Beyond Hyperloop: Wild ideas for the future of transportation

It’s out there -- but how far out there?

Monday evening Elon Musk finally unveiled his vision for a futuristic transportation system he calls Hyperloop; like a giant silver bullet shot from a gun at up to 800 miles per hour, it would transport people (and cars) across California faster than a bullet train -- and at a fraction of the cost.

But far-fetched as it sounds, Musk’s idea is just one of many concepts for revolutionizing transportation. And it’s hardly the craziest.

That award goes to the space elevator.

A space elevator would raise and lower people and cargo to a platform tethered in space by a sturfdy length of nanoengineered cable. Scientists believe the platform -- essentially a satellite -- would remain stable, while robots would crawl up and down the length of the cable. If it ever works, a trip to space would require no more energy than that of the motor raising and lowering the platform.

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“There are some concepts of what we call tethered satellites and there are some interesting things you can do with the orbital dynamics by building tethers and expanding them,” John Hansman an MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics, told Discovery News. But even a tethered satellite would still use lots of energy. “There’s no free ride to space,” Hansman added.

Cars of the future face change as well -- we may not have vehicles that pack up into a suitcase as George Jetson did, but we will have robot chauffeurs. And shortly. Google has been spearheading a program to develop autonomous driving technology that relies upon laser range finders, radar sensors, and video cameras to navigate the road ahead. And clearly, the company has cornered the market in mapping technology.

Google claims this will make driving safer, more enjoyable and more efficient -- and clearly more accessible. Last year, Steve Mahan took one of Google’s vehicles out for a spin. Mahan happens to be 95 percent blind, proving the technology is reasonably successful.

And we’ll have flying cars soon as well -- at last. The Terrafugia Transition is a street legal aircraft with wings that fold up into the body, letting it cruise down the highway as easily as it soars the skies. Earlier this month, the company showed it off at an air show in Oshkosh.

What of those jetpacks that everyone craves? Yes, Martin Aircraft Corp. has promised the things for years. The New Zealand developer said Tuesday that aviation authorities have issued the device a flying permit -- finally allowing for manned test flights.

Martin Aircraft chief executive Peter Coker said the certification was a significant milestone in the development of the jetpack, which the company hopes to begin selling next year.

"For us it's a very important step because it moves it out of what I call a dream into something which I believe we're now in a position to commercialize and take forward very quickly," Coker told AFP.

Woo hoo!

But don’t forget the plane itself. A company called Skylon has plans to build a supersonic aircraft that would travel at five times the speed of sound with a special engine. It’s like the Concorde’s hyperactive kid brother. According to the company, it could take 300 passengers from London to Sydney in 4 hours.

Meanwhile, the Air Force has a similar plan. The military has been testing what it calls the X-51A WaveRider, a sleek bullet that it says uses a similar engine technology to ultimately reach Mach 6.

Yet of all those technologies, Elon Musk’s may surprisingly be the most realistic.

Google’s self-driving cars face an uphill court battle; would you really want a robot driving your car? And those space elevators, long a dream of science fiction fans, remain almost entirely a dream.

Musk said Monday that if no one else steps forward, he might build a working prototype. That would take three or four years, he said.

Onward and upward!