These Elevator Innovations Are Changing the Built Environment

The modern elevator has been around in one form or another since the 19th century, but the elevators of today look very different from the ones that existed during the days of the phonograph. Someone magically transported from late-1800s Chicago to 21st-century Dubai would scarcely recognize the machinery that now sits at the heart of every high-rise building. (He’d also have to figured out the whole “horseless carriage” deal.)

Elevators have already changed a great deal in the past 150 years. But if anything, the pace of change is accelerating. These days, some exciting elevator innovations promise to transform how we build our cities and transport people and goods. Which are you most excited about?

Carbon Fiber Ropes

Virtually all modern passenger elevators use steel cables for support and stability. Steel is a strong material that disperses energy well and doesn’t cost a fortune to procure. But it’s far from the strongest structural material in use today — and that’s a major problem for the next generation of supertall buildings. To build much higher than the world’s current record-holding skyscraper, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, we need a new type of cable material.

Enter carbon fiber cables. According to Fast Company, the KONE Corporation’s UltraRope carbon fiber cable technology “will allow skyscrapers to reach new heights, let elevators go twice as far, will last twice as long as old-school cables, and can even reduce elevator delays on windy days.”

KONE’s innovation could be key to breaking the “kilometer barrier,” the semi-theoretical building-height limit that posits skyscrapers much taller than a kilometer (just over 3,000 feet) aren’t efficient or economical under any circumstances. By allowing for longer elevator shafts and higher carrying capacities, carbon fiber cables could help ambitious builders shatter the kilometer barrier and perhaps approach the mile-high mark.

The first UltraRope elevator is now operating in Singapore; time will tell whether interest in this novel and potentially game-changing technology grows.

Cableless Elevators

Cableless elevators sound like they’ve been ripped from the pages of a science fiction novel, but they’re very real — and they’re about to enter service. The Verge reports that ThyssenKrupp is gearing up to test cableless elevators that use a magnetic propulsion system (similar to maglev trains) that reduces friction and allows for horizontal travel. Eventually, these elevators could serve as a sort of local transportation system that supplements street-level transit.

The Next Big Thing Isn’t What You Think

One of the ironclad laws of technological change goes something like this: The “next big thing” rarely turns out to be such. In the mid-19th century, everyone knew that the world of the future would be powered by steam. In the 1950s, everyone knew that miniaturized atomic power would solve the planet’s energy problems. In the 1990s, everyone knew that boxy desktop computers were here to stay.

The point is, technologies come and go, and the most lasting innovations tend to be the ones we initially overlook. So while it’s exciting and thought-provoking to peer into the future of the elevator, we need to remain humble — always mindful that we don’t know as much as we think about what’s coming down the line (or shaft).