Coast to Coast: The History of Transcontinental Travel, Part 5: The Future of Travel
Undoubtedly, the transcontinental record posted last year will not stand for long, as there are probably teams of people right now plotting their strategy to traverse the country in less time. They will certainly achieve this with new routes, higher speeds, and/or better luck. Throughout the history of transcontinental travel, the limitations on closing the time gap was technology and the infrastructure: Wagons, trains, motorcycles, and cars traveled across everything from the barren wastelands of the Southwest to pristine asphalt freshly laid west.
The very nature of the automobile and railroad industry may change the environment of future attempts, as technology and the imagination of engineers and scientists endeavor to create safe, faster, and better travel. Autonomous vehicles, magnetic levitating (Maglev) bullet trains, and commercial airplanes complete with auto pilot, are the future. Imagine riding in a car that is capable of sensing its environment and navigating without human input; what’s more, imagine being surrounded by like vehicles. Perhaps the highways of the near future will be dominated by such cars and trucks that can run at high speeds for long durations in close formations, hampered neither by traffic, speed laws, or fuel constraints.
For example, the 2016 Mercedes S-Class has options for autonomous steering, lane maintaining functions, acceleration/braking, parking, accident avoidance, and driver fatigue detection, in both city traffic and highway speeds of up to 124 mph. With adaptive cruise control (monitors distances to adjacent vehicles in the same lane, adjusting the speed with the flow of traffic) it has the earmarks of a completely autonomous vehicle.
Not to be outdone by Mercedes, Audi and BMW have done extensive research on self-driving cars, but nothing like what Google has been working on. Sebastian Thrun is head of Google’s Self-Driving Car project at Google X (its experimental branch). Working on legislation passed in four states and Washington D.C. to allow driverless cars, Thrun’s team, along with Toyota, modified a Prius with driverless technology. In May 2012, it was the first such car to obtain a license for an autonomous car.
By 2020, Google plans to offer its version of a driverless car (it has no pedals nor a steering wheel) to the public. As of September 2015, Google’s fleet of experimental prototypes have traveled nearly 1.3 million miles of public roads (with only 14 minor traffic accidents).
Highways of the Future
Imagine a highway not dotted with road signs or streetlights, but brightly lit and well annotated. The lines on the road itself glows, and the road signs appear on a monitor inside the cabin of your car (or not at all; the car’s computer knows where it is and where it is going so you don’t have to). Sounds a little far fetched, but right now there are about three miles of Highway N329 outside of Amsterdam that use glowing green paint to mark the lanes. Developed by Daan Roosegaarde, the paint glows indefinitely, and he has big ideas to make it able to change colors depending on road conditions.
In Sandpoint, Idaho, Solar Roadways, owned by Scott and Julie Brusaw, has developed interconnected road panels to form a “smart” highway. Harnessing the power everywhere there are roads, can power lights, signs, and even electric cars using the roads themselves. In addition to the potential to power nearby homes, businesses, and electric vehicles, the panels also have heating elements for convenient snow and ice removal, as well as LEDs that can make road signage.
Take the Train
For years, countries like Japan and England/France have utilized high-speed rail in their countries. Japan’s Shinkansen line is the world’s busiest high-speed line, carrying nearly 151 million passengers a year between Tokyo and Osaka, while China’s high-speed system ferries over 370 million annually. Though they travel at approximately 150mph, this is by conventional railway trains (steel rails and a wheeled trains), but the future is Maglev train systems that travel on superconducting magnets that not only drive the train forward at incredible speeds but keep it planted on the tracks. In 2009, the Maglev Technological Practicality Evaluation Committee under the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism deemed the SCMaglev system ready for commercial operation. In 2003, the Maglev train with three passenger cars (unoccupied) set the land speed record for railed vehicles at 361.0 mph. Completed systems will be online by 2027 in Japan, and at that rate, one could travel from New York to Los Angeles in 6.7 hours.
Beyond the Wheel
With cars communicating with each other along the highways, dangers ahead can be shared among the cars on the road. The speeds can increase, the distance between cars can decrease, and accidents can become nearly a thing of the past. As many automakers have shown, a computer is much quicker than any human in detecting a situation, deciding on what course of action to take, and taking that action. A deer crossing the road can be detected by a computer in pitch black darkness hundreds of feet away and a solution formatted long before the deer knows there’s a car approaching.
Production cars today are capable of sub-200 mph speeds; now imagine those speeds with the confidence of a well-engineered road and a computer at the helm, the time it would take to travel from New York to Los Angeles would be just over 12 hours.
The Transcontinental Record?
It is hard to say what the future holds, but one thing is clear: As long as there is a record on the books, someone, somewhere will try to break it. After all, when the first person set foot on this continent, negotiating a path to the other side was made impossible only by his or her own limitations.
The quickest way from the East to the West Coast was via Clipper ship around The Horn, taking about 150 days. By land, that time was nearly six months. Today, it is five hours by plane and, now, only 28 hours by car.
What will the record be in another 10 years? Twenty? And will it have been made by a human driving a car or a car driving the human? If it is the latter, will it still be a record?
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