Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Flying cars and other bad ideas

I've always been fascinated by the intersection of technology and human culture, and I studied it rather intensely during my time working in the computer press and the computer industry itself.

It's made me, among other things, a terrible curmudgeon about product interface design and usability. (My conclusion: either I know more about it than the combined resources of most technology companies, or most companies just don't care, probably the latter.)

It's been my intention, since starting this blog, to touch on this subject area occasionally, and I thought of it today when, on a newsgroup I frequent, the old subject of flying cars came up again. Specially, the subject was this typical example of the breed, the terrific, seen above. Another current example is the Moller Skycar, which has been bouncing around (and occasionally sorta-flying) for many years now. The Skycar is always just this close to becoming operational and changing the world. I predict it will remain this close for a long time to come.

Really, as fanciful as these vehicles may seem, getting a car to fly (or a plane to drive like a car) isn't that hard, nor is it new or futuristic. Glenn Curtis made the first attempt to build one way back in 1917. It wasn't successful, but people kept trying over and over, often with fair technical success. The first flying car to be certified by the government was the Airphibian, almost 60 years ago. It could drive at 50mph, and fly at 120mph. If flying cars were ever going to succeed, it was going to be in post-war America. Financing couldn't be found, and the Airphibian was lost to history.

Yet a series of ongoing attempts were made to create and market flying cars, and they continue even today. I have three words about this: "forget about it."

Flying cars fall into a special and interesting class of ideas: wardrobe ideas that nobody really wants. This class of ideas are something like technological tar-pits, irresistiblly attractive ideas that draw in inventors, dreamers, and occasionally backers, leading to their inevitable waste. And no sooner has the last victim slipped beneath its shiny surface, when another shows up to take their place.

Now don't get me wrong. I love flying cars. They're fun to look at, and fun to think about. But I don't want one, and most likely, neither do you.

Lets take a closer look.

The attraction of flying cars is obvious. Who hasn't sat stuck in traffic, and dreamed of push a button on the dash that allows them float effortlessly into the open sky, and leave it all behind?

Actually, that's where the fallacy starts. This works very well in the comic books, or in movies like Bladerunner, Back to the Future, and The Nutty Professor, but none of the operational flying cars have ever offered that possibility. If it could be made to work, the Moller Skycar might offer something close, but that's a very big if in this case.

In fact, most "flying cars" need to take off and land at a conventional airport just like any other plane. Upon landing, they transform (often with considerable manual help from the pilot and passengers) by folding, shedding, or towing their wings and other airplane-specific parts, at which point the pilot is left to drive his now-grounded vehicle through the bumper-to-bumper traffic with the rest of us. In this day-and-age, with small airports being turned into Home Depots and housing developments at an unprecedented rate, your ground-bound commute could be long indeed.

This is one of several reasons I maintain that there was a limited window for flying cars to be adopted after WWII. This was a golden moment in history. There you had the prosperity to buy them, the industrial capacity and skills to build them, a huge pool of skilled ex-military pilots to fly them, many small airports to fly them from, new housing developments springing up everywhere, any of which could have been designed to add a small landing strip for flying cars. Also important, it was before the era of auto-safety regulations. Making a car fly is fairly easy. Making a car meeting all current crash-safety standards fly is near impossible.

But it didn't happen, and that time is gone. Even if you have a flying car, the odds are good you have no place to take it off near your home, and no place to land it near your destination.

As I said, making a flying car meet safety standards is a problem, but the fact is, a flying car is just a nest of unhappy compromises. The qualities that make a good airplane do not lend themselves to being a good car, The qualities that make a good car do not lend themselves to being a good airplane. The result is usually a slow, heavy, inefficient, difficult-to-fly airplane that turns into a slow, small, cumbersome, horribly expensive, poor-driving automobile, often at a cost that exceeds the combined cost of buying both a separate plane and car.

Ultimately there are no advantages over taking a cheap commercial airline seat between those two airports, and renting a car (cheap, universal, reliable car-rentals are another thing that didn't exist in that post-war era). Even if you still want to fly your own plane, you can still get that rental car, and the different in cost between a good used light-aircraft and a new flying car will buy you decades of car rentals.

Of course, there's the expectation that technology will come and solve all the problems. But to quote Scotty, "you can'na change the laws of physics!" Any aircraft compact enough to fly from your driveway will almost certainly be too loud to operate in a residential area. The lift simply has to come from somewhere, and since a running start with wings or big rotor-blades are out of the question, you need jets, or rockets, or small fans or blowers. It's going to sound like a truck-load of chain-saws battling a truck-load of leaf-blowers to the death, no matter how you do it.

The Family of Bad Ideas

Flying cars are, by and large, useless. Build it, and they will not come.

There are many other ideas in this same family. Take for example the video phone. This one has been around in prototype form since at least the 60s, and it always sounded cool, but nobody really wants it for everyday use. At some point, every day is a bad-hair day, and we all know that's exactly when our boss or our future mother-in-law will call. Video phones suck.

The technology for internet videophones, of course, is there for anyone who wants to buy it, and it has niche applications, teleconferencing, phone sex, visiting the grand-kids. But for the most part, this just isn't going to take-off unless our society does, and in a big way.

Curiously, though nobody wants video-phones, people do want camera phones, and even phones with video, in a big way. These are different of course, in that standard phone conversations are the default, and pictures a special function. As these become more common, perhaps they will reshape us into a society where people think nothing of seeing half-dressed perfect strangers before their first cup of coffee in the morning. Hopefully I won't live that long.

Another related idea that at least had the decency to lay down and die was the touch-screen computer. The idea was simple and obvious: we were all going to operate our computers by punching pixel-buttons, and dragging things around on the screen using our fingertips.

It sounded great. It sounded simple. It sounded natural. It sounded easy.

This one actually got to production, with Hewlett Packard (people who should have known better) building a line of touch-screen equipped desktop computers. That's when people discovered it wasn't such a great idea. The screen clouded up with fingerprints, people's hands got in the way of what they wanted to see, people's arms got tired, and the human finger turned out to be just too blunt and inexact an instrument for many tasks. Then there was the matter of a little thing called the Mouse, which did the same thing, only better, cheaper, and easier. It took maybe five minutes longer to learn, which pretty much every person in America did a long, long time ago.

Touch screens still survive, like the video-phone, in niche applications: palmtop devices, service kiosks, bank machines, credit-card terminals, and even a few computers. And I have no doubt that the practical merging of display and input device will come along eventually, perhaps even fairly soon. But the desktop computer controlled primarily by tapping on its screen, that was an idea whose time never came, and likely never will.

Bad Ideas that Aren't

I'd like to discuss one last idea near-and-dear to me, one that many other people would say belongs to this category of ideas: the ebook. I beg to disagree.

There have been many efforts to commercialize and market ebooks, with small success. I've written several ebooks myself, our entries into the Star Trek SCE line. In fact the first of these made the top ten of the national ebook best-seller list, putting us up with folks like Grisham and King. But because it was an ebook list, it meant we had sold only hundreds of books at most, and that even names like King and Grisham couldn't do any better.

Sales of ebooks have continued to grow steadily since then, but the numbers are still tiny compared to print books, and many book-lovers are quick to pronounce from this that ebooks will never succeed. They inevitably start ticking off a list of advantages of print books, starting with their lack of need for batteries, and very often ending with their smell.

Yet I maintain that ebooks cannot be placed in the family of the flying car and the video phone. In fact, print books are something like the flip-side of a flying car idea. They're the thing you're already using that you think you love, but you really don't. No child who has ever gone through a school day hunched over under the weight of a massive backpack can really love print books.

They're too heavy, too fragile, too hard to store, too difficult to keep open to the right page, too difficult to search, too hard to organize, too difficult on our aging baby-boomer eyes. We don't love books, we love what's in books. Yes, there are esthetic aspects that will always happily remind some of us of pleasant reading experiences, the book is not the content, and the content is not the book. The only thing "saving" books is that there hasn't been a better alternative until now, and if you look at the losses publishing has suffered against other media such as television and video games, you could argue that they haven't been saved at all.

The practical ebook still isn't quite here yet, though I have little doubt it will be. The main technical issues remaining are screen readability, cost, and battery life. Those problems will likely be solved soon, and most likely, all the necessary parts will be incorporated into some electronic device not sold as an ebook, perhaps a phone, or some consumer device that incorporates a phone along with many other functions.

At the very moment those devices are out there, and the screens are at least as good as a paperback book (a pretty low target, actually, I expect they'll surpass that very quickly), and the batteries last as long as a current phone or iPod, then ebooks will take off.

If the industry is in place on that day in a sensible way, with good selection, ease of purchasing, reasonable copy protection, and fair prices, then they'll buy books. If not, they'll steal books, just as people steal songs and videos now. I pray the business is ready, but the track record for such transitions isn't good.

For some ideas, their day will never come.

For others, their day just isn't here yet.

judgment day is coming.


  1. The Flying Car is not an idea whose time will never come. It's an idea whose time won't come until it really is a flying car: In short: antigrav.

    When you and I can drive Rick Deckard's "Spinner," we'll want to. Hell, I want to now!

  2. I've had the discussion about e-books with lots of people, and the level of Luddite nostalgia for "the good'ol print paper" is astounding.

    I still remember all the books we had to carry in school. How they got lost (you can't copy the "file" in a paper book so easily, remember?), got torn, or plain stolen by other kids.

    Let the kids of today have the choice between Dead Trees and e-book readers: kids are hip to what's hot and what's not. They will choose the new over the old.

    (Though notebooks on paper will still sell. :))