Half a century, and still no flying cars

Yeah, I know it’s a cliche — here we are in the high-tech future, a whole other century from when most of the sci-fi we grew up on was written, and there are no flying cars. It’s been said many times before.

But I just got to thinking about it in terms that hadn’t occurred to me before.

My wife was reading a book out on the deck this morning (while the weather was still pleasant), and referred to it having been written 50 years ago.

That’s the shocking thing, you see. It seems that 1961 is no longer just a brief while back. It’s 50 years ago now.

As anyone who has read Gene Sculatti‘s delightful and authoritative Catalog of Cool knows, 1962 was the Last Good Year. But the year before had much to recommend it as well. It’s the year that the iconic 60’s cult novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, made its appearance. Heinlein assumed that by the end of the 20th century (there is one vague reference to the date that places it at the end of a long, hard century — and Jubal Harshaw had served in North Africa in WWII), there would be flying cars — flying cars that flew to one’s destination without being guided by a human occupant. Say your destination aloud, and the car would take you there.

Now we have the technology for most of that. We can do voice commands, and something like Google Maps and GPS working together, along with the ability that SUVs and some other cars have now for sensing the proximity of other vehicles, etc. — we could make the car go where we wanted without guiding it, although personal I wouldn’t want to be one of the first few thousand people to trust my life to it.

It’s the flying part that’s tricky. Heinlein wasn’t specific about how the cars flew. He mentioned the “Lyle Drive” for spacecraft, but not the means for making the cars fly. Aldous Huxley, years before, had had people routinely flying helicopters, but Heinlein was not so explanatory, although one gets the impression that they flew Jetson-style. His characters took such transport for granted, suggesting the technology had been around awhile, so we are expected to take it for granted as well.

There were other things — such as a form of 3D TV called “stereovision,” which I sort of gathered was holographic, and watched in a “tank” like an aquarium. And videophones — although apparently landline-based. And most dramatically (and centrally to the plot) there had been two rather significant manned flights to Mars, the second one leaving colonists.

The assumption in those days seemed to be — with jets relatively new, and JFK pushing us to the moon — that our main technological advances would be in the area of transportation. Little thought was given to information technology. While a number of the things he imagined would have been unlikely without computers — such as doors that opened to spoken commands, and “bounce tubes” replacing elevators — the idea of the personal computer, as an important element of the typical consumer’s life, from the desktop to the smartphone — was completely absent. No email, no texting, no Skype (except from the landline). Hilariously, when a character wanted to send a written message and have a record of it rather than speaking by TV phone, he went to something that sounded like a telegraph office and sent a “statprint.” Ben Caxton, a nationally syndicated columnist in the novel, has such an advanced office that it has its own “statprinter.”

A lot can change in 50 years. Especially the future. What I can’t believe is that it’s been so long.

12 thoughts on “Half a century, and still no flying cars

  1. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    The drivers around here have enough trouble with driving on the earth’s plane, in designated roadways, and if you think fuel prices are high now, wait until you have to fight gravity, too (or rather, the curvature of space time).

  2. Burl Burlingame

    Ben Fong-Torres in “Almost Famous”: “A Mo-Jo, it’s a very high-tech machine that transmits pages over the telephone! It only takes eighteen minutes a page! “

  3. Maggie

    A guy named Max Strom made a related point at TEDx-Greenville in March (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMAyVdOOgQ8). With Skype, we now have the Jetson-like video phone longed for by many and predicted by science fiction writers. But instead we are using smart phones to text each other, which is “one step up from Morse code,” he says. Even as we teach humanoid robots to understand and mimic nonverbal cues from us, we are more and more looking down at our devices, poking at the keys and avoiding human contact.

  4. Brad

    Yes, Burl! One of the funniest lines in a very good movie…

    I sort of doubt Ben Fong-Torres enjoyed it as much as I did, though…

  5. Brad

    As for Kathryn’s comment — well, remember that these are self-guided, and not dependent upon the occupants’ skills as pilots.

    That said — I do think that the greatest barrier to developing flying cars (whether flown by people or software) is that there are just too many variables for safety. Two dimensions (OK, three, counting time) are tough enough to manage…

  6. Brad

    Oh, and I’ll say it again as I’ve said it before: How come Stranger in a Strange Land has never been made into a movie yet?

    I hereby volunteer my services to write the script. I’d also be good to play Ben Caxton. Or would have been, a few years ago… As time keeps passing, I become more and more suited to the role of Jubal Harshaw. But hey, if Henry Fonda could play Mr. Roberts (a character who was about 27) when he was 50 and looked it, maybe I could be Caxton, with a little Grecian Formula… Then, the question becomes, who will play Dawn Ardent?

  7. Jesse S.

    “How come Stranger in a Strange Land has never been made into a movie yet?”

    Same cycle that always happens to sci-fi. Derivative works get to market first and by the time the copyright issues are settled the ideas have become old hat.

  8. Jim Cross

    You might want to look at _The Wonderful Future That Never Was: Flying Cars, Mail Delivery by Parachute, and Other Predictions from the Past_ by the Editors of Popular Mechanics and astrophysicist (and science fiction author) Gregory Benford and _Your Flying Car Awaits: Robot Butlers, Lunar Vacations, and Other Dead-Wrong Predictions of the Twentieth Century_ by Paul Milo. Both books look at the perils of prognostication from both a historical and scientific point of view.

  9. Kathryn Fenner (D- SC)

    I’m thinking we need to do more walking/biking/getting around under our own steam as it is, lest we end up like the humans in Wall-E.

    Wait. What’s that?

    Sorry, I guess we have already gotten there.

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