Not long after we switched from the horse and carriage to the automobile, we became addicted. People drove everywhere and soon there were traffic jams. More roads were needed and existing ones had to be enlarged. For futurists, the sky seemed to hold the solution and they began to sell the idea of the personal flying car. It became a promise, a dream, even an icon of the future—when you have a personal flying car, you will know that the future has arrived.
I remember going with my dad to get gas for our car. The price was $0.25 per US gallon. Nobody even thought about an oil crisis. Super highways, like the Interstate highway system of the United States were being built to crisscross the country. We lived in Portland, Oregon and often drove the I-5 up to Vancouver to visit relatives. But, as you might realize from the title here, this is not about gas, oil, or the highway system, although, in a way it is. In a time when road travel by car, and just as important for shipping products by truck, was becoming modernized and efficient, the dream of flying cars floated somewhere on the horizon.
In my youth, I watched George Jetson in the introduction to each episode drop members of his family off one by one for the day and then land his flying car, which immediately folded up into a briefcase. Wow, what a concept—a car briefcase. One of my favourite shows was called Supercar. It was done with marionettes and this car could, not only fly, it could go under water too. In science fiction movies, utopian scenes of tall buildings with cars flying between them promised an outer space like calm and serene life of floating around in the sky.
Fifty years later, oil crisis, defamation of pristine landscapes by concrete and pavement, air pollution causing global warming and other serious issues; we seem to have progressed only slightly closer to the idea of the flying car. The illusive number one promise for the future seems to keep slipping away and now seems like it might be another fifty years into the future.
Clearly, the single greatest problem is the technology that is still lacking. A flying car, like the one depicted in the Star Wars movies that just seems to levitate above the ground, even when not in operation, has no supporting technology today that could lead to the development of such a machine. To build a flying car, we would still have to resort to technology that was around fifty years ago. The vehicle would have to be like a helicopter with noisy rotor blades thrashing the air, possibly sucking birds in and spewing them out as mincemeat and feather tufts. The other alternative would be jets which would probably be even more dangerous and have pollution issues.
Even if it were possible to invent a viable flying car, issues regarding airspace, would prohibit them. These days small drones are available at a reasonable price. Some companies, such as Amazon, plan to make deliveries by drone, however airspace safety is an issue. These are small drones and probably only a few would be used. Drones would hopefully fly very low to stay out of commercial airspace. However, where I live there are float planes taking off and landing in the harbour downtown, flying low and very close to office buildings. Another problem with drones is privacy. The main payload on non-military drones is a camera. From the earliest days of drone use, people began to report that their privacy was breached by a drone spying on them. Can you imagine if everybody was driving around in a flying car hovering near the windows of houses and buildings where unsuspecting people would suddenly see someone looking in at them?
In 1965, it was apparent that flying cars were among the great inventions promised for the future, along with robots, large-scale space travel, automated homes, wrist watch video phones (Dick Tracy) and other fascinating ideas. It was common for future predictions delivered by these promises to include “In the future, we will…” The potential problems with lacking the necessary technology, or understanding how such inventions would be possible, were accompanied with the notion that science and technology would progress and such underlying technology would simply be available in the future.
Will we ever see flying cars? The move now is toward autonomous self-driving vehicles. Even this sounds to me like it holds some hefty hurdles. For a few years, we have seen cars that can park themselves, however, navigating in traffic would involve the use of artificial intelligence. One would simply sit back and let a computer navigate around in traffic that would comprise a combination of vehicles that may or may not be under the control of a human. How would flying cars navigate with no roads in the sky? Would everybody just make a bee-line to where ever they wish to go and simply hope that they see all the other traffic doing the same thing so they can avoid a crash?
Would there ever be a time when every vehicle would come under the control of a smart machine? What about collectors of old cars who dust them off on weekends to cruise around? I see another huge problem. If we relinquish control of our vehicles to smart machines and are no longer maintaining our skills of operating a motor vehicle, what happens if for some reason we do need to actually take back control? Our skills will have diminished.
Consider all the technology you can think of in your life. Is it 100 percent perfect 100 percent of the time? What about glitches? How about hackers? Could autonomous driving vehicles ever be considered 100 percent safe and perfect? If not, what are the possible results of any failures?
We have had a quick look at and considered issues involving vehicles on the horizontal plane. What might be some of the issues when we add to the mix vehicles on a vertical plane? How about when landing and taking-off? It is unlikely that runways would be used, so these cars would haver to be capable of vertical take-off and landing. In some ways, I feel like we have painted ourselves into a corner and are stuck on the ground for some time to come. The issues are very complex.
There was a time when the idea of an electric car seemed to die and the culprit was likely the oil industry. Fortunately, we are on track for the electric car to one day over-take gas powered automobiles. One could consider this a step closer to a personal flying car as the weight of a tank of gas would be prohibitive. Personal flying cars would therefore be electric and probably only be able to carry one or two people, no other cargo. Thus, battery weight will also have to be reduced through new battery technologies. The electric motors will have to be quiet and very powerful. Could this technology be developed that would be economical and affordable? An airline is affordable because it travels at a high speed over a long distance. Low speed and short distance increases the cost of operation. Then, when you arrive at your destination, if you have to wait before you can land for somebody else to land, then your vehicle would have to hover using full thrust. A land-based vehicle simply idles.
In the early days of the automobile, there were electric cars that were very good. However, the internal combustion engine became popular. Even beginning back in the days of Henry Ford, personal flying cars have been promised, designed and even prototypes made. A few personal flying cars might one day be possible, but imagine if most vehicles were to one day become electric and leave the roads and highways barren and desolate? If this happened rather suddenly, by that I mean within a few decades, what might happen to the oil industries and other industries related to the cars, roads and highways?
Futurists often point to the fact that travel by airplane is safer statistically than car travel. We need to keep in mind that it takes a huge expensive infrastructure of complex technology and highly trained personnel to make the airline industry so safe. Can we expect the operators of flying cars to become pilots? If flying cars are operated only by computers, will that be 100 percent safe? Has anyone had their car stall? A flying car that stalls, will simply drop from the sky. Reducing that possibility would mean following the maintenance schedule of an airplane. Even then accidents would still happen. Can we expect the average person to follow that? A mid-air collision would mean that the vehicles involved would simply drop from the sky. How would these vehicles manage in tight flying spaces, like near buildings, in wind or other weather turbulences? Perhaps all flying cars would be run by a company who would maintain them—so much for the idea of the personal flying car.
When we drive our cars, we follow the rules of the road and rely extensively on signage to direct us. How would rules of the air work? Who has the right of way? Where would the signage be hung? Could everybody be trusted to follow the rules? OK, so this is beginning to look like it will have to fall entirely in the realm of computers. Do we really want to completely give up control? There goes the thrill of being at the controls and driving our personal flying car.
I can see the possibility of making flying vehicles part of the public transit system. When I look at traffic, by far the majority of it is commuters traveling to and from work places or special events. The number of cars on the road with only the driver going someplace where they will have to park amazes me. How many of these people would give up their car for a cheap individualize mode of transportation straight to their destination. Yes, I said individualized, or even carpools. This would be automated and part of the transit system. You would get picked up where you live, like a taxi, and dropped at your destination. That might work.
The automobile has become a symbol of wealth, power and freedom. People like the idea of being in control of a technological machine and being able to go where they want when they want. The modern automobile is comfortable and powerful; with all manner of features and gadgets. People will drive somewhere to get a good price on a product and not factor in the cost of the car, including gas, maintenance and replacement. Never mind the cost to the environment and the human stress due to traffic and the impending dangers of driving. The freedom seems to cancel-out the added cost to any of our endeavours.
The automobile has not changed much in its 100 years of life. There have been some mechanical, design and safety improvements along with plenty of features added, yet a car is still a carriage with an internal combustion engine that rolls on wheels. Some things seem to never change. Our cars keep changing, yet the more they do, the more they stay the same. The personal flying car, like the future, may never arrive, at least not as expected. What unforeseen baggage might it might bring?
Let’s think about it!
© 2014 by Bob Grahame
Please do not reproduce this article, or any part, in any manner, without my permission. Thank you!