Why it matters: When people discuss maglev technology, it usually concerns train systems where it is known for allowing incredible speeds. Recent tests have explored the potential advantages maglev rails could bring to cars. The trials are early, but the results are promising.

Chinese media recently reported that a 2.8-ton car levitated 35mm above a modified section of highway in eastern China. A separate test hit a maximum speed of 230kph (about 143mph). Researchers think applying maglev locomotion to cars could increase their range and longevity while consuming less energy.

The tests occurred on a 7.9 km (5-mile) stretch of road in Jiangsu province, where researchers from Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu installed a permanent magnet array and conductor rail to enable maglev transportation. In all, they modified and tested eight standard cars for the special tracks. Maglev technology uses magnets and electromagnetic forces to levitate vehicles – usually trains – above tracks.

The trials likely don’t mean we’ll see widespread maglev cars in China soon, however. Local transport authorities held them to study the safety of high-speed maglev driving on existing roads and to investigate the expansion of the technology. Along with fuel efficiency benefits, maglev cars could decrease traffic jams through the coordination of separate lanes.

China has been a pioneer in maglev for some time. The world’s first maglev train – still in operation – was the Shanghai Transrapid. It’s also the world’s fastest electric passenger train, with a cruising speed of 431kph (268mph).

Last year, China unveiled an in-development 600kph maglev train in Qingdao. While the Shanghai line only runs from an airport into town, China hopes to eventually use maglev trains like the one in Qingdao to significantly cut the travel times between major cities compared to planes and traditional high-speed rail.

A report from Allied Market Research released this week alleges that the global maglev market could generate $2.7 billion in 2025 and $5.6 billion by 2035. Urbanization in developing European countries could be the primary driver of that growth.

One of the strongest sectors of the maglev market may be superconducting maglevs (SCMAGLEV), which consume 30 percent less energy than other maglev trains due to their lack of electrical resistance. A project is currently underway to demonstrate the potential of SCMAGLEV technology with a line running between Baltimore and Washington, DC.

The success of the Jiangsu tests is indeed good news for maglev ambitions in China, but it’s too soon to tell how fast maglev cars could spread.

Image credit: Xinhua

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