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Where's My Flying Car?

[Written in May 2002 for the July/August issue of The Voyageur. Copyright © 2002 Peter de Jager.

It doesn't matter where we look—at old copies of Time, Popular Mechanics, daily newspapers or even our favourite science-fiction magazines. All their visions of the future included one particular element: the personal flying car. Where is it? More importantly...Why isn't it?

Yes, we have air travel, even more than most people believe or can imagine. At any moment in time, there are more than 1 million people in the air. That's a small city in flight. Yet it's not the flying car vision of the past. That vision was one of the personal flying car, an advance that would replace the all-too-familiar automobile. It was of the average citizen of the street, flying in ordered flowing streams to work and picking up the groceries. That hasn't happened. Sadly(?), it will never happen.

That's a strong statement—audacious, even pretentious—yet I believe it to be true. The "flying car" vision is an example of a "poorly coupled" prediction. There's no path from today that we can travel to arrive at this envisioned tomorrow. Between the today we hold in our hands and the tomorrow of our dreams lie insurmountable obstacles that are an integral part of who we are.

Most people would suggest the reason we don't have flying cars has something to do with technology. They're only half right. Technology limits what we can do; human nature limits what we will attempt.

Drive the main highways of a major city at the height of rush hour. Note the irrational stop and go, the swerving, the inattention to a life-and-death activity, the growing trend of road rage, the madness of hurtling steel leviathans, the honking of horns, the unexpected rushes of adrenaline. Now imagine this maelstrom a thousand feet above your home...every hour of every day.

"But!", the objections are shouted from the back row, "It doesn't have to be that way! Technology has solutions! Guidance and control systems can solve all those problems. Anti-collision devices can make accidents impossible." Etc., etc.

Let's assume the technologists are right. Let's pretend for the sake of argument that all of the above is true. Even with all this as a given, will we ever see flying cars replace the automobile? Not a chance. For several different reasons.

The first? No community would allow a flowstream over their backyard. NIMBY (not in my backyard) would quickly change to NIMAS...Not in my airspace. Second? A flowstream would have to be placed over at least a non-residential corridor...significantly wider than existing highways. Aircars a thousand feet up need a lot more space for emergency landings than do Ford pickup trucks. Simple economics makes mass use of personal aircars impossible.

But neither of these is the real reason. The real reason is more mundane. How would we take that huge step from being landbound to being airborne? Regardless of the assurances that the risks of flying would be equivalent to or less than the existing risks of driving, how do we get to the point where enough people believe this to be true, for us to allow a single aircar, never mind tens of thousands of aircars, to fly downtown during normal business hours?

This is the "poor coupling" of the flying car prediction. Between the reality of today and the vision of tomorrow is a gap we have to cross, but not in little steps. And these steps are not technological ones, but ones of belief, trust and even a minimal level of acceptance.

In science fiction we're allowed one, even two, suspensions of disbelief. In real life, the first one you come across when analyzing a prediction...destroys its validity.

Send feedback to Peter de Jager.


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