Wakanda, the fictional African nation at the heart of Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, is a dazzling, technological utopia chock-full of science fiction gadgets and gizmos to make gearheads go gaga. What I didn’t expect, though, when settling into the seat of my Brooklyn theater last Saturday, was for the transportation-nerd parts of my brain to be so thoroughly tickled. Black Panther is a transit buff’s dream come true, with an array of cool planes, trains, and cars — and just a dash of reality to ensure these Afrofuturist dreams maintain some believability. (Spoilers ahead.)
Our first glance at the Golden City, Wakanda’s capital, is when King T’Challa’s airship pushes past the holographic camouflage that keeps the nation hidden from prying outsiders. High-rise skyscrapers, dotted with aerial gardens and parks, loom over low-slung commercial corridors where street life bustles. Vibranium-powered streetcars hover through the trendy neighborhood of Steptown, as a magnetic-levitation train is seen in the distance, zipping along an elevated track. Mind you, this isn’t a hyperloop, as it lacks a vacuum-sealed tube through which to travel. But the city’s transit system is faster than most conventional trains, thanks to some very real-world technology.
Black Panther explains that the trains run on magnetic levitation, or maglev, through some dialogue between Shuri, T’Challa’s inventive genius sister (Letitia Wright), and CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). Halfway through the film, Freeman is taken underground, into the heart of Wakanda’s Vibranium mine, where the fictional element that powers most of the nation’s technological marvels is extracted and transported along a subterranean maglev train.
Director Ryan Coogler, who grew up in Oakland, California, used the beleaguered Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trains as an inspiration for Steptown’s streetcar, according to production designer Hannah Beachler in an penalties for dui. We can assume that Vibranium makes these trains exponentially more efficient than BART, which is plagued by financial and performance problems.
Before the movie’s climatic battle atop those magnetically powered tracks, Shuri explains that a network of “sonic dampeners” are used to absorb the vibrations from Vibranium-loaded trains, allowing them to be transported at such high speeds without any of the kinetic blowback that T’Challa’s Black Panther suit can also deliver. It’s a fictional technology that’s also put to use by the villainous Ulysses Klaue, through a sonic cannon embedded in his robotic arm, which he uses to wreak havoc on the streets of South Korea.
In the real world, maglev trains aren’t quite as efficient as they are in the world of Black Panther. The technology underpinning maglev has been around since the 1960s, but we didn’t get our first maglev trains until the 1980s, and the first high-speed versions didn’t arrive until the early 2000s.
The trains work by using magnetic poles to repel and propel a train to incredible speeds. Thanks to a frictionless design, maglev trains go much faster than traditional ones, with much less turbulence along the way. The hyperloop aims to remove even more friction from the equation, propelling electromagnetically powered pods through an airless tube at theoretical speeds of up to 760 mph.
There’s a reason American audiences are more likely to see these trains as science fiction than European or Asian audiences: while countries like Japan and Germany have maglev trains in operation, the technology has yet to make its way to North America. Japan’s Chuo Shinkansen, for example, is the world’s fastest train, traveling at a max speed of 375 mph. The country is expected to highlight its maglev trains during the 2020 Summer Olympics.
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— Jawn Valjawn (@jackiepayton) February 19, 2018
But despite decades in operation, maglev has been kind of a disappointment. Traditional high-speed rail is just as fast, is cheaper to build, and can connect to existing rail systems, whereas maglev guideways cannot. For countries with established rail networks, the billions of dollars to build a maglev system is hard to justify.
But that hasn’t stopped some cities from chasing the maglev fever dream. A proposal to connect Washington, DC and Baltimore via a maglev train is gathering momentum, with officials recently settling on two possible routes that could reduce trip time from 45 minutes to a mere 15 minutes. Still, the US isn’t a benevolent monarchy like Wakanda, and the Trump administration’s recent infrastructure proposal relies mostly on leveraging private dollars to pay for new roads and bridges than infusing public-works projects with taxpayer cash. Maglev without federal cash is a nonstarter.
The movie touches on other far-out transportation ideas, like remote-operated cars and planes via holographic cockpits. The real-world equivalent would be military-grade drones piloted from across the globe, which have been in use since the mid-1990s. But the scene where Black Panther rides atop a driverless Lexus through the streets of South Korea, while his sister Shuri does the driving from a Vibranium-powered holograph back in Wakanda, reminded me of something that was seen recently at CES. There, a company called Phantom Auto demonstrated teleoperation technology that allows an engineer in Mountain View, California to remotely drive a Lincoln MKZ down the streets of Las Vegas.
Autonomous driving experts aren’t convinced that teleoperation is feasible, thanks to latency issues that delay the delivery of data packets from one end of a wireless connection to another. Phantom Auto thinks it has a solution, but most self-driving car designers have dismissed remote operation as unworkable.
The hyperloop movement seems to offer the best possible path forward for people who want to live out their Wakandan dreams in America. Virgin Hyperloop One is currently testing the ultrafast technology in the desert outside Las Vegas, while Elon Musk has received tacit approval from regulators to begin exploring an underground hyperloop between New York City and Washington.
But Musk is more of a Tony Stark type than a T’Challa. And the only hint of Vibranium to be found on this side of the silver screen is in a press release by a financially questionable hyperloop company, which claims to have developed a new type of reinforced carbon fiber named after the mythical substance. It’s a bit of magical thinking from a marketing department, but it still leaves us feeling far from this imagined future.