The Hendo Hover.

Back to the Future's technology predictions

The Back to the Future films portrayed 2015 as a futuristic world of hoverboards and flying cars. So have any of the trilogy’s technology predictions become reality?

As any good sci-fi fan knows, 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the start of the classic Back the Future franchise. Perhaps more importantly though, it’s also the year that Marty travels to in Back the Future Part II to prevent his son from ending up in jail.

So now that we officially live in the future, we decided to take a look at how closely our lives resemble those portrayed in the film.  Although we’re not riding around on hoverboards or popping to the shops in flying cars like the residents of Hill Valley, California quite just yet, we checked in with some companies developing futuristic transport tech to see how long it will be before these things become a reality.

Hoverboards

There have been a few attempts over the last few years to develop a working hoverboard. In 2011, for example, scientists from Paris Diderot University showcased Mag Surf, which used superconductor magnetic levitation to propel a board inches from the ground. However, you could only travel in straight line and couldn’t change altitude.

Perhaps the most promising attempt comes from American company, Arx Pax, who are behind the Hendo Hover. Founded by Greg Henderson, the original impetus for developing hover technology was the 1989 Lomo Prieto earthquake, which led Greg to search for ways to provide protection against these events. Hendo Hover provided the perfect way to demonstrate the technology and its scalability.

“The hoverboard functions on the principle of Magnetic Field Architecture (MFA),” explains Greg Henderson, Co-Founder and CEO of Arx Pax. “The current prototype hovers over any non-ferrous conductive material such as aluminium or copper by inducing a magnetic field in the opposing surface providing lift of about one inch.”

As well as being self-propelled, the system’s stabilising actions can also be altered to propel it forward. At present, the substrate used is generally sheets of common metals but the company are developing new materials, such as conductive concrete, to hover over.

“We hope to see hoverboards for sport and personal transportation in the near future,” says Greg, with a target date for the first commercially available hoverboards set for 21 October – the date, of course, that Marty arrives in the 2015 version of Hill Valley.

And although the hoverboard seems to have caught the public’s imagination, with a recent Kickstarter campaign reaching double its target and a widely publicised test run by pro skater Tony Hawk for Arx Pax, this is only the start.

“Arx Pax has just begun scratching the surface of all the applications possible with MFA technology. We work with a big picture of an Arx Pax ‘city of the future’ using many different applications from carbon negative transportation using green ways and solar ways to buildings secured from earthquake damage using MFA base isolation,” continues Greg. “[We] created the Whitebox developer kit to enable tinkerers and dreamers around the globe to use hover technology and we look forward to seeing what ideas emerge. We hope to get the…kits into as many schools as possible so that the future scientists and inventors of the world can lead the way.”

Flying cars

If you think that flying cars don’t exist yet, you’d be wrong. Over in Boston, a company called Terrafugia has been working hard since 2006 to develop this pinnacle of futuristic personal transportation.

Of the two products that Terrafugia has in its development pipeline, the TF-X is perhaps the closest to the Back the Future vision. Features include a flight range of at least 500 miles, vertical take-off and landing, seating for four people and the ability to fit comfortably in a standard single garage.

The TF-X is still in the very early stages of development and is at least twelve years away. However, development of its sister product the Transition, is a lot further ahead.

While not fully what many people would class as a flying car – more a plane that drives than a car that flies – this road-legal airplane does combine flying and driving in one compact vehicle.

As Richard Gersh, Vice President of Business Development at Terrafugia explains, “The Transition is a rotable aircraft, more commonly known as a flying car. The vehicle transitions from an automobile to an aircraft in about a minute – it’s all done electronically. [The Transition] will go about 400 miles maximum range in the air, burning about five gallons an hour of autogas.”

After cruising to your destination at a speed of 100mph, you can convert the Transition into a rear-wheel drive car that runs at an average of 35mpg.

The company is currently drive- and flight-testing its second developmental prototype with the fourth in the design phase (the third is a static test vehicle kept on their Boston campus).

“If you look at the engineering side, there are certainly challenges, but the fact that we have a flying, driving prototype out there shows that everything from here on out will be evolutionary, not revolutionary”, says Richard.

Along with the engineering challenges thrown up by the project, Terrafugia has had to work inside a legal and regulatory environment that has never anticipated the development of a vehicle that can both fly and drive legally.

The target market is “the older pilot population who can use this for recreational travel,” notes Richard, and the company currently have around 100 deposits on the books for the anticipated commercial release in two years time.

With an initial price of $279,000, the Transition may not be in reach of the average commuter at the moment, but it may soon be a common sight in our skies, with great potential for regular journeys of 100-500 miles, along with quick and safe transportation across large rural areas.

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