Automobiles of the Star Trek Century
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12 June 2013
I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness a week ago, and I gotta say it was an epic, awesome film. Between this one and the last, we've had a glimpse of J.J. Abrams' impression of Gene Roddenberry's future.
As much as I have to say about space travel and it's role in humanity's continued existence, this is an automotive library and I came here to talk about cars of the distant future.
Yep, aside from the 1960-ish Corvette that was run off a cliff in the first film, there h e been a few quick glimpses of surface transportation in the time of starships. There has been a motorcycle-like vehicle without wheels, one with wheels, and a handful of futuristic wheeled vehicles on the streets of San Francisco.
Of course, it can always be forgiven to ask, "Geez, who needs a freakin' CAR when there are transporters around?" Well, it's the same reason we don't take helicopters to work now. There's the initial cost, cost of energy (fuel or charge) to operate, maintenance cost, and level of skill & concentration required to operate.
Note that aside from the classic Corvette, which justifies its own existence as a piece of history, the police were the only ones expending the energy for an antigravity propulsion system. Such is the case when you have a trained professional operator that may need to go just about anywhere to do his or her job and maybe save a life in the process. The cost is as justified then as it is today with the cost of police transportation equipment our current system of law enforcement uses.
Otherwise, when the object is efficient transportation, the least costly in materials, build labor, and fuel expenditure will be most prevalent. This is seen in today's society even when only automobiles are considered, as a large number of Americans drive four- and six-cylinder cars that do not have the features or technology of a brand-new Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
For mass transportation, simplicity, safety, and efficiency have the greatest impacts.
Simplicity & Safety
Why not fly? Aside from forcing the average driver to have to think in three dimensions and operate even more controls than a wheel and two pedals, which not everyone does very well as it is, the consequences of mechanical failure or driver error are a long trip down at terminal velocity onto whatever you happened to be flying over.
It requires a lot more energy, expressed today as fuel and I the future likely as electrical charge, to make a vehicle airborne than it does to make it roll. Multiply that by the likely ten billion plus inhabitants of a future Earth, and you have an enormous amount of energy consumption. Someone has to pay for that energy, and that falls upon the commuter.
The option to fly will be there, probably even more widespread than it is today. But that only tips the scales a little. The primary issue is, is your time worth the extra cost? An executive of a multibillion dollar corporation may value the time saved not sitting in Manhattan traffic more than the cost of a helicopter ride, but that likely won't apply to a rural Walmart store manager.
Reducing that cost difference won't eliminate road traffic, it will just change slightly how many people take up the new option. But as more people use more energy, it drives that cost up, while at the same time vacating the roads, freeing up traffic flow. A balance will be found, likely different than today, but not eliminating highway transportation at all.
Assuming that someday such systems exist, as they tend to do in many science fiction worlds where roads do exist but are made to look ultra-futuristic, why won't everybody just be two feet off the road? Isn't that a good compromise?
It solves the problems of safety and simplicity, but still uses more energy. Again, it will be a balance between cost and convenience.
I imagine people with a need to travel through rough country where there are no roads (forest rangers, some farmers), traditional users of current 4x4 vehicles, will utilize the technology. Others who desire to move people or equipment without impacting the ground surface might also find them useful, such as golf course landscapers. Still others may find the cost justified in snowy and low-traction conditions, such as snow removal equipment.
Ambulances and fire apparatus may be antigravity to allow them to jump over traffic and obstructions, the extra cost justified by the lifesaving work they do and the cost spread out amongst many taxpayers.
As for the common office commuter, improvements in tires and suspension comfort combined with the relatively low cost of buying & operating it will still find traditional four-wheeled cars the most logical choice.
The Form and Styling
The form those cars take is entirely subjective from now until the end of time. After all, who from 1930, even if they were an astute predictor of the technology employed in future automobiles, could have predicted the fashion trends of fins in the 50's, vinyl in the 70's, and the teal-colored curvy forms of the 90's?
Four wheels offer the greatest balance between stability and efficiency where smooth roads are available. No one can predict what cars will look like in 200 years with any accuracy, but as long as there is a cost gap between wheels or not, four-wheeled vehicles will be a prime mover of humanity well into the future.
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