The Heartbreaking Truth About Flying Cars (updated)

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I mentioned yesterday that the Terrafugia Transition has passed an FAA hurdle toward going gotten FAA approval and can go on sale. Perhaps I should have been a little bit more obvious in indicating that I don't really think this is the answer to America's future transportation needs. Nor even the best indicator of America's overall psychic health. In the interest of explicitness, and for others who might have been in doubt, here's a response from someone who works for a large aircraft company based in Seattle, on why the Jetsons' air-car vision will (sob!) probably never become reality:

Every principle of engineering leads to one inescapable conclusion about a flying car, or "roadable aircraft": it can ONLY be a lousy example of both. The practical reality is, you can have a crap car, and a crap airplane, for five times the money and ten times the chance of dying from sudden impact.

IMHO, this particular pursuit can only be evidence of American greatness IF you think techno-triumphalism without foresight is a great thing. Americans love cars because they associate them with "freedom" in a quasi-religious fashion. But look at the unintended consequences of happy motoring: the astounding wealth squandered on the doomed project of suburbanization, and the paving of the American West.

Suppose we were able to build a Blade Runner-esque hover-car that runs on magical cheap biofuel made from lawn clippings? Every alpine meadow, mountain lake, canyon rim, and forest vale would be colonized by fat "extreme suburbanites" who would fly to and from their "green" modular McMansions.

Dude: walkable cities connected by mass transit.

* P.S. As an avid paraglider pilot, I wince at the "Maverick" para-car. Once you understand that rudderless paragliders have no cross-wind landing capacity, and the wing-loading of that size canopy dictates a landing speed in excess of 30mph, you realize that the roll cage is there for a reason...

Below: images of the Maverick mentioned above. Below them: image of an airplane from a large aircraft company based in Seattle.

UPDATE: My large-aircraft-company correspondent says he was actually talking about a different Maverick flying car, from this site and immediately below. The two pictures after that are the Maverick that he didn't have in mind. But still an adventure! First, the "right" Maverick:

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Now, the "other" Mavericks:

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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