Back To The Future, Please

Car Graphic

The 2010 bore a strong family resemblance to any prior BMW, but the sleek looks seemed more functional, like a land-speed record car. I checked my wrist calendar for the third time that morning. My appointment in Chicago was for noon today; New York time now 8 AM. I suppressed a reflex anxiety; I was still used to worrying about the hassle that air travel used to involve. The car door hissed shut as the automatic harnesses positioned themselves around hips and shoulders. The handprint analyzer in the shift knob verified identity and blood chemistry within legal limits and permitted the car to come to life. A row of green lights on the dash indicated battery charge and hydrogen at nominal capacity.

The car made a faint whine as I headed for the corner. Although there was plenty of time, I allowed myself a fast turn, then left four brief black stripes as I accelerated toward the expressway. It was hard to resist. The light weight and high torque of the all-wheel drive electric bimmer made for pocket-rocket performance from every model. The batteries recharged overnight for pennies worth of electricity. Range was extended by regenerative braking and a hydrogen-powered piston engine supplied extra boost for high speeds. The incredible thing was how quickly the electric hybrid vehicle came to market. All that was needed was to make development and purchase of a non-polluting vehicle tax deductible. The savings in environmental expenses more than offset any loss in revenue, and smog was quickly a thing of the past. The bold appropriations from exotic defense projects into energy research paid off; Nuclear Fusion was online decades before anyone predicted, and the cost of power production fell by 90 per cent.

At the expressway entry, the computer beeped for instructions. I keyed in the O'Hare regional exit of the trans-con mag-lev flyway and pushed the GO button. The scanners in the plaza confirmed technical approval of the vehicle's systems and the computer lit up with a route map as it searched for an opening in the heavy morning traffic. With a low growl, the car surged up to entry speed, and the compact supercharged engine kicked in. Expressway lanes were rigidly stratified according to speed. With automatic sensors in the road, any failure in lane discipline or speed violations were guaranteed a ticket. The compensation was that speed increased by 10 mph per lane as you moved left. The fast lane was 110! An American Autobahn at last!

The computer beeped again to announce the flyway ramp ahead. I eased into the right lane, exited and slowed as I approached the automatic entry ramp. The on-board cryonics system activated, preparing the superconducting coils for magnetic levitation. The car accelerated steadily up the ramp and merged with what looked like a smooth concrete lane whose sides curved up shoulder-high on either side. The speedometer moved past 120, and a faint flying-saucer sound emanated from below the floor. The hiss of the tires abruptly ceased as the active suspension retracted the wheels into the body. The car was now gliding forward, supported and propelled by magnetic induction of coils in the roadway. The fender extensions slid into place to smooth the airflow and the computer beeped electronic approval as the car was steadily accelerated up to flyway speed of 300 mph. The screen indicated Chicago eta in 2.5 hours.

I punched the console for coffee, and dimmed the windows against the blur outside. The wind roared faintly over the canopy. NY to Chicago in the not-so-old days? Bumper to bumper getting to and from the airport, waiting at the terminal, delays in takeoff and landing, noise, smoke...yech! Mag-lev cars and trains made most domestic air travel undesirable. Within a decade, noise and pollution from jet planes became almost a non-issue. It had taken guts, but cheap electricity and tax incentives had reshaped the country.

It was in 1956, half a lifetime ago, that I got my first glimpse of the future. Walt Disney showed the world of tomorrow, in animated form, and I remembered a family playing cards in their futuristic flivver that skimmed down an automatic highway on a flickering cushion of light. This scene made a lasting impression; Walt wouldn't lie to me! I would see this happen within my lifetime.

For a while, the future was on hold. The know-how to create the necessary technology to free us from petroleum was never given the right priorities. Cheap gasoline and an auto industry entrenched in the prevailing technology locked everyone into a false sense of security. The petroleum industry seemed to control Washington. Multiple gasoline "crises" failed to teach us. We were at the mercy of foreign madmen. Nuclear energy was made a totem of fear, not salvation. A few dangerous incidents at nuclear power plants effectively stopped further development of atomic power. This played into the hands of the petroleum producers so well that sabotage could not be ruled out.

The atomic genie had been stuffed back into his bottle and tossed in the sea.

It was decided that our nation's best interests would be served by making us energy-independent of petroleum, which was a limited, polluting resource, and of petroleum exporting nations. With what was called the "moral equivalent of war", the department of energy was expanded and directed to bring nuclear fusion energy online by the end of the century. As was the case with landing men on the moon, the all-out effort made the dream a reality.

Energy costs plummeted; manufactured products became so competitive on the world market that the balance of trade shifted in our favor. The hybrid electric car soon followed. To encourage the new technology, the purchase of an electric car was made tax-deductible, as were the costs of development. The automobile lobbies and the UAW yelled and screamed, but true progress cannot be prevented forever. You couldn't mandate a change, but you could make change worthwhile.

The early BMW prototype of the hydrogen-powered car showed the practicality of catalytic storage of hydrogen fuel. Advanced battery designs increased capacity and decreased weight. Mag-lev research was already well into the prototype stage for trains. New advances in room-temperature superconduction made possible mag-lev capability in automobiles.

The vanishing point of the flyway ahead seemed to leap at me, like a film I had seen of the Mulsanne straight taken from a formula one racer. Unlike at Le Mans, the only sounds were the rush of the air and the science fiction spaceship sound of the levitating coils.

The development of nuclear fusion power for large-scale production of cheap electricity went hand in hand with the electric hybrid car. Hydrogen production by electrolysis of water was made easy with cheap electricity; it could even be done at home. Neither fusion nor hydrogen created significant pollution. Other benefits of the energy revolution quickly followed. Many polluted lakes and rivers were making a comeback. The blight caused by acid rain seemed to be on the decrease. Several previously-thought extinct species of aquatic life were increasing in number. Major metropolitan areas no longer issued smog alerts. The influx of cash from our newly invigorated enterprises made possible programs for urban renewal, mass transit, national health care and increased social services.

I reclined the seat, sipped coffee, and put on a Sergeant Pepper disc. As I listened, it occurred to me that Walt and the Beatles would have agreed; things just keep getting better all the time.

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Last Modified December 25, 2000