Monday, June 14, 2010

Dude, where’s my flying car?

I just read an article in Slate about the future of intercity transportation. That got me thinking: Do you ever wonder what the future will be like?

When I was a boy, the Astro Boy cartoons were a big favorite. The narrator made a point of reminding you that the story was taking place in the year 2000. The Seattle World's Fair in 1962 (or was it the New York World's Fair in 1964-65?) assured us that there would be videophones and flying cars by the end of the century.

I did the math, and discovered that I would be forty-five years old by then. I feared the prospect of gray hair back then. Now I consider it an improvement. But, I digress ...

It's now 2010. Videophones never quite caught on when available early in the decade, but webcams have. Now "Sal" can see her daughters in the Philippines when talking to them through Skype. And the next generation of smartphones will embed webcams, so people can see you talking to them while you're walking down the street, until you run into a telephone pole and break your phone. Or your face.

Meanwhile, about that flying car ...

See, here's the real trick. Most of these advances would be more likely, if technology always went along a straight line, but it doesn't. We fail to appreciate that the desktop computers in our home, and the phones we carry in our hands, are only possible because someone invented the microchip, and that was only possible because someone else before them invented integrated circuits, which in turn replaced transistors. My flying car isn't ready because ... well, the genius behind what's in the second clip, and who is speaking in the third clip, has been at this project for over thirty years, and he's gone through millions of dollars. A prototype is supposed to be flying in 2012, with models available "a few years later" for around half a million dollars.

But first (and I'm no expert, but I'm judging from the earlier clips I've seen), he may have to develop a better means of stabilizing the craft while off the ground.

He'd better hurry.

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