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Back to the Future Part II: Past Visions of a Present Future

October 21, 2015 Innovation Impact

Marty McFly's hoverboard -- source of a million crushed hopes today. (THF319315)

This is it – the future is now. For any self-respecting Child of the Eighties, October 21, 2015, has been circled on the mental calendar since November 1989 when Back to the Future Part II hit theaters. I was 13 years old when I first saw Doc Brown and Marty McFly take their time traveling DeLorean to the fantastically futuristic world of Hill Valley 2015 – old enough to realize that we probably weren’t going to get hoverboards and flying cars, but young enough to still hope that we might. The year 2015 seemed impossibly far off (like, as far off as 2041 seems today), and one could imagine that some of those wonderful things in the movie might just come to pass. Well, not so much…

Predicting the future is a fool’s errand. Any movie that tries to imagine future technologies will inevitably miss the mark. Back to the Future Part II’s creative team knew this well, so they chose to go all in and make their 2015 as over-the-top as possible. That tech optimism is a big part of the movie’s appeal. BTTF II gives us happy robots that pump our gas, serve our soft drinks, and welcome us home at the end of the day. They’re a pleasant contrast to the tortured replicants and cyborgs of Blade Runner and RoboCop.

Being a transportation curator, I thought it might be fun to take a look at some of the transport technologies featured in Back to the Future Part II. Let’s start with those flying cars. The dream of an aircraft in every garage is an old one. It shows up in books, magazines and – on rare occasions – in reality. (Even Henry Ford spent some time and money on the concept.) The flying cars in BTTF II are there because they have to be. It’s the future we all want! Needless to say, we didn’t get them by 2015. Personally, I think flying is well beyond the skills of the average driver (myself included). Flying cars aren’t a good idea until we can take most of the operation and navigation out of the driver’s hands. And that’s the good news here in the real 2015 – driverless cars are edging ever-closer to practical reality. Give me a car that operates itself, and then I’ll start clamoring for it to fly.

Not only does the DeLorean get a hover conversion in 2015 that allows it to fly, it gets an upgrade that powers its time travel apparatus with household waste. Originally, the car’s flux capacitor (what makes time travel possible) was powered by plutonium. The lack of this fuel drove much of the first movie’s plot. Doc Brown solves the problem in 2015 with “Mr. Fusion,” a compact energy reactor that turns raw trash into energy (at least 1.21 gigawatts worth, it seems). Household energy reactors nicely would have solved two problems at once but, here in the real 2015, we haven’t even produced practical cold fusion in the lab, much less in a home appliance.

While Mr. Fusion eliminated the need for plutonium, the DeLorean automobile itself still relied on its gasoline-fueled internal-combustion engine for propulsion (this, of course, is a key plot element in Back to the Future Part III). If something like Mr. Fusion did exist today, we’d be more apt to have it powering our cars. Gasoline is still in use in BTTF II, judging by that Texaco station with the robot attendant. (Sharp-eyed viewers will see that Hill Valley drivers pay $7.25 a gallon. We’re only paying about $2.25 at the pumps right now – a lot more than the 97¢ that drivers paid in 1989, but nowhere near as bad as Hill Valley.) Here in the actual 2015, gas is still the fuel to beat, but electrics are high profile with cars like the Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf and the fashionable Tesla Model S. What’s more, while the forthcoming Toyota Mirai isn’t powered by fusion, its hydrogen-fueled powertrain won’t produce any emissions beyond water. It doesn’t burn garbage, but at least it won’t add to our pollution problems.

And what of those cars in the movie’s 2015? Most of them are either dressed-up Ford “aero look” vehicles (keep your eyes peeled for a couple of Probes and a Tempo), or concept cars that were traveling the auto show circuit in 1989. In keeping with the film’s spirit, nearly every car is too campy for our roads in the actual 2015. Aerodynamic bodies are as widespread as ever today, but grille-less front ends and hidden headlights look far more like 1989 than 2015. And for another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it prediction that the filmmakers botched, check out that Pontiac dealership behind the flying Jeep! General Motors discontinued the Pontiac brand in 2009. So close, yet so far away.

It’s interesting to see that taxicabs are prevalent in Hill Valley 2015. “Old Biff” takes one to tail Doc and Marty once he realizes that they have a time machine. We still have cabs in the real 2015, but they’ve got competition. The filmmakers would have been closer to the mark had Biff used Uber.

And now we come to the movie’s signature dream: the hoverboard. It was the only thing my friends and I talked about after seeing BTTF II in 1989. (We were too young to drive, so flying cars were of marginal value.) Judging by today’s thriving eBay market for replica hoverboards, it’s still the most coveted item from Hill Valley 2015. Well, we didn’t get our hoverboards in actual 2015, but we did get a clever marketing gimmick from Lexus. Toyota’s luxury brand developed a working prototype board and promoted it with a splashy YouTube video. It’s not quite the McFly version – the Lexus board only operates on a special surface and requires liquid nitrogen-cooled superconducting magnets – but it’s a step in the right direction.

So no, October 2015 hasn’t played out the way many of us imagined all those years ago. But we can still enjoy Back to the Future Part II – maybe now with a twinge of nostalgia for a future that couldn’t be.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

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