Tech in Sight

Three ways to move people - fast, faster, fastest

Photo: General Motors

Here we are in the future, yet we’re still wasting time stuck in traffic and trussed in a pressurized cabin for long hours in flight. For the speed boost that was promised us in so many futuristic movies, look to these three technologies.

Segway/General Motors EN-V

The Segway Personal Transporter was billed as revolutionary, but you still don’t see lots of people riding to work on them. The commuter version of the machine has a top speed of 20 kilometers per hour (12.5 miles per hour), faster than walking, but still too slow to get you across town. So how about making the Segway more like, um, a car? The scooter maker collaborated with General Motors to design a concept vehicle called EN-V, for electric networked-vehicle. This two-person vehicle uses a Segway-like drivetrain, but it can achieve twice the speed: 40 km/h (25 mph). Oh, and it has a roof, so rain won’t be a problem.

Photo: Reuters

China Railways Wuhan-Guangzhou Train

The world’s fastest rail line, the new China Railways Wuhan-Guangzhou service, opens this year. The Hexie Hao, or Harmony Express, reaches 350 km/h (217 mph), beating the current record speed of 320 km/h set by France’s TGV. In a trial run, the Chinese train reached nearly 400 km/h (250 mph)—faster than a Formula 1 racing car. The service will cover the 1000-km route between Wuhan and Guangzhou in 3 hours, a journey that takes half a day by car or regular rail. The Harmony Express is part of China’s massive rail effort, which aims to build 30 000 km of railways in the next five years.

Illustration: Boeing

Boeing X-51 Hypersonic Aircraft

Imagine boarding a plane in New York City and stepping out just 3 hours later in Sydney—a trip that would normally take an entire day. A supersonic aircraft flying at 10 times the speed of sound—Mach 10—could do it, but as the demise of the Concorde showed, the economics of supersonic travel are no breeze. Still, there’s hope. Sometime this year, the X-51, developed by a consortium that includes the U.S. Air Force, NASA, and Boeing, will test its air-breathing scramjet—or supersonic combustion ramjet—engine to achieve Mach 7, which is 10 times as fast as a conventional airliner. Unfortunately, the missile-shaped X-51 is still more like a missile than an airplane: After this flight it will plunge into the ocean. So wannabe hypersonic travelers will have to wait for a future model.

About the Author

Erico Guizzo, associate editor at IEEE Spectrum, has a particular interest in robots, which he covers in his blog, Automaton

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