Science

Starship land rocket, supersonic aircraft, Hyperoloop… Where are the transports of the future?

Connect any point on Earth in less than an hour within five years. Not content with pushing the boundaries of space exploration, Elon Musk’s aerospace company SpaceX also intends to revolutionize ground transportation with intercontinental rocket flights capable of ferrying a hundred people from one end of the planet to the other in record time.

The concept is dizzying: after taking off vertically from an offshore launch pad, a rocket must leave Earth’s atmosphere before re-entering it to land gently, still vertically. Announced five years ago, the project mobilizes the famed reusable Starship rocket, whose first horizons currently remain the Moon and Mars.

In response to an RTL question in mid-September, SpaceX wanted to reassure us of the medium-term feasibility of the project. But the project is still shrouded in mystery. Ticket prices aside, the acceptability of these elite flights, which require more effort than current long-haul flights, is far from certain in a time of calls for energy sobriety.

Supersonic aircraft still on the ground

The environmental imperative also aims to put lead in the wing of supersonic aircraft. Fifteen years after the last flight of the Concorde, several aerospace players took it into their heads to give a descendant to a “white bird” capable of crossing the Atlantic in less than an hour and correcting the main shortcomings of the illustrious liner, namely its lack of profitability, its environmental impact and noise pollution. created on takeoff when breaking the sound barrier.

Projects have swelled in recent years, such as Stargazer, which can spin in the air at over 10,000 km/h, or Venus Aerospace, which promises to cut the time it takes to connect Tokyo and Los Angeles by a factor of ten. NASA and Boeing are also involved in the project, as are China and the British government.

Industry players hope to combine speed and carbon neutrality by using alternative fuels. But that proposal seems increasingly untenable as the aviation industry as a whole strives to become more sustainable. Due to these headwinds, engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce also recently abandoned one of the most iconic projects in the sector, the Boom Supersonic project, which is now considered too risky.

Hyperloop is still a mirage

Another technology dream that has leaked a lot of ink in recent years, Hyperloop promises to replace air travel with land travel that is almost as fast and more environmentally friendly in favor of capsules traveling at over 1,000 km/h in vacuumed steel tubes. perched on pylons. Made famous by Elon Musk in 2013, who imagined he could connect San Francisco to Los Angeles in half an hour this way, the concept has been taken up by several companies trying to make it a reality. But progress is still limited as technical and financial challenges remain numerous.

If billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop was one of the first to conduct full-scale tests at speeds of almost 400 km / h in the Nevada desert, and then began transporting passengers, now it is back, refocusing its activities on cargo transportation. Very active in this direction, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (Hyperloop TT) has secured agreements around the world, including the opening of a line between Venice and Padua for the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy.

In Canada, TransPod recently raised over half a billion dollars to build a line linking Calgary and Edmonton. But his project for a French test site in Upper Vienna has yet to see the light of day. Four years after he set his sights on a site several kilometers away at the gates of Limoges to experiment and test the technology, work has still not begun. However, the company assures RTL that it is still aiming for a summer 2023 opening.

Air taxis at the 2024 Olympics?

Expected for several years to relieve congested cities and say goodbye to pollution and noise, “flying cars”, the old cinematic fantasy, is still far from reality. Dozens of VTOL prototypes — electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft capable of freeing themselves from existing runways to meet the challenges of urban centers — are being developed around the world in anticipation of a multi-billion dollar market that has already been consumed by its many exits that go beyond simple transport of people, the logistics of the last kilometer when passing through sanitation, without forgetting about supervision or assistance.

In France, the ambition of this new air mobility is centered around the Pontoise airfield, where Aéroport de Paris, RATP and the Île-de-France region have met dozens of manufacturers, engine manufacturers and equipment manufacturers over the past two years. “vertiport” to facilitate experimentation, future approvals and create new special rules while working on the social acceptability of this new mode of transport. Ahead of the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, these flying taxis will be able to make their first demonstration flights to the general public. The actual deployment of urban air mobility is not expected until the end of the decade, or even by 2040 for unmanned aerial vehicles.

Self-driving car waiting in the wings

The prospect of cars driving on the roads themselves no longer seems imminent. The autonomous vehicle frenzy has waned a bit since the mid-2010s’ enthusiastic predictions, but manufacturers continue to develop in parallel with regulatory developments.

For several days in France, you can drive a car without holding your hands behind the wheel. The regulation allowing the driving of Level 3 autonomous vehicles went into effect in early September. However, autonomy is still conditional, since the automated driving system must be able to deactivate at any time, taking over control, and the speed is limited to 60 km / h. And very relatively: not a single car of this type is sold on the territory. So far, only Mercedes has approved cars with this level of autonomy in Europe. And Honda in Japan. Tesla or the French manufacturers have not yet been agreed. The Stellantis group (Citroën, Peugeot, Fiat and Jeep) intends to release its first system of this kind within two years.

The pursuit of the last two levels, full autonomy, when the presence of the operator on board is no longer required, is an even more distant horizon, especially aimed at shared mobility operators such as Waymo (Google), Lyft or the French Navya. to be able to offer fleets of robot taxis and autonomous shuttles in the coming years.

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