Futuristics

An interview with Paul Hernandez

Walking through the main hall of the University of California at Berkeley’s mammoth Doe Library in the summer of 2004, you encounter real world science fiction on display among the aging photos of water polo squads. Transportation Futuristics: Visionary Designs in Transportation Engineering exhibits dozens of failed innovations, from personal flying saucers to monorails, helicopter buses to pilotless cars guided from below by a radio signal in the roadway. Designed by utopian engineers, these creations are alternately crackpot and visionary, as brilliant in conception as they are startlingly impractical. And like science fiction, they reflect their times as much as any projected future.

Paul Hernandez, a library assistant at the Institute of Transportation Studies, curated the exhibit and its accompanying website. (Rahul Kamath’s brilliant website design has been nominated for the Leab award given annually by the Association of College & Research Libraries.) He spoke to The High Hat about the exhibit.

What sort of responses have you been receiving?
The online version of the exhibit has turned out to be far more popular than I ever would have thought. One morning about three weeks after the site was announced, we estimate that it received close to a hundred thousand hits within just a couple of hours. I got a frantic phone call right after that spike from our server’s manager who was in a panic because she thought there was something wrong with the HTML coding.

People generally love the site. This month I’ve been contacted by Exhibit Builder magazine, PIG Magazine (People In Groove — an Italian fashion and lifestyle magazine), Disney Imagineering, and a few engineers who were actually involved in the projects represented in this exhibit. The only negative feedback I’ve had has been from a couple of people who have current projects mentioned on the site who don’t like their proposals being associated with so many failed proposals.

Leonardo Da Vinci sketches plans for a helicopter 500 years ago, and he’s considered a visionary. Why do we revere him as a prescient genius who laid the groundwork for future breakthroughs while we dismiss the engineer who patented a personal flying saucer transport as a crank? Where, exactly, does the line between crackpot and genius lie?
Paul S. Moller has probably built more flying saucers than anyone, and I’m sure many consider him a crank. But there are at least some people who believe enough in his vision to give him a lot of money (or not — he’s also been accused by the SEC of selling unregistered stock). He’s been building visionary personal flying machines for 40 years now and has yet to be successful with any of them. He has gotten some of them off the ground, but has yet to build anything really practical. The technology just hasn’t been there. At least once he has even had to design his own engine: the Rotapower engine that’s currently being used in the Skycar. This latest design actually seems promising. We’ll see.

So what differentiates a genius from a crank? A genius succeeds and a crank does not. Although Leonardo’s helicopter never got off the ground and some of Moller’s craft have, by the standards of his day, Leonardo’s helicopter was a success. He didn’t have to build a working prototype – in his day, men of letters did not sully their hands doing practical tests. If the design seemed logical, then that’s all that mattered. Today, however, a design that seems logical on paper isn’t enough. Now we have to demonstrate that a design is practicable and so we’re inherently limited by available technology. When the Wright brothers were building their first motorized airplane there didn’t exist an engine light and powerful enough, so they had to get someone to design a totally new engine for their craft. In 1968, Moller’s disc-shaped flying machine the XM-3 was unable to get more than about a foot off the ground. He needed engines with a much greater power to weight ratio than was available at the time. With lighter, more powerful engines it probably would have worked as planned.

What was your attitude towards this work? How did you fight the temptation to turn this material into science fiction kitsch — to make fun of failed experiments and experimenters?
Making fun of something isn’t conducive to education. I learn a lot from the mistakes I make, and so I think people can learn a great deal from the mistakes of others. It’s easy to laugh at the Rollerboat as an utterly ridiculous contraption, but I’ve included an entire seven-page contemporary article which explains the rather well-reasoned principle behind the concept lest anyone merely seeing the photos think the people who built it were total idiots. Futuristic designs usually demanded a huge investment in time and money. People don’t enter into these ventures lightly, nor are they uneducated. I do think looking at these designs and learning about them is fun, but they’re not to be ridiculed. These engineers are a lot smarter than me, after all. They just don’t (or didn’t) have all the information they need. The designer of the quarter-mile-long, freight train-carrying submarine could not predict containerization — which would make his submarine obsolete. The designer of the X-L1014 did not predict asphalt roads. Back in 1911, roads were typically dirt. The best roads were paved with cobblestones, but that was too expensive for long stretches across rural areas. Engineers in 1911 figured that you would need enormous tires to achieve high speeds, and that within 50 years engines would be powerful enough to allow automobiles to reach speeds high enough to require these big tires.

Do you see a future for any of these proposals? I know you’re the curator of an exhibit, not a transportation theorist or engineer, but I’m curious if anything you found struck you as something that might come to look less like a failure and more like the underpinnings for a future technology?
Oh, sure! We’ll almost certainly have a commercially successful supersonic transport some day. There are a lot of talented people working on that one. The Concorde flew for many years and many consider it a success, but there is conflicting information as to whether the plane made money for Air France or British Airways. And even if it did, a ticket price of over $4,000 for a one-way transatlantic flight makes it more of a novelty than a viable form of public transportation.

Ground effect machines are horribly impractical replacements for conventional automobiles, but they serve quite nicely as ferries. Operating costs are comparable to conventionally hulled ships, they don’t require a pier at which to dock, and they produce virtually no wake and so they don’t pose the same danger to smaller boats which can be capsized by the wake of a conventional fast ferry.

Super capacity airliners are a pretty safe bet for our future. The Airbus A3XX is already in production and will be able to handle up to 960 passengers. Bigger designs look promising as well.

But improbability is what makes something futuristic. The vast majority of new designs make only incremental advances over established technology. The real departures from existing designs are inherently riskier and so less likely to make it to “mature technology” status. Radical concepts require changes in infrastructure. One simple example is hydrogen fuel cell cars. You can build a car with a hydrogen fuel cell power plant, but you’d be hard pressed to drive it across the country with the expectation that you’d be able to fill it up whenever you’d need to. That requires a great investment in infrastructure. Not just hydrogen tanks and dispensers at existing gas stations, but a lot of people will need to be trained in handling and transporting hydrogen, people will need to be trained in producing hydrogen, and several large facilities will need to be built to produce it. I guess the more unlikely something is to succeed, the more futuristic it is.