The Wrights were right: humans have a deeply seated need to fly, and everything from books to movies to cartoons has been teasing us with the promise of flying cars for decades now. So many things hinted at in set-in-the-future stories have come to pass – the Internet, videophones, robotic everything – but not this one.
Ignoring all logistics entirely (because you can't really combine Hollywood with logic), I think we're ready.
A recent drive on area roads during the holidays revealed that. With traffic lightened during usual commuter times, it became obvious the volume of traffic our roads were truly built to accommodate was some time back in the 1950s. We need the world of George Jetson to get here.
The corridors in and around Canada's densest cities are hellish by any measure. In a study of the most congested cities in North America, GPS company TomTom placed Vancouver second, Montreal fourth and and Toronto fifth, with Los Angeles leading the pack and San Francisco nudging into third.
Here in Ontario, the QEW was built in 1939, and Highway 401 as we know it debuted in the late 1940s. While construction is ongoing to take into account our exploding population (completion date: never), we're bailing a sinking ship with a teaspoon. We like our cars, and most still don't want to share them (carpooling), nor run on someone else's schedule (transit). And so we sit and pollute, going nowhere fast.
The first Back to the Future sequel promised us flying cars by 2015. While it's true, that it is the goal of Moller International to have a Skycar in every driveway yesterday, its biggest splash to date has been landing in the Neiman Marcus gift guide of the ridiculous in 2005. The price? $3.5-million.
I remember seeing Marty McFly on a hovering skateboard, and thinking that it seemed eminently possible, if not eminently imminent. In 1985, they had 30 years to get there; with only two years left until the movie's future setting of 2015, it doesn't seem so certain.
The writers of the animated classic The Jetsons left themselves far more room: 100 years, to be exact. George's car doesn't have to be zipping around until 2062, which means I'm going to miss all the fun.
But even if they build it, will we come?
The auto industry has made some amazing breakthroughs in recent years, as we've moved from hybrids to electrics. After decades of near-inertia on the subject (because oil will last forever), we're finally seeing enormous strides towards not just terrific fuel efficiency, but also the comfort – if not luxury – that we've become so accustomed to. Car makers quickly found out consumers are unwilling and unlikely to settle for anything less.
Canada had an explosive year in auto sales in 2012. Extraordinary, really, when you factor in the current world economy, and consumers that could be (should be?) more jittery. They must be embracing this forward-thinking technology, right? Happy to have their ever-increasing wishes met? Too much range anxiety with the Leaf? Buy the Volt, with a reassuring gasoline engine along for the ride. Put in your order with Tesla to prove you can still have flash with your electric cash. Except, no. In spite of a riptide of new car sales, these innovators are stagnating.
Few buyers are biting on generous government rebates, intense media and splashy ad campaigns. Cost is no doubt the main factor; from the outside looking in, most of these cars cost about double the similar gas-powered one sitting beside it. But didn't we want this? While we're smart enough to see around a $3.5-million flying car, can't we see the future we've been waiting for?
George Iny, of the Automobile Protection Association, sums up the public shrug toward some of these vehicles: "Sometimes the public is an ass." Harsh or not, car buyers have been known to embrace pricey or even unreasonable cars, and many such purchases are driven by emotion. Toyota Priuses were once outliers, yet now seem positively old guard.
Are we in the middle of a transition, which like a long, complicated labour has to happen? Maybe we just need more romance when we envision the future – like effortless flying cars – instead of fuel-efficient common sense.