The four decades that ended in 1969 were a Golden Age of Transportation. Innovation since that time has fallen short of our dreams
We're constantly on the move. But the planes, trains, automobiles, and other machines that get us from place to place haven't changed much in the past 40 years, especially in comparison with the four decades that preceded those.
Many of today's modes of transportation had their roots in what I consider the Golden Age of Transportation, a period stretching from 1929 through 1969 when innovation abounded. An era that began with rickety cars and planes came to a close with interstate highways, vast networks of roads and bridges, and commercial air travel that could whisk you from New York to California to Hong Kong to London in a matter of hours, not weeks. We built jets, broke the sound barrier, harnessed nuclear energy on land and sea, sent monkeys and men into space, and capped it all off with a lunar landing. It was a marvelous era of risk-taking, imagination, and optimism.
Those who lived in that era might have confidently predicted that innovation would continue. They may have optimistically hoped that in the succeeding four decades, humankind would be capable of such breakthroughs as jet packs, flying cars, civilian space travel, and landing a human on Mars.
But instead, in the past 40 years we've traded innovation for stagnation. We live in an era where few risks are being taken.
Make no mistake that the transportation industry has made advances in the areas of efficiency, comfort, safety, and reliability.
Strides in Energy Efficiency
Today's cars, planes, trains, and other vehicles certainly are more energy-efficient than their 1960s counterparts. They go farther on less fuel, burn much cleaner, and need less energy. Transportation is also considerably more comfortable than it was 40 years ago. Air-conditioning and CD players are standard; advances in suspension and interior design make the ride smoother.
Cars are safer, resulting in fewer accidents per capita. Fatalities as a percentage of driving hours have steadily fallen because of features such as seat belts, air bags, and antilock breaks. And from a design standpoint, air and sea travel are also safer—even if the threats of hijacking and piracy remain all too real.
Finally, travel is more reliable. Cars don't break down as often; my nine-year-old Toyota has never had a problem to speak of. The Tokyo metro is a model of efficiency. And thanks to GPS, FedEx (FDX) tracking, and other great software, we're better at keeping track of where we and what we care about are headed.
And there have been some technological advances worth noting. Segways, with their ease of use and automatic load balancing, are truly an engineering marvel. But with no disrespect to Dean Kamen, I'm not sure Segways are all that useful except in limited recreational settings. Prosthetic arms and legs have come a long way, too, offering life-changing functionality to people who have lost limbs. Thankfully, however, most of us do not need them.
Longer Cross-Country Flights
Yet what about all the other areas where we might have made great strides but haven't? Think about how long it takes to get from point A to point B. I've been regularly traveling from New York's JFK airport to San Francisco for the past 17 years, and in that time the flights have actually gotten longer. Because airlines now generously pad their schedules, a flight from JFK to SFO is listed at 6.5 hours today; it used to be regularly scheduled to last fewer than six hours.
The Concorde was a great first step toward getting people around faster, but it has been shut down. Where are the other attempts at supersonic transportation? Even the U.S. military cannot transport more than two people supersonically.
I recently rode a bullet train from Hiroshima to Tokyo in 4.5 hours, and it was a wonderful experience. It was comfortable and convenient. I had Wi-Fi. We should be able to fly from Tokyo to San Francisco in less than that amount of time.
What about personal flight? Flying cars and jet packs seem further away today than in 1969. In fact, I doubt many people would predict that personal flight will be commonplace 40 years from now.
Time to Take Chances
For all the hard work going on at places such as NASA, Boeing (BA), Lockheed Martin (LMT), and General Motors, there appears to be a general unwillingness or inability to take risks.
We need more people willing to try something crazy. This is why privately held Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, is so cool. And yes, in the name of disclosure, I am a tiny investor in SpaceX. They are willing to try things that sound outlandish. And since you have to fail a lot before you can invent something truly groundbreaking, they are also not afraid to fail. But there are very few endeavors like SpaceX.
You could blame the transportation innovation drought on companies' unwillingness to invest the money and time it takes to achieve breakthroughs. Maybe it's the public's unwillingness to back large-scale public works.
Perhaps some have come to rely so much on innovations in other areas—such as high-speed multimedia communications—that they're simply less needful of truly innovative approaches to transportation. After all, it is far easier to move bytes than people.
But those reasons be damned. We can do better.