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Automated Driving 4 min read

Riding the (autonomous) rails – why does the future of mobility start in the past?

Riding the (autonomous) rails – why does the future of mobility start in the past?

Our mobility ecosystem is often framed in data and told through efficiency. What does this 1980s comedy case study tell us about the future of mobility and what we can’t leave behind?  

Last year, France announced plans to develop the first driverless high-speed trains for its national rail system. According to a FranceInfo report, the semi-autonomous TGV trains are expected to launch next year for prototype testing and could be shuttling passengers from Paris to Marseille by 2023. Between Seabubbles and Hyperloops, the future of mobility seems like a race from automated to autonomous to absolutely baffling — all playing out in real time.

But if that future is an action adventure movie, the past has been one long comedy. While cleaner and more efficient, transportation hasn’t changed much over the twentieth century and the punchlines were everywhere.

In 1987, Paramount Pictures released a near-case study of where we find ourselves today. Planes, Trains and Automobiles was an American comedy written and directed by John Hughes and met with critical acclaim. Essentially, it’s our entire mobility ecosystem deconstructed in 90 minutes from a director known mostly for his teen angst flicks. Starring John Candy and Steve Martin, the story follows two strangers as they try to get home for the holidays despite some familiar obstacles. It’s the road trip from hell: played for laughs then, mined for clues now.



The plot looks something like this:

A businessman is running late for his flight from New York to Chicago. A stranger steals his cab along the way. The pair meet again in Kansas after the plane is diverted due to a blizzard. The train to Chicago breaks down and the bus alternative only takes them halfway. The duo shares a rental car until a semi runs them off the road – where the car bursts into flames. The drivable remains are eventually impounded just outside Chicago. The men finally part at a metro station before the big emotional finish sees them walking the rest of the way. Or, if you prefer the visual:  

What took three days on film, would take 83 minutes today.

Simply, it’s a tale of ingenuity as much as circumstance. Destinations are known, and modes are fixed. Arguably, it’s the system that fails despite our best intentions or haphazard planning. Imagine how location data or smart cities would have rewritten this classic?  

Obviously, the movie would be shorter. Hughes reportedly wrote the script in six hours, something he often did early in his career. The first cut also ran close to four hours. The weather might’ve been avoided, too. The crew was apparently chasing snow during the shoot for real footage. It all resulted in extra days, a few production headaches, and at least one down payment for an extra who used his overtime pay to buy a house.

Still, would a hyperloop make this movie any more exciting?

At its core, Planes is about people. We pay for the laughs and stay for the characters. Those flying taxis might be coming, but the future is still deeply human, rooted in our collective experiences and unlikely friendships. Hughes, for one, wouldn’t have written the screenplay if he didn’t personally experience the story as a young copywriter waylaid in Chicago. After all, there’s not much drama in two calm, healthy, appreciably younger individuals navigating a typical 800-mile commute. Thirty years ago, this movie juxtaposed our quality of life with technology to come.

France’s national train operator says the goal of its autonomous project is to increase speed and frequency, particularly where trains intersect with local and regional routes. Still, the company admits that human conductors, largely responsible for onboard signaling and operating, are why the system hasn’t gone “full drone” yet. The future of mobility will be as entertaining as ever. Close your eyes — can you imagine the stories along the way?

Jason Orlovich

Jason Orlovich

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