I think George Jetson said it best when he said:
“The only thing to fear is insane robots, superviruses, mid-air vehicle collisions, and the final unveiling of the secret evil rabbit empire lurking in the shadows of civilization.”
At least, I think that was Mr. Jetson.
And he’s right.
Welcome to Year 14 of the 21st century, here’s your mobile device, a data plan that makes no sense, HD that isn’t really HD, and an entire universe of social media poisoning your mind with what corporations love for you to sell for them, and what uneducated people think reality is.
Flying cars? No, sorry. We don’t trust ground cars that can drive themselves, and we have no idea how to pilot an aircraft on our own. That’s a big zero for two on the prerequisite front.
Flying cars look great in Coruscant, or being piloted by Bruce Willis, but practically, we’re not going to see flying cars anytime soon.
Let’s consider the obvious roadblocks, outside of the propulsion issue that is just not worth going into yet (let’s make them run on gasoline, or better yet, coal!):
1. If you think drunk drivers are bad, wait until Harry Benson, bi-polar, alcoholic, attorney at law of the future, has a barrel or two too many vodka tonics at Big Rick’s Hovering Bistro in the Sky, hops in his personal flying coffin and rolls into the airways at a cool 100kph. Short of a Curiosity-style bubble-wrap safety deployment system, Mr. Benson, and the people unfortunate enough to have met his flying coffin head on, will have no chance of surviving the impact after falling 100 or so feet in a mangled mess of metal. Air safety is key, and we’re not even close. How do you prevent a disabled flying fortress from plummeting to the ground and crashing into your house? Right now, we can’t.
2. Ground traffic sucks, but air traffic of that magnitude is worse. Any attempt at establishing a working air traffic system for regular people would require a complete remodeling of our entire air traffic networks. There will be airlanes, just like there are highways. Likely, the airlanes are going to be right over the existing highways anyway, but what will keep impatient flyers from circumventing the lanes and going rogue into a small prop plane’s path. How about a nice ultra-speed police chase through the crowded skies over an airport? The restructuring that it would take would be phenomenally and restrictively expensive.
Let’s tackle the traffic issue first. We need to stop imagining ourselves cruising through the suburbs over houses and barrel-rolling out of the airlanes like Anakin Skywalker into trendy syntho-pubs. If we’re going to be airborne travelers, outside of passenger jets, it’s going to be either mass transit based, or it’s going to require automatic control by in-board navigational computers. There have to be defined lanes with guidance systems to keep the air vehicle within set boundaries at set speeds. Forget piloting these things yourself – frankly, why would you want to? Imagine a automated traffic system that is smarter than you are. It knows the quickest way to get you where you want to go even in a peak transit period. No more slow trucks in the fast lane – there are only fast lanes.
In a way, an automated system solves the accident issue as well. If you can’t pilot your air vehicle yourself, then it doesn’t matter if you’re sleepy, drunk, texting, or dead behind the wheel. Are we going to like this? No. We mistrust robots and the revolution hasn’t even happened yet. Men and women are going to want to have control. Men and women love their vehicles and there’s no way some buffed calculator is going to dictate how fast they go down the airlane. Are we using mass transit now? Carpooling? Yeah? You must live in New Hampshire. Hell, that’s just like people telling you what to do, like that Oprah lady and people who like Coldplay.
Is there a way to make personal air travel safe enough for it to become mainstream and affordable?
The DMV passes incompetent drivers all the time. Either the requirements for receiving an air license for manual piloting of an air vehicle should be ridiculously difficult to pass – second to a present day pilot’s license – and ludicrously expensive, or there can be no manual control. There’s safety solution #1.
The bigger issue is the probable fatal injury in any mid-air collision. Even fifty feet up, a two-ton flying machine is going to hit hard, and there’s little to do to prevent maximum damage at impact. Emergency booster rockets? Balloon shells deployed at red alert? Automatic ejection seats? All impractical.
In my opinion, the only viable solution is airtube travel in vehicles with automated navigation systems. Any issues in the tube and your vehicle is automatically pulled out of the airlane into a safety lane just below it, out of harm’s way and out of traffic. Outside of the airtubes, ground travel is required. Now maybe that means you can still hover a couple of feet off the ground, but likely it means hybrid vehicles that can fly and roll along the streets. If you give people the ability to pilot an air vehicle themselves, that opens up a hairy box of trouble. But honestly, what’s practical about a web of plastic tubes in an already crowded skyline, and imagine if one of those babies takes a tumble into ground traffic.
Frankly, we’re not going to be the Jetsons any time soon. Get used to bad drivers and bad traffic, boyo. That doesn’t mean the conversation shouldn’t start now. Outside of regular people flying around in flashy, expensive status symbols, there is a huge benefit in automated cargo transit. Transit times across the country could be split in half, maybe even more. The real issue there is the same issue behind all the questions of the future:
Are you ready for robots? And if you are, then what about the millions of people whose livelihood will become obsolete? All those truck drivers out of work. Pizza delivery delegated to a shiny, polite robot that never gets lost and is always on time.
Whether or not we solve the issues barring personal air vehicles from becoming a reality, the integration of artificially intelligent robots into our every day lives is absolutely 100% inevitable. You’re going to see it, and soon. Unless we mature at the same pace as our technology, that soon-to-come revolution will be a bitter one.
The worst enemy of the entire human species is the human species we were yesterday.