Monday, October 11, 2010

Why I Don't Want Flying Cars

Every once in a while a Slashdot article is either about or tangentially related to the dream of flying cars.  There have been several prototypes over the years, some certainly much better than others, but it's just not a reality yet.  And, invariably, the Slashdotters complain about this.  We're in the 21st century, we have all the technology and civilization to make this happen, so why doesn't it happen?  It must be the oil companies keeping us back, right?

No, what's keeping us back is plain old human nature.  People do a poor enough job driving on a 2-dimensional plane, how do you think they'll fare with the exponential increase in complexity of a 3rd dimension?  Have you ever seen somebody change lanes without looking and not notice (or care) that somebody is in their blind spot?  And you want to give that person a much larger blind spot so they can descend without looking?  Good call.  Seriously, picture your daily commute to work.  Now picture yourself standing under it.

Honestly, to anybody who wants our society to have flying cars, I envy you.  Apparently you have never stalled, suffered a mechanical failure, or been in a minor collision while driving.  Because these relatively small inconveniences take on an entirely new meaning during flight.  Aeronautic travel presents a very unique set of circumstances not present in other means of travel.  When driving along the ground, if something goes wrong you coast to a stop.  When at sea, if something goes wrong you float.  Even in space, if something goes wrong you still kind of float.  But in the air, you fall.  And die.  A lot.  Sure, there are circumstances where those other examples aren't quite so safe.  There are dire situations where land, sea and space travel can kill.  But it's not quite so readily apparent as with air travel.

I've heard lots of arguments to the contrary, and they all demonstrate only that the person arguing just wants their shiny toy and hasn't really thought it through.  Let's take a look at some examples:

  1. Air travel is statistically safer than driving.  Ya, funny thing about statistics.  They can be made to say anything.  Just remember that, statistically, more people survive car collisions than plane collisions.  See, there are relatively very few vehicles in the air, and the passenger to vehicle ratio is extremely high.  Also, pilots are generally well trained.  Drivers just have to not kill someone during one 20-minute drive when they're 16 and they're pretty much licensed for life.
  2. Pilots say that flying is easier than driving.  Of course, they don't have to worry about assholes cutting them off or people talking on cell phones while eating a cheeseburger and trying to fly a plane within a few feet of them.  The skies are pretty open and clear.  The roads, not so much.
  3. We can make the vehicles safer.  Back to an earlier point, can you make the vehicle remain aloft while not functioning under its own power?  (And if you can, how light and delicate is that craft going to be?  Hopefully the flying Suburban sees you and can swerve around you, and give you enough room that the wake of its turbines doesn't shred your parachute.)  We've been making cars safer for years and people still drive like dicks.  Also, all of the "safety" equipment in cars is pretty heavy.  It's not hard to add weight to a car, but it's very hard to add weight to a plane.  That's all we need, giant flying SUVs that are marketed to their owners as being "safe."
  4. More lanes means less traffic, we can make it safer by simply stacking more lanes arbitrarily.  Wrong.  Just wrong.  You want to see what happens with more lanes of traffic?  Go sit on the outer edge of a parking lot at your local WalMart or shopping mall or something like that and just watch.  There are tons of lanes specifically designed to keep cars moving through with minimal difficulty.  What do you see?  People jumping from one lane to another randomly, people going the wrong direction in a lane, people speeding, people stopping and blocking a lane for no reason, people cutting each other off and pissing each other off.  More lanes just means more opportunities for opportunistic assholes to practice their craft.
And when was the last time you performed a detailed inspection of your car before driving it?  When was the last time you saw anybody do that?  Pilots do that all the time.  They spend upwards of a half an hour going through a detailed checklist to make sure the plane is in perfect working condition before they fly.  You, on the other hand, are late for work and still need to stop by Starbucks on your way so you can finish waking up.

Also, I don't know about you but I like the fact that a drunk driver has to negotiate a series of obstacles before he can crash into my house.  Currently he would have to leave a main road onto a lesser main road, leave that and enter my subdivision, navigate the turns and down the hill to the end of my street, jump the curb, not be stopped by the car in the driveway or the tree or the mailbox (the mailbox wouldn't stop him, but may indicate to him that he should stop), and even then the brick front porch provides a decent shield.  What's to stop a drunk pilot from crashing into my house?  Some shingles and plywood.

Come to think of it (and damn you Slashdot for making me present this point), I bet flying cars will be really popular among terrorists both domestic and foreign.  Again, it's comparatively easy to defend a structure against cars.  But small planes?  That's a whole new kind of problem.  Ever see the kamikaze video footage from World War 2?  You can't really shoot them down.  They're small, hard to hit, moving really fast directly towards you, and best of all even if you do hit them all you can really do is make them ballistic.  Rather than having a small plane screaming towards you, now you have a small ball of fire screaming towards you.  Physics is fun like that.

So, ya, I don't want flying cars.  I specifically don't want them precisely because of the aspects of our culture that make people on Slashdot want them.  We as a people are demanding, inconsiderate and filled with an over-inflated sense of entitlement.  Just because it's the 21st century doesn't mean you get a flying car.