“Jane, stop this crazy thing!”

The Jetsons’ futuristic world of flying transparent cars isn’t too far off

December 05, 2014

The future is now
The Jetsons might possibly be the most influential TV show that only aired for one season. 
Debuting in 1962 as a primetime spin-off to The Flintstones, the show was canceled after just 24 episodes. While two more seasons were produced in the mid-80s followed by TV specials and even a feature film, it was those original episodes 50 years ago that had such a powerful impact on how we envision the future.
Looking back today, it’s amazing how many technologies dreamed up for the show (which was set in 2062) have already become a reality: flatscreen TVs, portable media devices, robot vacuum cleaners, video-conferencing, moving walkways and even tanning beds.
While we still have a ways to go before we reach The Jetsons’ futuristic utopia of cloud cities, casual space travel, and nine-hour work weeks, new transportation technologies are bringing us a few steps closer.
The sky’s the limit
The Jetsons’ opening credits depicted the family on their morning commute in a flying car. Believe it or not, flying cars may be available for public purchase within the next year.
In 2012, Boston-based manufacturer Terrafugia debuted a prototype of the “Transition.” Half sedan, half private jet, the two-seat Transition features fold-up wings and is small enough to store in your garage. 
However, it has to be driven to an airport for takeoff and landing, requires a sport pilot’s license to operate, and will retail for $279,000. 
A more practical option for an everyday flying car may be Terrafugia’s TF-X. Announced last summer, the TF-X will use tilt rotors to take off and land vertically from anywhere, like a helicopter. 
It also will be made for anyone to fly—just tell it where you want to go and the TF-X will take over. In fact, Terrafugia expects the TF-X to be so simple, a typical driver could be trained to operate it in just five hours. And unlike the Transition, the pricetag is expected to be similar to that of a high-end luxury car. 
While the TF-X is still 8-12 years away, Terrafugia says that the Transition could be ready for purchase sometime next year.
Seeing is believing
The Jetsons’ flying car featured a glass dome roof, which afforded George an unobstructed 360˚ view from the driver’s seat. 
Japanese researchers hope to create the same effect in our old-fashioned land cars using projectors, cameras and special mirrors to reflect what’s outside the car onto its inside surfaces. The effect is akin to driving a glass car. 
It’s called retroreflective projection technology (RPT) and it was created by researchers at the Graduate School of Media Design at Keio University in Tokyo. 
It works by using two cameras on the vehicle’s trunk to capture a full view of the scene behind the car. The images are combined by a computer and then projected onto retroreflective material lining the back seat. When the images reflect back to the driver, it creates the effect that the entire back seat is transparent.
A Japanese car manufacturer is said to be presently working with the team to put the technology into commercial production. 
Signs of the time
The Jetsons’ virtual roadways didn’t include any traffic lights or signs, yet accidents were virtually nonexistent. Pure science fiction, right?
Maybe not, say researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. They’re in the early stages of testing a new traffic system where there would be no physical traffic signs on the side of the road. Instead, alerts would display on a dashboard screen inside your car, giving you instructions like yield or stop ahead.
The system also would be able to react to current traffic conditions. For example, if you’re the only motorist approaching an intersection, the system could allow you to pass through without stopping. 
The project stems from the institute’s increased focus on connected-vehicle technology, a futuristic intranet-like grid system where vehicles will be able to communicate not only with each other but surrounding infrastructure to help prevent auto crashes and ease congestion.
All in all, the 21st century envisioned in The Jetsons isn’t that far off. Maybe they didn’t get it all right (nevermind how the Jetsons lived in an exclusively Caucasian society up in the sky to escape massive surface pollution).
But as far as vehicles that can get us around faster and safer, that’s a future we’ll all want to tune in to.

David Matthews

David Matthews has been chronicling the unexpectedly humorous side of transportation news for his Roads Report column since 2000. The stories are all true.

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