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The future of mobility: 5 transportation technologies to watch out for

The way we move about is changing — and not just because, as the coronavirus pandemic recedes, we’re able to actually move about again. Transportation is changing around the world, thanks to new breakthrough technologies that promise to revolutionize the way we travel.

Whether it’s planes, trains, or automobiles, here are some of the key trends shaping the present — and future — of transport as we know it.

Autonomous vehicles

When you talk about the future of mobility, no piece of technology better sums up expectations than autonomous vehicles. Dismissed by experts as an impossibility less than two decades ago, self-driving cars have today driven tens of millions of miles, much of it on public roads. Big players in this space are split between tech companies like Alphabet (through its Waymo division) and China’s Baidu and traditional automotive companies like General Motors and BMW. Some firms, like Tesla, are a blend of the two.

A Waymo One autonomous car drives under a bridge.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Fully autonomous self-driving cars are still not for sale, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that interest or research has cooled off. Self-driving vehicles are a challenge for a number of reasons: Technologically, in terms of social acceptance, and from a regulatory perspective. While some evangelists who thought these problems would have been solved by now are having to revise their optimism, things are clearly headed in the right direction — even if there have certainly been some setbacks along the way.

It’s all about electrification

Rising customer demand and increased government emphasis and regulation have meant electrification has gained considerable momentum over the past few years. Don’t expect that to slow down, either. According to the World Economic Forum, electric car registrations increased 41% in 2020 despite a 16% decline in overall car sales across the world. The ramping up of EVs can be seen in the United States, Europe, and China, the three biggest car markets globally — with China remaining the leading EV market.

An electric vehicle plugged into a garage outlet.

In a world increasingly focused on sustainability, mass adoption of electric vehicles could potentially cut emissions around the world by more than one third by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). In total, there are more than 11 million electric vehicles registered on the road, roughly equivalent to the populations of New York and Los Angeles combined.

With countries including Sweden and Israel testing custom roads that charge vehicles’ batteries as they drive over them, the process of charging electric vehicles should get easier, too. That would be a major bottleneck solved.

In-car technologies

A.I. is making the way cars get around smarter, but so too is the in-car experience changing. And not just because the dashboard now increasingly features gorgeous Tesla-style tablets. Affective computing company Affectiva is one of several companies working on in-cabin sensing to analyze what is happening inside the vehicle. That could mean using cameras and sensors to detect when a driver is tired or distracted, alerting if a child is left behind, or simply analyzing who is in the car and offering up personalized entertainment accordingly.

Mockup of how augmented reality in a car might look.

Meanwhile, companies like Envisics are building headset-free, in-car holography systems that can give drivers augmented reality HUD tech on their windshield that compares to the technology usually found in fighter jets or commercial aircraft. Innovations such as this can provide contextual information about the road during journeys.

A recent crowdsourced, lidar-based research project adds another twist on this by promising to give every car on the road X-ray vision. Until fully autonomous cars are widespread (and, even then, for entertainment reasons) this technology will help define the future of road vehicles. Not that every vehicle is to be found on the road, of course.

Flying cars

Flying cars have been promised for decades — to the point that their mythical status was the subject of an hilarious (and, language-wise, NSFW) short film by Clerks director Kevin Smith. But here in 2021, they’re certainly not quite as science fiction as they once were.

A drone-based flying taxi in midair.

The New York Times has likened the rise (no pun intended) of flying car startups to the trajectory of autonomous vehicles, “from the enormous ambition to the multi-billion-dollar investments to the cutthroat corporate competition, including a high-profile lawsuit alleging intellectual property theft. It also recreates the enormous hype.” This hype, and some impressive technological advances, mean that they’re now raking in no shortage of capital from enthusiastic investors.

Bloomberg recently reported on how “airlines plan to plow billions into flying taxis.” For a glimpse at some of the big names and most exciting projects in this space, check out our roundup here.

Other futuristic forms of transport

It’s not just private forms of transport that are experiencing a revolution right now. Shared forms of mass transportation are also undergoing a shakeup — whether it’s the next generation of supersonic jet, giant 40-seat drone buses, or even Elon Musk’s bold claim that Space X’s Starship could shuttle passengers between any two cities on the planet in less than an hour.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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