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Future tech

Flying cars, driverless vehicles and vacuum-tube trains herald a new era of travel automation

You can order a flying car today, but you’ve got to drive/pilot it yourself, and that’s so old hat when a Chinese self-driving, flying, electric car is already under test. Sit back and get ready for the future of air and land travel

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 April, 2017, 6:43pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 May, 2017, 11:25am

The future is always flying cars. And at this week’s Top Marques Monaco, the world’s most exclusive supercar show (which runs from April 20-23), the covers come off the latest version of the AeroMobil Flying Car. It’s simultaneously a four-wheeled road vehicle and a light aircraft, and is – say the Slovakian makers – designed to overcome traffic jams, allow faster travel over medium distances, and make travel easier in areas with few roads.

It’s on pre-order now, though another flying car on show in Monaco goes one better – despite having only three wheels. Not only has the PAL-V Liberty got retractable blades like a helicopter, but it’s on sale already. However, there is one small catch; the Liberty costs just over HK$3 million.

They may seem playfully futuristic, but both the AeroMobil Flying Car and the PAL-V Liberty are manually driven and piloted, which makes them close to being obsolete. The future of travel isn’t just airborne, it’s automated.

“Automated travel will begin to unlock nearby and mid-range destinations that are otherwise hard to reach,” says Jonathan Gilbert, director of digital content and innovation at in-flight entertainment producer Spafax, who thinks one of the biggest revolutions in travel will be the self-driving car.

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For those planning a land adventure, autonomous cars will soon be here. Baidu has already tested autonomous vehicles from Chinese carmakers BYD, Chery and BAIC at a test facility in Wuzhen, in China’s Zhejiang province, and is targeting 2018 for the first commercial vehicle. Mass production will follow in 2021.

“Multiple gruelling hours behind the wheel will be replaced with hours of play and entertainment,” says Gilbert, who thinks that driverless-ness will mean car ownership quickly being replaced by subscription models. “This will also affect the airline and train industry in the long term, as car travel may become more palatable for longer journeys, with lie-flat beds, for example, as you might expect on a flight.”

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It could work out that a 15-hour, overnight trip in a driverless car is the best-value way to get somewhere, but what would you do with all that “dead time”? “The car will suddenly face many of the user experience challenges currently wrestled by over-the-top TV providers like Netflix and in-flight entertainment system providers like Panasonic and Thales,” says Gilbert. Binge-watching TV series on the way to your destination is always an option, but what if an intelligent in-flight entertainment system recommended and curated content to you according to your travel plans?

Not surprisingly, the self-driving car, the flying car and the electric vehicle will soon become one and the same thing. Cue the EHang 184, an autonomous aerial vehicle that’s also electric, from a Guangzhou-based company that makes drones. Not surprisingly, it looks like a drone, with four blades instead of wheels. Rather more shocking is that it could soon be coming to city skies; Dubai in the Middle East has already flown the EHang 184 at its test site, and intends to make it part of “the world’s most intelligent transportation system”. The emirate’s Roads and Transport Authority wants a quarter of all trips in Dubai to be via self-driving vehicles – flying or otherwise – by 2030.

Uber joins the flying-car race, with demonstration service planned for 2020 in Dubai

Similarly tied to the idea of creating something that fits into a smart-city plan as a whole is Pop.Up, a prototype revealed in March by Airbus and Italdesign that also marries the trends for flying cars and autonomous vehicles.

Multiple gruelling hours behind the wheel will be replaced with hours of play and entertainment
Jonathan Gilbert

A modular, self-piloting, fully electric and zero-emission flying car, Pop.Up is designed specifically to ease congestion in megacities. You’re not going to get much luggage inside Pop.Up, which is more capsule than car. After driving around a city as a small two-seater car, it lifts off the ground vertically and flies using electrically propelled modules powered by eight rotors, leaving its carbon-fibre, battery-powered ground module behind.

Driven by artificial intelligence and completely autonomous, Pop.Up capsules deposit their passengers and autonomously return to a recharge station to await the next fare.

Pop.Up is designed to integrate with a plan for travel automation in a smart city, so with other means of transport, such as high-speed trains. “Travel automation will enable the connecting of currently disconnected systems – road, rail and air – and mass transit systems will cover all forms of travel instead of just buses and trains,” says Gilbert. He thinks so-called personal travel will become cheaper, and be available to far more people, as the cost of driving comes down.

That a major airline manufacturer is thinking of such future-gazing concept vehicles tells you all you need to know about how seriously the travel industry’s key players are taking travel automation.

However, when it comes to intercity travel, the bigger revolution will be high-speed rail.

For some cities the focus is on next-generation magnetic levitation trains, which use magnets to push the train away from the tracks and “float” a few centimetres above them. A short service exists only as the Shanghai Maglev Train, which reaches 431 km/h (268 mph) between the city’s Pudong International Airport and Longyang Road Station. Japan is planning to open a much longer maglev route between Tokyo and Nagoya in 2027 that will reduce travel time from 100 minutes on a regular bullet train to just 40 minutes. There is also talk of using the same technology in the USA and UK.

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“Maglev trains are able to accelerate quickly, making them ideally suited to short intercity trips,” says Kate Andrews, co-founder of the Loco2.com, a booking platform for train tickets in the UK and Europe. “And because the trains are shorter, with fewer carriages, it seems likely that fewer passengers would travel on more frequent trains.” She also points out that the magnetic levitation technology is also little affected by snow, ice, cold, rain and wind.

In a similar vein is London Heathrow airport’s autonomous ULTra (Urban Light Transit), 21 pods that shuttle passengers from the business car park to the terminal, eliminating 50,000 bus journeys. ULTra could soon be seen in Taiwan.

An era of smaller, faster trains and flying cars on customised itineraries are merely the next phase of a trend that’s already under way. “It’s consistent with the changes brought by on-demand services like Uber, where passengers expect a more personal transport service – travelling around the clock, and at a time that suits them,” says Andrews.

Beyond Hyperloop: Chinese scientists board ‘vacuum train’ for possible military projects

However, the daddy of all transport concepts takes the personal out of “personal rapid transit”, but certainly not the rapid. Now being built in the Nevada desert just 30 minutes out of Las Vegas is a 3.2km test track for Hyperloop One, a low-pressure tube that resembles an oil or gas pipeline, except that this one is for people. When it opens in June it will load passengers and cargo into a pod and use electric propulsion to accelerate to as much as 970 km/h (600 mph). Hyperloop One is discussing long-distance commercial routes in the US as well as in India and in the Gulf region.

With the Air Transport Action Group forecasting that 6.6 billion passengers will fly worldwide by 2032, up from 3.6 billion in 2016, something has to change on land as well as in the air. “We will travel by car more frequently, but the percentage of time we spend driving vehicles ourselves overall will be less,” says Gilbert. “Get ready to become a passenger.”

With travel automation becoming an unstoppable trend, that fly-drive vacation may never be the same again.