Science portrayed on film promises powerful new energy sources, morphing smart robots and mind-bending concepts. Tune in "Men In Black III" and watch Will Smith travel back in time to rescue his friend Young Agent K (Josh Brolin).
Alas, the real world is somewhat less fantastic, ushering in a limited-range electric vehicle for the dawn of the 21st Century. Call it the curse of George Jetson. The cartoon about a red-headed buffoon living in an idealized future premiered 50 years ago on Sept. 23, 1962, and while some of its computing predictions have hit the mark, others like personal space flight remain decades distant.
Robotics finds friends
On a side note, robot development does appear promising, especially with drone aircraft. The pursuit also has taken root amongst young people with events like the 2012 VEX Robotics High School World Championship over the Earth Day weekend in Anaheim, Calif. Tiny Riverdale High School's team under the tutelage of Roland Reyna placed in the top 40 of 396 teams. Reyna, who lives in Fresno, Calif. has inspired a team of mostly farmworker kids to tear apart old donated computers and electronics devices to make amazing stuff.
Still, nobody's created anything to keep up with Rosie, the independent house-cleaner robot that took care of Jetson family disasters. Likewise, George Jetson's flying transport with its iconic bleeping propulsion system may never get built, especially the feature allowing the bubble-shaped vehicle to fold into a briefcase.
Instead we have electric and hybrid powertrains that have yet to intrigue a significant percentage of U.S. drivers. The big drawback beyond their limited range and consumer resistance is the high battery cost. This prices many EV and hybrid models in line with entry level luxury cars.
There are also recharging issues to deal with. A support network is critical, says a report by the American National Standards Institute.
"This infrastructure must be reliable and broadly interoperable regardless of the type of EV or charging system," say the authors of "Standardization Roadmap for Electric Vehicles."
The report says that pesky recharge requirement is needed "at home, at work, and in public locations." The big question is how the infrastructure gets built and who pays for it. The home part's covered. Owners foot that bill.
But along highways and at many places in towns and cities? The private sector will have to work that out.
Systems of tomorrow
There's potential for wireless charging, but its arrival -- if ever -- is years away. In the interim, most of the options involve plugging in at a variety of locations and service stations and sitting there from 20 minutes to three hours while the car battery fills with energy. The problem here is to have the right recepticles and proper systems. Conformity and industry standards will have to be settled before too long. The beta vs. VHS war of the early 1980s provides an earlier example of some potential pitfalls.
To move this technology forward, prices must drop. But that requires more sales. Solving the conundrum could take time.
Meanwhile, other technologies could steal the spotlight.
For instance, Thomas Frey of the DaVinci Institute speculates that pilotless drones will nose their way into the consumer consciousness. He offers this anecdote in a blog post: "Imagine yourself in 2030 ... sitting in your living room watching your favorite show on a 3D holographic display, and ... you instantly start craving pizza, and simply utter the word 'yes.' Thirty seconds later, a flying delivery drone docks with your house and delivers the exact pizza you were craving along with a six-pack of your favorite beer."
Nothing like Jetson's car. But the concept does sound possible.
A recent episode of "Harry's Law" on NBC featured a story about a woman whose privacy was invaded by police using a small drone to spy on her in her bedroom. The situation is speculative, but the technology is real.
Frey says flying cars will require the development of the following: fully automated navigation systems, low-impact vertical take-off, convenient fly-drive capability, silent engines and specialized safety systems.
Give it time. Frey contends flying cars -- should they be cheap enough to get all us George and Jane Jetsons puttering around the sky -- could do for transportation what the Internet has done for communication. "We could only begin to imagine the opportunities that would eventually accompany this kind of innovation," he says.