In a relentless drive to render walking completely obsolete, elevators are about to get a major upgrade: the ability to go sideways, thanks to magnetic levitation technology. German industrial behemoth ThyssenKrupp is promising that two-axis travel (“the holy grail of the elevator industry”) will revolutionize intra-building travel, and that they’ll have it operational in 2016.
Elevators travel up and down. That’s what they do. They do it because they move by being hoisted and lowered on cables from the very top of whatever building they inhabit. It’s not particularly efficient, because you put a lot of energy into lifting the cables that the elevator is attached to, and it’s not particularly versatile, because the cable restricts your potential directions of movement.
To solve both of these problems at once, you need a completely new non-cable propulsion system for your elevator. Something futuristic, like whatever it is that propels the turbolifts on Star Trek. As it turns out, Star Trek turbolifts are powered by linear induction motors: they’re little maglev capsules. And as we all know, Star Trek turbolifts can travel in any direction you like. ThyssenKrupp stole this idea from science fiction, and they’re making it happen with their MULTI elevator technology:
MULTI will be more energy efficient than traditional cable elevators, and by running multiple cabins moving in a loop at up to 5 m/s, the maglev elevators will be able to carry 50 percent more people while reducing wait times to between 15 and 30 seconds. The shafts themselves will also be about half the size of elevator shafts that rely on cables, which means more room for developers to put in something useful, like even more elevators.
While the concept video shows elevators moving sideways across floors, as far as we can tell, the initial proof of concept implementation will only involve sideways movement at the top and bottom of the loop: no true turbolifts yet, although the technology will be there. ThyssenKrupp says that they’re having a prototype installed in a 240-meter tower now being built in Rottweil, Germany, that will be open to the public in 2016.
We’re expecting that the next holy grail of the elevator industry will be z-axis travel, followed by elevators that can travel in the w-axis, bypassing classic Euclidean space and leaving passengers very, very confused.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.