The trains, planes and automobiles of 2030

Forget HS2, what’s travel going to look like in 15 years time?

Dave Stevenson
3 Nov 2015
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WHOOSH. That’s an approximation of a Japanese next-generation Maglev train passing by. It’s probably a pretty good impression: the trains, expected to hit the rails (or, more accurately, hover 10cm above an electrically-charged set of magnets) in 2027, hit a world record top speed of 374 miles per hour during testing on a closed track in April this year. It means big things for Japanese travellers: the journey time between Tokyo and Osaka, 315 miles away, will be cut to just an hour from the current Shinkansen time of a little over two and a half.

That made us think: transport is going to change a lot over the next twenty-five years. Energy as we know it – that is, dug out of the ground and burned – is going to dramatically dwindle, but it’s safe to say that humankind’s appetite for travel is going nowhere. Unlike people themselves: in 2013, 45% of people said they had taken at least one international flight in the previous 12 months. We love to travel: here’s how we’ll do it in 2030.

Future Travel: Trains

What we haven’t mentioned is just how pervasive the Central Japan Railway Company is hoping its Maglev wonders will be. The next-gen stock hasn’t been cheap to produce, you see: the total cost of building the new line from Tokyo to Nagoya is estimated at 9 trillion yen (just shy of £50 billion, which, impressively, is cheaper than the UK’s shorter, slower HS2 line). To help pay for it, the Japanese are hoping to persuade other countries to take up their speedy mass transit, and top of the shopping list are the Americans. Train travel in America is, broadly, pretty poor: it isn’t especially expansive and there’s currently no provision for high-speed services. The fastest service in the USA, the Washington to New York Acela service, tops out at 150mph but averages under 70mph: roughly the same as a London commuter service’s top speed. That’s the one the Central Japan Railway Company is eyeing up.

It’s got competition, though. Elon Musk – he of SpaceX and Tesla – is still working on the Hyperloop, a far-fetched plan in which Californians will be strapped into windowless capsules, loaded into vacuum-sealed tubes, and then shot nearly 400 miles from LA to San Francisco. At up to 760 miles per hour, or a very thin hair shy of the speed of sound. It’s unlikely sounding, but then the same was said when Musk announced that SpaceX was going to revolutionise space flight in 2002, and next year the company will launch the Falcon Heavy, a rocket that makes the Space Shuttle look like a firework.

Future travel: Planes

The biggest challenge for the aviation industry is fuel. Finding places to dig it out of the ground causes conflict, and burning it contributes to global warming. The problem is finding an alternative: getting off the ground is all about energy density, or how much energy can be stored per kilo of whatever your power source is. Batteries, compared to aviation fuel, have terrible energy density, which is why the electric plane is miles off. Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t progress being made. In December last year, a team from the University of Cambridge flew a hybrid-powered plane at 1,500 feet. More recently, Siemens produced a 50kg electric engine that could be used to launch a plane weighing up to two tonnes.

Until the hybrid plane becomes a reality, it’s likely that better aerodynamics and up-to-the-second materials will be the future of commercial aviation. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner, for instance, has an airframe composed of nearly 50% carbon fibre-reinforced plastics, for a long-distance jet that weighs nearly 20% less than similar sized, aluminium-based planes. The company has also been researching microlattice – a metal that’s 100 times lighter than styrofoam, which obviously could heavily reduce fuel consumption.   

Future travel: Automobiles

Blah blah blah electric cars, blah blah blah hybrid engines. The electric car is here: pop out for lunch on the streets of London and you’re all but guaranteed to see a G-Wiz, Toyota Prius, Renault Zoe or similar surprising pedestrians. The current problem is the range provided by batteries and – as with planes – the energy density you get from good old lithium-ion. Even the top-end Tesla S 85D has a range of around 300 miles, and when your clapped out Ford Galaxy can go further than a £62,000 supercar (albeit with a little less panache), you know the electric car has some way to go.

Audi thinks it might have the answer. Its “e-diesel” fuel is a synthetic blend of carbon dioxide, water and good old air, which is processed under high pressure to produce what the company calls blue crude. Another stage of refinement and you’ve got e-diesel, a readily-combustible fuel that, depending on where the electricity used came from, may have produced zero carbon in its making. In a test this month, Audi produced five litres of e-diesel, which it promptly poured into a still-working-at-the-time-of-writing Audi A8 TDI.

Can't wait for the future of travel? If it's any consolation, right now mathematically, the tube is too fast...

Lead image: Lars Plougmann, used under Creative Commons

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