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Where is my flying car?

In 1902, H. G Wells penned a book, remarkably prophetic in some respects, that can be taken as the definition of the fin de siecle take on the probable course of the 20th century. It was called Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought. You can find it here at Project Gutenberg.

He writes:

Ever and again during the eighteenth century an engine would be put upon the roads and pronounced a failure–one monstrous Paloferric creature was visible on a French high road as early as 1769–but by the dawn of the nineteenth century the problem had very nearly got itself solved. By 1804 Trevithick had a steam locomotive indisputably in motion and almost financially possible, and from his hands it puffed its way, slowly at first, and then, under Stephenson, faster and faster, to a transitory empire over the earth. It was a steam locomotive–but for all that it was primarily _a steam engine for pumping_ adapted to a new end; it was a steam engine whose ancestral stage had developed under conditions that were by no means exacting in the matter of weight. And from that fact followed a consequence that has hampered railway travel and transport very greatly, and that is tolerated nowadays only through a belief in its practical necessity. The steam locomotive was all too huge and heavy for the high road–it had to be put upon rails. And so clearly linked are steam engines and railways in our minds that, in common language now, the latter implies the former. But indeed it is the result of accidental impediments, of avoidable difficulties that we travel to-day on rails.

Railway travelling is at best a compromise. The quite conceivable ideal of locomotive convenience, so far as travellers are concerned, is surely a highly mobile conveyance capable of travelling easily and swiftly to any desired point, traversing, at a reasonably controlled pace, the ordinary roads and streets, and having access for higher rates of speed and long-distance travelling to specialized ways restricted to swift traffic, and possibly furnished with guide-rails. For the collection and delivery of all sorts of perishable goods also the same system is obviously altogether superior to the existing methods. Moreover, such a system would admit of that secular progress in engines and vehicles that the stereotyped conditions of the railway have almost completely arrested, because it would allow almost any new pattern to be put at once upon the ways without interference with the established traffic. Had such an ideal been kept in view from the first the traveller would now be able to get through his long-distance journeys at a pace of from seventy miles or more an hour without changing, and without any of the trouble, waiting, expense, and delay that arises between the household or hotel and the actual rail. It was an ideal that must have been at least possible to an intelligent person fifty years ago, and, had it been resolutely pursued, the world, instead of fumbling from compromise to compromise as it always has done and as it will do very probably for many centuries yet, might have been provided to-day, not only with an infinitely more practicable method of communication, but with one capable of a steady and continual evolution from year to year.

Do you see it? I don’t think there could be, in retrospect, a clearer case made for the private automobile. We see it — but Wells doesn’t.

Let us consider what other possibilities seem to offer themselves. Let us revert to the ideal we have already laid down, and consider what hopes and obstacles to its attainment there seem to be. The abounding presence of numerous experimental motors to-day is so stimulating to the imagination, there are so many stimulated persons at work upon them, that it is difficult to believe the obvious impossibility of most of them–their convulsiveness, clumsiness, and, in many cases, exasperating trail of stench will not be rapidly fined away.[6] I do not think that it is asking too much of the reader’s faith in progress to assume that so far as a light powerful engine goes, comparatively noiseless, smooth-running, not obnoxious to sensitive nostrils, and altogether suitable for high road traffic, the problem will very speedily be solved. And upon that assumption, in what direction are these new motor vehicles likely to develop? how will they react upon the railways? and where finally will they take us?

At present they seem to promise developments upon three distinct and definite lines.

There will, first of all, be the motor truck for heavy traffic. Already such trucks are in evidence distributing goods and parcels of various sorts. And sooner or later, no doubt, the numerous advantages of such an arrangement will lead to the organization of large carrier companies, using such motor trucks to carry goods in bulk or parcels on the high roads. Such companies will be in an exceptionally favourable position to organize storage and repair for the motors of the general public on profitable terms, and possibly to co-operate in various ways with the manufactures of special types of motor machines.

In the next place, and parallel with the motor truck, there will develop the hired or privately owned motor carriage. This, for all except the longest journeys, will add a fine sense of personal independence to all the small conveniences of first-class railway travel. It will be capable of a day’s journey of three hundred miles or more, long before the developments to be presently foreshadowed arrive. One will change nothing–unless it is the driver–from stage to stage. One will be free to dine where one chooses, hurry when one chooses, travel asleep or awake, stop and pick flowers, turn over in bed of a morning and tell the carriage to wait–unless, which is highly probable, one sleeps aboard.[7]…

And thirdly there will be the motor omnibus, attacking or developing out of the horse omnibus companies and the suburban lines. All this seems fairly safe prophesying.

And that’s it. So near, and yet so far. No private cars, or more precisely, private cars to the extent we have private planes, for people who can afford chauffeurs. As I quoted in Nanofuture, historian of technology D. S. L. Cardwell wrote:

If we turn to contemporary speculation in order to gain some idea of men’s expectations of the technology of their times, we find that in their predictions of the future, or rather their extrapolations of contemporary technological trends as they interpreted them, writers often made shrewd prophecies. Following the inventions of telegraphy and telephony, television could readily be imagined; air travel by heavier-than-air machines (usually powered by steam-engines and therefore boasting handsome funnels) was confidently predicted long before the Wright brothers’ first flight. Even the atomic bomb was, it is claimed, forecast by H. G. Wells not very long after the beginnings of sub-atomic physics.

It is, however, a truly remarkable fact that on the very brink of an economic-technological revolution unparalleled in history no one foresaw the universal motor car and all that it was soon to imply. This failure on the part of imformed and perceptive men to grasp the significance of what was going on under their very noses must make us suspicious of all attempts to forecast technological developments even one or two years ahead, much less ten or twenty.

It’s all, I claim, a matter of economics. Assembly-line factories made machinery — automobiles — cheap enough for individuals to own. That would have been unheard of in the nineteenth century. Nanofactories will do the same for us in the twenty-first.

12 Responses to “Where is my flying car?”

  1. seagoer Says:

    I would think, then, that jet packs (with Plexiglas covers for in-climate weather) and car/plane/boat individual transporters will be the wave of the future…why not?

  2. J. Storrs Hall Says:

    The private automobile has proven to be a major local optimum in the space of possible transport vehicles. I’d suspect that would carry over into the regime of flying ones, with the provisos that cheaper tech and more space would likely make the optimum a larger vehicle, perhaps with Wells’ room to sleep aboard (and AI piloting). See my flying car page.

  3. lorien1973 Says:

    People can barely drive in 2 dimensions. Imagine 3 dimensions. *shudders*
    [Yes -- the AI driver is necessary. But closer than you might think. --jsh]

  4. M. Spehar Says:

    With the now dogmatic belief in “peak oil,” the future of a flying car would seem to depend upon the discovery of some “unobtainium” fuel.

    As we move towards a greener, more egalitarian utopia, such scientific advances will be less and less likely. After all, we’ll always have some group of poor unfortunates who need free health care or some such other public largesse. Doing our duty in providing for such needy will require turning away from such illusory progress as free-wheeling science might seem to promise.

  5. Shannon Love Says:

    I think that visionaries tend to see future tech as merely extending existing systems. Wells is clearly doing this. He is extrapolating from the late-1800′s use of carriages which served only as spokes radiating from rail hubs. Virtually no one back then used carriages for long distance transportation. Instead, they traveled 90% of the distance by rail or water and then used horse drawn transport for the remaining 90%.

    I think we have the same conceptual problem with flying-cars. Even the name itself suggest an extension of the current automobile instead of a game changing technology with its own unique capabilities and patterns of uses. For example, most flying-car concepts center around speeding up the commute into and between urban cores even through that mode of transportation is rapidly declining. Most people in America today are more likely to travel from part of suburbia to another than they are to commute to an urban core. Future transport, whatever the form, will enhance this new mode, not the dominant mode of the 1950′s.

    In short, the “flying-car” won’t be a “car” anymore than a “horseless carriage” was carriage. It will be its own thing with its own advantages and disadvantages. We should start thinking from scratch by chunking the name “flying-car”. Call it “point-to-point, individual aerial transport” and think about it as a totally new thing instead of just an extension of existing systems.

  6. Faffnir Says:

    Without significant automation and AI, turning hordes of untrained operators loose in the skys will be a disaster. Witness the carnage on the roads from people whose minds are on anything but safely operating their cars. I’m a professional driver and private pilot. Aviation is a skill learned over hours of practice. Driving a car is only less so, since you’re only moving in one geometric plane. It would be great of someone could come up with something like the old British “SuperCar” series: vertical take-off and landing, cruise at 300 or so knots,room for 4 passengers plus luggage in about the footprint of a modern mid-size car.
    I’d pay money for something like that.

  7. Hal Says:

    ISTM that Wells’ blind spot was not so much economic, as a matter of social class. He saw how automobiles could benefit the rich. He did not foresee the continued rise of an independent middle class becoming the dominant force in society. His perspective was of a world where people knew their place. Many people of his era were in fact quite horrified by the rise of the vulgar classes.

    So I think it is repeating the same mistake to apply our own concepts of the social order to new technologies. Seeing them as democratizing forces, or further empowering the middle class, is an instance of the same kind of simplistic extrapolation which tripped up 19th century forecasters. Chances are we will view future changes with the same dismay which every generation has felt as its assumptions were upended.

    For example, perhaps we might see widespread voluntary adoption of mind control, where people turn some aspects of their minds over to a controlling entity, for some recompense. We might see the final death of privacy. We might see increasing polarization and a vast increase in inequality of power and wealth beyond any historical precedent. We might see replication of human-level intelligence become so cheap, common and widespread that it is of essentially no economic value.

    So yes, maybe we’ll have flying cars, but they will be only for the rich. For the rest of us, our jobs, even our lives, will be as uploads resident in the car firmware. I will be controlling the right front propeller servo to compensate for moment to moment variations in wind speed and atmospheric conditions. Brave new world indeed!

  8. Tedd McHenry Says:

    In the next place, and parallel with the motor truck, there will develop the hired or privately owned motor carriage.

    It seems to me that this pretty accurately predicts the private car. How does it not? I grant that Wells may have underestimated how common ownership would become (even carriages were only owned by the fairly well-to-do, in his day). And he clearly underestimated how common it would be for people to drive themselves. But he seem to have the general idea of a private car, spot on.

  9. Tedd McHenry Says:

    Without significant automation and AI, turning hordes of untrained operators loose in the skys will be a disaster.

    As I pilot, I’m sure you’re right. But full automation of flying is already possible, and full automation of driving is just around the corner. Within a generation or so it will probably be illegal to manually drive a car in most places. The safety and economic benefits are too great for that not to happen. I love to drive and will hate to give it up, but driving a car or riding a motorcycle will, quite soon, be anachronistic skills akin to riding a horse.

  10. Dan H. Says:

    There’s a flaw in the notion of the private car – you simply can’t put as many cars in the air as you can put on roads on the ground. Even with computer control, air vehicles need a lot of space around them, because they move with the air mass, and air is a fluid medium full of updrafts, downdrafts, wind shear, and other effects. This is why thousands of feet separate airplanes at all times. The limitation is not the ability of the pilot.

    The carrying capacity of the airspace over a city isn’t big enough to handle even 1/1000 of the cars that are driving on the roads beneath it. End of story.

  11. GeoDave Says:

    Advances in broadband telecommunications, miniturization, ultra-portable technology, and human interface technology have out-paced transportation and propulsion technology by a longshot. The world is interconnected in ways that the car or even high speed air travel can’t match. Think about it. The car for all it’s modern features is based on the same combustion tech that Henry Ford’s Model T fucntioned on and is used in exactly the same way. Conversely, computing and telecom tech have evolved together in ways that are unrecognizable when compared to their 1960′s era protypes. I don’t think even Gates or Wosniak could have appreciated what has emerged from those early creations. My point is that these advances are already impacting airline travel (business) and reducing individual automotive travel (commuters) who rely more on their connectivity than their need to be somewhere physically. We will still move around but it will be down to the corner for milk and cigarettes or over to Phuket for vacation -and less liekly to work or attend meetings. Flying cars? Eventually. Personal flying cars. Unlikely. Insufficient economic demand. Having said all this a flying car would KICK ASS.

  12. J. Storrs Hall Says:

    @Dan: Geese do a pretty good job of flying in formation and even improve their aerodynamic efficiency doing it. Don’t see why we can’t do at least as well. And remember, there are something like half a billion cubic km of airspace over North America. Given flying cars, people will spread out…

    In cities, consider this: as computing power and sensor tech improves, it will be possible to have a realtime map of all the circulation over a city; ATC would not just allow for but use the impact of each vehicle, plus ground-based thrusters and so forth, to manage all the traffic and air currents as an integrated whole. You don’t get to control your aircar by hand in town, of course, but then you won’t get to control your ground car, either.

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