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Tech Monday: The flying car–Give it up already!

Once again, we lurch towards our Jetsons-inspired future, this time, courtesy of NASA. The space agency selected The Cafe Foundation, a group of aircraft engineers, to host its Personal Air Vehicle Challenge, a $250,000 contest to see who can design a flying car for the common man. Their belief is that a nation of flying cars will reduce congestion, air pollution, and the time it takes to get to the in-laws.

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Once again, we lurch towards our Jetsons-inspired future, this time, courtesy of NASA. The space agency selected The Cafe Foundation, a group of aircraft engineers, to host its Personal Air Vehicle Challenge, a $250,000 contest to see who can design a flying car for the common man. Their belief is that a nation of flying cars will reduce congestion, air pollution, and the time it takes to get to the in-laws.

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In the press release, NASA believes that by 2020, “up to 45 percent of all miles traveled in the future may be in PAVs”–Personal Air Vehicles, i.e. flying cars. Putting aside the fact that $250,000 is a pretty paltry sum for such a contest–considering you can win $10 million creating a car that doesn’t have to fly–NASA’s statement assumes a whole lot of other things that’ll have to happen, chief among them, safety. Considering that that nearly 2.6 million people were injured in traffic accidents last year, imagine what will happen when they start traveling along three axes.

In a CNet News article, the Cafe Foundation asserts that “people would be able to get a license to fly PAVs as easily as a driver’s license,” which indicates that no one at the Cafe Foundation ever went to the DMV. And is everyone who gets into a PAV going to have to go through a metal detector first, or will we just place TSA agents outside everyone’s front door?

An equally specious argument is the one around pollution. Says the director of the Cafe Foundation: “We’re burning up into smoke 6.7 billion gallons of gas annually (from being) stuck in traffic jams.” True, perhaps, but what about the effect of burning gas at altitude? In 1999, an EPA study estimated that by 2010, aircraft could account for up to 10.4 percent of all emissions in some urban areas. Imagine what will happen when, instead of hundreds of airplanes in the sky everyday, there are thousands? And the pollution won’t be concentrated in the cities, either. Because NASA’s plan assumes a distributed model of PAV’s flying into local airports, pollution, of both the air and noise kind, will be spread over a much larger area. Are your neighbors home? You’ll know when their teenage son buzzes your house.

Considering that we need to start cutting pollution immediately, we’d be much better off spending our time and money on ideas and technologies that are more down to earth.

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