Saturday, 7 February 2015

SF Technology: Transport in a Future World

Yes, I want one too.
Is that a plane?  No, its...

   What will the future actually be be like?(since in most cases SF = future)  Although Hollywood assures us that the cars will be faster and the women wear less very little effort is ever spent on what life will actually be like in a hard SF or futuristic world.  One aspect that gets little attention is transport.  Of course, there are almost always flashy spaceships, but these are hardly the vehicle for getting to the office early Monday morning.  To design a transport system for a 'Verse it is necessary to understand two aspects; the technical and the infrastructure.  I'm not really qualified to talk about the latter - the organisation and needs of a railway system, for example - as I am about the actual technology, so I'll focus on that.  There is one aspect however, that while not strictly technological, I will explore; the factors that shape the nature of a transportation system.  Then I'll look at several SF transport systems, or variations of the systems we have now, and look at how they might be used or justified.

Inertia & Change

   Society, like everything else, resists change.  The universe as a whole seems perfectly content to potter along just as it is, and as a result is the annoying and sometimes disastrous phenomenon of Technological or Societal Inertia.  Or, as it is often stated; 'if its not broken don't fix it'.  Of course, this reluctance among society to change often has undesirable consequences, delaying the dissemination of better ethics, economics, medicine, politics, etc.  And, perhaps surprisingly, technology.  Sometimes it is not even a conscious resistance an may be the effect of purely economic considerations.  
   For example; train tracks.  Long ago the Romans built bridges based on the width of their chariots, so that they would fit easily through the arches.  Thus, hundreds of years later, when train tracks were built all over England, they had to be built to fit the same dimensions, or be unable to use the existing infrastructure.  This problem continues today.  Maglev or ground effect trains would be much more common if their use did not require substantial modification of existing tracks, tunnels, etc.  
   The same is true with any system, and brings up an interesting point.  In a newly colonised world, a terraformed Mars, for example, this could be avoided.  As there is no existing infrastructure, it would make sense to go the whole hog and build the best system, rather than the one that meshes most easily with what was being used before.  So while Earth may always use physical train tracks, Mars or a planetary colony could have maglev as the norm.  This should be kept in mind when world building; why are things the way they are?  If you give this some thought your 'Verse will be all the better for it.

Advanced Transport

Sub-Orbital Transport

   Although currently the realm of space enteprenures and of billionares, sub-orbital flight offers intriguing possablities for rapid, long distance transport of people and/or high value cargoes.  Even with hypersonic aircraft - which may or may not ever proove feasable - travelling from one continent to the next is a long and tiring journy.  Even crossing a country such as America in an airliner is an experiance few would hesitate to avoid.  A sub-orbital transport, whether ballistic or aerodynamic, can cut tirp times drastically.  A long-impulse ballistic flight from Europe to America could take as little as half an hour.
   Cost is likly to be the single biggest factor preventing the use of such a system for a long while to come; if it was economical, I have no doubt but that the rich and powerful would travel in suborbital rockets, using them as the ultimate 'exeutive jet.'  But as propulsion and materials technology improoves the cost comes down, and it is only a matter of time untill it is possable.  The other biggest drawback is the effort involved.  The craft, if ballistic is going to be around the size of a smallish surface-to-LEO transport - although with proportionally bigger payload - and will need a lot of fuel.  This problem is most easily solved in a setting with plentiful electric power - simply electrolise water and pump it stright into the tanks as hydrogen and oxygen rather than storing large amounts of volatiles.
   It is alos important to keep the history and background of your 'Verse in mind.  A recently colonised planet, for example, might not have the expertise or resources to build aircraft.  But if they have ISRU plants to produce rocket fuel, and have a lander, they have examples from which to copy.  Thus on a colony world rockets might be more common than aircraft on long-haul flights, exepting those with massive cargoes.  And on Mars, with its thinner atmosphere, aerodynamic flight may not even be possable, not to mention totally airless worlds. 

Cars & Trucks & Things that Go

   Land transport in the real world is pretty much dominated by cars, and not only that, but cars that all follow the same basic design.  Four wheels, IC engine, load-bearing frame, aerodynamic shell, etc.  Only recently, with growing concerns over ecological impact, sustainability, and energy cost, have newer or alternative technologies to land transport been considered.  Solar power, fuel cells, hydrogen, bio-fuel, there are a plethora of emerging power sources, along with composites for construction and computer for navigation and safty.  But all these still feed into the four wheel design philosophy, and to add a little zest to a SF 'Verse authors may resort to more radical designs.
   For a newly colonised or resource scarce world hovercraft are a good option, able to travel over land or sea at high speed.  Similarly ground effect vehicles are spectacular but proven technology, as anyone who has seen this will know.  Both hovercraft and wing-in-ground effect craft have the advantage of much greater payloads than conventional aircraft, while being far faster than any surface vessel.  One with nuclear power could provide rapid transport over wide stretches of ocean or open land, and in the case of the hovercraft, need no expense runway or mooring area.
   But even without going to these extremes you can fill your 'Verse with advanced vehicles unlikely to be widespread anytime soon.  Cars with radioisotopic powered motors, for example, will never become legal on Earth, but might be acceptable in another culture or time, and would have unlimited range.  Some artists have shown variable geometry cars in concept art, able to swivel upright and park in a third of the space of a conventional car, handy in the crowded megatropolis of the future.  Cars without windows, but with the entire inside surface a HD colour screen could be more aerodynamic, crash-resistant, offer better views and more privacy.  Two wheeled cars that balance precariously like a segway may look alarming, but might offer a turn of speed and manoeuvrability that police or armed forces could befit from.  In fact, SF-ifying the cars of your 'Verse could be one of the easiest ways of planting it firmly in the future, as well as indicating the technology of the cultures and civilisations.

Ocean Transport

   Ocean transport might seem at first to be a dead end for the SF writer, after all, not much has changed in the design of ships since the adoption of the diesel engine, and the design, like that of passenger jets, is perfectly optimised.  For greater efficiency a new design must be employed, but given the economics of shipping there is no real push to develop new technologies compared to the aerospace market.   Wave piercing, the use of turbine engines and water jets, are three newer features, but hardly SF.  Submarines offer some possibilities, though.  Say, a fast transport submarine, design to shuttle men from the fish farms at the edge of the continental shelf.  It is super-cavitiating, exceeding the speed of sound in water, and uses a nuclear thermal 'ramjet' with water as the working fluid.  You don't get much more cool than that.  Although somewhat off topic, the American military came up with this, the Cormorant submarine launched arial drone, which is pretty cool.

NASA's aptly named Puffin, one of many designs unlikely
 to get of the ground
Personal Aircraft

   Personal aircraft are a fascinating idea that never seems to die, despite its current flaws.  A personal aircraft of the kind I'm talking about is a single person vehicle designed for transport or recreation, a kind of areal motorbike.  NASA's concept, the Puffin, is typical.  A VTOL, single person, electric craft that would be perfect for a joyride or reducing the time spent commuting.  The problems with this, and with all of its kind, are technical.  Stronger lighter materials are needed for crash resistance and small size, better engines for longer flights and higher speeds, better pilot augmentation electronics - again for safety.  Also considered within this category are other, even more unlikely, devices; jetpacks and fan-packs.  The former needs no explanation, and the second little, it is merely a pair of ducted fans fastened to a harness.  Once again the problem is largely that of finding an engine with sufficient power, yet with small enough fuel use to give a viable flight time.  SF materials and power sources will be a saving boon, and all kinds of personal aircraft could have a myriad of uses on a low-gravity world, especially one with a dense atmosphere, or inside of a 'macrolife' type asteroid habitat with less than one G of apparent gravity.  Inside spaceships and space stations with atmosphere but no apparent gravity, small but powerful fan packs could be used my police, military, or emergency services to move quickly.

Flying Cars

   Like fusion power, flying cars have been five years away for the last twenty years.  However, unlike fusion, they seem achievable even with todays technology.  There are two kinds of flying cars; cars that can fly with either fold out or attachable wings, and light aircraft that fill the same transport niche as cars.  I see no real purpose in the former, other than as a plaything for the very rich.  But there is little doubt of their 'cool' factor, and as such are a great addition in a SF setting, especially as the choice transport for the 'upper class' o the setting.  The other kind - light VTOL aircraft - have many applications.  Usually seen as VTOL, easy to fly, and without large exposed rotors, they are perfect for use within cities as transport for anyone, including the military, police, and emergency services.  Like Personal Aircraft, they will benefit from better propulsion, materials, and electronics.  The latter is vital, for while I personally think it unlikely that all cars will be one day self-driven, for a metropolis with heavy air traffic, this may be the only safe option.  With advances in AI, using a flying car could be merely a matter of stating the required destination.  There are far too many possible designs to discuss in this post, but I will try to look at the possibilities in a blogpost specifically on flying cars at some later date.

Self-Driving Vehicles

   Self driving vehicles are yet another SF technology rapidly becoming reality.  There are many groups actively working on the technical problems involved in such vehicles, and I have no doubts but that a self driving car will soon be perfected.  Aircraft, watercraft, and spacecraft are more complexed, and operate in a more dangerous environment, but they too will be fully autonomous in time.  However, with private vehicles, the change over is likely to be slow, as people struggle with a mistrust of machines.  It seems likely, too, that the first cars of that kind will be expensive, and all will be able to be controlled manually as well as autonomously.  In larger vehicles, such as passenger aircraft, even when the craft is itself capable of operation without human input, there is likely to be one human to make high-level decisions in an emergency, acting as an exterior judge of the system and increasing safety, and to take legal responsibility of the vehicle.  With spacecraft it is likely that the crew of even a large vessel might be almost all in roles that deal with passengers or crew, with only one qualified 'space pilot'.

Really SF
   For those that want a truly SF transport system all that is needed is a little imagination - or an internet connection.  For example, a high speed 'train'.  The 'track' is a metal tube filled with rarefied atmosphere, the train is a hypersonic aircraft, sans wings, that supports itself in the tunnel via superconducting magnets that interact with conductive tube.  Powered with a hydrogen scramjet the vehicle reaches speeds of around Mach, and unlike a hypersonic aircraft, has no problem with sonic boom, runways, or bad weather.

   Or for another application, aboard a large zero-g spacecraft or habitat, is an idea that comes from - by memory - Arthur C. Clark.  Along each wall is a moving strip with handholds attached.  You simply catch hold of the hand, and you are pulled along with far less effort than needed to move a long distance in zero-g, which, while it does not require much physical exertion, does need no small amount of practice to move swiftly.  This could be combined with a colour coded system like that used in the Battle School of the Ender's Game books, a ideal system for transporting soldiers or civilians from one spacecraft to another on a unfamiliar space station.


  1. What about the transports in Heinlein's "The Cat Who Walks Through Walls" where a passenger cabin is propelled to orbital speed using magnets and then decelerated at the other end? The tunnel would have to be in a vacuum, and there would be very little losses.

    1. I had forgotten about that. There was also one used as a train in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

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