Where's my hoverboard? 8 techie transit innovations

Where's my hoverboard? 8 techie transit innovations

Back to the future hoverboard and 2015 transportation innovation
FlickrJD Hancock
We may not have "Back to the Future's" version of futuristic transportation, but innovations from solar roadways to self-driving cars are in the works.

Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 prediction for a hypothetical 2015, as seen in "Back to the Future Part II," has become a cultural touchstone for the way we imagine what “future” transportation will look like — flying DeLoreans, skyways and, of course, hoverboards.

Although we haven’t unlocked the secret to anti-gravity, there are several transportation innovations we either already do or will soon will widely enjoy that would make even Marty McFly jealous.

Here are some of the best, from vehicles already combing the streets to those still in the R&D pipeline:

1. Plug-in electric vehicles

The first electric vehicles (EVs) date back to the 19th century, but today they are finally making their way to the mainstream. EVs make up more than 3 percent of new vehicle sales, and could to grow to nearly 7 percent — or 6.6 million per year — worldwide by 2020, according to a 2013 report (PDF) by Navigant Research.

Over the past four years, EV battery prices have fallen by 40 percent, and Tesla believes that its “gigafactory” will drive prices down 30 percent more by 2017 or sooner. This could lead to EVs' becoming cost competitive with more conventional vehicles in the early 2020s — as predicted by the Department of Energy.

2. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles

EVs may steal the clean car spotlight, but hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have more than three times the standard EV range, can be refueled in minutes rather than hours and look and handle more like traditional cars. However, a checken-egg problem persists: To reach scale there need to be enough hydrogen fueling stations, but those won’t be built until more people start driving hydrogen cars.

Luckily, California Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013 signed a law that provides $20 million a year to build at least 100 hydrogen refueling stations in California by 2024. In addition, Toyota recently announced it will begin selling its Mirai fuel cell car in late 2015. Several other large car manufacturers, including Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes, also plan to commercialize hydrogen cars by the end of 2017.

3. Solar roadways

The concept initially may sound even more sci-fi than skyways, but a company called Solar Roadways has developed a modular paving system for solar panels that can be installed on roads, parking lots, driveways, sidewalks, bike paths and playgrounds.

The surfaces pay for themselves primarily through the generation of electricity, which can power homes and businesses connected via driveways and parking lots (assuming pesky grid integration challenges can be overcome). The company claims a nationwide system could produce more renewable energy than the U.S. uses as a whole, also potentially allowing EVs to charge with solar energy from parking lots and driveways thanks to mutual induction technology to facilitate charging while driving.

4. Autonomous vehicles (self-driving cars)

Even the flying cars of Zemeckis’ future required drivers, but our ground-loving ones won’t. Currently being developed by the likes of Google, Tesla, Nissan, General Motors and Ford, driverless cars use a large and complex camera and sensor systems mounted on the roof to navigate the road sans homo sapiens.

Although massive regulatory and safety testing challenges are still to come, automakers and tech companies insist these cars have the potential to be safer than cars on the road today while also allowing people to work or relax during a trip. However, if the robotic devices were to become self-aware, that might be another story...

5. Bike share programs

This might not seem so high tech, but bike share programs are helpful in city environments where it may make more sense to simply bike to a destination rather than to drive. They work like this: Several stations are placed throughout a municipality and people pay a small fee to take a bike and ride it to another station.

It doesn’t get much more eco-friendly than this, considering bikes produce no harmful emissions — and it’s cheap and healthy, to boot. Granted, biking might not be a realistic option when going long distances, and inventory management in busy areas can prove to be a challenge in crowded urban areas.

6. Transportation network companies

In 1985, it would have seemed ill-advised to hop in a car with a total stranger to get around town. But today, transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Lyft, Uber and Sidecar allow us to do it all the time.

Made possible by the spread of smartphones and advances in information technology, TNCs are changing how we get from Point A to Point B — although they, too, still have much to work out in the way of safety, labor policies and legality.

7. Maglev trains

Locomotives that levitate — it doesn’t get much more futuristic (or awesome) than that, and we already have them. These trains run on magnetized tracks, which create force to propel themselves upward and forward at high speeds.

In addition to being faster than traditional trains, Maglev trains are also cheaper to operate and more eco-friendly because they consume a relatively small amount of fuel. Maglev trains are already in operation in Germany and China, and may become the norm for rail travel by 2030.

8. Flying cars and hoverboards

Maybe we shouldn't be so hard on ourselves after all — technically, we have developed cars that fly and boards that hover. Two of the most promising flying car prototypes come from the American firm Terrafugia and Slovak company AeroMobil.

Terrafugia’s TF-X is a plug-in hybrid tilt-rotor vehicle that would be the first fully autonomous flying car. It sports a range of 500 miles per flight and batteries that can be recharged by the engine. Late last year, AeroMobil presented the latest version of its flying car — powered by a 100-horsepower, four-cylinder Rotax engine, it has a top flight speed of 100 mph and a range of up to 500 miles.

To be fair, both prototypes are more like miniaturized airplanes than bona fide flying cars. They're also too expensive (not to mention impractical and dangerous) to ever become mainstream.

As for the hoverboard, a Californian startup called Hendo Hoverboards claims to have developed a working prototype. However, the battery only lasts seven minutes, it will float only over smooth metal and it costs $10,000. Still, the company recently raised more than $500,000 on Kickstarter to get the boards off the ground.