Will we drive on underground automated highways?

Building Underground Automated Highways

Will taking the highway one day involve closing your eyes and letting automated systems drive you through a system of subterranean tunnels?
Will taking the highway one day involve closing your eyes and letting automated systems drive you through a system of subterranean tunnels?
Peter Gridley/Taxi/Getty Images

So maybe the Morlocks and Eloi had a good idea after all. There's a great deal of support for the underground automated highway system concept, and futurists and transportation experts alike have been forecasting aboveground automated highway systems (AHS) for decades. Most experts agree that when it comes to letting machines drive you through underground tunnels, it's probably more a question of when, rather than if.

Experts predict we're somewhere between 50 and 100 years away from the reality of taking the UAH to grandma's house. Creating such a transportation system, perhaps in the United States or Europe, would be a massive undertaking and to pull it off, we'd need to experience advancements in three major fields:

  1. A working automated highway system: As the saying goes, you have to learn to crawl before you can walk. For the majority of society to start using a UAH, they would first need to embrace the system and technology aboveground. And appropriate vehicles would be an essential part of any automated highway system. For instance, you couldn't launch a hovercraft-only lane on the interstate this year and expect everyone to drive in it. People would have to gradually become accustomed to the technology, purchase new hovercrafts and, if possible, update old vehicles to the new hovercraft standard. If AHSs were introduced slowly, the necessary vehicle guidance technology would have enough time to properly develop and catch on with mainstream consumers. This way, by the time the first UAH is introduced, enough drivers will be able to use them.
  2. Zero-emission vehicles: Automated or not, an underground highway would involve a great deal of traffic whizzing through subterranean passages. Such a system would be challenging to ventilate without having to pump out clouds of vehicle exhaust. You'd need vehicles that produce zero emissions through the use of fuel cells, batteries, solar power, hydrogen power or other energy-efficient methods.
  3. Improved tunnel-boring technology: Obviously, the creation of an underground highway is going to involve a great deal of digging. The Channel Tunnel, which runs 31 miles (50 kilometers) underneath the English Channel, took four years to complete [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]. Imagine how much time it would take to complete a tunnel running the 2,776 miles (4,468 kilometers) between New York and Los Angeles? Some experts also contend that fully automated tunnel-boring technology would need to be perfected before UAHs could become a reality.

How does our current technology stack up against this list? Learn all about tunneling robots and cars that drive themselves on the next page.