Racing towards a faster tomorrow
Image credit: Boom
There’s a technology revolution happening that will transform the speed at which we will travel. E&T looks at five ways you could get there faster in the future.
“It’s a mistake to think of the future as some sort of exercise in logic, because it isn’t,” says Devin Liddell, principal futurist at the Seattle-based consultancy Teague. And while the organisation has been around for almost a century, advising the likes of Boeing, Intel and Toyota on what tomorrow looks like, Liddell also thinks that a key driver for future transport will be enhanced virtual experiences, rather than simply physically slogging it from A to B.
We tend to think of the future through the lens of Moore’s Law, says Liddell, assuming that technology will only lead us toward faster or higher transport. But, he says, admitting that his conclusion is counter-intuitive, “it’s more likely that there’ll be people who opt for airship travel that actually isn’t Mach 5. It’s the same trade-off that people make today with rail.” A century from now, he says, “you may want to be reacquainted with the marvel of flight, and one way to do that is not by going faster, but by going slower”.
But just in case you really must be on the other side of the world for that face-to-face meeting at warp speed or gazing into pixels of pyramids isn’t your idea of an authentic holiday, there will be options for getting there faster. We take a look at five of them here.
It’s less than a decade since Elon Musk published the Hyperloop Alpha paper proposing his ‘fifth mode of transportation’. Hyperloop would theoretically transport people and goods at a speed of 700mph (1,100km/h), effectively becoming the fastest way to travel distances of less than 2,000 miles (3,200km). Musk envisioned a system based on tubes and terminals, with pods moving free from air resistance by magnetic propulsion, initially running from the Los Angeles region to the San Francisco Bay Area, following the Interstate 5 corridor.
To his credit, the CEO of SpaceX, Tesla and (now) Twitter, encouraged an open-source design evolution, and there have been several research programmes and competitions to develop Hyperloop worldwide. The ever-ambitious Musk has also proposed taking Hyperloop to humanity’s ‘backup location’, stating: “On Mars you basically just need a track. It would obviously have to be electric because there’s no oxygen.”
While it is reported that Virgin Hyperloop – which demonstrated its first human test ride in November 2020, reaching a top speed of 107mph (172km/h) – could be a reality by 2030, it’s worth remembering that the concept dates back to 1799. The ‘vactrain’ (or vacuum tube train) was the brainchild of English engineer George Medhurst, who patented his steam-powered atmospheric railway during the French Revolution. With the concept confined to the sandbox – and several sci-fi interpretations (think ‘Futurama’) – for over two centuries, the idea of commuting by Hyperloop in the near future could be, well, hype.
The date has gone down in history. Almost two decades ago, on 24 October 2003, British Airways retired its passenger-carrying Concorde fleet. Only 20 of the supersonic transport (SST) aircraft were built, and its only competitor was the Soviet equivalent Tupolev Tu-144, whose service life ended in 1999. The fare-paying passenger era of the SST was over.
But not quite. The desire to see aircraft that could slash the intercontinental commute time by more than half has remained strong in some corners of the aviation industry, and there have been replacement concepts proposed since Concorde’s retirement.
One of the most promising successors to the Franco-British SST comes in the form of Boom Technology’s Overture, currently scheduled for introduction in 2029. Marketed as “the world’s fastest airliner – optimised for speed, safety and sustainability”, Overture will be built from composite materials, powered by non-afterburning turbo fans, and run entirely on SAF (sustainable aviation fuel). With a cruise speed of Mach 1.7 or 1,100mph (1,800km/h) it won’t be quite as fast as Concorde’s cruise speed of 1,341mph (2,158km/h), but its $5,000 transatlantic flight ticket is pitched at a quarter of its predecessor (adjusted for inflation).
Similar in appearance, with a delta wing configuration, Boom will connect New York to London in around three-and-a-half hours. With carriers such as Virgin Galactic, United Airlines and American Airlines queueing up to purchase units and reserve further options, it seems that supersonic flight is back with a boom.
Fast transport is routinely accused of lacking in green credentials. The famous Saturn V rocket that took Apollo 11 to the Moon needed half a million gallons of fuel just to blast out of Earth’s atmosphere. As HuffPost observes: “All told, the rocket that achieved one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind held just under 950,000 gallons of fuel.” Whatever propellant used – kerosene, liquid hydrogen, or liquid oxygen – space travel is not an environmentalist’s dream.
But in the early 21st century, we’ve worked out how to go fast while staying green. On Earth at least. That’s because a decade after the first mass-market all-electric car was launched, as the BBC’s ‘Top Gear’ says, “the future is here and it’s amazing”. Specifically, that future comes in the shape of the Tesla Model S electric vehicle (EV) that in ‘Top Gear’’s comparisons beat Lamborghinis, Ferraris, McLarens and Porches away from the lights. The bog-standard Tesla gets from 0-60mph in 1.99 seconds, has a top speed of 200mph and peak power of 1,020hp.
Tesla estimates the Model S’s range at 396 miles with the charging cost coming in at 28 pence per kilowatt-hour or £81 for every 1,000 miles. As ‘Top Gear’ puts it, this “is cracking value against most combustion-engine cars”. If you can charge your EV using electricity from a roof-mounted PV system, you’ll reduce running costs even further, meaning that your high-speed performance car won’t cost you the Earth to drive.
It you want to increase the speed of an aeroplane while it’s in the air, there’s a lot more to it than the pilot stepping on the gas. As one pilot explained to Condé Nast Traveler: “Aircraft are designed to cruise within a fairly small speed bracket. We almost always fly at the fastest economical speed.” To go beyond this requires more fuel – one of the biggest industry overheads – while affecting carbon footprint and efficiency. Given the amount of time lost on the ground, overall door-to-door travel times could be improved by addressing what happens before the aircraft takes off. “The idea of a circular runway for airports could help revolutionise air travel, shortening flight times,” says a European Commission (EC) report on industrial technologies, “saving fuel costs and promoting airport efficiency.”
Circular or ‘endless’ runways are nothing new. A 1919 edition of Popular Science details designs for the concept to be integrated into the flat roofs of New York’s skyscrapers. There was even one planned for the canopy of King’s Cross railways station in London. Based on the design of banked motor racing circuits such as Brooklands, the century-old idea is simple enough. Endless runways not only save space compared with conventional airports, they also, as the EC report states, “enable planes to take-off in any direction and land from any direction, shortening trajectories, avoiding runway crossings and facilitating landings in any weather”. Further benefits include reduced taxi time and increased air traffic capacity.
While the world ponders the fate of concepts still far from commercialisation, high-speed rail remains the most effective alternative to air travel for intercity journeys of 700 miles (1,100km) or less. Trains are fast, have stations centrally located in urban areas and carry a lot of people. As commuters start to count the environmental cost of short-haul flights, we’ve even developed a name for the trend.
Flygskam is a Swedish word that literally means ‘flight shame’. It not only describes the individual’s uneasiness with the environmental impact of aviation but is also the name given to an anti-flying social movement that sees taking the plane as both energy intensive and climatically problematic. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a companion word meaning ‘train brag’– Tågskryt – has emerged to tag people who prefer the train to flying.
Proponents of Tågskryt are not only doing the world a favour but are also getting around rapidly. Since the 1980s, trillions of dollars have been invested in high-speed, high-capacity railway systems throughout Europe and Asia. While China, with its new 38,000km network, is leading the world in high-speed train adoption, many countries in Europe are currently building networks targeted to come on stream in the 2030s. The world’s fastest train is China’s Shanghai Maglev that at 286mph (460km/h) hurtles along faster than any Hyperloop prototype has demonstrated to date. In 2015, a L0 Series maglev train set the world speed record of 375mph (603km/h).
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