In Back to the Future, we had flying cars by October 2015, Minority Report showed us a future where driverless cars zipped up, down, sideways and even forwards occasionally. We all wondered when this would actually happen, but the real question is, can it actually happen? Even more to the point, should it?
We’ve made huge advances in tech since the 1950s, so why are we still clinging to roads? Why are our cars still parked on the ground, rather than being tethered by heavy duty chains to stop them floating off into the blue beyond? The talk now is about Maglev trains and even cars, so where are they all? We can do Maglev, so why aren’t we floating to work?
Working with what you have
The answer is partly because the older, more familiar technologies have got better – engines are more fuel efficient, cars are safer, more aerodynamic, brakes are more efficient, we have seatbelts, airbags and parking control cameras now. Despite huge increases in traffic volume, accidents and deaths are thankfully very rare. One day, however, cars as we know them won’t be able to get any better.
It’s also because of people; humans are surprisingly resistant to change. It’s also incredibly expensive to force a paradigm shift – we’re reliant on petrol, so to suddenly shift everyone over to hydrogen or electricity will involve a massive amount of retooling and infrastructure change. There’s also the possible reluctance of older drivers to learn how to use a computer to drive, for example.
There’s also the feeling of giving up control – the phrase “in the driving seat” is very evocative of power and self-determination and handing the wheel over to a machine might not suit everyone. Then there’s the fact that not driving ourselves may make us less attentive to the roads and might even cause more accidents.
Right tech, right time
If a new invention or technology hasn’t got the right environment or infrastructure, as well as a workable business model, it usually gets consigned to history like the pneumatic transit system developed in New York in the late 19th century. Flying cars? Where do they land, do they carry on floating, using up power? Are they solar? Will we need mini-airports everywhere? This all needs thinking about. And then building. Which is expensive. It’s all about the infrastructure and people’s mindsets, two notoriously difficult things to change.
Technology and humans interact on three different levels – there’s niche, the established regime and the broader landscape.
Niche is for hybrid and electric cars – there’s a small uptake, everyone loves the idea, but they’re up against the regime of oil companies and the resistance they put up to solar cars and the like. Then there’s the backdrop of low oil prices, which keeps everyone truckin’.
More people might adopt battery-powered cars if the tech allowed for automated swapping and charging of batteries while the car is in motion, but who is going to develop this and standardise it for different models? Maglev is great, but where do the new lines go? Alongside existing rail lines?
It’s unlikely that there’ll be a big transport shift until there’s a big landscape shift forcing people to adopt new tech. For now, we’ll just have to watch sci-fi and dream, because we’re not ready to live in the future yet!