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From Hyperloops to flying taxis: the transport of the future


The transport of tomorrow is being developed at some serious speed, with the industry racing to invent the technology and business models needed to address environmental issues, reduce congestion in city centres and cut down on travel times. 

Who has never dreamed of driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future or the Spinner in Blade Runner? The fantastical vehicles conjured up by Jules Verne are no longer just the stuff of science fiction. Hop on board and take a ride on the vehicles of tomorrow. 

Is that a UFO, or just a flying taxi?

Sick of sitting in traffic jams? Try flying to work instead! The Chinese flying taxi Ehang 184 has already been tested by some 40 people. The all-electric passenger drone, capable of transporting one person at a time, is fully autonomous and has no flight instruments. Customers book a ride using a smartphone app. Once on board, they tell the drone where to take them using a touch pad at the front of the cabin, then off they go! The drone is then monitored from a ground control centre, with which it communicates using a 4G connection. With a flight time of 25 minutes and the ability to fly up to 300 metres above ground, the Ehang can travel for a maximum of 50 kilometres in cities at a top speed of 100 kilometres per hour. The Airbus Vahana and CityAirbus, German Volocopter 2X and Lilium Jet, Israeli CityHawk and American Joby and SureFly models are also undergoing testing. However, the drones need to be recharged for three hours after use. Manufacturers believe that flying taxis could be brought to market within the next five years, but experts estimate that it’ll be ten or fifteen years before they can be used, since regulations will need to be adapted and safety issues resolved.

Hyperloop, the train of the future

Back on solid ground, the Hyperloop project is the most hotly anticipated. The train would be made of pods, each carrying up to 28 passengers, floating on air bearings and propelled by magnets within a very low-pressure, hermetically sealed tube. The technology is based on the same principle as pneumatic tubes for sending mail. Hyperloops could reach peak speeds of more than 1,200 kilometres per hour and take passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than 30 minutes (compared with 5 hours by car). They would be self-sufficient in energy thanks to solar panels. Construction costs are estimated at $11 billion per square kilometre, which sounds like a lot, but the high-speed rail network in France actually costs much more to install – between $15 billion and $30 billion per square kilometre.

Three companies are working on the open-source project. Hyperloop Transportation Technologies unveiled its first pod in early October and plans to test it shortly in a one kilometre-long tunnel in Toulouse. The US-based company has entered into an agreement with Slovakia to set up two Hyperloop routes by 2020, one linking Bratislava and Vienna in an eight-minute trip and the other connecting Bratislava with Budapest in around ten minutes. Hyperloop One, also based in the US, has already tested its prototype near Las Vegas, where it reached 387 kilometres per hour on a track of less than 500 metres – significantly lower than the targeted peak speed. The company is currently working on installing a line by 2020 that would connect Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 12 minutes. Lastly, Canadian company TransPod hopes to have its Hyperloop approved by authorities for launch between 2020 and 2025. The line would take passengers between Montreal and Toronto in under half an hour.

Vindskip, the green cargo ship

According to forecasts by the International Transport Forum, sea freight volumes will more than quadruple by 2050 and represent the planet’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. For this reason, it has become essential for manufacturers to limit the impact of cargo ships on the environment. Norwegian company Lade AS had the idea of using the boat’s hull as its sail, inspiring it to invent Vindskip. The hybrid merchant vessel is first brought up to the desired speed using an engine system powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG). Then, wind propulsion takes over thanks to the ship’s 49 metre-high hull in a curved airfoil shape, which acts as a sail. The advantages include a 60% reduction in fuel consumption and an 80% decrease in CO2 emissions. If there’s not enough wind to keep up sailing speed, a cruise control mechanism activates the LNG propulsion system as a back-up. The vessel is programmed before setting sail, with software continuously updating the data to calculate the most efficient trajectories and optimum wind angles and thereby find the most economical and environmentally friendly route.

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