No doubt about it: the world of transportation is undergoing major changes right now, thanks to electrification, battery improvements, and propulsion systems that rely on elements like hydrogen to power vehicles.
The sorts of vehicles we use are changing, too. A new patent from Ford hints at a future where cars and trucks offer far more than today's standard set of features.
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The world is smaller than it's ever been. Thanks to planes, trains, automobiles, and sometimes, our feet, humans travel vast distances to grow their businesses, enjoy time off, build new lives, and, as we've seen in the Middle East this year, escape turmoil.
But among all of these departures, arrivals, and migrations, one thing has remained fairly constant: the increasing urbanization of Planet Earth. Today, around 54 percent of humankind lives in cities, and by 2050 that figure will increase to 66 percent.
That's having a big effect on the way we think about transportation. For example, it's been at least partially to blame for Millennials' lack of interest in car ownership, because many cities offer robust mass transit systems, and the cost of insuring and parking a car can be prohibitive for young people.
The urbanization trend is also changing the types of vehicles being developed. Consider the surge in compact crossovers like the Honda HR-V, tailor-made for city dwellers. It's also leading to curious devices (we're not going to call them "cars") meant for urban mobility -- devices like Segway's PT and its PUMA concept, developed in collaboration with General Motors.
Not to be left out of all the forecasting fantasy fun, Ford has dreamed up a device that looks weirdly similar to a contraption seen a recent Batman movie. U.S. patent #9,211,932 describes:
"A multi-modal transportation system comprising: a suspension system for a vehicle; and a self-propelled unicycle for selectively engaging the suspension system for use with the vehicle and selectively disengaging the suspension system for independent use; the self-propelled unicycle including a hub, a wheel rotatably coupled to the hub, and a motor coupled to the hub and the wheel for rotating the wheel; the hub including a central bore for selectively engaging the suspension system; wherein the suspension system includes a center wheel lock and wherein the central bore receives the center wheel lock."
In other words, the wheel of a vehicle detaches and becomes a unicycle.
Why? In the patent description, Ford explains that, while cars are great for traveling long distances, they can be inefficient for navigating congested urban areas. However, carrying other forms of transportation in or on a vehicle can be problematic. For example, bikes don't always fit inside cars, and bike racks aren't just expensive, they also increase air resistance and diminish fuel economy.
In contrast, Ford says that this "self-propelled unicycle" is actually part of the vehicle, The system can work on any car or truck with the appropriate suspension, without requiring any special carrying devices.
Will it ever see the light of day? It's impossible to say. It seems like a somewhat clunky form of transportation, but then again, that view is probably colored by the sci-fi feel of the proposal. Thirty years ago, the idea of sitting in a coffee shop and staring into a pocket-sized computer, buying and shipping holiday gifts to every corner of the globe would've seemed unreasonable, too, so who knows?