The film Back to the Future Part II predicted flying cars in 2015, but it also predicted that fax machines would still be important. It overestimated progress in certain technology (the car), but also underestimated others (the internet). When internet technology is combined with long-existing vehicles like bikes, cars and scooters, new transportation systems can be built that solve real-world problems.
On October 21st 2015, the world celebrated that fateful date when Doc Brown and Marty McFly arrived from the year 1985 in their DeLorean time machine. In the 1989-released film, Back to the Future Part II, the year 2015 had some surprises to offer, including holograms, hover boards, and a very particular sense of fashion.
But the thing about the future that always stood out was flying cars.
FLYING CARS: A LOOK INTO THE FUTURE
Early in the film, a giant advertisement appears in the town center stating:
“You know, when my Grandpa was Mayor of Hill Valley, he had to worry about traffic problems. But now, you don’t have to worry about traffic. I’ll hover convert your old road car into a skyway flyer!”
So in the future, traffic would be solved with flying cars! It sounded pretty amazing, but it is now the end of the real 2015, and where does progress on flying car technology stand?
A Slovakian-based company introduced an initial flying car concept in 1990. The company has developed various prototypes over the last 20 years and the latest version is a propeller driven aircraft with retractable wings. With a range of 700 kilometers, the vehicle is interesting for inter-city trips, but at this stage, it is not intended for urban commuting.
Another interesting project funded by the European Union is aiming to make progress in areas of research that enable technologies for a Personal Aerial Transportation System (PATS). The project focuses on human-machine interfaces, automation (including research into Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)), and also evaluating the effect of such a transportation system on society (including open concerns with airspace regulation). As exciting as the project and research is, it does not seem to make any promises of manned prototypes.
The truth is, the world is still far from having accessible passenger vehicles that can fly around within cities.
LEVERAGING INTERNET TECHNOLOGY
So, we overestimated our ability to fly in cars, but at the same time, maybe underestimated something else.
In another scene of Back to the Future Part II, the future Marty McFly finds himself being fired from his job via a video call, yet the final statement from his boss is:
“Read my fax!”
It is probably difficult to remember a time when there wasn’t an Internet like we know it today. Although the internet already existed in some form in 1989, there is no way that the creators of the film could have predicted how powerful, and entwined in our everyday lives, it would become.
The internet and computers have done a lot to connect people in different parts of the world and share knowledge, but they have also allowed long-existing technologies to be lifted to a new level of intelligence and efficiency without changing their fundamental design or purpose.
Shared mobility is a prime example of this. Some form of bikes, scooters, and cars have been around for over 100 years, but in the last 10 years, more than a thousand cities around the world have been able to combine regular vehicles with internet technology to create a new wave of public transport.
Instead of having 1 car for 1 person, there are now systems where the ratio is rather 1 car for 50 people, and in some cities, one can now combine the health benefits of riding a bike with the range and weather protection of an electric car - all without owning a vehicle.
So, maybe transportation has come far in the last 30 years. Traffic and pollution are still a problem, but through new concepts like shared mobility, cities and individuals are starting to shift gears and find better solutions.
30 YEARS FROM NOW: A LOOK INTO THE FUTURE OF TRANSPORTATION
What will the world be like 30 years from now? What will transportation be like?
With ideas like the Hyperloop already beginning to be implemented, citizens may see amazing advances in connecting cities. With many car manufacturers working on self-driving cars, there is a good chance that the ideas of shared mobility and self-driving vehicles will merge into one form of transportation (that is, self-driving on-demand vehicles), bringing new levels of efficiency and convenience to city transport.
This great video from the Swedish pension management company asks what the world will be like in 2045. In the negative future, we see packed highways, flying advertisements, and pollution. In the utopian future, the scene is painted with hover-trains, elegant airships and quiet, green cities.
Either way, it seems clear that even without flying cars, novel ideas like shared mobility could play a strong role in shaping urban mobility towards the best outcome, and that transportation in general will heavily influence the future of the world.
Originally written for Move-Forward.com