Self-driving cars are expected to be much safer than human-driven ones. But even if the first robot cars hit the roads in the next few years, most of us probably won’t give up driving entirely for at least another 5 or 10 years. In the meantime, traditional cars will gradually take over certain aspects of driving.
The history of VTOL aircraft is filled with failure after failure after expensive failure, and only a few success stories. The V-22 Osprey, a military aircraft used to carry Air Force special operations forces and Marines into hard-to-reach places, was not an easy plane to design. It took the better part of two decades, with full military budgets and need behind it, to get the Osprey working reliably, instead of crashing and killing its occupants. It cost about $54 billion to develop the aircraft, and each one costs $70 million.
Passenger drone designs favor “distributed electric propulsion,” meaning instead of one large rotor powered by a large engine they have multiple propellers each powered by its own, smaller motor. This sacrifices lifting power and flight performance in exchange for mechanical simplicity and lighter weight—factors that could make them cheaper to operate. Quieter electric power would make the noise tolerable to city residents, although it remains to be seen how much weight such a vehicle could lift, and for how long.
Where, in short, are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now? Even those inventions that seemed ready to emerge—like cloning or cryogenics—ended up betraying their lofty promises. What happened to them?
But better materials, autonomous navigation systems, and other technical advances have convinced a growing body of smart, wealthy, and apparently serious people that within the next few years we’ll have a self-flying car that takes off and lands vertically—or at least a small, electric, mostly autonomous commuter plane. About a dozen companies around the world, including startups and giant aerospace manufacturers, are working on prototypes. Furthest along, it appears, are the companies Page is quietly funding.
We are well informed of the wonders of computers, as if this is some sort of unanticipated compensation, but, in fact, we haven’t moved even computing to the point of progress that people in the fifties expected we’d have reached by now. We don’t have computers we can have an interesting conversation with, or robots that can walk our dogs or take our clothes to the Laundromat.
It seemed unlikely that I’d live to see all the things I was reading about in science fiction, but it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t see any of them.