Most of the speculation about what’s next on the personal transportation front has focused on self-driving cars, but what if the succeeding chapter isn’t a car at all, but something brand-new? Just for fun, let’s look at some alternative futures.
Jet Packs. We were promised these, weren’t we? Alas, the state of the art isn’t too promising for anything more than a thrill ride. In the 1950s the Bell Rocket Belt (only one was made) could lift a person 30 feet in the air and stay up for…20 seconds. No commuting there, and inventor Wendell Moore broke a kneecap in testing.
In the mid ‘90s, the RB 2000, made of lighter materials, could fly…an additional 10 seconds. Now you can actually buy packs from Jet Pack International. The H202-Z can reach 77 mph, and stay up for…33 seconds. But if you really want the state of the art, there’s the company’s T-73, which has a flight duration of nine minutes. Now we’re getting somewhere, though commuting is still unlikely. So is owning one—they cost $200,000.
Personal Helicopters. In 1951, Popular Mechanics put an image of a guy polishing his garaged personal helicopter on the cover. The cute little thing could carry two people, land on your lawn, and was powered by “quiet, efficient ramjets.” It could burn stove oil, kerosene or aviation gasoline. Alas, it didn’t happen, even though big players like Sikorsky Aircraft backed the idea.
Today the closest we get to the personal helicopter is the two-seater, build-it-from-a-kit fiberglass-bodied Mosquito, which weighs just 610 pounds and is powered by a 60-horsepower, two-cylinder, two-stroke MZ202 compact radial engine. The kit will run around $40,000 (though extras like doors are $970), but you can also buy one built and tested. The range of the XE model is 150 miles, with a top speed of 80 mph, so we are looking at a potential commuter, if you have a landing pad at your place of work. Check out some other ultralight helicopters here.
Elon Musk’s Hyperloop. Fast-train networks are well within our technical grasp, and they’re reality in China, Japan and Europe, but not even close in the U.S. and the rest of the world. Here in America, they’ve been proposed but derailed by partisan politics. Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is the most refreshing development in decades, and it’s actually moving forward.
If you’re just tuning in, passenger-bearing Hyperloop tubes are designed to ride in a low-friction, low-pressure environment. The $7 billion train is supposed to travel between LA and San Francisco in just 35 minutes, at speeds of up to 600 mph.
After Musk debuted the concept last summer, there’s been plenty of action. The team under the name Hyperloop Transportation Technologies is now being headed by a former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers and the former director of Space X. A feasibility study has been completed, and concepts are being refined. A prototype is scheduled for completion by the end of this year, and demonstrations in 2015.
Flying cars. There’s a wonderful history dating back to the 1950s, and you can read it all here. The concept has long been dormant. Now some new companies are trying to revive it.
We’re supposed to get a Dutch-built “caricopter” (car/helicopter), also known as the PAL-V personal air and land vehicle, sometime this year. On the ground it’s a three-wheeled sports car capable of zero to 60 in under eight seconds. In the air it goes 115 mph and has a 225-mile flying range. A big caveat is the $295,000 price tag.
The American company Terrafugia is taking its time getting its more sedate flying car into the air for public consumption. It should be priced in the same zone as the PAL-V. No production is imminent, but the company recently announced it “has begun feasibility studies of a four-seat, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) plug-in hybrid-electric flying car, the TF-X.” It will offer fly by wire controls and “state-of-the-art intelligent systems.” Maybe Terrafugia should get the Transition in the air before it starts talking about a new model.
What else? Anti-gravity belts? Moving sidewalks? A friend of ours tried out an electric skateboard, but it didn’t go well. We may be stuck with cars for a while, but at least future models will be powered by electricity or, who knows, hydrogen.
And speaking of jet packs, there is one form of it you can have fun with right now, as this video makes clear. It's called Jetlev, and let's just say that water is involved. Lots of it: