A welcome train of thought

A welcome train of thought
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  • Elon Musk
    Elon Musk
    South African–born American entrepreneur

I don't know if Elon Musk will ever build that 800-mph “Hyperloop” that’s supposed to speed passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes. I don’t know if he, or anyone else, will even try to construct the 400-mile aboveground tube that will carry people safely encased in “pods” between those two cities. I don’t know if Musk’s interview Monday with Bloomberg Businessweek was just a way of reminding everyone he spends most of his time concentrating on his Tesla electric car and his SpaceX ventures.

Whatever his intentions, he deserves the thanks of us older Americans for reminding us of the future we were denied.

As a child of the 1950s, I was certain of the wonders in store when I became an adult. We’d fly to Europe in an hour; we’d vacation on the moon; we’d commute to work in personal aircraft or jetpacks or helicopters. The same transit breakthroughs that had transformed the world of my parents' and grandparents' would transform mine, too.

And then, somewhere around the start of the 1970s, that future ground to a halt — and nowhere more so (at least in the First World) than in the nation where technological innovation was part of its DNA.

You likely know that an American astronaut, Neil Armstrong, was the first human to set foot on the moon in 1969. The last to do so was another American astronaut, Eugene Cernan, in 1972. The fantasy of widespread lunar travel portrayed by Stanley Kubrick in “2001” has remained just that (indeed, even the company Kubrick chose as his carrier, Pan Am, has ceased to exist). Back then, I would have bet a small fortune that someone would have traveled at least to Mars by the end of the 20th century.

OK, so the financial and logistical burdens of space travel may explain that loss. Let’s turn, then, to more prosaic but more practical examples.

It now takes twice as long to fly to and from Europe as it did in 1985, when I flew the Concorde to the U.S. from London.

The fastest train in the United States — the Amtrak Acela — travels from New York to Washington at roughly half the speed as the train I rode from Tokyo to Kyoto in 1988. That Shinkansen — the Japanese bullet train — first began running in Japan for the 1964 Olympics (49 years ago, if you’re keeping score).

On another trip, I flew into the Brussels airport, stepped onto a train and was whisked to downtown where I picked up my luggage — a fast, efficient, convenient service. This was in 1971. That same year, New York City officials proposed a 16-minute link between Penn Station in midtown Manhattan and JFK airport. It was never built.

Yes, there are reasons why many of these transit marvels never came to pass. Most other developed nations lack the army of lawyers that can delay almost any major piece of infrastructure for years, if not decades. There’s reason for skepticism about some projects, like California’s proposed high-speed rail system whose costs appear to multiply like a Pentagon weapons system and whose completion date will soon extend beyond midcentury.

It may be some consolation that the United States dominates this version of the future — one where we work, learn, communicate, engage, escape and, in some cases, live much of our lives digitally. Perhaps the generations that came after mine find this experience satisfying. For me, however, there’s something depressing about the gap between the large promise of the future and the reality of the present, at least when it comes to making it easier for people physically — not digitally — to get around.

Peter Thiel, whose fortune came from the same PayPal company that enriched Elon Musk, summed it up cogently when he said, “We were promised flying cars, we got 140 characters.”

Not all is lost, however. Back in the 1950s, General Motors used to stage an annual PR extravaganza called “Motorama” in New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel. The highlight was a stage and screen presentation in the Grand Ballroom where cars of the future were on display, along with a movie touting the joy of driverless cars that would speed along the highways of the 1980s. Now, just a few decades behind schedule, the driverless car may be close to becoming an operational reality.

So who knows? Perhaps by the time my grandchildren hit adulthood — or middle age, or Medicare — they'll be calling a friend in San Francisco from Los Angeles and saying, “See you in half an hour.”

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