Will jet­packs and hy­per­loop be how we get around in fu­ture?

Tech tycoon’s re­us­able rocket is just one of the many pi­o­neer­ing op­tions that may take off soon, writes Harry de Quet­teville

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page - Harry de Quet­teville

Con­ser­va­tive vi­sions of the fu­ture of trans­port are based on grad­ual im­prove­ments in ex­ist­ing cars and trains and ships and planes.

But there are a few ideas out there which pro­pose rad­i­cally new con­cepts. Some have been around for many decades but, their ad­vo­cates in­sist, have been un­justly over­looked. Oth­ers are based on emerg­ing new tech­nolo­gies. Some are fun. Oth­ers could be fun­da­men­tal. To con­clude the se­ries, here are some of the big­gest blue sky ideas for trans­port’s fu­ture.


Per­haps one of the most out­landish trans­port con­cepts of the last decade has been the Hy­per­loop, a sys­tem in which de­pres­surised tubes would be sent whizzing around the world at 650mph.

It was, al­most in­evitably, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk who gave the project ini­tial mo­men­tum in 2013 with a de­tailed 58-page pre­sen­ta­tion.

In 2014, Musk made the con­cept “open source” al­low­ing oth­ers to de­velop it. Since then, half-a-dozen or so com­pa­nies have taken up the chal­lenge, no­tably Hy­per­loop One, which af­ter Richard Bran­son joined in 2017 be­came Vir­gin Hy­per­loop One and is now Vir­gin Hy­per­loop.

All in­ter­ested par­ties pro­pose sim­i­lar de­signs: to use pas­sen­ger com­part­ments us­ing mag­netic lev­i­ta­tion (ma­glev) in­side low pres­sure tubes to at­tain huge speeds with lit­tle en­ergy.

Part of the prob­lem is that ma­glev it­self has long been promised as the rail trans­port of the fu­ture, yet failed to flour­ish due to the huge cost of build­ing the track, with its pow­er­ful mag­nets embed­ded in con­crete. That bulky in­fra­struc­ture also makes switch­ing points tricky and slow.

What takes a sec­ond with metal rails takes many min­utes with ma­glev.

And yet, Hy­per­loop is far from dead, de­spite ever-ex­tend­ing dead­lines. Vir­gin Hy­per­loop and its ri­val Tran­sPod are build­ing or ex­tend­ing test tracks and sign­ing deals for ini­tial lines sched­uled to open towards the end of the decade.

Vir­gin’s is in In­dia, from Mum­bai to Pune. Tran­sPod’s is in Canada, where it has just signed a deal with the gov­ern­ment of Al­berta to be­gin prepara­tory work for an in­ter­city line between Ed­mon­ton and Cal­gary, due to start build­ing in 2025.

Mean­while, a con­sor­tium of other Hy­per­loop com­pa­nies have banded to­gether to stan­dard­ise their var­i­ous tech­nolo­gies and en­sure in­ter­op­er­abil­ity across bor­ders. In the event that a con­ti­nen­tal net­work of Hyper­loops is ever built, of course. Change the world fac­tor - 8/10 Will it hap­pen? - 4/10


Some­how, we all seem to long for a re­vival of the air­ship, that glam­orous ocean liner in the sky whose rep­u­ta­tion lit­er­ally went up in flames with the Hin­den­burg.

The dream has long been alive. Take Bri­tain’s Hy­brid Air Ve­hi­cles, which is de­vel­op­ing two mod­els, one of which it hopes will carry 200 pas­sen­gers or 60 tons of cargo over 4,600 miles. It has its roots in projects and com­pa­nies stretch­ing back to the Sev­en­ties.

But the con­cept – cleaner, cheaper pas­sen­ger and freight trans­port to al­most any­where with­out the need for air­port in­fra­struc­ture – is sim­ply too al­lur­ing to let go, de­spite con­cerns about speed, storms and sup­plies.

Fancy an air­ship cruise to the North Pole? Ocean Sky Cruises are sell­ing them al­ready at a re­ported £50,000 per cou­ple. Lock­heed Martin’s pro­to­type has its own tag-line: “No roads, no run­ways, no prob­lem.”

Air­ships, then, seem per­fect for the ex­tremes of the mar­ket – high end lux­ury travel for small num­bers, and de­liv­er­ing dis­as­ter re­lief in ar­eas with lit­tle ac­cess. The fact that they can stay aloft for days at a time also makes them use­ful for mon­i­tor­ing and sur­veil­lance, like for­est fire de­tec­tion, adds an­other string to their bow.

But those are still niche ar­eas. It’s hard to see them be­come mass mar­ket game chang­ers in the sky.

Change the world fac­tor - 6/10 Will it hap­pen? - 8/10 (in niche ar­eas)

Hu­man flight

You may have seen videos of Richard Brown­ing, the man who made a jetpack that could fit in a cou­ple of suit­cases. The 60lb, 5-tur­bine, 85mph, 10-minute-aloft thriller is un­likely to be­come a form of mass tran­sit soon. Brown­ing con­cedes that “it’s very noisy and po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous”.

But the Jet suit tes­ti­fies to the con­tin­u­ing al­lure of that age-old dream: “To feel your feet lift off the ground,” as Brown­ing de­scribes it. “The ul­ti­mate free­dom of true flight.”

The big­gest dream­ers, how­ever, are not in­ter­ested in jet­packs. Hugh Herr runs the Biomecha­tron­ics group at MIT’s Me­dia Lab. A dou­ble am­putee, he is try­ing to al­low the brain to con­trol pros­thetic limbs as eas­ily as it does nat­u­ral limbs, a process he calls Neu­roEm­bod­ied De­sign.

Those pros­thet­ics don’t have to re­sem­ble ex­ist­ing limbs. “In this 21st cen­tury,” he says, “de­sign­ers will ex­tend the ner­vous sys­tem into pow­er­fully strong ex­oskele­tons that hu­mans can con­trol and feel with their minds. In this 21st cen­tury, I be­lieve hu­mans will be­come su­per­heroes.” Bet­ter start de­sign­ing your cos­tume and cape.

Change the world fac­tor - 10/10 Will it hap­pen? - 1/10

Earth-to-Earth space flight

Last month, a Fal­con 9, the first stage of a rocket that blasts satel­lites into or­bit for Musk’s com­pany SpaceX, made his­tory. It took off. Then, hav­ing given its all, de­tached. The trick was what hap­pened next: it guided it­self back to a float­ing land­ing pad in the At­lantic, break­ing a record en route be­cause this was its sixth flight. Re­us­able rockets are one of the rea­sons that space flight has got dra­mat­i­cally cheaper, bring­ing the cost of de­liv­er­ing a kilo­gram (2.2lb) into or­bit down from $50,000 (£37,722) in the days of the Space Shut­tle to around $1,500 to­day.

Col­laps­ing cost will also po­ten­tially make what Musk this sum­mer called “hy­per­sonic travel around the Earth” eco­nom­i­cally pos­si­ble on board a craft called Star­ship.

Star­ship’s first test flights, he says, will come in the mid­dle of this decade. A video shows how it would work, with pas­sen­gers leav­ing a dock in Man­hat­tan at 6:30am, be­ing whisked by boat to a float­ing launch pad (20 miles off­shore) for a 7am blast off to Shang­hai. Travel time 39 min­utes.

The rocket would be vast. Its cabin would be big­ger than that of the big­gest pas­sen­ger air­craft in the sky – the Air­bus A380 – and hold 1,000 peo­ple, strapped in as if on a roller­coaster. Even the pro­mo­tional film makes it look like a gut-wrench­ing ride. Musk him­self con­ceded: “It’s ba­si­cally an ICBM trav­el­ling at Mach 25 that lands.”

But for those who can keep their break­fast down, and pay the $1,000+ a ticket would prob­a­bly cost, Lon­don to Los An­ge­les jour­ney time would be re­duced from 10h 30 to 32 mins; Lon­don to Hong Kong from 11h 50 to 34 mins. “It will be real,” Musk in­sists.

The south-African born en­tre­pre­neur has a track record of mak­ing the un­likely pos­si­ble. Tesla’s out­per­for­mance is one of the rea­sons he is now the third rich­est man on the planet. But he is not the only one try­ing to re­claim the era of su­per­sonic in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal travel lost with the demise of Con­corde.

In Au­gust, Bran­son’s Vir­gin Galactic signed a part­ner­ship with Rolls-Royce to build an air­craft for up to 19 pas­sen­gers that would fly three-times the speed of sound at 60,000ft, re­duc­ing Lon­don to New York flight time to 90 min­utes.

One of its prin­ci­pal chal­lenges will be lim­it­ing the ear-split­ting sonic boom that comes with pass­ing the sound bar­rier. While it has not an­nounced a launch date, a trio of other com­pa­nies – Ae­rion, Spike and Boom, all Amer­i­can – are aim­ing for mid-decade take-off for their craft.

If they suc­ceed – and it is a big if, given re­peated failed projects – a new era of ex­treme air travel would ar­rive. Af­ter all, to date only 500 or so peo­ple in his­tory have be­come as­tro­nauts. With Star­ship, Elon Musk could cre­ate twice as many, in a sin­gle flight.

Change the world fac­tor - 9/10 Will it hap­pen? - 2/10

Late Ap­ple founder

Steve Jobs’ im­pact on con­sumer com­put­ing and en­ter­tain­ment was so pro­found that his Tele­graph obit­u­ary de­scribed him as the man who “did more to de­ter­mine what films we watch, how we lis­ten to music, and how we work and play than any other per­son on the planet”.

It’s hard to es­cape the con­clu­sion that trans­port has a sim­i­lar vi­sion­ary fig­ure: Elon Musk. Musk be­gan the se­ries, with his Tesla cars. He has ended it, with Star­ship. He is also play­ing a no­table role in the com­ing trans­for­ma­tion of freight with the Tesla Semi. And that’s all with­out men­tion­ing his com­pany SpaceX, which is up­end­ing the eco­nom­ics of travel be­yond Earth’s or­bit.

For if we re­ally want to think about the very grand­est fu­ture as­pi­ra­tions of trans­port, we should con­sider the many cur­rent projects – from both states and en­trepreneur­s – that rep­re­sent some­thing of a re­nais­sance in the field of space travel. This July, no fewer than three sep­a­rate rover mis­sions to Mars blasted off – from Nasa, the UAE, and China.

For Musk, there is a very clear link between the Tesla car and the SpaceX rocket. Ul­ti­mately, he thinks, man must be­come a multi-plan­e­tary species to guar­an­tee sur­vival. The risk of ex­tinc­tion is too great if we only have one home. It’s a catas­tro­phe that we might even cause our­selves un­less we move soon to cleaner fu­els, he fears – hence elec­tric cars.

For him the Tesla is not just a ve­hi­cle. It is the first stage in mankind’s voy­age across the so­lar sys­tem and be­yond. It is a jour­ney be­yond our planet that we are all al­ready on.

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