Monday, May 14, 2007

Yet Another "Where's The Flying Car I Was Promised?" Rant

My car died quietly Thursday morning in my garage. A ’95 Chevy Cavalier bought from the original owner who’d gently used it for three years. Not too much mileage on my black beauty either despite carrying me all over BC. And she always got me home. But aging problems have been mounting over the past couple of years – an issue with the radiator that had me refilling the coolant tank every 2 weeks, a leaky transmission, the gas gage was dead, a dead light on the radio portion of the dash, a couple of minor dents, a busted trunk lock from a failed break-in, and most recently inconsistent ignition. I’d always hoped that if she was gonna die, she’d do it at home and not leave me stranded somewhere, and lo and behold, she did me that last courtesy.
As I called a cab, thought about calling the Kidney Foundation’s car donation program (a tax receipt for your jalopy and the salvage proceeds go to a good cause), and unloaded the car of all the display material I needed to take to a conference that morning, I was trying to figure out how we’d be able to swing buying a new car and, like any good SF fan, I had that moment of futuristic frustration where I asked the gods of technology: Where’s the flying car I was promised?
I mean, this is the vaunted 21st Century! The age of technological progress! If I’m going to be making a decision to replace my old clunker with something new and shiny, I know I ought to be comparing the fuel efficiency of various models, their performance and reliability, their safety ratings, their environmental impact, their looks, their extra bells and whistles, but shouldn’t auto manufacturing be at the point where I can also compare airspeed, lift capacity and non-powered gliding capability?
A sky full of aerial autos is old hat in science fiction. The idea’s been a staple of literature for decades now (does anyone happen to know what the first reference to flying cars was?). It’s been illustrated on-screen in everything from “The Jetsons” to “Bladerunner” to the “Back to the Future” franchise. An old idea, but one that’s failed to materialize in any real practical sense.
Oh sure, there’s the old black and white footage of Avro engineers trotting out their prototype one-man flying saucer. And it seems that just about every year the flaccid excuse for a news program on Discovery Canada (what ever happened to the solid, real science news they used to run when that cable specialty channel first launched?) profiles some wacky back-yard inventor who’s claimed to have cooked-up a workable family flying machine. But where are Toyota, GM and Volvo in all this? What are Bombardier and Airbus doing to bring the dream closer to reality?
They’re content to leave us dreaming.
About the closest any of us are ever going to get to the personal urban aircraft is if we find ourselves in the plywood and cardboard cockpit of an entry in the annual summer “Flugtag” circuit sponsored by the Red Bull energy drink guys.
Although I do have to grudgingly admit that the notion of thousands of us daring young men (and women) in our flying machines taking to the skies is totally impractical. Just think of how the standard traffic accident would be magnified by mid-air collisions. You wouldn’t be crawling out of a crumpled heap or being pulled from a steaming wreck by the jaws of life – you’d be plummeting to the ground thinking your mother was wrong about telling you to wear clean underwear in case you get into an accident because this time, on impact, there’s gonna be a lot of soil – both yours and the ground’s – pretty much all over you.
Safety features like airbags would take on a whole new meaning – instead of big pillows popping out of your steering wheel, they’d have to be rapid-inflating helium balloons to stave-off the aforementioned catastrophic fall.
Where the accidents of today generally involve other vehicles, road signs, trees and the occasional house’s living room, an air car accident could have the potential to wipe out a house or even a residential block.
What about the ability of police to give you a speeding ticket? How would you pull over in mid-air? (Didn’t George Jetson have to deal with a harnessbull in a jetpack on more than one occasion?)
How about wait times in the lineups at the licensing bureau? If you think it takes too long now with 50 people in line ahead of you taking their drivers tests, think of how much longer you’d be waiting if they had piloting components in those forms covering fuel consumption, windspeed, drag and airframe stress? Even worse: think of how much more the bureaucrats at the licensing bureau would enjoy making you wait even longer!
Having to wash bird crap off of the car would be the last thing you’d be worried about – an encounter with a flock of seagulls (the birds, not the silly 80’s band) would pretty much put an end to the vehicle.
And having a sky full of personal aircraft (think of how many cars are on the roads now) would redefine air pollution. Hard enough looking at the night sky in a city and trying to see past the buildings, city light, smog, commercial aircraft and satellites to get a glimpse of stars without having an aerial autobahn to boot.
Then there’s the increased risk of getting lost. “Ah-ha!” you say, “you’d be able to look down on the buildings and streets and find your way around a lot easier!” Really? Doesn’t help when you’re looking at a road map now, does it? And what if you ran into clouds or a really thick smog bank? I would argue that the risk of nagging from impatient backseat drivers would actually increase as you drove around the same cumulonimbus for the third time.
Some might argue that developing sufficiently intelligent computers to handle the flying duties would alleviate these problems. Question: how flawless is the functioning of your PC or Mac? ‘Nuff said. Anyway, that just sounds like another kind of potential nagging backseat driver, except this is one that you wouldn’t be able to give the excuse that you can’t carpool with it because you’ve gotta pick up your kid after school. No, autopilots wouldn’t be the answer.
But still, there is some cheesy 1950’s appeal in the idea of backing your flying car out of the garage onto your personal helipad and whooshing off alone into the clouds in comfort without a flightplan or a care in the world… a sort of technological evolutionary next step in taking to the open road… The sky’s the limit.
Nah. The dealers would probably drain your bank account dry with rotten financing and high interest rates. And gas costs these days? Never be worth it.

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