It doesn’t have to be that way, according to Dan Sturges, professor of transportation design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan. Your average car has five seats, ample luggage space, and the ability to travel at more than 160km/h. It is, argues Sturges, ludicrously overpowered for most journeys that we need it to make, particularly within cities.
Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, he suggests that vehicles should be more tailored to the kinds of journeys that we need to make – a move away from the “monoculture” of cars that has dominated most cities for the past century.
Sturges breaks transport down into three tiers. Tier 3 is fast, cross-country travel. At the moment that’s things like planes and high-speed rail. In the future it could be the Hyperloop, a system proposed by billionaire Elon Musk that would propel carriages through sealed vacuum tubes at up to 1,200km/h. A proposed Hyperloop would cut the journey time between Los Angeles and San Francisco from six hours to 30 minutes.
Tier 2 is cars, as we know them today – versatile, but over-engineered for the short journeys people make within cities. “For going a mile, you don’t need a car with 25,000 parts and an average price of $32,000,” says Sturges.
He envisions a world where smaller Tier 1 vehicles would be used for shorter journeys. Instead of cars, we’d have individual pods big enough for one person. These could be capable of taking people right into their apartment building, or the frail or elderly even right into their homes.
A modular system is also a possibility, where these Tier 1 vehicles physically slot into Tier 2 or 3 transport for making longer journeys – enabling people to retain their own sense of private space while travelling with others.
The ultimate Tier 1 vehicles would be autonomous drones – capable of taking off vertically and landing almost anywhere. These would free people from the existing road network and allow them to travel in straight lines from A to B.
But drones are dangerous. Dubai is hoping to bring passenger drones to its skies, and is working with Volocopter (pictured) and Chinese company EHang. The latter’s drone can travel at speeds of up to 100km/h for up to 23 minutes on a single four-hour charge and is big enough to carry one passenger and a small suitcase.
But according to Dr Steve Wright, senior lecturer in avionics at the University of the West of England, it’s likely to be 15 years before such systems can be proven to be safe enough to come to the general market.
New technology will be needed if such drones are to travel safely around humans. A possibility is software improvements – a team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently demonstrated a drone that incorporates a degree of uncertainty into its maps of the world, and so is better at dealing with the unpredictability of humans and other vehicles.
Alternatively, a new propulsion system might be needed. American inventor John Mohyi has come up with a ‘bladeless propulsion system’ which he says will enable delivery drones to hover safely around humans, and bigger vehicles to skim over the surface of traditional traffic like a hovercraft.
There’s a fourth tier to think of too, according to Sturges. In the not too distant future, an engineer will sit down at a computer, or slip on a virtual-reality headset, and design the vehicles that will take us to Mars and beyond.