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Science & Tech

What happened to the flying car?

  • Feb 26, 2013
  • 794 words
  • 4 minutes
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Photo: The Lexus RX450h is part of Google’s self-driving car project. Photo: Google

I am going to try doing something, which, if you have read Dan Gardner’s excellent book on predictions Future Babble, is basically an exercise in futility. Alternatively, if you haven’t read the book and prefer the crib notes version, Yogi Berra summed it up quite neatly when he stated, “It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” So with that caveat in mind I am going to tell you what your personal transportation is going to be like in the next 10 to 20 years. And if I am to properly cite my inspiration, I believe the last duo to tackle that task in depth was the genius team of Hanna and Barbara.

The Jetsons opening scene was probably the source of many baby boomers’ (and beyond, thank you Nickelodeon) desire to one day own a flying car. Sadly for us, we now know that George Jetsons’ flying station wagon never came to fruition. The closest we got to that sleek bubble roof and single tail fin design was this:

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Which, let’s face it, looks like Herbie the Lovebug had less-than-amicable relations with an overly aggressive Sesna.

The reasons why the flying car failed in hindsight are quite obvious. Not only would we have to break the laws of thermodynamics to fly like the Jetsons, we would also need to break our bankrolls as making hunks of metal fly for any distance longer than a couple of feet is an expensive endeavor. Moreover, our flying cars would need a level of coordinating not yet seen in modern transportation, as wizzing around the skies in every direction might be a tad dangerous. Let’s face it: coordinating movement is not exactly everyone’s forte. That is why planes have control towers, boats have lighthouses, roads have lane stripes and colouring books have very, very, thick borders. To put it bluntly, the flying car was never an option.

So does that mean you are going to be stuck driving that ’79 Chevy Nova for the rest of your life (just three more payments)? Well don’t scrap the Chevy just yet; we are on the cusp of something that is just as revolutionary as the flying car, only a hundred times more practical.

Think back to that opening scene of the Jetsons again (if you are too young for the Jetsons or need a refresher click here. What is it about George’s trip to work that is so appealing? The flying was no doubt part of the appeal, especially in the late ‘60s where flying was still new and reserved mainly for elite businessmen and celebrities. But the other part is how happy George looks driving to work free of the congestion of traffic, with every family member getting to their destination on time (despite only having one car). Then, to top it all off, the car neatly transforms into a briefcase eliminating that ever-joyful parking expedition and trek from the back corner of the lot in subzero temperatures. And while the flying option is out, those elements, and that appeal, is in our near future.

The technology for the “flying car” we have been waiting for is actually available right now, and although it doesn’t fly and looks just like the car we are accustomed to (a box with four wheels), self-driving cars have all the potential to free our lives from the shackles of the road. Self-driving technology will soon become much more integrated into new car models. (Most of you are already aware of cars that offer hands-free parking). And someday soon hands-free driving will become an option on certain vehicles. Nevada has already put in place a licensing system for this.

This technology presents us with endless possibilities. We need to imagine what our lives would look like without traffic, without driver fatigue, errors or accidents. We need to imagine a car that could take us to work, park in a lot several kilometres away or return home to take the kids to school, take someone to run errands and then pick you up at the end of the workday. What would life be like with that kind of technology? I imagine the future would be a lot like the Jetsons, a future where we break free from the negative aspects of driving and one where we finally get to have our “flying car.”

Charles Burke is a PhD candidate in transportation geography at McMaster University. Watch for his next article on the potential and challenges of self-driving vehicles.


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