The Speculist has sometimes asked the question, ?Where?s my flying car?? So has the Instapundit. What kind of a second-rate 21st century doesn?t even have flying cars? I can tell you what kind. One with diminished expectations.
Certain grim, gray, cheerless souls would have us believe that Jetson-like mobility is a hubristic industrial-age fantasy, foredoomed to failure. I suppose that could be true, but it won?t be for lack of dogged tenacity on the part of our doughty inventors. They have a dream. And good for them, I say. Please, bring back the fun future, where sleek, sexy, energy-gobbling vehicles whiz around at anti-socially high velocities.
By now, I imagine that most people have heard of the Moller Skycar. When people think ?flying car?, a Moller 400 is a petty safe bet for what they?re imagining. It periodically surfaces in the mass media, makes a wee bit of a splash, then dives back into obscurity for another year or so, leaving only the bittersweet memory of a Sunday supplement. And it?s been doing it for years. I think it has an unfair public relations advantage simply because it looks so incredibly cool. It?s said to be almost ready for primetime. Well now, readiness isn?t necessarily the primary determinant of coolness.
If it were, the Cartercopter would end up being cooler than the Skycar, and we all know that?s just not so. Never mind the fact that it actually, you know, flies (In fairness to Moller, I should point out that his vehicle has actually been airborne too).
The Carter Gyrocopter is a little bit, um, ungainly looking. From its portly ovoid cabin to its awkward looking twin tail booms, it fairly radiates aggressive lack of style. It seems to be saying, ?I?m all about function over form. Piss on your effete esthetics.?
I love it. I also love that its inventors have big dreams. Quite big dreams, actually. Still, there?s no law of nature that says a gyrocopter has to look like a squatty little egg. These other fellows have produced designs for some very handsome (if derivative) craft.
In ?Barking Dogs?, I made a brief reference to an Israeli effort along these lines, the CityHawk. It bears a second look. Here too, we find a tubby, unassuming vehicle that just gets the job done. Nothing wrong with that. Its developer does have some grand hopes for his baby?s future, however. All the best to him.
If all you want is some attractive pixels, check out Skyrider. Their prototype may not be as impressive as those of some other companies, but their promotional video is charming.
The Kestrel Aerospace PAV has a bit more hardware to its name than Skyrider, but it still seems to be a mostly virtual craft. Nice lines, though. In fact, it?s beautiful. I would love to see one fly. Picture one with a black and gold wasp stripe customization. Just the thing to lighten your mood.
For a look at some other flying car concepts (there are many), several of them fairly antique, check out the Roadable Times. It?s quiet, rainy day fun.
Air car promoters aren?t the only folks who rely on their art departments. As has been pointed out before, the aerospace industry can produce wonderful concept art, but sometimes the actual vehicle never quite materializes.
T/Space has some new artwork up. It depicts their latest notions for sensible shoes access to LEO. As described, the unlovely yet practical beast has one job and one job only. Carry four to six passengers safely to orbit, with the emphasis on safely. Cargo rides a different rail. T/Space is working with Burt Rutan and his company, Scaled Composites, on the possibility of flying the first leg of the trip secured to the belly of a purpose built mother ship. Air launch would occur at 25,000 feet. Hat tip for this goes to the excellent RLV News feature at Hobbyspace.
They note that Elon Musk?s new booster, the Falcon I is due for a hotfire pad test at Vandenburg AFB on the twenty seventh of May. If all goes well, Musk hopes eventually to see his boosters cut the cost of access to low earth orbit by ninety percent. He seems optimistic about his chances. So am I.
RLV News also points us toward this fascinating story. Sometime in the next month, the Planetary Society hopes to launch an experimental light sail craft into Earth orbit. They then plan to mess around with it till they get the hang of maneuvering with sunlight. Beautiful. It should be a naked eye object, and you can bet that I?ll try to spot it. Visual acquisition data will be available here.
The project website notes that science fiction writers anticipated this development by several decades, and mentions both Cordwainer Smith and Poul Anderson favorably as early purveyors of the idea.

Before the great ships whispered between the stars by means of planoforming, people had to fly from star to star with immense sails – huge films assorted in space on long, rigid, coldproof rigging. A small spaceboat provided room for a sailor to handle the sails, check the course, and watch the passengers who were sealed, like knots in immense threads, in their little adiabatic [temperature-constant] pods which trailed behind the ship. The passengers knew nothing, except for going to sleep on Earth and waking up on a strange new world forty, fifty, or two hundred years later. This was a primitive way to do it. But it worked.

That was their Smith quote. Next up is their Anderson.

The sail now nearly bisected the sky, four and a half miles across. The foam-filled members that stiffened it were like Brobdingnagian spokes with its slow rotation. That disk massed close to two tons, and yet it was ghostly thin, a micron’s breadth of aluminized polymer. . . . They cost money to build, out in free space, yet far less than a powered ship; for they required no engines, no crews, no fuel, simply a metal coating sputtered onto a sheet of carbon compounds, a configuration of sensors and automata, and a means to signal their whereabouts and their occasional needs. Those needs rarely amounted to more than repair of some mechanical malfunction.

It?s a shame that they?re both gone now, but at least Arthur C. Clark has lived to see these pre-launch preparations. This development, along with the recent popularity of space elevators must be very gratifying for him.
Dropping from the elevated and aerial to the mundane and marine, Eric?s hometown of Philadelphia has been selected as the American terminus for FastShip, Inc. Technology Review ran an article on fastships a few years ago, but I figured they had suffered the same ignominious fate as Cargolifter. Looks like I may have been mistaken. The basic idea is to redesign a cargo ship?s hull for high stability and low drag, then use massive gas turbine engines to blast that puppy along at over forty knots.
That may have been incredibly cool back when they were building the Crystal Palace, but in today?s fast-paced world, so what? Is this really a big deal? Actually, assuming the market for it exits, it just might be. You?re dispatching ten thousand tons of cargo across the Atlantic by jet ship in just four days. Prince Albert would swell with pride.
It?s a different metric for ?fast? than what you would apply to a 747, and impressive in its own right. The airplane carries less than one hundredth of the cargo at twelve times the speed and (at a guess) charges 40 to 90 cents per ton-mile.
On the other hand, a plain vanilla cargo ship averages two cents per ton-mile. If we unrealistically assume that all of that money goes for fuel, and allow a generously higher rate of five cents, then sending a ton of five dollar tee shirts weighing a pound apiece (hey, they?re extra dense weave) on the 5,000 mile voyage to Japan will set us back 250 dollars, 2.5 percent of the retail value.
Has James Kunstler sat down and worked the numbers, do you think?
At two cents per ton-mile, water-borne shipping is not at risk of extinction. And if fossil fuel prices should rise, they will rise for most modes of transport. Shipping will still be mega-cheap when compared to air, truck, and rail. FastShips are fuel hogs, relative to more conventional ships, so they might not fare too well in a future without cheap oil.
On the other hand, they?re still way less expensive than air freight. They might snag all those air-borne customers whose cargo is only modestly time sensitive. The future, clouded it is.
Basically, FastShip hopes to exploit the niche that lies between slow and cheap (ships) and fast and pricey (planes). They think there?s a market for a little more expensive but not quite so slow. Airship builders hope to use a similar strategy.
I now have the answer to a question I asked in ?Bigger Dirigible.? That question was ?Whatever happened to the SkyCat airship project??
Apparently, it?s alive and well. And again, we see that the unsung heroes in the art department are holding up their end very nicely. Check out these big beauties. Aren?t they fine?
Skycat is without a doubt the sleekest, baddest, coolest airship on the planet. Why? First of all, it looks good. The double wide proportioning reduces the unfortunate ?flying whale? effect. The landing pontoons are helpful there, too. Second, because they actually went out and built it. Or at any rate, a working scale model that flew beautifully for the demonstration videos. Some giant airships never make it out of the art department. Not so, in this case.
They plan on a modest beginning, but have high hopes. If reality conforms to their desires, they might eventually produce a transcontinental cargo hauler with a thousand ton payload and a four thousand mile range, traveling at over one hundred miles per hour, more than twice the speed of a FastShip.
Niches again. Perhaps we should be asking where the flying cruise ships are.