If you’ve ever envisioned a world with flying automobiles, your dream may be edging closer to becoming a reality.
According to Chinese state news agency Xinhua, Chinese researchers at Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu, Sichuan province, conducted road testing last week for modified passenger cars that use magnets to float 35 millimetres above a conductor rail.
The sedans were modified with strong magnets on the vehicle floors by the researchers, enabling them to float over a conductor rail that was approximately five miles long. According to the report, a total of eight cars were tested, with one test reaching speeds of about 143 miles per hour.
Xinhua reports that government transportation agencies conducted the experiments to research high-speed driving safety precautions. However, according to Deng Zigang, one of the university professors involved in the development of the vehicles, employing magnetic levitation for passenger cars might result in lower energy consumption and greater range.
That would be helpful for the electric vehicle industry’s problems with “range anxiety,” which occur when customers worry they won’t be able to finish a trip in an electric vehicle without running out of juice.
Since the 1980s, some commercial trains have employed magnetic levitation, or “maglev,” which uses an electrified magnetic field to propel or pull objects at high speeds. Today, maglev trains are used in South Korea, China, and Japan. In Qingdao, Shandong province, last year, China unveiled a maglev bullet train with a top speed of 373 miles per hour.
The lack of friction in maglev technology should enable high-speed transport without using as much energy as conventional engine power. Both Richard Branson’s Virgin Hyperloop One and Elon Musk’s The Boring Company have put out the technology for their respective hyperloop ventures. For more than a decade, researchers have been studying the possibility of maglev automobiles, and in 2003, Volkswagen created a concept for a hovering vehicle 2012.
But there are still possible safety hazards that need to be resolved. What would happen, for instance, if a fast car veered off its magnetic track or was struck by a non-magnetic vehicle? There is also the extremely challenging issue of infrastructure: The AutomoBlog points out that in any nation, constructing a statewide system of electromagnetic roadways will probably take years and require a substantial public investment.
It might be worthwhile to overcome the obstacles: According to a 2018 LinkedIn post by George Sassine, a vice president at New York’s State Energy Research and Development Authority, a “era of magnetism” might revolutionise the energy sector and aid in the fight against climate change.
While it may sound like science fiction, he wrote that it “may very well be our regular life in 50 years.”