The car's come a long way since Ford started mass production 100 years ago, but science fiction takes transportation even further. Here are six scenarios for the future of driving, and the real-life developments that could make them happen.
The Fiction: The Motorway
In Martha's second trip on the TARDIS in the new Doctor Who, the Doctor takes her to New New York. Much like its present-day namesake, this city is trapped by traffic.
In fact, the only living residents of the city have been stuck in a quagmire called "the Motorway" for decades, all trying to get to a better place. Some even resort to kidnapping so that they can drive in the HOV lanes, which they've heard can cut years off their travel time. Once Martha is kidnapped she finds out they'll make it the ten miles to their destination in a short six years.
The Reality: Traffic and congestion.
It's been said that Americans spend an average of over 100 hours a year commuting, so it's no wonder that scientists are constantly trying to find ways to improve the driving experience. Writers are always imagining new ways for their heroes to get from point A to point B. But how many of those writer's dreams are coming true? Read on.
Seen in: I, Robot
Pros: You can read, nap, or solve crimes while you're traveling. Accident cleanup is a snap.
Cons: Should the computer system decide to become murderous, you're in a lot of trouble.
The Reality: The Darpa Challenge
(image courtesy of the Team VictorTango website)
DARPA presents prizes to teams creating cars that drive on their own using "various sensors and positioning systems." Their 2007 challenge asked the vehicles to navigate an urban environment and "executing simulated military supply missions while merging into moving traffic, navigating traffic circles, negotiating busy intersections, and avoiding obstacles." Three and a half million dollars in prizes were awarded and six teams finished the course.
The Fiction: Mag-Lev Cars
Seen In: Minority Report
Pros: You can pave everything and make it a road, giving D.C. residents as many lanes than they could ever want. Pull right up to your 200th floor apartment.
Cons: Imagine an accident at those speeds, on the side of a skyscraper. Makes car chase a lot more dangerous.
The Reality: Mag-Lev trains.
While we haven't started putting mag-lev systems in cars yet, we have put them into trains. Japan has the most famous trains using the technology, where magnets are used to both levitate and propel the train. Using magnetic levitation for travel has a lot of advantages, including speed. Not to mention the potential benefits to the environment, and the noise reduction. As we pointed out earlier, the future of rail transport in the U.S. might very well lie with mag-lev technology.
The Fiction: Flying Cars
Seen In: The Fifth Element, many many others
Pros: No need for roads anymore, the sky is open to everybody.
Cons: The sky is open to everybody. The view becomes nothing but cars, and traffic is a nightmare still.
The Reality: Hovercraft
Vehicles that float on a cushion of air are actually more popular and widely used than most people think. They're good for going over any terrain, and they're used by militaries around the world. It also is the technology on this list that you are most likely to make in your own garage, if all the YouTube videos are any indication. It is unlikely that the flying cars in science fiction are powered by jets of air, but so far it's the closest thing we've got.
The Fiction: Vehicle A.I. that talks to you
Seen in: Knight Rider
Pros: Can let you know when it needs maintenance, keep you entertained on long drives, drive for you if you need to beat up some bad guys.
Cons: Can get a little snippy. Might lock you out.
The Reality: turn by turn GPS, cars that talk to each other
While we're not quite to the point where our vehicles are having conversations, we do have plenty of robotic female voices telling us to "turn left" and after we make a wrong turn, they scold us with a "recalculating." But GPS systems have become commonplace. What's the next frontier of the technology? Cars that converse with each other.
In this video from cNet, we see that systems are being designed where two vehicles will send signals back and forth in order to keep track of their distance from each other, their speeds, and other relevant information. The same system can also get information from stop lights to relay to the driver, letting you know if you really should try to gun through that yellow light, or maybe you should try to stop.
Does it seem like these innovations are too far outside our grasp? Well there are two famous fictional cars that science has managed to replicate, at least to some degree:
The Fiction: The Batmobile
The Reality: Voice recognition software, OnStar, and "the Tumbler."
The Batmobile's features change from model to model, in fact there is even a website devoted solely to tracking the changes in the vehicle. There have been numerous defensive innovations, as well as offensive weaponry installed over the years. While most cars aren't driving around with side-mounted spherical bombs, the Batmobile has long had voice recognition software. Now the Ford Sync system comes standard in many of their models, one of the many ways our cars are starting to obey our vocal commands.
In a set of ads using the Batman/Batman Returns style Batmobile, audiences discovered one feature that they could have installed in their own cars: OnStar. Of course, Batman has had hands free calling to his support network (namely Alfred) for years.
The most important thing to note is that when Christopher Nolan brought his own spin to the Batmobile in Batman Begins, the "Tumbler" was actually a functional vehicle. According to The History of the Batmobile:
"Their primary focus was to make this Batmobile as real as possible: at 9 feet wide and 15 feet long, the car weighed in at 2.5 tons but was still capable of 0-60MPH in under six seconds with a top speed of 110MPH. Thanks to its unique design, it is also capable of making unassisted jumps up to 30 feet."
One of the best car shows in the world, Top Gear, was able to actually have the car in the studio for a segment where they talk about its actual working features. There's a rumor that The Stig even took it on a lap around the track:
The Fiction: James Bond's Scuba Car from "The Spy Who Loved Me."
The Reality: The sQuba Submarine Car
James Bond was able to tool around underwater in a modified Lotus Espirit without getting his impeccable suit damp. The sQuba Submarine Car is not quite so watertight, but it still is a car that handily swims around underwater, just like the vehicle in the film. As Jalopnik reports:
"Though you're not going to stay dry if you want to go diving, because theres no airtight canopy to enclose you. To breathe, you'll have to wear a scuba mask connected to the car's integrated compressed-air tank. But who cares?! This is a car that goes underwater!"
You can read a complete write up of the car here.
See the car in action and learn about all its other features:
Since the sQuba is just a concept car at the moment, if you want a car that will travel land and water, you might have to settle for an amphibious car. In one of their most infamous segments, the gentlemen at Top Gear were challenged to make their own amphibious cars, and then cross the English Channel. You might be surprised at the results:
What's next in the future of transportation? The best place to find out is probably the science-fiction section of Netflix.