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It's naive to dream of a future that ignores both the present and the past. On one side, there's the sky of the future rife with stamped metal dream machines soaring through the spring air. While on the other, there's a vision of a swarming mechanical grid that blots out the sun. Is there a middle ground or is it best to keep ones feet (or wheels wheels) on the ground? To answer that, it's necessary to analyze some hard truths.
Any goal is possible in the imagination without the tangible means to accomplish it. However, in regard to the automobile, after one-hundred years there's plenty to consider already. Mankind harnessed the power of stamped metal, rubber, electricity, plastics and combustible fluids to their fullest practical potential by the introduction of the 12volt automotive electrical systems in the fifties. Arguably, with few exceptions, the technology hasn't advanced much since then. By 1960 there had already been fuel injection, direct injection, fairly widespread use of composites (fiberglass) and much of the technology used to make a functional vehicle today. Beyond that, it's mostly been refinements. Yet, in the past fifty-six years there's been far too little investment in making these machines flight-worthy. This is fact. Beyond the superficial, there's little to suggest that it would be any easier for a vehicle from 1960 to take flight than a vehicle from 2016. Truth be told, due to manufacturers inexperience with aerodynamics at the time...cars from the earlier era are actually at an advantage in regards to lifting off the ground. This could potentially be viewed as a step in the wrong direction.
[The second-generation Dodge Charger is the most advanced flying car to date]
Moreover, the progress of the motorcar has already necessitated the development of an infrastructure and culture that inherently limits sky-bound ambitions. Everything from to the congested skyline of the average industrialized metropolis to the notable lack of established methods of safe, reliable transportation...there's seemingly a bounty of unaddressed issues. Would it be reasonable to expect concrete solutions to road travel before endeavoring to those that are skyward bound?
While the terrestrial problems of today aren't insurmountable, they are formidable. It's impossible to mention the future of mass automotive transit without considering safety. The safety issues of today are magnified once projected to "the flying car". This is highlighted by the fact that manufacturers and safety institutions (I.E.: the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, etc) have sanctioned specific tests to determine the crash-worthiness of contemporary vehicles. A ground vehicle is designed to manage impacts much differently than impacts encountered by an aircraft. Would it be possible to create structures with the capability to manage flight stresses and the average street collision? Possibly, but certainly not without compromise. Of course, it would necessitate new crash test methods. Would the new criteria demand drop tests...from five-thousand feet? Ten thousand? Would the mortality rates be on par with those of plane crashes? Not to mention, the current automotive landscape is littered with minor imperfections like grand theft auto and manufacturer recalls. How society has chosen to deal with theses occurrences also hinders automotive flights of fancy.
Recalls, unfortunately, are rarely issued before there is a widespread safety concern. The average recall that would render a conventional car immobile on the streets could spell disaster if a similar gremlin happened mid-flight. Surely, the result would be masses of encased electronics and powertrains (likely accompanied by a combustible and/or explosive energy source) falling from the sky. The problem is, that in spite of advances, there's still a safety risk associated with the world's current vehicles traveling the roads. In fact, the NHTSA's (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) recently released data from 2015 indicates the trend of traffic related deaths actually increasing 7.2% from the prior year. The death toll was 35,092 people. If even a quarter of those deaths were single-occupant, "single-flying vehicle" related...that's a grim 8,773 vehicles (with their operators) hurtling from the sky. Remember, the statistics are understood to be based on human error, not vehicle defects.
Obviously, no matter the car, theft remains a constant variable that has yet to be solved or consistently prevented. The unsavory implications of that needs no further explanation. However, it's widely accepted that stolen cars are often "repurposed" for parts or utilized in high-speed pursuits to evade authorities. Transfer that to the skies, and it's a recipe for chaos. Too much chaos to control effectively using known methods. Needless to say, in regards to theft, cannibalized componentry installed by a novice would surely result in matters much worse than property damage.
Today, most consumers and accident victims rely on the legal system for justice. Even by ignoring detractors, it's easy to view the process as costly and inefficient. With flying cars, the number of citizens suing each other, citizens suing manufacturers and the endless cycle of scandal and discord would render every party legally impotent. The legal system would buckle and break under the skyrocketing toll of litigation, protocol and accountability. Frankly, it would eventually corrode the nature and resilience of the human spirit. Burdened with the necessity to manage the populace at large (excluding auto-related incidents)...while achieving objective justice for all parties involved in vehicular incidents would be impossible for any jury...or any judge.
With the weight of the world weighing down the flying car's lofty promises of the future...is there any hope? Any practical use? Surely, there has to be some grey area in the clouds.
Indeed, there is. The "flying car" simply needs to be redefined and repurposed. It's not a matter of creating a safe, fast mass-transit system from scratch. The Shinkansen trains in Japan have already accomplished that. They currently achieve upwards of 150mph on their daily routes and even boast an impeccable safety record. In fact, there hasn't been a single passenger fatality on those trains since their introduction in 1964. It doesn't even that mean flights have to be reinvented since plane travel is only getting safer and more efficient. What it does mean is that humankind can harness the power of invention and ingenuity to create a new, purpose-built method of transport that saves lives on mass rather than jeopardize them. What the future presents is a more efficient and affordable means for trained pilots or operators to use vehicles based on today's evolving technologies and manufacturing processes.
Currently, there are more vehicles on the road which utilize lightweight materials like carbon fiber and aluminum than ever before. The methods to produce them (including 3D printing) are becoming more affordable and accessible as well. These advances are unprecedented. By bringing the manufacturing costs down, the resultant vehicles will cost less as well. In addition, advanced, un-manned vehicle technology is currently available to the average teenager. When these elements combine it could mean a future where every fire station or hospital has the ability to purchase and utilize (potentially multiple) flying vehicles (vertical take-off and landing: VTOLs) to save lives. They can quickly deliver supplies and emergency services to those in need. They can perform search and rescue operations that previously would imperil even the rescuers. They can transcend traffic jams in order to save lives when minutes matter. These are real solutions that are faithful to the human ethos of existence. These aren't floating, isolation pods of delusion and self-indulgence. The dream of the flying car can exist and endure. In fact, it could very well embody this generation's legacy of harmonizing technology with responsibility.