With flying cars coming, should we really be building new roads?

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Flying car prototype by U.S. company Kitty Hawk (screenshot via YouTube).

The Government's pledged billions for new roads. Instead, they should consider flying cars for future infrastructure, writes Frank O'Shea.

THE VICTORIAN GOVERNMENT is going to spend $16.5 billion on a new toll road in Melbourne, called the North East Link.

Then there is the $10 billion on a rail line to the Melbourne Airport, half of which has already been promised by Federal Government.

Of course, those figures are estimates and the Melbourne North East link may cost less than $16.5 billion — I imagine that if I had a lot of time, I might find an example of a major venture like this that came in under budget.

These projects will take years to complete; there will be massive disruption, including to the many residents who have already been told that their homes will be compulsorily acquired. The private schools in one area objected to a toll road, so it was decided to go underground instead, which goes to show where power lies in Melbourne. The proposed start is 2020, but allow five years for the work to be done — there will be strikes and delays and U.S President Donald Trump will want us to send troops somewhere, so the road might be finished by 2027. By which time, it won’t be needed.

In Europe, they are developing flying cars and indeed there will be models on show at some of the trade fairs in Switzerland and Germany later this year. But these are primitive contraptions, like penny-farthings or hand-cranked motorcars from the early days of bicycles and cars. The future is elsewhere and waits only for someone with the courage to forget about roads and put their effort instead into something that will benefit everyone.

Imagine this. The electric car of the future – probably called a small "t" tesla, if that poor genius’s name has not already been copyrighted – could cost only a few thousand dollars and be big enough to hold just you. It might have its own computer, about the size and heft of a 50 cent coin, which recognises your voice even if you are emotional or tired — or drunk. It could rise vertically and fly a few hundred metres above the ground, high enough to avoid tall buildings or other obstructions.

U.S. company Kitty Hawk has partnered with the New Zealand Government to provide a commercial air taxi service.

You might tell it “take me to P41”, a recognised landing spot in the city. You can then sit in (no need for a seatbelt) and it will make its way to the freeway and join all the other little "teslas". They will fly at different levels above the freeway, separated from others by six metres in every direction, each level travelling at a constant speed, a little faster than the level below it. You will have no input into level or speed — “humans cause accidents” will be the slogan for "teslas", like “a Mars a day” or “jobs and growth”.

Each of these little marvels will have a backup power source, something that is completely out of your control. In fact, the first thing that "tesla" does when you switch him on is to check that his backup is fully operational: if there is any problem with it, he will refuse to budge. So, if during your trip to the city, there is some problem with battery or sensors, it will change to backup and then slowly and carefully descend level by level on to terra firma, probably on one of the grassed-over lanes on the roadway.

In the city, there will be a number of places where the "tesla" can land. Five of these crafts can park in the space that a modern car takes up. In time, it will be possible to pack it neatly and wheel it like a suitcase. The heaviest part will be the battery because the main body will be made of lightweight materials. At the office, you may be able to park it beside your desk. In the evening, it will take you home without stress and ask only that you put it on charge overnight.

We know that at least 90 per cent of road accidents are caused by human error. Algorithms for driverless cars like "tesla" will not need much sophistication if that is the standard against which they compete, especially since they can be written for three dimensions.

This is not science fiction. As you read this, research into flying cars is in advanced stages in Europe and China and America; companies like Google and Amazon, people like Larry Page and Elon Musk are involved. Winners all.

How much better would it be if some of that $16.5 billion could be spent on research into tomorrow’s safer, cleaner transport?

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