Thursday, 6 September 2012

Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads.

In the original Star Wars film, A New Hope, there was a kind of hover-car that Luke used. Unlike an actual hovercraft it didn't have a physical air cushion and just floated above the ground. Such a thing as been the preserve of frequently re-edited science fiction… until now!

Well, nearly. The devices aren't commercially available and I imagine there are many teething problems with such an unusual type of transport but there is a working model which operates using two massive underside fans to generate lift. It's also unclear what the power source would be.

There are lots of obvious advantages to such a vehicle, if it were commercially viable. Roads would not be needed, and rivers/lakes and maybe even seas could be crossed. Unlike hovercrafts you would not need to worry about the air cushion getting punctured, and vertical ascent could even make it of use to mountain rescue (or particularly wealthy window cleaners).

However, the flying car has been something that people have been trying to build for years and years, without real success. The issues are numerous. For a start, a mid-air collision, unlike a land-based crash, involves both the incident itself and then plummeting to earth. Even if the cars are hovering rather than flying, the last thing you want after smacking into someone else is a 5' plunge to the ground (and if it's a long way you'll want a parachute). Secondly, the driving test is arguably too easy, but would you need a pilot's licence for a hovering car? It might be better, then, as a plaything for the rich and a practical tool for those whose working environment makes it worth the effort rather than as a popular vehicle to replace the car.

It does look rather more practical than one of my favourite vehicles, the bonkers but fun ekranoplan. The ekranoplan is a slightly mental creation. It's a cross between a hovercraft and an aeroplane with stub wings. It generates enough lift to raise itself off the ground (like a hovercraft without the physical cushion) but not enough to take off and fly. They're capable of moving at tremendous speeds over a flat surface (a frozen lake, for example). A Soviet-era ekranoplan (aka ground effect vehicle or GEV) hit speeds of 350mph whilst 20m above the sea.


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