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Flying taxis and Ireland's own 'supersonic' train: The future of public transport

Hyperloop pods could cover the Dublin to Cork route in 15 minutes flat.

Image: DPA/PA Images

The way we live is changing fast. Every fortnight in our new Future Focus series, supported by Volkswagen, we’ll look at how one aspect of everyday life could change in the coming years. This week: public transport.

‘ROADS? WHERE WE’RE going, we don’t need roads.’

When 2015 rolled around and hoverboards or flying cars still weren’t the transport norm, we scoffed that Back to the Future II had gotten it all wrong.

But three years later, Doc Browne’s assertion isn’t all that far away from the truth. Right now, you can put a deposit down for a PAL-V Liberty Pioneer Edition – otherwise known as a flying car.

The three-wheeled PAL-V Liberty can reach speeds of 160kmh on the ground and 180kmh in the sky. The Pioneer Edition will set you back €499,000, and the Sport Edition, which will be released at a later date, will cost a mere €299,000.

The first set of keys for the PAL-V, the world’s first commercially available flying car, will be handed over in 2019. It’s not quite as soon as Back to the Future predicted, but it seems like we’re on the way.

For the PAL-V Liberty you’ll need a pilot’s licence as well as a driver’s licence, but it’s not the only flying car in production.

Chinese-owned manufacturer Terrafugia, based in Massachusetts, has two flying cars in the pipeline for the coming years. The second of two, the TFX, is expected to fly autonomously – meaning you won’t need more than a driver’s licence to soar through the sky.

So, perhaps Doc wasn’t wrong. But while flying cars will fulfil the childhood dreams of many, their high price point means they’ll probably continue as the toys of the very wealthy, rather than becoming a daily mode of transport.

For those of us without a few hundred thousand euro in the bank, there are plenty of changes ahead in the world of public transport too.

Flying taxis are expected to be tested by Uber from 2020 and launched commercially from 2023. They’ll fly passengers from rooftop to rooftop in cities, avoiding the ground entirely.

Uber has signed a deal with none other than NASA to develop its 200mph electric aircraft for trial in three selected cities worldwide. By the time LA hosts the 2028 Olympics, flying Ubers are expected to be fully operational there.

Dubai is another one of Uber’s trial locations, but the city has already made significant inroads into a self-flying taxi service with German start-up Volocopter.

Volocopter VC200 The two-seater Volocopter VC200 drone in action in Germany in 2016. Source: DPA/PA Images

Back in September, Volocopter began trials with its two-seater vehicle, the Volocopter 2X, in the city.

The trials will continue for five years, and by 2030, it’s hoped autonomous vehicles will handle a quarter of all journeys in Dubai.

As for busses, while a flying commute home is a fair way off yet, driverless busses on the ground are already becoming the standard in locations around the world.

Self-driving buses have been running since 2016 on a pedestrianised route in Sion, Switzerland, and in the last few weeks they have begun to navigate regular traffic too.

In parts of the US and Europe, university students can ‘hail’ a driverless minibus via app to ferry them around campus. Olli busses are 3D-printed too, meaning manufacturing costs are low, and labour hours even lower.

Test run of driverless mini bus 'Olli' An Olli test run in Berlin, Germany in 2016. Source: DPA/PA Images

But if you want to go full-on Futurama, possibly the most revolutionary form of public transport in our future is hyperloop, which first came into public imagination when Elon Musk issued a white paper on the subject in 2012.

Hyperloop is a theoretical (for now) transportation system made up of pods which travel through underground tunnels. Using magnetic accelerators in a low-pressure tube, hyperloop pods can move at the speed of sound, meaning that a journey from Dublin to Cork would take less than fifteen minutes.

CA: Corporations in California A Hyperloop test track at the SpaceX HQ in Hawthorne, California. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Since Musk’s paper, businesses have been working on turning the idea into a reality. Hardt Global Mobility is aiming to build a hyperloop between Amsterdam and Paris by 2021 – a very lofty aim.

Here in Ireland, we have some skin in the game too. In February of this year, Team Éirloop beat around 700 entrants to reach the final 20 in Elon Musk’s annual Hyperloop Pod Student Competition.

Made up of students from colleges all over the country, Team Éirloop members will travel to California in July 2018 to show off their invention.

“Our pod will go at 540kmh. It’s faster than the fastest Formula One cars and it’s coming from Ireland,” says Akhil Voorakkara, spokesperson and head of electronics for Éirloop.

“It’s not just about doing something really cool, it’s about showing the world that Ireland is… a real force for the future.”

eirloop Part of Team Eirloop's prototype vision. Source: Facebook/Team Eirloop

Team Éirloop members are currently fundraising to buy parts for their pod, and to transport both it and themselves to California.

Could hyperloop ever be a realistic transport model for Ireland, though? “We do understand how long it takes for countries and governments to make this kind of stuff happen,” says Voorakkara.

“We’ve got our pod planned so that despite being a prototype, it will be able to transport cargo. We see this as a realistic application for Ireland in the near enough future… We might not be the first country to get it, but we’re definitely going to get it.”

If Voorakkara’s prediction sounds unrealistic, it’s worth noting that the company working on the Paris to Amsterdam hyperloop system is a former winner of the same SpaceX contest.

With that in mind, it was no doubt somewhat disappointing for future-focused types like Voorakkara to read the Ireland 2040 plans and see no mention of hyperlood. Instead, the big reveal for public transport was merely a metro service which other European countries have had for decades.

Where Ireland is going, we’ll definitely need roads, for the time being at least. But if the enthusiasm of Team Éirloop is anything to go by, Ireland’s public transport will be leading at least some of the advances into the future.

To donate to Team Éirloop, see www.gofundme.com/eirloop or see www.eirloop.ie

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About the author:

Gráinne Loughran

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