Register Monday | June 18 | 2018
I Was Promised Flying Cars

I Was Promised Flying Cars

Innovations in travel that never were



At midnight on January 1, 2000, my friends and I stepped out of our apartment to watch the fireworks being fired off on Mount Royal. Despite the millennium hype, the world looked the same—not just as it did on December 31, but as it had for decades. Where were the paperless offices? The robots to dust the piano? The clean-running flying cars? Movies, books and TV had long been drawing the futurescape for us, but it seemed all that promise had been derailed; innovation was too expensive, too extreme or merely impossible.

Or was the Future just taking longer than expected? The promise, it appears, is still there—and in keeping with this issue’s theme, I set out to discover how close we are to commuting the way they do in those science-fiction shows and movies.


FLYING CARS

With appearances in Blade Runner, The Jetsons, Star Wars: Episode II and The Fifth Element, flying cars have become the benchmark for determining when our humble race has reached the Future. They are a particularly potent fantasy: should they ever clutter our skies, they’d revolutionize something extremely familiar and quotidian—driving. In fact, attempts to develop flying cars started not long after actual cars hit the road. In 1917, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss unveiled his aluminium Autoplane—a car flanked by double-layer wings, lifted by a four-bladed propeller attached to the back. It hopped, but never flew. The forties saw the birth of contraptions such as the ConvAirCar, the Airphibian and the Aerocar (which Ford considered marketing in 1970). All three creations could be driven as well as flown. Alas, they all suffered the same fate: although they managed to get off the ground for significant amounts of time, funding problems eventually cancelled the projects forever.

Two of the most radical contributions to the flying-car story have a Canadian connection. During the 1950s, John Frost, an engineer with Avro Canada near Toronto, made an actual flying saucer capable of carrying two people under individual clamshell canopies. Three engines and a “duct fan” got the Avrocar to about chest level before it started wobbling like a spinning plate. Frost’s team was investigating possible solutions to this problem when the project was cancelled, a victim of the chaos that struck the company after its other infamous design—the Avro Arrow—was mysteriously shut down.

The second Canadian connection is British Columbia–born and McGill-educated engineer Paul Moller. His current endeavour is the M400 Skycar, the latest incarnation of a design he’s been working on since the 1960s. Considered one of the most promising flying cars in development, the machine relies on eight engines that redirect thrust to push it up into the air. The M400 is the very picture of futuristic—its smooth sports-car exterior and powerful fans have graced the cover of Popular Mechanics, Popular Science and Forbes FYI. According to Car and Driver, the Skycar will be able to cruise comfortably at over three hundred miles per hour and will have a range of nine hundred miles. Recent financial setbacks have put Moller’s dream in jeopardy, so now he’s counting on the power of other people’s wallets to boost his fortunes. According to Moller International’s Web site (www.moller.com), a place on the waiting list to buy a Skycar costs from $10,000 to $100,000 US—already over a hundred people have invested in this little piece of the future.


TELEPORTATION

Teleportation represents a very practical fantasy: travel made easy by the elimination of those pesky problems, time and space. Forget rush hour—just beam to work, then beam home at five o’clock. On New Year’s Eve, chase midnight revelry by beaming from one time zone to the next. Beam into your neighbour’s bedroom. The possibilities go far beyond whatever was conjured up on Star Trek. But “beaming” is a tricky business, as an object’s atomic structure has to be broken down and then reconstructed perfectly. A 1998 experiment at the California Institute of Technology showed how scientists could use a technique known as “entanglement” to successfully transport photons (that’s right, they beamed beams). What they don’t know, though, is whether the transported photon was the original photon or a recreation. The implications for any kind of human teleportation are devastating: in order to teleport, a person may have to be destroyed and cloned. Faxed, essentially—more Multiplicity than Star Trek. Another problem is the utter complexity of our composition. We would need a machine that could analyse the trillion trillion atoms of the human body and then put them back together again, like Lego. Should one brain molecule be out of place, the transportee could suffer from a major mental defect. Harrowing, yes—but it may explain why William Shatner was compelled to record an album.

 
HOVERBOARDS

In 1989, while promoting his just released Back to the Future Part II, director Robert Zemeckis jokingly told journalists that the film’s hoverboards were real, and not the result of special effects wizardry. Toy manufacturer Mattel, whose logo appears on the boards, was flooded with eager callers asking where they could purchase one. Fast-forward eleven years to the opening of the 2000 Olympic Games, where Kevin Inkster zoomed about a Sydney stadium on a hoverboard of his own creation. Had you called Arbortech, the Australian manufacturer, to ask where to get one, you would have actually received an answer. Inkster’s contraption, known as an Airboard, operates much like any other hovercraft: the vehicle floats on a cushion of air three to four inches thick and is pushed forward by a four-stroke engine. The rider stands on a round platform, teetering left and right to control the direction. Hammacher.com currently sells the Airboard for $14,999.95 us.

Too pricey? Check out Americanantigravity.com, the virtual hub of the grassroots “lifter” movement. According to Wired magazine, over a million DIY lovers have stopped at the site, which explains how to create hover technology in your own backyard—it’s geeky and cool all at once. Unlike the Airboard, lifter technology uses the phenomenon of ion wind. Wires are wrapped around the top edge of a triangular platform (usually made of a lightweight material like balsa wood) and then charged with a high voltage. Escaping electrons are drawn to a foil skirt on the bottom edge of the platform and the impact of these electrons on neutral molecules creates a strong downward breeze, causing the whole thing to float. While fascinating, both of these hoverboards have their drawbacks. A lifter requires a blistering, if not fatal, amount of electricity and can carry at most about a pound of cargo, while the Airboard’s top speed is a paltry fifteen miles per hour. Marty McFly hopped on his board in 2015. We have eleven years to go.

 
JETPACKS

Before Minority Report, before The Rocketeer, even before Lost in Space and Thunderball, the dream of the one-man flying machine was alive and well. As early as 1485, Leonardo di Vinci wrote extensively of his vision of an ornithopter: a one-person device with manually powered, flapping wings. One of his gliders, sketched in 1510, was successfully built and flown in 2003. But the modern concept of a jetpack, rigged for vertical takeoff and landing, did not take shape until the Bell Rocket Belt was designed and tested in the 1960s. Produced by Bell Aerosystems and the US military, the Rocket Belt was a back-mounted pack that used rocket technology to thrust its pilot into the air for about twenty seconds. A 1995 redesign, developed at great expense by private investors, increased the flight time to thirty seconds—barely worthy of John Robinson or even James Bond.

A revolutionary breakthrough in jetpack technology came at the very end of the twentieth century, when California-based Millennium Jet abandoned combustible rocket principles in favour of counter-rotating ducted fans powered by a gas engine. Called the SoloTrek XFV (Exo-skeletor Flying Vehicle), the device stands on a kevlar/titanium tripod and uses joysticks to control all aspects of flight. Airborne emergency? No problem: a ballistically deployed extraction system ejects the pilot regardless of altitude or speed. Currently, a fourth-generation XFV (the “Springtail”) is completing its untethered tests. According to the manufacturer, this model can reach a maximum speed of 182 kilometres per hour, has a range of 296 kilometres and an endurance of 2.2 hours—all this on forty litres of fuel. The company estimates that the mass-produced retail SoloTrek will cost about the same as a high-end sports car.

 
SPACE TOURISM

Despite the hilarious disasters predicted in Airplane II and The Simpsons, Dennis Tito—history’s first space tourist—returned from the International Space Station in 2001 without a scratch. The success of his trip opened the door to what could be the most lucrative travel market the world has ever known. Space Adventures, the Virginia-based company that helped put Tito up there, remains the only company cashing in on orbital destinations; they’ve since sent up a second tourist and recently announced that a third client will make the trip in 2005. The going rate of $20 million US covers six months of training, the space-shuttle flight and an eight-day sojourn in orbit.

New developments, however, may conspire to bring the price down. The X Prize Foundation in St. Louis is offering a $10 million US prize to whoever first develops a private craft capable of hauling three people one hundred kilometres above the Earth twice in a two-week period. Twenty-six teams (hailing from the US, Canada, Romania, Israel, Russia, Argentina and the UK) have entered the competition in hopes of making aviation history. On another front, NASA scientists are researching a “space elevator,” not unlike the one in Arthur C. Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise, which would see a long ribbon extending from the Earth’s equator directly into the cosmos. A material known as carbon nanotubes (it’s about one hundred times stronger than steel) is the most likely candidate to make the ribbon, which could theoretically lift a platform—or passengers—into space, or even shoot cargo off its end toward another planet. If this still sounds like science fiction, consider that the American House of Representatives just passed a new bill outlining rules for commercial space aviation. HR 3752 assigns regulatory authority for human flight to0the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transpor-tation and makes it easier for companies to obtain experimental permits for new crafts and propulsion systems.

 
TIME TRAVEL

Of all the innovations detailed here, time travel is perhaps the most far-fetched and the most alluring. The multitude of possibilities and paradoxes has made it attractive to authors (H. G. Wells), to theorists (Stephen Hawking) and especially to audiences (Doctor Who, Quantum Leap, Terminator, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure). According to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, time travel is possible if you can just approach the speed of light. Time would slow down and you would return to regular speed at some point in the future. Astronaut Sergei Avdeyev, for example, spent 748 days in space and as a result is about one-fiftieth of a second younger than if he’d stayed on Earth. Even in theory, travelling forward in time is easier than travelling backwards. In the 1980s, physicist Kip Thorne popularized a theory that proposed returning to the past by means of so-called wormholes in space. Thorne came up with the idea after scientist and sci-fi writer Carl Sagan asked for advice on how to transport the heroine of his novel Contact twenty-six light years to Vega and back without any time elapsing on Earth.

In the twenty-first century, physicist Ronald Mallett has taken a new approach. He believes he can alter time by creating a continuously rotating beam of light: the movement of the light will create a gravitational force that could potentially be strong enough to warp linear time, much like liquid in a pot creates a vortex when stirred (not quite a zooming police-box, but it’s a start). Of course, if time machines are in humanity’s future, why has no one travelled back to tell us how to build one? Time travel probably won’t be achieved any time soon, but you do now have the option of reserving your slot as a time tourist. The Time Travel Fund (www.timetravelfund.com) charges you $10 US (PayPal only) to get your name on a list; once time travel is invented, Fund organizers promise that yet unborn associates will travel back in time, pick you up and then take you to the future.

METRO TO LAVAL

The Montreal metro opened in 1966 to great fanfare. International events like Expo 67 and the Olympic Games inspired a period of great optimism in the city, and plans for a world-class subway seemed not just possible, but necessary. Over the following years, as the metro expanded out from the city centre, an extension to Laval (an island just north of Montreal) seemed a logical next step. But in 1976, a moratorium was imposed on all new subway construction, and Laval dwellers had to wait until new expansions were considered in the early eighties. This time, politicians favoured building west instead of north and the Laval project was shelved once again. Then, just a few days before the 1989 provincial election, yet another agreement was reached to extend Line Two toward Laval. But it too was put on hold, and the dream remained in limbo. For years, Montreal subway maps displayed hopeful little dotted lines indicating the route of the future extension. “The metro to Laval” became a citywide joke, alongside numerous other transport oddities: the mysterious Line Three that was to thunder underneath Mount Royal, the perennial proposal to build a monorail linking Montreal to the South Shore, the traffic interchange at Pine and Parc Avenues.

It was not until March 2002 that a politician finally made good on a promise to build the tunnel—Bernard Landry, then the premier of Quebec, personally turned the sod to initiate construction. The original plan called for three new stations and 5.2 kilometres of new tunnel at a cost of $345 million cdn. Many glitches have surfaced over the last few years, including community protests and the addition of a “missing” extra kilometre of track. The estimated cost has ballooned, first to $570 million and then to $647 million. When a newly elected government decided to re-evaluate all public spending in 2003, a skeptical city barely batted an eye. But construction is well under way, and the transport ministry has vowed that the new stations will open on schedule in 2006.