Posted by ken on January 27th, 2005 (All posts by ken)
A lot of people seem to think so. A good part of this perception, as far as I can tell, comes from a misunderstanding of the way society would look after the skycar came into general use.
When people recoil in horror at the thought of cheap flying cars, they seem to envision a city much like the ones we live in with those idiots they share the road with trying to navigate our accustomed traffic density in three dimensions. They imagine millions of the things flying over a few dozen square miles of city, with cars falling out of the sky through accident or mechanical failure and inevitably crashing into a building or residence far too often for anyone’s comfort.
All of which fails to address one fundamental question: why do cities exist in the first place?
They exist because they drastically lower the cost, in time and money, for people to trade and socialize, and thereby drastically increase the number of people they can feasibly choose from to trade and socialize with. This leads to more competition as well as larger markets for enterprises of every kind; the latter allows products, services, jobs, and enterprises to exist that couldn’t show a profit if they were limited to serving smaller markets.
For all of these purposes, the flying car serves not as a means of traveling within a city, but as a substitute for the city itself! Instead of shortening the distance between people and enterprises by crowding them into a city, the skycar shortens the travel time while allowing the people themselves to live hundreds of miles away from their jobs, their friends, and their favorite shops. A few dozen houses may be clumped together in a single clearing, or a single house may stand on its own, but in either case small neighborhoods and single office buildings/strip malls/large stores will be surrounded by miles of wilderness, and people will spend most of their time endangering nothing but trees or grass if they happen to suffer mechanical failure, and enjoying plenty of space between themselves and the nearest fellow traveler.
How do we get there from here? Simple – allow ordinary people to operate skycars/aircraft/etc. anywhere except over cities. Even better, let anyone operate an aircraft anywhere if they get sufficient liability insurance – and the insurance companies will profit by setting appropriate rates and conditions. Either way, people flying their own vehicles will tend to avoid population centers, enterprises wishing to sell to or employ such people will start locating away from population centers, and as sales volume and penetration increases and prices go down, the countryside will become more desirable and large population centers less desirable as places to live, work, or operate a business.
And the end result will be better and safer than what we have now. Against a dispersed population, most terrorist attacks, even with nuclear weapons, would yield disappointing results (a notable exception being contagious diseases). While natural disasters are not as much of a threat for us as they once were, there are potential disasters that could still exact large loss of life in today’s concentrated population centers – a direct hit on New Orleans by a hurricane being one example – that would be drastically mitigated by lower population concentrations and faster evacuation capability. Profit opportunities will open up in the development of vehicles that are easy to control safely, opportunities that don’t exist today because no one who isn’t trained to use today’s not-so-user-friendly controls is permitted to fly a craft with any controls.
And when you get right down to it, it’s a travesty that, more than a hundred years after the Wright Brothers’ pioneering flight, practically all of us are still driving glorified Model T’s and seem to accept without a second thought that our children and even our grandchildren will do so as well. What happened to us?