The Jetson’s debuted in 1962 and depicted what many thought our present day might look like. Now that the future is here, it is not at all what was envisioned; we are much more advanced in some ways yet surprisingly closer to the ground than anticipated.
NASA is developing next-level technology to automate flight, through the development of what engineers call “autonomous cyber-physical systems”—in other words, flying and space vehicles controlled by computers. One outcomes of this work: the autonomous flying car. You may have seen some of the new flying cars—personal air vehicles, or PAVs—on the Internet. Equipped with folding wings, they can drive on the highway and then, controlled by a licensed pilot, take off from any standard runway.
There are two reasons why we have not seen flying cars in our early-adopter neighbor’s driveway: licenses and runways. The current flying cars are really just highway-enabled airplanes. To make a true flying car requires vertical takeoff and landing, or VTOL. Instead of runways with a minimum length of 1,700 feet, you could have designated parking areas barely larger than the car itself. That would eliminate the runway challenge. Then there’s the license part: it takes skill to fly a small plane, and even greater skill to pilot a VTOL vehicle. The answer is to create a self-driving vertical takeoff car—a Google car of the skies. This flying car will use a combination of laser sensors, cameras, and satellite-based GPS to sense its location and avoid obstacles. Powerful computer calculations will help it anticipate and avoid bad weather or human error.
NASA has been working on the autonomous part of the PAV, and the technology is advancing rapidly—possibly faster than the vertical part. Getting a vehicle to take off and land vertically, safely, with efficient use of fuel, under a variety of weather conditions, in crowded cities or suburbs, ideally without deafening the neighbors, presents a big challenge. But it’s conceivable that the first street-legal and sky-legal PAVs could be on the market by 2025. We’ll all see the PAV as a triumph of capitalism; and it will be, thanks in part to NASA’s catalyzing technology.
In Tim Urban's entertaining take on the history of the space race, he makes this profound statement, “1972 people would be blown away by our smartphones and our internet, but they’d be just as shocked that we gave up on pushing our boundaries in space.” Why do you think we gave up? What do you think we will accomplish in the next year? 10 years? 50 years?
How quickly will early adopters jump on board with purchasing PAV’s? What advantages will this provide for our current systems of travel?
What changes will we see in current and future careers in transportation with the addition of flying cars?
In the Martian Classroom: have students write/speak/draw/animate what they envision for our world in 50 years.