Saturday, March 21, 2015

Futurist Fridays: This is not a flying car

New Feature: I plan to spend Fridays thinking about the future... well, thinking about the future even more than I usually do.  And in my typical style, today's Futurist Friday is posting late.  (Why is the future never here when we want it to be?)

The news has been lighting up recently with "OMG We Finally Get a Flying Car!" stories.  It's a moment I've been waiting for my entire life. The future is here!

Or is it?

What they're talking about is the Aeromobile 3.0 which is billing itself as a flying car.

That sure is neat. Neat and disappointing. Just like all the previous "Flying Cars" that have been trumpeted since the concept was conceived (probably about ten minutes after the invention of the car itself).

Look, I want the futurific world we were promised too, but this is not it it. As a piece of engineering, it is no doubt brilliant. Meeting the demands of aviation and transportation authorities at the same time? That's quite a trick. But it's still not the futurific flying car we've all been dreaming about. I hate to bust bubbles, but it's not even really a step towards it. This isn't a flying car, it's a light airplane that happens to be road legal. That's neat, but not all that original; carplanes have been a thing for decades and none of them have gone anywhere commercially. There's even a category for them: "Roadable Aircraft".

This is the Taylor Aerocar III that is currently on display at Seattle's Museum of Flight. It was designed and built in the 1940's.  You can see another one on the wing in this article from the Daily Mail.

Photo by MarkWarren, used under Creative Commons License

There are other people pushing this than the company who made the video, though, so apparently they're going to be a Thing now, at least for awhile and for people in a certain income bracket. But let's be honest: it's neither practical nor particularly awesome since you still need a runway for taking off and landing the thing.

I doubt any state or municipality in the world is going to let you deploy wings and take off as you approach a traffic jam.  Aeromobile is apparently suggesting that governments begin building grass landing strips alongside every highway but does anyone really think that's likely? Either way, it's a long way from "Where we're going we don't need roads."

Does anyone believe that the people who can afford this thing will keep it around as anything other than a toy? It lacks even the semblance of practicality.  Lamborghinis are neat too, but how many of those do you see around? Western Washington is one of the wealthiest areas of one of the wealthiest countries in the world and I can't think of the last time I saw one tooling down the road. I was passed by a Ferrari California the other day though, but I digress... this is -- at best -- an airborne Lambo.

So now what?

The kind of engineering revolution that is needed to get most of humanity off the tarmac and up into the skies just isn't here. Maybe once DARPA finishes their I-kid-you-not-this-is-real Transformer project we could see the needle move on this. Milspec technology has a way of finding its way into the mainstream much faster than the toys of the super rich ever do.

Look, I'm a dyed in the wool futurist, but even I don't believe that the sky cities of the Jetsons and all those Amazing Stories magazine covers are within reach. The engineering challenges are too steep, the costs too high, and the current technologies too convenient to really spur the kind of investment of time needed to do that.

And how ubiquitous would it be if no one could afford to buy one?  As long as even "Roadable Aircraft" are in the airborne Lamborghini range, that's unattainable for at best 90% of humanity. And then there's the licensing and training required to fly one.  (After Google and Elon Musk crack driverless cars, maybe driverless flying cars?)

Sure, it's a car and it can fly, but is it really a "Flying Car" as we've come to define them as a culture? Unrealistic as they may be, there is a commonly-held mental image of a flying car and this doesn't hit any of those sweet spots.  We want a flying Delorean or a spinner from Bladerunner, not a Cessna that mated with a BMW.  At least this VW concept car is close even if it is ridiculous and unstable.

The truth is, we need a little more ridiculous in our lives and everytime I look at a calendar I sigh a little that our lives lack the levels of ridiculosity that we were promised. 

Of course, the real trouble with the Aeromobile is that it doesn't live up to my Buck Rogers dreams. And it's not lost on me that my expectations are completely unrealistic and not nearly grounded in reality.

That's the messed up thing about dreams. Sometimes they suck the magic out of reality. But it's no reason to stop dreaming.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).