My manager wore a “Where’s My Jetpack?” T-shirt to work the other day, and that got me thinking. A lot, actually. About all of the stuff that could exist now, given current levels of technology, and all the stuff that might exist in the future for consumers to purchase and operate.
After some very careful pondering, I have reached the conclusion that despite frequent appearances in science fiction tales (including mine) a flying car or hovercar will probably never make it onto the market. Here are some reasons why.
1. People drive like bloody idiots
Stunt driving just got a whole new dimension – the y-axis. This sample of panels borrowed (with permission) from The Game illustrates my point:
Now, even though it doesn’t look like it, there’s a lot of finesse in driving like this. Not only do you have to time the firing of the repulsor jets right, but you have to fire the front ones at a different time from the rear ones to get a landing that won’t smash you like a pancake. If you also had some side tilt, you’d have to fire four or more different jets at different times. All the while, presumably, you would have one hand on the steering wheel and both eyes on the road far below, making sure you weren’t going to bellyflop on an unsuspecting pedestrian.
And it would happen. Don’t doubt this.
Everyone knows someone who would want to push this technology, and quite likely kill themselves (and/or other people and/or their vehicle) in the process.
You sure wouldn’t want your battery to give out at the wrong moment. If your battery dies while driving, your car comes to a standstill. If your battery dies while flying, your car comes to the ground hard.
Imagine teaching someone to drive a car like this. Quite apart from the fact that some invincible-feeling moron would drive his car off a cliff just to prove he could (see image example above), you would have to teach your kids how to deal with situations like this, just in case.
I would not look forward to that stage in their lives.
Imagine the driving test – no one would ever, ever, EVER, want to be a driving instructor. It would have to become the highest-paid job in the entire world. But by then, we might have robots, so that at least might be okay.
2. How the hell do you stop this thing?
Cars these days stop by using the friction between the tyres and the road. If you deny the wheels the freedom to spin freely and propel the car (i.e. by braking), you cause the friction between rubber and road to halt the vehicle.
Hovercar driving would be an entirely new type of driving. Presumably energy is being pushed through jets that point a car in a certain direction (for example, like rocket jets). See the image above for an example of what I mean. To stop a car without friction would involve: a) a hell of a lot more energy; and b) some equal and opposite force pushed out from the front of the car.
If you were driving along and saw a couple of old folks step out onto the road in front of you, your first instinct (I hope) is to slam on the brakes. When you’re in a hovercar, here’s what that might look like (also an example of my excellent Paint Shop Pro skills).
(Please note that firing the thrusters in an attempt to leapfrog the old couple would have the same net result, except that you would also have a +5 bonus to pancake them.)
Even if flame retardant clothes become the standard (which of course, they naturally will, because who doesn’t want to be safe from fire, man’s eternal enemy), there’s still a good deal of skin burnage, and there would be more in the summer months, as people forget their sleeves and leggings for whatever reasons.
Even if heat and flames weren’t involved, and the car was propelled entirely by air, an incident like this would be one hell of a blow dry, and would probably fling the unsuspecting pedestrians into oncoming traffic from the other direction. Unless they were wearing their government-issue road-crossing iron boots.
Also, this is an extreme example, but it applies everywhere. You wouldn’t be able to park the car in the garage without singing the tool bench (or blowing it over, depending on the technology)… or reverse it out again the next morning. God forbid you should even think about carpeting your garage. It would be an insurance nightmare.
And that is why there will probably never be a commercial flying car.
And that doesn’t even cover…
And that doesn’t even cover terrorist threats and concerns with giving everyone their own private plane.
…let alone the notion of everyone having enough space to construct a runway or similar system.
Or the issues with policing a three dimensional driving space, or drawing dotted and solid lines in the sky.
Or the matter of how to get tonnes of metal into the air without spending a fortune on petrol.
… and making the vehicle simple and reliable enough for a moron/teenager (who will never get it serviced) to operate it, and affordable besides.