the most economical option for powering vehicles as small as cars, including the futuristic flying versions.
Various fundamental reasons mean nuclear fission reactors will likely never be economical for powering devices like motorcycles or ceiling fans, but radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) are a possibility. Much more promising may be nuclear fusion reactors for these smaller machines, once the technology is mastered, though that’s likely centuries in the future. An even more advanced power source, the peppiest known to our science, would be antimatter reactors.
A world of flying cars and delivery drones powered by nuclear or antimatter reactors, or even advanced forms of electric power like flywheel energy storage (mechanical batteries), no doubt ultimately powered by reactors, either nuclear or antimatter (once non-orientable wormholes can be easily built, enabling flipping matter to antimatter by just feeding material through its throat), wouldn’t have much need for roadways or railways. The lands taken by them today could be allowed to revert to nature.
Futuristic Ships at Sea
Even in the realm of futuristic transportation, sea ships might still have a role; by ship remains the cheapest way to travel, and for cargo that isn’t time-sensitive cargo (especially bulk cargo) ships at sea, no doubt of ever-increasing size, will retain their primacy far into the future.
The recent blocking of the Suez Canal by the now-infamous ship Ever Given highlighted how many maritime choke points are now not very comfortable for the largest ships to fit through; whole classes of cargo ships are “Suezmax”, “Panamax”, and so forth. Deepening and widening major canals like the ones through Suez and Panama should solve this issue over the short term; at a certain point, not all that much larger than the Suezmaz size, ships become too big to be serviced by any existing port.
Nevertheless, we should expect ports to trend toward servicing larger ships in the future. Will the bridges spanning the entrance to harbors that limit the height of ships be dismantled in a future of flying cars? Or will new artificial harbors with deeper channels be constructed in what’s now open ocean just off the coast from today’s major harbors? Perhaps the big ships will roam the open ocean on a permanent basis and never even enter harbors, with aircraft taking the containers from just off the coast onward to their ultimate destinations. Talk about futuristic transportation!
Underways: futuristic Transportation for Car Drivers
A world of flying cars would obviate projects like the Underways proposed for London in the 1960s (and seriously considered (!), since governments at the time were not yet denuded of all vision), to excavate a large number of tunnels underground to put wide freeways in, and to connect them to underground parking garages, the idea being that people driving in from outside the city will drive to a parking garage near their ultimate destination underground, and from there take elevators or escalators to the streets above, which may be given over completely to pedestrians, bicycles, and the like. Sort of like a subway for car drivers.
Underways might seem fantastic but they’re likely to prove more affordable than most would think. In recent years the Underway torch has burned most brightly in the hands of (who else?) Elon Musk, who has a venture, The Boring Company, working along vaguely similar lines.
Nuclear Tunnel Boring Machines: futuristic Big Digs
A fascinating possibility that is (unjustifiably!) obscure, even in circles that have examined futuristic transportation technologies, is excavating them using nuclear tunnel-boring machines (TBMs), or “nuclear subterrenes”, a technology so exotic that it wouldn’t technically dig at all, but rather literally melt the rock into lava with its drill head and then channel it away toward the surface. Nuclear reactors generate a tremendous amount of heat (after all, a common failure mode is “meltdown”), and could easily heat a drill head hot enough to melt rock.
A convenient feature of nuclear TBMs is the ability to drill a tunnel of any shape, as opposed to conventional TBMs, that can only drill circular tunnels. There’s also good reason to believe nuclear tunneling may be much more economical than current techniques, possibly opening up an era where all infrastructure that mars the urban fabric today can be put underground.
A future with both complete drivability within (or rather under) cities and zero traffic noise is an appealing one, and while underways are cool and honestly should be the primary means we drive into cities today. I hope the spirit of the Underways can be carried over to a future of personal aircraft; excavating underground tunnels for aircraft seems like an odd idea. Why give up the three-dimensional flexibility of aerial transportation?
Spires and Hangars
Rather, my thinking as I write this is that a system of super-tall spires towering over the city, enabling personal aircraft to park themselves in high-altitude parking garages, so high above the pedestrians on the ground they’ll never hear anything, would be the best solution. Thin spires might be best, so the traffic can spread over three dimensions instead of being more two-dimensional like existing rooftop helipads.
Weirdly, this might invert to some extent the post-elevator trend of higher floors being more prestigious, if upper floors of buildings are given over to traffic. However, it’s easy to envision the upper levels of buildings consisting of a tall segment of hangars and a shorter segment on top of them, the penthouses, being comfortably above it all: the city, the rest of the building, the hangars, and the attendant traffic.
After people have parked their flying cars in the hangars, a mile or more above the surface, and take elevators down to the surface, they might walk around on foot, but other possibilities include human-powered vehicles. Bicycles are the most popular such vehicle, but if a recumbent bicycle is put in a lightweight aerodynamic shell, a velomobile, surprisingly high speeds can be attained; 88 miles per hour is the current world speed record, excepting a feat of 167 mph achieved while in the wake of a race car.
These vehicles, however, might be a bit too similar to cars, so perhaps they might be confined to, once again, underground tunnels. A better idea, however, would be to have a rapid transit railway system similar to today’s subways, a dense web of underground routes connecting every part of the city, each station within easy walking distance of anywhere in the city.
Futuristic maglev Subways
A futuristic subway would no doubt operate by the maglev principle. Since it’s all underground tunnels and the systems may not be connected to anywhere outside the city, there’s not much obstacle to making it a broad gauge train, opening up space for opulence and luxury unseen on today’s trains. The concept of the Breitspurbahn, an ultra-broad-gauge intercity railroad, offers a preview of what might be possible.
Eating meals and watching films on a subway might seem very silly considering the trip times are intended to be short, but these underground maglev trains might become destinations unto themselves at some point. It’s also worth noting that the average speed of e.g. the New York Subway is 17 mph; if your trip is 20 miles, smaller than the size of many cities, then grabbing a snack or watching a short film (e.g. a television episode) might actually make sense.
Assuming, of course, there isn’t an express train. Personal rapid transit (PRT) has been a perennial proposal to have each car be independent and small enough to fit just one family or a small group, and may yet have its day in the sun. In addition to underground, aerial, and surface transportation, skyways, train lines or pedestrian bridges connecting buildings above the surface, are another possibility.
Even more futuristic Transportation: space Colonies and Habitats
Another part of futuristic transportation is, of course, space travel. I won’t go into it in detail here, since I’ve covered that more thoroughly in other posts, but it’s worth noting that all these transportation options also apply to space colonies, both space habitats and planetary colonies.
Indeed, space habitats provide a chance for their builders to create a microcosm of the world of their imagination, from the climate, to the population density, to the topography, to the density of the built environment; they are an opportunity for a fresh start, a truly new urbanism (or ruralism!).
When you are a self-contained microcosm, the logic of something like a private startup city makes a lot more sense than it does in a place like Earth, so such ways of living may only truly take off with mass space colonization. New places inculcate new mindsets; contrary to what it might seem like on the Internet sometimes, we are embodied beings, and these sort of things have their effect.
From colonies filled with wilderness to microcosms of Coruscant, space habitats of the future will have a variety of built environments. Some may be arcologies (TVTropes, of all places, has the best write-up I’ve ever seen on the topic) with an aesthetic and ethos resembling a cylindrical or spherical version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mile-High Tower, and others may resemble the vision closer to Frank Lloyd Wright’s heart, Broadacre City, but much more extreme, featuring hundreds or thousands of acres of untamed wilderness for every family instead of one garden-like acre.
Walking, maglev subways, elevators, escalators, skyways, and the like will form more of the transportation mix in more urban habitats and colonies, whereas personal aircraft will dominate the transportation mix in more rural habitats and colonies.
Gravity Trains and Space Elevators
On planetary or asteroidal colonies, a more exotic possibility for transportation is the gravity train. Instead of going across the outer surface of the sphere or other body between two points, a straight line is employed through the interior. Earth’s mantle and core are so hot it’s not a very practical means of transportation, but on geologically dead worlds with cold interiors nuclear TBMs could easily dig such tunnels.
Using the force of gravity to first accelerate the train down toward the closest point to the core and then decelerate up toward to the surface, perhaps with a maglev tube evacuated of air (and thus experiencing negligible friction) means cargo and passengers can be transported without the need for any power.
Interestingly, the travel time depends entirely on the density of the planet you’re traversing. On Earth, for example, every trip by gravity train takes 38 minutes no matter how long the distance; longer distance is evened out by faster acceleration.
Another exotic means of transportation that is more viable on some other planets is the space elevator; in general, the faster the rotation and the lower the mass of the planet the easier a space elevator is to construct.
So, futuristic transportation is filled with possibilities, for futurologists, technological innovators, and science fiction worldbuilders, authors, and other artists alike. As a member of the latter group I have included some of these ideas in my novels, and will continue to include it in my work.
Maybe I might even include some of these concepts in some visual art in the future. I have been intending to really get into digital art for the first time, and will likely start a “one digital drawing or painting a day for a month” challenge or some such soon. So you might see some of these concepts in visual form in the near future!