A couple generations back, we humans imagined we might be tooling around the galaxy by the early 21st century or at least expanding our colony on Mars. Instead we’ve been reduced to fantasizing about escaping the grubby traffic on Sputnik-vintage Interstate 5.
We’ll leave others to judge the practicality of Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, a hypothetical system of elevated tubes that would jet pods full of passengers to their destinations at 800 mph. Musk — the genius behind PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX — envisions a line that would whisk travelers between San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than a half hour.
Sounds good. If they get that one built, how about another to guarantee arrival between Tacoma and South Hill or Lacey in less than an hour?
Given the fate of past visions of futuristic travel, though, the Hyperloop seems likely to end up breaking our hearts once more.
Wasn’t this about the time we’d be shuttling to the moon? Getting about with flying cars, antigravity belts and personal rocket packs? Skimming across town on levitating devices, like Michael J. Fox’s hoverboard in “Back to the Future”?
Even outside the realm of science fiction, our expectations about travel in recent decades have usually been dashed.
Engineers have been talking about self-driving cars for at least 50 years, for example, but the necessary technology remains a distant prospect on most roads.
Old-timers may remember President Ronald Reagan promising a hypersonic airliner that would carry passengers from Washington, D.C., to Tokyo in two hours. That was supposed to happen by 2000. Hypersonic commercial flight always seems to be just around the corner, just out of reach.
Some visions have materialized, including maglev bullet trains and advanced electric cars — the latter pioneered by Musk himself, among others.
The majority of us, though, remain in gasoline-powered cars our forebears from the 1950s would recognize in an instant. We’ve refined the machines, but the thing that counts — actual movement — is getting more torturous in urban America, especially the Puget Sound region.
With population growth outstripping infrastructure — think state Route 167, lawmakers! — our highways keep slowing down. From Los Angeles to Seattle, I-5 gets noticeably more clogged every few years. One of the freeway’s worst chokepoints — the stretch between Lakewood and Lacey — turned into a stranglehold only in the last decade.
So instead of slipping the surly bonds of Earth, “Blade Runner”-style, we’re wasting more hours in creeping traffic, belching extra pollution from our tailpipes, hoping we’ll get to work on time and dodging road-ragers in the bargain.
When Musk gets done figuring out how to rocket people to Los Angeles and perhaps to Mars, maybe he’ll turn his attention to the far more monumental problem of too many earthlings in too few highway lanes. It’ll take a genius to figure that one out.