That’s the common lament of those who came of age in the 50’s and 60’s, when utopian articles in popular magazines, plus popular pulp science fiction both published and on television, had us all flying around in flying cars by 2000. No more traffic jams — just rise above the traffic! No more taking all day to drive across Texas. Just rise up to altitude and zoom across Texas within a few hours!
Yet here we are in 2016, still resolutely earthbound. What happened?
- Those utopian articles forgot some fundamental laws of physics.
- Gravity sucks. Literally. It takes a lot of force to lift thousands of pounds up off the ground. It takes a lot of force to keep that object off the ground. If the mechanism applying that force quits — the object swiftly resumes being on the ground as gravity literally sucks it down. Usually deadly so for both the person in the machine, and the people underneath that machine. Thus far we have not created any mechanism capable of lifting thousands of pounds up off the ground that is fail-proof enough to keep from falling when subjected to the inept maintenance and stupidity of the average human being.
- Pushing or pulling on air doesn’t make you stop or go very fast. If someone cuts you off, there’s no brakes to use the friction of rubber against asphalt to stop you from hitting him, just air. So maintaining sufficient spacing is *very* critical.
As a result, only machines which are ridiculously over-engineered and over-maintained driven by highly trained pilots are allowed to fly over populated areas, and only if they are sufficient distance from the ground such that if they fail, there’s a chance that before they hit the ground they can directed to a spot where they won’t hurt anybody. This isn’t a recipe for putting flying cars in the hands of the common people.
- Those utopian articles overestimated how smart people were. Because of the spacing issue, the only way to get any traffic density is to do it in three dimensions. But the human brain simply isn’t capable of handling keeping track of lots of traffic that’s in all directions around you. There have been plenty of crashes caused by private pilots who ran into other aircraft that were below them or above them that they couldn’t even see, because they’d lost track of the other planes around them.
- Those utopian articles overestimated how smart computers would be by the year 2000. Really, the fastest modern computer still doesn’t have the raw compute power of the human brain. The human brain can fire off signals amongst its neurons literally 30 times faster than the fastest supercomputers. And that’s just the neurons in the brain. There are neurons involved in passing and processing signals from our senses to our brain and we have no idea how much processing is being done there, and it’s all in parallel. And finally, we still don’t understand what intelligence is. We understand that it’s a self-organizing system that’s partially hardwired and partially programmed by our environment, but understanding the details with sufficient clarity to actually create such a thing — other than the traditional way involving a man, a woman, and nine months — still eludes us. The end result is that we still don’t have real self-driving cars — just cars that can handle *some* scenarios semi-autonomously, but they still regularly trip out and drift to the side of the road and stop in bafflement if not given human input — nevermind self driving flying cars, which have to do everything that a self-driving ground car does, but in three dimensions.
Yes, commercial aircraft have autopilots and glide path automation that can basically land the plane by itself. But this is all being directed by humans, humans at air traffic control telling pilots what altitude, heading, and speed to hole, pilots setting the autopilot to hold that altitude, heading, and speed, and humans at air traffic control telling pilots when it’s okay to come in for a landing once the airplane starts circling around the airport in the landing pattern. It’s humans doing the three dimensional thinking, humans with giant radar screens and technology for tracking all these aircraft, but still humans. Plus, the number of aircraft involved is in the hundreds, not in the hundreds of thousands. There are a literally a million cars on the road here in the SF Bay area every morning. Having humans track all those cars in 3D and direct their computers to keep the correct altitude, speed, and heading accordingly simply can’t happen. We need computers to do this — really smart computers. And we don’t have them. We just have autistic savants, machines that can do a few things really, really fast and well, but are utter fail at anything that relies on actual judgement and general pattern recognition.
So. Physics. Inadequate human brains. Inadequate computers. Those are why we don’t have flying cars. Will we have flying cars in the future? Well, the computers keep getting faster and more complex, so sure, it’s possible. But one thing is certain — it won’t be easy, and it won’t happen as quickly as the dreamers of the 1950’s and 1960’s dreamed it would. It turns out there’s some Hard Problems there involving some fundamental laws of physics that aren’t going to be easy to solve sans a lot of computing power — maybe more computing power than we can ever bring to bear on it before we managed to destroy our environment and destroy our civilization. Our great-great-great-great grandchildren, wearing tattered furs while hunting food with pointed sticks in the middle of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, likely won’t have any use for our notions of flying cars. So it goes.
– Badtux the Science Penguin