Jetsons, Here We Come

Brace yourself:  we’re apparently on the verge of a world with flying cars.

Airbus Group, the world’s second largest aircraft manufacturer and largest manufacturer of commercial helicopters, has been working on flying cars for a while now, and the CEO of Airbus recently announced that the company hopes to test a prototype vehicle by the end of the year.  Airbus formed a division called Urban Air Mobility — which would be a pretty good name for a rock band — and it is working on both a vehicle that individuals could use and a multi-passenger transport that could be summoned by riders using a smartphone app, a la Uber.  The prototype that Airbus hopes to test this year is the single passenger vehicle, called the Vahana.  Airbus thinks that in 10 years fully vetted products may be on the market that make urban air transport a reality.

22a6bb3543a28cd162bceb3c6937b684The Airbus business rationale has a decidedly futuristic vibe to it.  The concept is that the vehicles would be used in cities, where roadways are jammed but the skies aren’t.  Airbus is forecasting that a growing percentage of the world’s population will congregate in cities, increasing the traffic congestion, and also envisions that cash-strapped governments might welcome air-based transportation because it doesn’t require investment in asphalt, concrete, steel supports, construction workers, and orange cones to shore up the crumbling ground-based traffic infrastructure.  And, because some cities are struggling with pollution — just ask China — Airbus is designing its vehicles to minimize emissions and to avoid adding to the pollution mix.

Do we have the technology for flying cars?  Airbus says yes:  the batteries, motors, and avionics needed are well underway, and the company and others are working on the artificial intelligence and detect-and-avoid sensors and navigation that would be needed to make flying cars a practical reality.  And, of course, there would need to be lots of related developments before flying cars fill the skies.  Would municipalities designate particular flying zones — such as over existing roadways — or just allow fliers to take their cars anywhere?  How would drivers be trained?  And what kind of safety features would regulators require to make flying cars crash-worthy?

For decades, when people have thought about the future, they’ve thought about flying cars.  Now we may be on the cusp of that reality.

“Meet George Jetson . . . .”

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A Whiff Of The Hyperloop World

The futurists among us got a charge yesterday when the first test of the hyperloop transportation system occurred in the desert north of Las Vegas, Nevada.

3_hyperloop_hyperloop_concept_nature_02_transparent_copyright_2014_omegabyte3d_cThe hyperloop system sounds like something from The Jetsons or a science fiction story.  Using magnetic levitation technology and special propulsion units, the hyperloop would send sleds of people and cargo rocketing through above-ground tubes at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour.  Proponents say the finished product would allow people to get from San Francisco to LA, or from Washington, D.C. to Manhattan, in just 30 minutes.  Hyperloop buffs also argue that the system would have lower energy costs and would create no carbon emissions.

The test yesterday wasn’t much — it lasted two seconds, and saw the propulsion unit push a ten-foot sled to speeds of more than 100 miles an hour before hitting a sand bank — but the founders of the start-up company Hyperloop One viewed it as their “Kitty Hawk” moment, when the concept of a new form of transportation get its first practical test, just as the Wright brothers’ plane did.  And the promise of the technology is sufficiently attractive that other companies are pursuing the hyperloop concept, too.

Hyperloop has a long way to go, and there will be huge issues involved in developing the technology, getting the land rights and funds to build the sleds and elevated tubes and, eventually, convincing people to use a system that would put people in the position of the bullet in a gun.  Still, we should all welcome the pioneers who try to develop new transportation approaches.  Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they prove uneconomical — anybody remember the SST? — but they always push the technology forward.

A fair question, though, is whether a sufficient number of people will be willing to sit in a tube and be propelled forward at hundreds of miles an hour.  Why not?  When you think about it, that’s basically what happens when you board an airplane.

The End Of Saturday Morning Cartoons

A sad occasion will occur tomorrow: it will be Saturday morning, and no broadcast television network will be showing cartoons.  Last weekend the CW — whatever that is — became the last network to broadcast what used to be a staple of TV programming.

This is unthinkable to those of us in our 50s, who fondly recall a classic weekend ritual that brilliantly communicated that the school week was over and the weekend truly was here.  UJ and I would sit in front of the TV on Saturday mornings for hours, eating our cereal and howling as animated creatures were decked by anvils or blasted by shotguns.

We loved the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show and its Fractured Fairy Tales and Sherman and Peabody, Tennessee Tuxedo, Space Ghost, The Jetsons, and Underdog, and we watched the new shows the networks would roll out each year, but our favorite show was the Bugs Bunny-Roadrunner Hour.  After a hard week in the schoolroom, a few hours of animated high jinks was just what the doctor ordered.  And then we might switch to a UHF station and watch The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, Woody Woodpecker, and Popeye.  As the morning ended, stoked by sugary cereal and inspired by what we had watched, we were ready to run around outside with our friends, happily committing random acts of mayhem.

The death of Saturday morning cartoons has been a long time coming and was caused by lots of different factors.  One of them was a Federal Communications Commission rule that required broadcast networks to show three hours of educational programming (yawn!) a week between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. and that limited kid-oriented ads during children’s programming.  The national nannies wouldn’t consider a Bugs Bunny cartoon that was based upon a Rossini opera to be sufficiently educational, and the rule meant that advertisers couldn’t use the cartoon shows as a platform for commercials for great new cereals or the coolest new toy, like Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots.  As a result, the networks pulled the plug on a great Saturday morning tradition.

America is all about change, socially and culturally, and there’s no reason to think that a one-time institution like Saturday morning cartoons should be unaffected.  Still, those shows made Saturday morning a fun time to be a kid.  I’ll always treasure my memories of sitting cross-legged in front of the TV in my PJs, watching them.

Under The Needle

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Seattle’s Space Needle was built as part of the 1962 World’s Fair and was supposed to reflect the architecture of the future.  Fifty years later, it still looks so much like a backdrop from a Jetsons episode you expect to see a Spacely Sprockets sign on top.  Sure, it’s kitschy, but it’s also kind of cool, and it’s fun to check it out from different vantage points.

Home Of The Jetsons?

I’m not a huge fan of modern architecture, but occasionally you see a futuristic design that makes you stop in your tracks.  The Chevron complex in Houston is like that.  An expanse of concrete, steel, chrome, and glass with a cool, above ground circular walkway connecting the different buildings, it looks like it came straight from the drawing board of the creators of The Jetsons cartoon.

Walking by, you expect to see a slobbering Astro come bounding past you, and you can’t help but listen carefully for George’s desperate cry:  “Help, Jane.  Stop this crazy thing!  Help, Jaaaaaaaaaaaane!”