In an era where innovation and changing consumer habits seem to be bringing us the future on an almost daily basis, the method most of us use to get around has remained pretty much the same since the early 1900s: gas-powered cars.
This may not be surprising since cars represent an unbeatable combination of convenience, freedom, self-expression, coolness and fun (not that we’re biased). But what about all the other futuristic modes of transportation that were supposed to be a thing by now? Are those ever going to happen? We did a little digging to find out—with some surprising results.
While we shouldn’t necessarily look to the retro-futurism of the early ‘60s to dictate our vehicular present, The Jetsons did set us up for some pretty big expectations. Basically, where are the flying cars we were promised? Turns out, the reason we’re not all jetting around in personal sky pods boils down to problems that are equal parts technical and geographic. First, city roadways just aren’t built for flying cars to go taking off and landing from them. After all, it’s bad enough merging on to the highway as it is without worrying some dude is going to drop his flying sports pod down on your head. In addition, the auto industry hasn’t yet perfected the combination of tech and manufacturing that would allow one’s road beast to become one suitable for the air. With smart-braking technology and back-up cameras just now becoming standard, we might well be a long way off from pulling out of our garages and hitting the open skies. That said, The Guardian notes that there are indeed advancements in the field, including a bid by Uber and Elevate to send electric autonomous VTOL (that’s vertical takeoff and landing, kids) aerial taxis into the air over Dubai by 2020. And while that means we’d be flown rather than fly ourselves, that might actually be for the best given that the driven roadway can be challenging enough.
If Disney charted the course for our national transportation policy, monorails would likely be ringing American cities like they do The Happiest Place on Earth. Sure, you can find the occasional monorail scattered here and there across the globe—heck, Japan is seriously flush with them. But the monorail never really took off the way good old Walt imagined when he cooked up the original concept for Epcot—back when it was a prototype city and not a stylized theme park. Disney thought the monorail would be a viable, efficient and economical transportation option taking people from the rural outskirts of his imaginary city to its bustling center. But as time has gone on, issues surrounding the monorail have outweighed the benefits—primarily construction costs, upkeep, and a lack of speed and capacity. But, hey, the monorail system at Walt Disney World sees upwards of 150,000 passengers every day, so at least there’s that.
The recent spate of autonomous vehicle (AV) crashes and failed test projects hasn’t done much to bolster support for self-driving cars—and yet the AV industry is still insisting that it’s on the verge of becoming the next big thing. But will it happen? Fortune points out that 99.9 percent of cars currently on the road don’t have automated technology, so self-driving cars probably won’t hit our roads en masse for quite a while. Still, Audi plans on having its self-driving car on the market by 2020, and it’s estimated that 95 percent of new cars will be autonomous by 2040. However, there’s reportedly a pretty big issue holding back our self-driving dreams: artificial intelligence. This past summer, The Verge noted that even though Waymo is doing tests in Arizona, and Tesla is touting their autopilot feature, there are experts in the A.I. field who believe we’re years—and possibly decades—away from having technology that can truly avoid auto accidents in earnest. “Driverless cars are like a scientific experiment where we don’t know the answer,” scientist and A.I. expert Gary Marcus told The Verge. Which sounds to us like this one might be sitting on the shelf longer than some predict.
Easy, Tesla fans. We’re not saying your Musk-produced electric vehicle (EV) isn’t stylish, super-cool and hugely beneficial for the planet. We’re just saying they haven’t yet taken the nation by storm the way some people might have expected or hoped. Sure, we have more EV options than ever—from the Nissan Leaf to the BMW i3 to the aforementioned Tesla. But as Business Insider notes, EVs make up only about 1 percent of the market right now, which means that people obviously don’t want to buy them on a large scale yet. Issues include their still-limited range, the potential inconvenience of finding a charging station, and even that EVs fail to rank as a status symbol in the same way other gas-powered luxury models might. And while pundits say the market for EVs will explode over the next five years, that reality simply hasn’t played out yet.
The bullet train has been around for decades, with successful high-speed rail networks in China, France, Spain, and one in Japan that tops out at nearly 400 mph. So why don’t we have a high-speed railway across the U.S.? For a few reasons, actually. Chief among them is America’s vastness and the fact that the car-based transportation layouts of our major cities don’t necessarily lend themselves to optimal high-speed rail support. But politics plays a part, too. CNN points out that federal funding and attention for rail service has dwindled precipitously. In some instances, funds allotted for railway projects were rejected and diverted elsewhere, as when Wisconsin rejected railway stimulus money that ended up going to California instead. And then there’s the sheer cost involved in creating a high-speed rail line, with Amtrak suggesting it would cost upwards of $150 billion to upgrade the northeast corridor for high-speed rail. For the time being, it’s mostly up to private funding to drive proposed bullet train projects running from San Francisco-to-L.A., Dallas-to-Houston, and Miami-to-Orlando.