We don’t know what the future holds, but one aspect we can certainly look forward to in the upcoming years is transportation; from cars to ships to trains and planes, ingenious innovations are now reshaping the worlds of public, private, and commercial transit.
These sorts of changes may have profound implications for the future of society at large. For example, once autonomous (or self-driving) vehicles arrive en masse, they are likely to alter the rules of the road and certainly the nature of driving itself. Most of these will probably have a backup driver, who will be ready to take command if needed. Others may be unmanned.
But how do driverless vehicles function? How will they be programmed to follow the rules of the road, and what happens if they encounter some kind of error while in operation?
James Armstrong notes that “there are several systems that work in conjunction with each other to control a driverless car.” These include radar sensors “dotted around the car” to monitor the position of nearby vehicles; LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors that help “detect the edges of roads and identify lane markings by bouncing pulses of light off the car’s surroundings”; ultrasonic sensors installed in the vehicle’s wheels that detect “the position of kerbs and other vehicles when parking”; and a computer system, which analyses all of the data coming in from the vehicle’s various sensors.
According to guidelines published by SAE International — originally, the Society of Automotive Engineers — there are various levels of vehicle automation.
At level one, certain systems, “such as cruise control or automatic braking, may be controlled by the car, one at a time.” At level two, the vehicle “offers at least two simultaneous automated functions, like acceleration and steering, but requires humans for safe operation.” At level three, the vehicle “can manage all safety-critical functions under certain conditions, but the driver is expected to take over when alerted.” And at level four, the vehicle “is fully-autonomous in some driving scenarios, though not all.” The vehicle “is completely capable of self-driving in every situation” at level five.
Right now, aside from a few prototypes, there are no fully autonomous vehicles commercially or privately operating on public roads anywhere in the U.S.— perhaps, even, in the world. Even though they show a certain amount of promise, and may ultimately prove to be safer and more efficient than those operated by humans, there have been serious setbacks to their development. While this is very concerning, the technology powering autonomous systems grows in complexity and prowess every year.
Cars and trucks are not the only modes of transportation facing an automated future. In 2018, German automaker BMW unveiled an autonomous motorcycle, though the company has no intention of producing it for public use and insists that the model is merely a demonstration of its state-of-the-art technology. And, even though flying motorcycles have been shown to be workable, most — if not all — seem to have taken the form of the low-flying hoverbike, or hovercycle.
As for railway and mass transit systems, many are already automated to one extent or another; as are some maritime vessels. Yara Birkeland, an autonomous freighter ship owned by a Norwegian chemical company, will be tested on open waters sometime this year and is expected to be seaworthy by 2020; and unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), also known as autonomous surface vehicles (ASVs), are a category of watercraft that operate without being crewed — they have been in use since at least the mid-2000s.
Furthermore, today's autopilot technology allows planes to fly with a certain degree of automation, albeit with a human pilot still at the helm, monitoring the functions of the aircraft. Soon, planes may fly without human pilots at all. Dan Falk reports that as time progresses, cockpit crews are becoming smaller and less involved with the operations of airliners as computer systems play an increasingly independent role in managing planes, and that pilotless technology for large airliners is currently in the works. Sure enough, Boeing is currently developing this budding tech.
Another type of aircraft or rotorcraft that has recently been automated is the new generation of drone-like air taxis, many of which combine features of both airplanes and helicopters. Various air taxi services have built working prototypes, a number of which utilize a technology known as vertical take-off and landing (VTOL). Some of these prototypes fly autonomously.
We can expect the latest generation air taxis, autonomous or otherwise, to move beyond the prototype stage very soon. It’s worth noting that in 2016, the United Arab Emirates government launched its Dubai Autonomous Transportation Strategy, an initiative seeking to make 25 percent of that city’s transportation autonomous by 2030. If it's at all successful, the stars may well align and we could see air taxis, likely autonomous ones, shuttling people across the skies above Dubai in the next two decades.
Others have more ambitious plans. Airbus SE, for instance, wants to begin producing and providing to the public a fully functional version of its Alpha One taxi as soon as the early 2020s. Rolls-Royce is looking into a similar timeframe for the release of its own air taxi. Meanwhile, Kitty Hawk and Zephyr Airworks want to have their autonomous Cora air taxi ready to service passengers in New Zealand by 2021. Bell Helicopter also plans to have its Nexus model hybrid-electric flying taxi transport passengers by the mid-2020s.
Air taxis are compared to flying cars, and perhaps rightly so. They’re similar in size to many cars and, as opposed to conventional aircraft and rotorcraft, do not transport people long distances at high altitudes, but rather stay relatively close to the ground while taking passengers on comparatively short trips. But what about actual flying cars — small personal vehicles that can both drive on the road and take to the skies?
There have been many attempts at making them into a practical reality, and, in recent years, renewed interest in the concept has lead to a spate of innovations. So-called roadable aircraft and rotorcraft exist and have even been proven to work. Granted — few, if any, have made it beyond the prototype stage or have been mass-produced; none have seen widespread use in civilian settings.
In 2006, for example, the Israeli-based Urban Aeronautics announced their development of a flying car known as the X-Hawk, a turbojet-powered vehicle inspired by their 2004 prototype. The company plans to begin testing both models in the near future. A smaller, unmanned version of the X-Hawk, the Tactical Robotics Cormorant (TRC — previously known as the AirMule), is also in the works.
Additionally, in 2013, Terrafugia, a Massachusetts-based corporation, announced that they were developing a mostly autonomous flying car known as the TF-X. Equipped with a backup parachute system — the model is purportedly capable of landing itself at the nearest airport if its operator becomes unresponsive.
Anticipating a future with flying cars, American tire manufacturer Goodyear recently unveiled a concept tire that functions as both a car wheel and an aircraft’s rotary propeller, depending on need. Called AERO, the tire’s spokes allow an otherwise land-bound vehicle to function as a tiltrotor.
Anil Nanduri, Intel’s manager of drone development, contends that flying cars will begin taking to the skies in the next five years, and flying taxis in 10. Indeed, the future of transportation will doubtlessly include developments we’re now just beginning to imagine or realize.
Note* Image of a Cora prototype air taxi in flight over New Zealand, designed byKitty Hawk, sourced via Wikimedia Commons.