On May 29, the One World Trade Center Observatory in New York will open up to the public. To get passengers to the 102nd floor as quickly as possible, 71 elevators designed by the German conglomerate ThyssenKrupp will ascend 1 WTC at a rate of 2,000 feet per minute, or more than three floors per second. That will make 1 WTC's elevators the fastest in the Western hemisphere.
If you think that's impressive, you ain't seen nothing yet. We spoke to Patrick Bass, CEO of ThyssenKrupp North America, about the elevators of the near future. Although today's elevators are really fast, tomorrow's lifts will blow your mind. Here's what he told us.
Right now, the fastest elevator in the world is located in the Shanghai World Financial Center. It travels at 3,600 feet per minute, which is about as fast as you can go without making people uncomfortable due to rapid depressurization. Future elevators, though, will have pressurized cabins, like an airplane. This will allow elevators to shoot up as fast as anyone could want. Going down, though, is another story: even with pressurized cabins, Bass says, elevators can't descend faster than around 2,000 feet per minute without people's ears starting to hurt.
Currently, elevators require giant steel ropes to move up and down. Those ropes are incredibly heavy: in 1 WTC, each one weighs 20 metric tons—about as much as two and a half elephants—and you need a lot of bulky equipment and energy to jerk them into motion. Future elevators will be able to do without. ThyssenKrupp's upcoming MULTI elevator system will use magnetic levitation to move elevators without ropes. Maglev is a popular technology in trains—magnets suspend a train above the rails, so it can move quickly and without friction. For elevators, getting rid of the ropes will free up valuable real estate, too: Bass tells me that MULTI elevators have shafts that are 25% smaller in area than regular systems.
ThyssenKrupp has another trick up its sleeve. Right now, only one elevator can move up or down an elevator shaft at a time. Magnetic levitation and conjoined elevator shafts can change all that, though. MULTI elevators have cars that can move sideways, and even diagonally. This allows elevators to work more like cars on a highway, switching lanes to pass an elevator above or below it that has stopped. The result? Even if elevator cars don't go up and down any faster, you'll still get where you're going quicker most of the time.
In a traditional elevator, if the elevator you're in breaks, you end up trapped until a technician comes to either fix it or rescue you through the roof panel. But Thyssen envisions a system where elevators can actually dock with each other, almost like space shuttles. If you get stuck in a malfunctioning elevator, another elevator can drive up to you, dock, and offload stranded passengers, Bass says. Hopefully, that means something like this never happens again.
In short? The elevators of the future will be like something straight of Star Trek or Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, traveling up or down, sideways, or diagonally without ropes. And this isn't just some futuristic fantasy: the technology's proven, and ThyssenKrupp will finish building the first fully functioning MULTI elevator system prototype in Rottweil, Germany, by the end of 2016.