Hyperloops, supersonic jets and electric planes: this is what transportation could look like in 2050

Detroit, Michigan (CNN) It is home to Henry Ford and the first moving assembly line, rightfully earning the nickname ‘Motor City’. Known worldwide as a leader in transportation innovation, Detroit, Michigan has put the world on wheels, says Alisyn Malek, an urban mobility expert and native of the city.

It is these past inventions that could help inform the future and pave the way for new scalable and accessible modes of transportation – which will look very different from what started rolling off Ford’s assembly line more than a century ago.

Transport is one of the largest contributors to carbon production, responsible for about 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions. As urban planners look to the future, many are focused on sustainability, including a shift away from traditional gas-powered vehicles.

As the general manager of Newlab Detroit, a global mobility innovation hub, Malek is part of a team that brings together diverse expertise to create transportation solutions.

CNN recently spoke to Malek about what travel will look like in 2050.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CNN: What are some of the main pillars of mobility?

Malek: Some of the main pillars that are really critical to being successful are accessibility. How easy are the mobility solutions to reach? How often do the services run? Which areas are covered? Can people really get where they need to go or can their goods be brought to them easily? It really ensures that everyone has a few options. And when we look to the future, we also have to think about sustainable transport.

CNN: How do you envision people moving from A to B in 2050?

Malek: When I think about 2050 and how we’re going to move, what I’m most excited about is the variety of options we’re going to have at that point. People will still ride bikes, people will still take buses — but really it’s about being able to choose the best option for the journey they had to take.

When I think about 2050 and the types of technologies that can be used in transportation, I think we’ll see iterations of things we’re already seeing today, like electrification. And I think we’ll see other new technologies emerge. But most importantly, they find an opportunity that aligns with a business need.

CNN: We’re already seeing autonomous vehicles being tested in parts of the world. Where do you see this technology in 2050?

Malek: A lot of what we hear in the news today about autonomous cars is a system that is largely self-driving. It uses sensors to look around the vehicle and then it has special computers on board to record basic map information and figure out how to get from point A to point B. Those technologies are being tested and developed, and I think it’s very exciting to see the progress.

But as we look to 2050, I think we’ll really see this technology take off in the commercial space, where you have shorter trips. When we think about being able to drive in any city, any dirt road, any county road, that’s a lot to try and validate. And so if we think about where to scale these options first, it’s going to be in these simpler areas. In some cities, it may look like transportation from an airport to a city center, so your next taxi or Lyft ride may be self-contained.

CNN: What is your impression of eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft or air taxis?

Malek: The technology is definitely there. It functions. We need to make sure it’s safe and verified and really validated in the same way airplanes are. When you think about passenger transport in new forms, the bar is much higher in terms of safety that has to be met. And that’s part of the work that’s being done now. But I think we’ll see more eVTOL use in freight traffic over the next 20 years.

In November 2022, Volocopter successfully flew a crewed mission of its all-electric eVOTL air taxi in normal air traffic conditions in Paris (pictured).

CNN: Will we see a hyperloop network (high-speed pods traveling in tubes) become operational by 2050?

Malek: Hyperloop as a technology is very interesting. The idea is that you reduce things like drag and friction to move efficiently. When you think about making hyperloop a reality, you have to start thinking about how to build out that infrastructure, how to make it accessible, how to match it with a business case and how to make sure it can withstand change . And so when we look at the future possibility for hyperloop, it’s not, ‘is the technology ready?’ I’d say it’s there. It’s really about whether the infrastructure is ready and how we adopt and deploy it.

CNN: Do you think supersonic air travel will return to the skies?

Malek: So we’ve seen supersonic planes in the past and I think we’ll see supersonic planes in the future. When we think about the progress and also the increase in global travel, I think there is a demand. What has changed since the 2000s, when we saw this before, is a push towards sustainability. So now it’s no longer just a question of whether we’ll see supersonic aircraft, but will they be powered by net zero-carbon fuels? And I think that really should be a critical part of the conversation as we look at that opportunity going forward.

When we think of short-term land-only flights, you usually don’t use a supersonic jet because with the boom you hit a lot of people under the plane, so it becomes a lot of cross-ocean type flights. And then when you cross country, move people to rail as we see happening in France, or help people find electrical connector options — maybe it’s eVTOL, maybe it’s an electric regional jet — but really looking at a variety of options to connect to that final destination.

CNN: What are your expectations for the future of transportation?

Malek: When I think about my hopes and dreams for the future of transportation, it’s really that we focus on the broadest sense of what we, as people, need from our transportation systems, starting with that as our organizing principle. Historically, we started with ‘what do cars need, what do planes need?’ But planes and cars are only for us.

And as I look to the future, it’s not necessarily one technology, but really this philosophy: how we use different solutions that are right sized for the kind of work they’re trying to serve.






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