Everyone knows that the future of transportation involves self-driving cars, and they’re coming to a ride-sharing service near you, possibly sooner than you think. But what other transportation technologies will transform the future of travel?
Based on expert predictions about autonomous vehicles, supersonic jet travel, robotics, artificial intelligence, and other innovations, the travel experience described below is rooted in the real emerging technologies of today—plus a healthy dose of speculative extrapolation for how future travel technology will evolve over the next 30-plus years.
Here, allow yourself to take a journey into the future—on a trip from New York to Hong Kong, circa 2050—to see what’s in store.
Packed and Off You Go
Your suitcases are packed, and you’re ready to leave your Brooklyn home, so you summon a ride: It’s a self-driving taxi. When it arrives two minutes later, it does not look like any Ford, BMW, or Tesla of today. The interior has only two plush, swiveling seats—no steering wheel, gas pedals, or dashboard. The windows double as transparent screens, displaying map, weather, and road-condition data, as well as news and entertainment feeds.
En Route, Sans Driver
As you ride along, the near-silent electric car is being charged via magnetic induction in the roadway. Your taxi joins up with a chain of other self-driving cars to form a fast-moving train on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The tightly packed vehicles reduce traffic and air resistance. Though there are no speed limits and no traffic police, the car chugs along at just 50 mph, and you still arrive at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport in half the time it took in the 2010s. Why? For one, there are few remaining traffic lights. Most intersections now are roundabouts that allow for continuous movement of cars, scooters, and bikes. Pedestrians pass overhead on footbridges.
Since completing a multibillion dollar renovation in 2021, LaGuardia has been on the cutting edge of how digital and physical technologies intersect for air travel. When you arrive, a robotic porter greets you and takes your luggage to an artificial-intelligence system that sorts and routes baggage to the appropriate aircraft.
The system detects the electronic wafer you 3D printed at home and packed in your suitcase. With an app on your mobile device, you can track your suitcase on a high-resolution 3D map of the building and, later, the aircraft itself.
On the 8G network of 2050, these superdetailed, terabyte-size 3D models load in milliseconds. Thanks to CT scans and facial recognition, you barely slow down (and get to keep your shoes on) while breezing through the security check.
At Maximum Altitude
Your flight is on a new generation of supersonic commercial jets powered by a combination of fuel cells and solar energy. It was generatively designed using a descendent of Autodesk’s Project Dreamcatcher software, which was first commercialized in 2017. And the fuselage is a lattice of superlightweight carbon fiber and transparent material.
Screens embedded in the windows provide readouts from all the sensors you wish to see. Of course, no pilot is flying the plane, but 90 percent of commercial flights as far back as 2010 operated on autopilot, so this is nothing new. In fact, there’s no pilot on the plane at all; the flight is being guided by a space-based air-traffic-control system. But rest assured: There are pilots who can take control of the plane from remote stations on the ground, should the need arise.
A Dose of Caffeine Upon Arrival
When you arrive in Hong Kong, there’s no need to wait at the baggage carousel. After you clear passport control—again sped up by facial recognition—another robotic porter matches the silicon wafer in your suitcase with your mobile device and delivers your baggage while you sip an espresso. You consider grabbing some dim sum for breakfast at the Michelin-starred restaurant in the terminal, but you need to get to Guanghzou for a meeting.
Faster Than a Speeding Bullet
Thirty years ago, you would have taken a ferry or a conventional train to get to Guanghzou on the Chinese mainland. The train would have taken about two hours to make the 180 km (112 mile) trip. But you’re not traveling by train; you’re taking the Hyperloop—the bullet-like, vacuum-sealed levitating pod originally conceived by Elon Musk way back in the summer of 2013. It takes only nine minutes traveling at 1,200 km/hr (745 mph) to reach Guanghzou.
As you exit the Hyperloop terminal, you still need to travel 2 km (1.25 miles) to your hotel to freshen up before your meeting. Lucky for you, the past 30 years have seen an explosion of electric-powered microvehicles perfect for navigating dense urban areas. You wave your device at the checkout kiosk; pause for a retinal scan to confirm your identity; and, voilà, off you go on a rented Floatility electric scooter.
Hotel at Last (With a Drone Assist)
All has gone swimmingly so far, but while en route to your hotel, you realize you left your carry-on bag (with crucial items for your meeting) at the airport. Thankfully, you’re able to summon a drone delivery service to retrieve the bag and deliver it to your hotel. It’s downstairs waiting for you when you return to the lobby after a quick shower, and now you’re ready to tackle the day.
Well, that was certainly enjoyable. You went halfway around the world in comfort and style, emitting a tiny fraction of carbon dioxide that the same trip would have created 30 years earlier. What you may not have realized (because why would you?) is that the seeds of all these technologies are already well in the works, as is the software that’s required to make them.
In 2017, designers and engineers can already use generative design to create things like self-driving cars, lightweight airplanes, luggage robots, and Hyperloop infrastructure. And some are already 3D printing working circuitry and building machine-learning Internet of Things systems. It’s the work being done today that will make this amazing experience of 2050 a reality in the future of travel.