When Mr. R.P. sent the following article to me, I said, "yea, right" to myself in a somewhat skeptical and cynical voice. After all, I'm of that generation that grew up reading The Weekly Reader in elementary school. For a younger generation, it's difficult to recapture the atmosphere of scientific and technological optimism that pervaded the country after President Kennedy made his now famous speech about landing humans on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth. There were stories everywhere of flying cars, Moon colonization, and missions to Mars which would shortly follow the first Moon landings and so on. Maglev bullet trains would whisk us from New York to San Francisco in a few hours, rivaling air travel. It was an era of unbridled and probably unrealistic optimism.
And it was all there in our Weekly Readers.
So, needless to say, when I see the occasional article about flying cars - and there have been quite a few since the 1960s - I tend to roll my eyes and dismiss the whole thing. Patents have been taken out; flying cars have even been built and in a few cases(if my memory serves me correctly), even tested. Yet, I'm still driving my motorized roller skate over potholed streets and crumbling infrastructure.
But nonetheless, willing to give it "one more try", I opened the article:
What intrigued me here were quite a few things, not the least of which was that this latest pronouncement was not coming from a Weekly Reader, but being reported by Reuters, and coming from the CEO of Europe's Airbus industries. Airbus has a corporate history on delivering on what it says it's going to do. "We're going to build the world's largest jet airliner and it's going to be a lot bigger than Boeing's 747." And they did. So when they talk about flying cars, I tend to take notice.
But there's something else here that really caught my eye, and that was the rationale for Airbus's efforts:
Airbus Group plans to test a prototype for a self-piloted flying car as a way of avoiding gridlock on city roads by the end of the year, the aerospace group's chief executive said on Monday.
Airbus last year formed a division called Urban Air Mobility that is exploring concepts such as a vehicle to transport individuals or a helicopter-style vehicle that can carry multiple riders. The aim would be for people to book the vehicle using an app, similar to car-sharing schemes.
"One hundred years ago, urban transport went underground, now we have the technological wherewithal to go above ground," Airbus CEO Tom Enders told the DLD digital tech conference in Munich, adding he hoped the Airbus could fly a demonstration vehicle for single-person transport by the end of the year.
"We are in an experimentation phase, we take this development very seriously," he said, adding that Airbus recognized such technologies would have to be clean to avoid further polluting congested cities.
He said using the skies could also reduce costs for city infrastructure planners. "With flying, you don't need to pour billions into concrete bridges and roads," he said.
Gridlock, and avoidance of expensive infrastructure, like roads and bridges... in other words, Airbus is addressing a crucial issue that has been increasingly saddling localities and municipalities, particularly in the West, and at the time that financial experts - think only of German finance minister Wolfgang Schaueble here - are telling us the "debt-growth model" is over. Translation: there is now immense pressure on hedge funds, pensions, and retirement benefits in the West, and pressure on local governments to maintain, much less develop surface infrastructure, is acute. Indeed, why have roads and bridges at all? Private flying cars and even private flying "trucks" would be far more economical in a sense: up there in less dense air, resistance goes down, and with it, fuel consumption goes down. Overhead is reduced.
But would it really reduce infrastructure requirements? Perhaps. But imagine taking the traffic in Paris or London or Los Angeles, and putting it in the air: traffic control infrastructure would have to be developed, and I'm willing to guess that it would be - at least initially - as expensive as current surface or underground infrastructure.
Regardless of how one thinks about Mr. Ender's infrastructure and gridlock arguments, the bottom line is that Airbus appears to be serious about delivering on an old dream, and this story therefore may be the beginning of a long development in this century. It's one to watch.
See you on the flip side...