The idea of cars that take us not only along the earthbound paths laid out by our forebears, but also into the sky, has permeated American culture for a hundred years.
It would be difficult to spend much time in the United States without running into at least some form of this dream. It appears where you might expect, like movies, television, books, but also lurks in secret: car design, news stories, and a gaggle of people complaining each new year about the lack of hoverboard technology.
I only found out today (thanks to a very distracting tip from my friend Will) that flying cars do exist in some form today.
Let me clarify the definition I am using here: a flying car is a vehicle that can, with ease, transition from driving on a road to taking flight and back again.
Somehow this technology escaped my notice before now, but it exists. I urge you to watch this three minute video to see a demonstration of the Terrafugio Transition, my personal favorite of the options currently on the table:
Go ahead and take a moment to recover. It’s okay. You have not found your way into an alternate reality where life is much more awesome than you thought. It’s just that life IS much more awesome than you thought, and we have to find a way to cope.
Now, I should go ahead and clarify my position. As a rock solid member of the lower class, I never expect to be able to afford a machine such as this. The page listing the Transition on the Terrafugio website estimates a starting price north of $250k. That’s a really nice house in a great neighborhood. That’s two-to-ten decent college educations. That’s, like, three hundred thousand Snickers bars. (Well, fun-sized Snickers bars, anyway.)
My point here is, yes, I get that it is not really a feasible option for the average consumer. My expectation is that it will not become feasible in my lifetime. That hurts, but I have come to expect that change will only come at the pace humans can survive it. (And if it does come faster, then I suppose the point is moot, eh?)
I do want to talk about this, though, because it is important. It’s a step in the direction of opening air travel to the basic consumer. This takes the next step toward freeing someone to go across the landmass where that individual chooses. This process was started by the car most recently, trains before that, horse domestication before that. Planes still sit outside the average person’s reach.
When air travel goes ‘public,’ even with the 400 mile distance limitation, society will change with it. On the bright side, family members separated by state lines may have occasion to visit with each other more often, without the burden of dealing with commercial flights. Of course there is a downside, for example companies might expect their air-capable employees to travel for work more often.
One major barrier to the idea of publicly available cheap flight is that the laws in our country are not prepared for it. It’s a fairly extensive process to get government approval to pilot a plane, and still more work to get permission to fly from one place to another, each and every time. Some major changes will need to take place before the policing of air travel becomes tenable.
The Terrafugio company claims to be working on a new design that can launch without a runway. Here is a minute-long video that gives the basics:
It’s a pretty exciting concept. I know just enough about physics to wonder if it will work like they say, and not enough to be able to make an educated guess. Still, this would be an even bigger step toward public flight.
If you brave the comments section of that YouTube video (a quest which I do not recommend to even the most stalwart), you find a fair number of comments about the dangerous nature of flight in the hands of the common folk. These commenters envision a world where some moron manages to find some other moron while flying and the two collide.
Yes. That is a danger.
Might I point out, however, that this is a danger faced on the streets as well? Many accidents that happen on the road are performed by licensed drivers making mistakes. (This relates to my growing conviction that our states need to undergo serious reform in regards to laws about driving licenses.) Some form of the pilot’s license would need to be in play to make sure that anyone who wishes to use such a vehicle has, at some point, been certified as Passably Knowledgable.
Plus, there is another important factor at play here.
If you can, look up at the sky. Go ahead and imagine it if you’re too far indoors to be bothered by going outside. Pretty big, huh? Maybe you’ve seen a plane way way up. A commercial airliner is enormous, but at altitude, it hardly seems a speck in the distance.
Point here is: the sky is big. (Not as big as space, which is really big, but still.) It seems much more likely that a driver maintaining a relatively stable altitude would be less likely to run into another driver maintaining a relatively stable OTHER altitude. The fact that they are on, essentially, different planes of the sky (and now proper terminology gets in the way) essentially puts them on separate roads. Sure, one might stall out and clip another on its way down, but the likelihood of that happening is comparable to one car flying over the rail on a bridge and catching another coming through the underpass.
Look. Any form of human locomotion is dangerous. Even without cars, you could twist your ankle, fall over, and drown in a few inches of residual rainwater the next time you visit the park. It happens. (Well, maybe that specifically doesn’t happen, but you know what I mean.)
This semi-cogent and semi-pointless reflection is brought to you by my inner 12-year-old being excited about the prospect of the freedom to fly wherever I want. Thank you for your patience as I get this out of my system.
And now it’s time for the Call to Action Connection Extreme Social Behavior and Such! What childhood fancies did you have that are now on the cusp of scientific reality?
(Screw the hoverboard: still waiting on my jetpack. Just saying.)