Smart technology: making transport faster and easier

Levitating trains, joystick steering and heads-up displays: the future of transportation is here thanks to an array of clever technological innovations.

Transportation has come a long way from steam powered trains and horse-drawn carts. Since the Industrial Revolution, continued innovation has given rise to faster, cleaner, more efficient ways of getting from one point to another. Half a century ago, a long-distance sleeper train would have been the transport of choice for interstate travel in Australia. Air travel was only starting to become a viable and affordable option, and car registrations were on the rise thanks to the end of petrol rationing after the wari.

A few decades later, Australians have access to more modes of transport than ever. We can travel locally, interstate and internationally at a fraction of the cost, in far less time and far greater comfort.

Engineers and scientists are continuously coming up with new ways to improve the standard and convenience of modern technology. While we may be a few years off seeing mass produced Jetson-style hovercrafts or driverless vehicles, technological innovation is rapidly changing the way we commute and travel.

Maglev trains can travel at even faster speeds than high-speed and bullet trains found in Europe and Asia.

Levitating, superfast trains

You may have travelled on a high-speed or 'bullet' train in Europe or Asia, where it's not uncommon to find trains that travel at up to 300km/hour. These trains are a vast improvement upon the trains we currently use in Australia, but an even more advanced train technology is on the horizon.

Magnetically levitated trains, or Maglev trains for short, aim to solve the costly problem of mechanical friction between train wheels and metal tracks by getting rid of the wheels altogether. Instead, the train levitates above the rails via magnetic fields, eliminating all contact between the train and the trackii. Today, a Maglev train service operates in Shanghai that can travel at impressive speeds of up to 431km/houriii, while a Japanese 'super Maglev' service that is predicted to travel at speeds of up to 500km/hour is currently in developmentiv. A group of researchers at Southwest Jiaotong University in China has stepped things up a notch, developing a super Maglev prototype that they claim will one day be capable of exceeding 3000km/hourv!

While Maglev trains seem like a revolutionary technology, the idea behind the train system is not new. The idea of magnetically levitated trains has been around since the beginning of the 20th century, and the first Maglev train system was launched 30 years ago in the United Kingdomvi.

Maglev solutions are expensive to develop, with the Shanghai Maglev service costing China AU$1.7 billion to construct. Despite the cost, governments in countries such as China, Korea, Venezuela, Germany and even Australia are looking into Maglev transportation as an alternative to travelling on congested roads and skiesvi.

Smarter and safer cars

The interior and exterior of passenger cars has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades alone. We've gone from cassette decks to Bluetooth audio connectivity, manual car locking systems to keyless entry and bulky designs to sleek, aerodynamic builds.

Technologies that we've come to appreciate as standard features, such as in-car displays and cruise control, are continually being improved. Other innovative technologies, such as lane departure warning systems, are newly introduced features that are becoming more common in passenger vehicles.

Cruise control is a car feature designed to help drivers maintain a constant speed without any input from the driver, and is often used on long journeys or on freewaysvii. Adaptive cruise control, or ACC, takes the technology one step further by using a radar sensor to adjust a car's speed in relation to the car in front of it. After the driver sets a maximum speed, the ACC sensor will help the driver ensure they stay a safe distance from the nearest car when using cruise control, and is often coupled with an automatic braking system to minimise the risk of a crash. Unlike traditional cruise control, ACC is suitable for city driving and driving in trafficviii. In Australia, ACC is available in a wide variety of vehicles from manufacturers such as Volkswagen, Subaru and Hyundai.

In-car display units have been around for quite some time, and have made in-car navigation, audio playback and even climate control a lot easier to use. In contrast, heads-up displays (HUD) can help drivers maintain their focus on the road by turning a car's windscreen into a visual display through projectionix. Information such as current speed, speed limits and navigation details can be conveniently projected on the transparent windscreen, allowing drivers to quickly digest information without needing to divert their eyesix. While HUD units can be purchased as an accessory from manufacturers like Garmin, car makers such as Audi, BMW and Holden now offer inbuilt heads-up displays.

Boating: now almost as easy as console gaming

Thanks to the development of joystick piloting technology, you no longer have to be a seasoned skipper to be able to steer an outboard-powered boat. A single joystick can now be used to dock a boat and manoeuvre it through the most difficult of courses. The technology was designed to make it easier for boat users of all skill levels, from beginners to the most seasoned of boaties, to navigate and dock a large boatx. With 360 degree movement and quieter operation than traditional bow thruster steering, joystick piloting can also be used in conjunction with other useful boating technologies such as GPS positioningxi.

Smart bikes feature a range of innovative technologies, from navigation through smartphone pairing to USB input. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by user: Clément Bucco-Lechat.

The time-tested bike gets a revamp

The humble bicycle may have stood the test of time without any radical modification, but it has also been the subject of technological innovation in recent years. The development of smart bikes has seen a suite of innovative features added to modern bicycles. Bikes from manufacturers like Valour and Smart can pair with a smartphone to provide the cyclist with directions, alert cyclists to passing cars and even act as a charging dock for USB devicesxii,xiii.

iLees, R. 2003, 'Linking a Nation: Australia's Transport and Communications 1788 - 1970', Australia: our national stories, viewed 2 September 2014,

iiLos Alamos National Laboratory 2011, Magnetic Levitation Trains, viewed 2 September 2014, 2014, Shanghai Maglev Train (SMT), viewed 2 September 2014,

ivKurokawa, T. 2014, 'Look, Ma, no wheels! How maglev trains reach 500kph', Nikkei Asia Review, 31 July, viewed 2 September 2014,!-How-maglev-trains-reach-500kph

vSouthwest Jiaotong University 2014, 'It may look like a toy track but this is the future of train travel, says China. SUPER-MAGLEV could one day go up to 1,800MPH', viewed 11 September 2014,

viStewart, J. 2012, 'Maglevs: The floating future of trains?', BBC Future, 6 May, viewed 2 September 2014,

vii'Cruise control', Oxford Dictionaries Online, viewed 19 September 2014,

viiiHoward, B. 2014, 'What is adaptive cruise control, and how does it work?', Extreme Tech, 4 June, viewed 2 September 2014,

ixGriffith, C. 2013, 'Heads up for a safer way to travel with Garmin HUD', The Australian, 8 October, viewed 2 September 2014,

xMercury Marine 2014, Joystick piloting for outboards, viewed 2 September 2014, 2013, Mercury Joystick Piloting, viewed 2 September 2014,

xiiKastrenakes, J. 2014, 'Smart bike can track rides and give directions', The Verge, 1 May, viewed 2 September 2014,

xiiiWalker, P. 2014, 'Smart e-bike: futuristic-looking and shiny, but how practical?', The Guardian, 8 January, viewed 2 September 2014,