The 9 Most Sci-Fi Modes of Transportation You Can Ride
By K. Thor Jensen, PC Magazine, 28 August 2015.
By K. Thor Jensen, PC Magazine, 28 August 2015.
In the last century, we had lots of big ideas about how people would get around in the sci-fi future. Flying cars, jetpacks, rockets all over the place. It was pretty awesome. Sadly, none of it has come to pass as of press time, and we're still stuck with the usual planes, trains, and automobiles.
Let's face it: air travel has become pretty boring. The days of jetting across the sky in luxury (and paying through the nose to do it) are long gone, replaced by airlines that cram people in like sardines and nickel and dime them for every amenity. What used to seem like the transportation of the future has lost its lustre.
But if we look away from the skies, we can find that futurists are still pushing transportation forward in a variety of unique ways. In this feature, we'll zip around the globe spotlighting some amazing transportation initiatives that seem like they come from the future. From single-family subway cars to blindingly fast trains, these are the most sci-fi transportation methods you can actually ride right now.
1. Maglev Trains
The railroad built America, allowing settlers to transport supplies into the wilderness as they carved out pockets of civilization. But once the automobile hit the scene we kind of abandoned railroads as relics of the past. Other countries, however, have hung on to their trains and brought them into the future. Take China, for example: the Shanghai Maglev Train is the first commercially operated train line that runs on magnetic levitation, where the vehicle floats above the track and can hit a top speed of 270 miles per hour.
China's not the only nation dabbling in maglev trains - Japan's Linimo line serves Aichi Prefecture, albeit at a much lower speed, and South Korea is also building one at Incheon Airport.
2. Mi Teleferico
The city of La Paz is a nightmare for commuters - it's built on a number of very steep hills, making train lines impossible, and the streets are clogged with traffic. The city government recently took a major step in making the city more navigable, constructing the longest urban cable car system in the world. The system stretches a little under 7 miles and can transport a staggering 18,000 passengers an hour at peak capacity in enclosed capsules high above the crowded streets below.
Cable cars are a popular form of public transit throughout much of South America, and you can ride them in many cities around the continent. Systems in Caracas, Medellin, and Rio are all heavily used. [Mi Teleférico official website (in Spanish)]
3. Medellin Escalator
Speaking of Medellin, there's nothing terrifically impressive about an escalator in theory. Moving staircases have been around since the late 1800s, and you can find them in just about every shopping mall in the world. But the government of this Colombian city built one that's truly futuristic. The city, which was once considered the most dangerous in the world, has been undergoing a massive program of redevelopment and repair to make it more habitable and modern. For the residents of the slum of Comuna Trece, built on the steep slope of a mountain, that meant finding them a new way to get home.
Most of the low-income people who live there had to hike up the equivalent of 28 flights of stairs to get to their homes at the end of the day. Now, they ride an escalator that's 1,263 feet in length and gets them up and down in just six minutes.
Self-driving cars are one of the most heavily hyped revolutions in transportation, with some pundits theorizing that in 20 or 30 years just about every vehicle on the road will be controlled by an on-board computer, leaving us free to obsessively check our Facebook notifications while we drive. That revolution is already happening with other forms of transit, as South Korea recently opened the SkyCube PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) system.
Unlike a traditional subway that runs on a schedule and carries large groups of people, the SkyCube's elevated train cars are cosy, holding a half dozen at most, and only moving when you're ready. After you step inside one of the waiting "podcars," you press a button that closes the door and sends it on its way to the other station. Because they're controlled by a computer system, dozens or even hundreds of cars can move independently with great efficiency.
Alternative energy is becoming more and more important as global fossil fuel supplies dwindle. Many cities around the world have deployed hybrid or electrical buses to reduce their consumption, but only one has a system that's completely powered by solar energy. Adelaide, Australia put its Tindo fleet into service in 2013 and completely upended the public transit paradigm.
The buses run back and forth from North Adelaide to the city centre and charge at each station. They have a range of 124 miles in between charges, making them perfect for urban use. The Tindo buses are fully air conditioned and provide constant free Wi-Fi service so you can work on the go. Oh, and they're also completely free to ride. Utopia is here, and it's free buses.
From the outside, South Korea's OLEV just looks like a boring old bus. But it's what's under the hood that elevates these vehicles into the realm of science fiction. You see, these puppies never need to be gassed up as they run between the In-dong district and the Gumi train station. The electrically powered vehicles draw charge through magnetic induction from plates in the roadway as they drive over them. It's basically the same method used to charge up your electric toothbrush, just on a grander scale. The buses use tiny batteries - about one-third the size of the ones in a Prius - and charge at 85 percent efficiency.
One huge advantage to OLEV buses is that they're not locked to a particular route. Once the magnetic plates are installed in the streets, they create a network where vehicles can roam freely. Other governments are experimenting with the technique, and you can also ride induction buses on the campus of Utah State University.
7. Grenoble-Bastille Telepherique
We covered the cable cars of South America in a previous entry, but Europe's great nations have also dabbled in this cool form of public transportation. The Grenoble-Bastille Téléphérique doesn't use any kind of cutting-edge technology (it's been in operation since the 1930s), but the incredible retro-futuristic design of its cabins earn it a spot on the list. The cable car system traverses the rise from the Grenoble city centre to the fortress of Bastille that looms above the municipality, and passengers enjoy the trip ensconced in spherical glass "bubbles" that look like something out of The Fifth Element.
When the bubble cabins were introduced in 1976, they were an immediate public sensation. The Téléphérique became a tourist attraction that almost overshadowed the Bastille itself.
8. Personal Spaceflight
Here we have the Holy Grail of sci-fi transportation: real rockets. Astronauts have typically been drawn from the military and scientific realms, but it wasn't long after we put a man on the moon that space agencies started to put civilians in orbit. In 1984, McDonnell Douglas paid US$40,000 to send a guy up with the space shuttle, and in 1990 the Russians took US$28 million from a Japanese TV company to fly a reporter to the Mir space station. In 2001, millionaire Dennis Tito funded his own trip with the Russians, and since then several individuals have gone up, most notably game designer Richard Garriott. There are a couple of Western companies trying to get into the space tourism game, most notably Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.
The canals of Venice are well known as one of the most romantic locales in the world, dotted with gondoliers gently paddling couples around the waterways. But what if you have to get somewhere fast? It's not like you can put a subway system underneath all those canals. But human ingenuity will always find a way. Venice actually has a high-speed public transportation fleet of "water buses" called vaporettos that churn through the canals at a brisk clip, picking people up and dropping them off around the city.
The actual technology that powers these boats isn't anything spectacular, but the sheer oddity of a public transit system with maps and everything served over the water is like something from another world, which is what sci-fi is all about.
Top image: SkyCube PRT. Credit: Kojects.
[Source: PC Magazine. Edited. Some links added.]