Monday, April 22, 2024

Great Magazine Reads: Flying cars are the hottest trend in future transportation, just like they were on The Jetsons

Always thinking back to The Jetsons, we keep asking whatever happened to the flying cars we were promised. I was quoted about this alongside several other transportation experts in 2016 in USA Today and wrote about flying cars in 2017 for Mobility Lab.

The question lingers, but what exactly is a flying car? One definition given in "A Reporter Aloft: Flight of Fancy," by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, in the latest issue of The New Yorker, is "the 'perfect aircraft' — something 'that didn’t require a pilot’s license, and could take off or land anywhere.'"

The flying car has been part of our collective imagination for a good 100 years. Long ago, the article notes:

The aviation company Cessna ran magazine advertisements for the Family Car of the Air, a sensible little plane that you could park in your garage, with copy like “Remember, Mrs. America likes to go places and see things. And when she finds out that she can cover 600 miles in a morning, to shop or visit in any one of a dozen cities, she’s going to fly.”

By the mid-fifties, it was almost a given that some future sedans would come with wings. If we were going to live in mile-high space needles, how else would we move about? The title sequence of “The Jetsons,” which premi√®red in 1962, doesn’t show the ground once; George takes his wife and children to their respective floating platforms in his domed airship, and then heads to his offce at Spacely Space Sprockets, Inc. Some of this imagery was the standard-issue utopianism of the bright-eyed mid-century, but it really wasn’t that farfetched. After all, many of the era’s predictions came to pass: portable radios, televisions with screens “the size of a pocket handkerchief,” air-conditioning, plastics.

There is no doubt that those predictions by The Jetsons and others were inspiring and have, after decades of stagnancy, taken hold again of entrepreneuers in the business startup world: 

Today, there are more than four hundred startups in what is called the “advanced air mobility” industry. The term covers everything from actual flying-carish contraptions to more traditional-looking airplanes, but it generally refers to eVTOLs (pronounced “ee-vee-tall”). For the most part, these crafts bear a greater resemblance to helicopterplane hybrids than to automobiles, and they can’t be driven on the road; they might better be described as electric aerial vehicles with the ability to hover and the no-fuss point-to-point flexibility of a car.

Those interviewed in the article make a strong and logical case that flying cars could have already been mainstream if the U.S. wasn't so hostile to innovation:

Flying cars were another victim of our unwillingness to bear the costs of progress. American society allows about forty thousand road fatalities a year but refuses to tolerate even one aviation death. “Why can’t [the Federal Aviation Administration] say, ‘If you want to develop a flying machine, go out in the desert and do whatever you want’? I remember when Amazon was trying to test drone delivery they had to do experiments in Canada.” In the sixties, a heliport was built atop New York City’s Pan Am Building. After a period of inactivity, it was put back into use in 1977, with as many as sixty-four scheduled departures each day to local airports. That May, there was a landing-gear failure. Four people were killed by spinning rotor blades; a fifth was killed by a blade that careened to the street below. The heliport was permanently closed.

Of course, heliports and eVTOLs aren't the only option. We could choose to build our transportation in other ways that actually move masses of people efficiently and effectively.

Then there’s the sheer number that would be needed. Before the pandemic, about four hundred thousand people a day crossed the Hudson River into Manhattan. Aerial commuting would require tens of thousands of drone taxis operating on regular, reliable schedules, with flawless safety records. So all of a sudden you’re into the realm of, "Why didn’t we just build a train?"

It's a good thing nobody is asking us to hold our breath for aerial mobility. I'm happy to have my e-bike for my ever-reliable 20-minute work commute across Maryland and Washington D.C. That obviously isn't the solution for everyone. But at least we all have old episodes of the Jetsons we can watch.

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