Planes, trains, and automobiles: The cutting edge of technology on the go

High tech and trickle-down consumer IT make travel a more pleasant experience

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Not so unstoppable

Trains, at least here in the US, are not a widely used method of travel beyond intra-urban subways, light rail, and commuter lines out to the suburbs. With all national train travel consolidated under Amtrak, which is beset by problems of its own, traveling by train is often not the first choice in the US.

Slowly, Amtrak is working to change this, catching up with its European and Asian counterparts. Tracks are being updated to accommodate faster service when possible, and on-board systems like Wi-Fi have been added to East Coast lines that service the densely populated Northeast Corridor.

Entertainment systems, like those found on airlines, are also being added to trains, particularly outside of the US, where rail travel is used much more.

Sadly, as long as fuel costs remain low and Amtrak is hampered by the constraints of having to share tracks with freight operators, US rail travel will not be growing any time soon. The application of better train technology, such as dedicated high-speed lines and faster signal and switching systems, may help rescue trains from their current doldrums, but for now, passenger train technology seems stuck in the station.

Bring on the thunder road

While trains aren't high on the list of American travel trips, road trains may be a concept that pops up on the travel scene within a few years.

A road train is a developing technology that enables a line of cars to follow a large van or truck driven by a professional human driver. The cars, programmed to follow the lead truck's every move, will follow each other very closely in a long train that not only cuts down on fuel consumption for the cars (since they encounter far less aerodynamic drag as they cruise in the slipstream of the cars and truck in front of them) but also compresses more cars in a smaller area of road.

Because of the automated nature of the road train, passengers and drivers alike can sit and relax in the comfort of their own cars and let the head of the train do all of the driving. Drivers can read, eat, work on a mobile device, whatever they want -- all while maintaining a steady pace. When they want to leave the train, drivers simply take control of the vehicle and pull out from the train onto an off ramp.

This technology is still being worked on by various car makers in Europe -- Volvo being one, as you can see in the video below -- who are trying to work out the kinks in the process.

If successful, this might be a huge application of technology for Americans, since we have a vast network of roads, but sometimes don't have the stamina to make the trips across the country.

You have now arrived

With the exception of the road train technology, much of the tech described in this article is already in existence. It only needs to be implemented. The missing piece for these solutions, until now, has been big data. Without a reasonable way to store and manage the huge amounts of data such systems would entail, the transportation industry was held back.

But that is not the case any longer, and travels around the globe will become easier and more pleasant, with more journeys made in better style.

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