Your Book Review: Where's My Flying Car?

Finalist #14 in the Book Review Contest

[This is the fourteenth of many finalists in the book review contest. It’s not by me - it’s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I’ll be posting about two of these a week for several months. When you’ve read all of them, I’ll ask you to vote for your favorite, so remember which ones you liked. If you like reading these reviews, check out point 3 here for a way you can help move the contest forward by reading lots more of them - SA]

What went wrong in the 1970s? Since then, growth and productivity have slowed, average wages are stagnant, visible progress in the world of "atoms" has practically stopped - the Great Stagnation. About the only thing that has gone well are computers. How is it that we went from the typewriter to the smartphone, but we're still using practically the same cars and airplanes?

"Where is my Flying Car?", by J. Storrs Hall, is an attempt to answer that question. His answer is: the Great Stagnation was caused by energy usage flatlining, which was caused by our failure to switch to nuclear energy, which was caused by excessive regulation, which was caused by "green fundamentalism".

Three hundred years ago, we burned wood for energy. Then there was coal and the steam engine, which gave us the Industrial Revolution. Then there was oil and gas, giving us cars and airplanes. Then there should have been nuclear fission and nanotech, letting you fit a lifetime's worth of energy in your pocket. Instead, we still drive much the same cars and airplanes, and climate change threatens to boil the Earth.

I initially thought the title was a metaphor - the "flying car" as a standin for all the missing technological progress in the world of "atoms" - but in fact much of the book is devoted to the particular question of flying cars. So look at the issue from the lens of transportation:

"Hans Rosling was a world health economist and an indefatigable campaigner for a deeper understanding of the world’s state of development. He is famous for his TED talks and the Gapminder web site. He classifies the wealthiness of the world’s population into four levels:

1. Barefoot. Unable even to afford shoes, they must walk everywhere they go. Income $1 per day. One billion people are at Level 1.

2. Bicycle (and shoes). The $4 per day they make doesn’t sound like much to you and me but it is a huge step up from Level 1. There are three billion people at level 2.

3. The two billion people at Level 3 make $16 a day; a motorbike is within their reach.

4. At $64 per day, the one billion people at Level 4 own a car.

The miracle of the Industrial Revolution is now easily stated: In 1800, 85% of the world’s population was at Level 1. Today, only 9% is. Over the past half century, the bulk of humanity moved up out of Level 1 to erase the rich-poor gap and make the world wealth distribution roughly bell-shaped. The average American moved from Level 2 in 1800, to level 3 in 1900, to Level 4 in 2000. We can state the Great Stagnation story nearly as simply: There is no level 5."

Level 5, in transportation, is a flying car. Flying cars are to airplanes as cars are to trains. Airplanes are fast, but getting to the airport, waiting for your flight, and getting to your final destination is a big hassle. Imagine if you had to bike to a train station to get anywhere (not such a leap of imagination for me in New York City! But it wouldn’t work in the suburbs). What if you had one vehicle that could drive on the road and fly in the sky at hundreds of miles an hour?

Before reading this book, I thought flying cars were just technologically infeasible, because flying takes too much energy. But Hall says we can and have built them ever since the 1930s. They got interrupted by the Great Depression (people were too poor to buy private airplanes), then WWII (airplanes were directed towards the war effort, not the market), then regulation mostly killed the private aviation industry. But technical feasibility was never the problem.

Hall spends a huge fraction of the book on pretty detailed technical discussion of flying cars. For example: the key technical issue is takeoff and landing, and there is a tough tradeoff between convenient takeoff/landing and airspeed (and cost, and ease of operation). It’s interesting reading. But let’s return to the larger issue of nuclear power.

Nuclear power started off well; “the cost of nuclear plants was decreasing by about 25% for each doubling of capacity in the 50s and 60s”. Then, in 1977, Jimmy Carter established the Department of Energy. Costs immediately skyrocketed, and never came back down. It’s hard to briefly convey the regulatory issues because it’s death by a thousand cuts. Some excerpts from the book:

“Even the pusillanimous NRC admits, [170]  and I quote, “But there are no data to establish a firm link between cancer and doses below about 10,000 mrem (100 mSv).” And they then proceed to point out that that level is 100 times greater than they allow for public radiation exposure. This is like setting a speed limit of 1 MPH because people have been injured doing 100. Yes, nuclear today is expensive. Shipping would be expensive too if trucks had to operate with a speed limit of 1 MPH.”

“The 1971 D.C. Circuit Court case Calvert Cliffs required the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to comply with a mandate to prepare environmental impact statements for proposed actions. The AEC reacted by suspending all licensing for nuclear power plants for 18 months while it devised new rules.”

"US law specifically prohibited using computers to directly control nuclear plants"

"If you put a completely legal luminous watch in a barrel containing half a tonne of dirt, that dirt would technically be intermediate-level nuclear waste according to the regulations." 

Why is regulation so crippling? The public is wrongly terrified of nuclear energy, but they shouldn’t be. Radiation killed 0 people at Fukishima; the radiophobic evacuation killed >1000 (“Some 1600 of the evacuees died from causes ranging from privation in refugee camps (notably loss of access to health care) to suicide”), and the tsunami/earthquake killed >10000. Hall quotes an estimate from the Guardian that Chernobyl - by far the most serious nuclear disaster - killed “approximately” 43 people. 

Why are people so terrified? Hall says we were a victim of our own success from World War II. Before the War, America was an individualistic nation. Then  came the Depression, the New Deal, and most of all the War. America won the war with a “completely centralized bureaucratic government structure” - and it was a huge success. And for a while, that worked: the generation forged in the war had a “cooperative “same boat” spirit” that “[made] the centralized corporate structures work.” But then it didn’t. Hall blames the hippies:

“The Baby Boomers—my generation—split into two cultures which, as far as I can see, not only didn’t agree on values but which fundamentally couldn’t even understand each other. Ask any Boomer what was the greatest, most pivotal event of 1969. Half of us will say the Apollo 11 moon landing. The other half will say Woodstock. Both sets, hearing the other’s opinion, will emit an honestly uncomprehending “Huh!?!?” From the Fifties to the Seventies, the average American followed the lifecycle of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt from conformity and cooperation to non-conformist rebellion in a search for personal meaning. The corporate state worked with the cooperating, self-sacrificing Greatest Generation. It didn’t work so well with Aquarians.”

His theory, basically, is that the next generation - the Baby Boomers - got spoiled. Automation had come into its own, and people didn’t need to struggle for survival anymore. America was on top of the world, and there weren’t enough real challenges to work on. But people need challenges. So they made some up.

Hall says the most damaging strain, still common today, is “green fundamentalism”, the idea that human agency over nature is fundamentally bad. An early example is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which got DDT banned on the grounds that it was causing cancer; in reality the cancer increase was from smoking, and from technology improving living conditions (the healthier you are, the more likely you’ll survive long enough to get killed by cancer). “The Green religion has essentially superceded Christianity as the default religion of western civilization, especially in academic circles”. Hall is dismissive of climate change, citing an estimate that it will cost only a few percentage of GDP by 2100 even in the worst case. (This is something that always confused me; there’s such a big gap between quantitative economic estimates of climate change and qualitative ones. My impression is the quantitative ones are way too optimistic. Hall does not agree with me). Anyway, he says, climate change is all the more reason to embrace clean nuclear power and flying cars (highways use a lot of land; if flying cars replaced highways, that land could be returned to nature).

The upshot is there is strong intellectual skepticism about increasing energy usage. As government has taken much more centralized power, “we have let complacent nay-sayers metamorphose from pundits uttering ‘It can’t be done’ predictions a century ago, into bureaucrats uttering ‘It won’t be done’ prescriptions today.” As a result, “a lot of inventiveness and engineering resources got shifted from doing new things, and doing things better, to doing the same old things, usually not as well, but using less energy.” Our machines use less energy, but they don’t work any better. Is single-mindedly improving efficiency really the best use of our time? And anyway, the efficiency gains - while real - are basically on the same trendline as they were before all this regulation. The difference is that we used to have efficiency *and* more energy every year; now all we get is efficiency. The twin tragedies are that so many talented people went into activism instead of engineering, and that the activism was so often opposed to progress.

Besides flying cars and nuclear energy, the last main thread of the book is nanotechnology. The idea is due to Feynman, although it was popularized by Eric Drexler. Basically: we would benefit a lot from being able to do atomic-scale manufacturing. But our factories are human scale; the tools are way too big to deal with atoms. What if you used our human scale factories to make a one-quarter-human-scale factory? Then you could use the quarter-scale-factory to make a one-sixteenth-scale factory. Repeat a few times, and you’re down to atom-scale. Nanotech, Hall says, is to nuclear energy as the steam engine was to coal - the technology that will unlock the potential of a new energy source. But like nuclear energy, nanotech has languished.

Hall blames public funding for science. Not just for nanotech, but for actually hurting progress in general. (I’ve never heard anyone before say government-funded science was bad for science!) “[The] great innovations that made the major quality-of-life improvements came largely before 1960: refrigerators, freezers, vacuum cleaners, gas and electric stoves, and washing machines; indoor plumbing, detergent, and deodorants; electric lights; cars, trucks, and buses; tractors and combines; fertilizer; air travel, containerized freight, the vacuum tube and the transistor; the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, movies, radio, and television—and they were all developed privately.” “A survey and analysis performed by the OECD in 2005 found, to their surprise, that while private R&D had a positive 0.26 correlation with economic growth, government funded R&D had a negative 0.37 correlation!” “Centralized funding of an intellectual elite makes it easier for cadres, cliques, and the politically skilled to gain control of a field, and they by their nature are resistant to new, outside, non-Ptolemaic ideas.” This is what happened to nanotech; there was a huge amount of buzz, culminating in $500 million dollars of funding under Clinton in 1990. This huge prize kicked off an academic civil war, and the fledgling field of nanotech lost hard to the more established field of material science. Material science rebranded as “nanotech”, trashed the reputation of actual nanotech (to make sure they won the competition for the grant money), and took all the funding for themselves. Nanotech never recovered.

Flying cars didn’t have the same issues; they were being developed privately. But regulation doomed them. Harold Pitcairn was almost successful in developing a flying car, but then in World War II the government nationalized his helicopter patents (they promised to give them back after the war, but reneged) and he spent the rest of his life in court. He won, 17 years after his death. Bruce Hallock had a promising design, but he sold a plane to a missionary group in Peru and was arrested as an “arms trafficker”. Robert Fulton had a successful prototype, “however, Fulton’s financial backers had become discouraged with the seemingly endless expense of meeting government production standards, and they withdrew their support.” Molt Taylor “was actually in serious negotiations with Ford as late as 1975 to have the Aerocar mass-produced. The monkeywrench was thrown into the negotiations by the FAA and the DOT. Taylor already had an airworthiness certificate for the Aerocar, granted by the CAA (predecessor of the FAA) after a delay of 7 years from its first flight. He claims that the agencies turned thumbs down on the Aerocar ‘because everybody would have one, and we couldn’t handle the [air] traffic.’ Airplane regulation has only gotten stricter: “The entire F.A.R. / A.I.M., which every airman is responsible for knowing, is 1085 pages long. At least it was in 2013; a new one comes out every year.”

So in the end, we have none of these technologies. No flying cars, even though they were prototyped almost a hundred years ago. Some nuclear energy, but crippled, aged, feared, and hated. 3D printing, but no nanotech. No level 5. Because the state needs legibility, and progress is not legible. The bureaucratic incentives are to calcify. If no one does anything new, no one will do anything wrong. Hall:

“The highly predictable result is that bureaucracies are very poor at learning. The reason ‘good old-fashioned’ symbolic AI systems didn’t work reliably is that they were like bureaucracy; and the reason that bureaucracies don’t work is that they are like good old-fashioned symbolic AI. The ‘cost disease’ that infects so many of our basic services, from education to infrastructure to medicine, reached the epidemic stage at the same time as the burgeoning bureaucratic and regulatory runaway of the Great Strangulation. The causes of it have proven quite resistant to conventional analysis, but there is one thread running through all the social pathologies: Failure of Feedback.” 

Hall gives a nice machine learning analogy for why we might hope the private sector will do better:

“As we approach the ability to create working artificial intelligence, we are beginning to write programs that do learn: deep-learning neural networks, for example. The way these work is that the mechanism of the program is spread in a distributed way across many simplified computational units. The key is that the function of each unit is “differentiable:” if you specify which way the output was wrong from what it should have been, it is possible to calculate which way each of the inputs should have been different, propagating the error backward through the network. Now each unit has a purely local view of what it’s doing wrong, and it has a much easier task to optimize than the overall learning problem as a whole. The economy, it turns out, does much the same thing. In machine learning theory terms, the market machine does “credit assignment” by “back-propagation” of explicit credit tokens—money—as a counterflow to the actual goods and services being produced. This reduces the problem of overall optimization to the one of each unit maximizing the net local money flow. That makes the overall economy an effective learning machine, just as back-propagation does a neural network.”

The last third of the book is forward-looking, about what we could unlock by taking up and mastering the complementary tools of nuclear energy and nanotechnology. Hall speculates about flying cities (“one single line of nuclear power plants (every 250 feet) along the wing would suffice to keep Aero City flying indefinitely”), “space piers” (“Build a structure 100 kilometers tall and 300 kilometers long”), flying cars (“By 2062, robotic flying cars at least as fast as today’s airliners could be commonplace”), and much else.

The book is 550 pages long, so there’s a lot I didn’t cover. I thought the political/social analysis was its weakest aspect, basically a strongly worded but conventional version of the libertarian case against regulation, although I appreciated the detailed examples of how regulation harmed flying cars and nanotechnology (And I’ll admit I haven’t heard the libertarian case against funding science before!). I’m more convinced than ever that not embracing nuclear power was one of humanity’s worst mistakes (partially because I’m more afraid of climate change than Hall is). I found the book most valuable as a statement of “definite optimism” - a concrete vision of attainable yet extraordinary technological progress. I recommend it on that basis.

[Editor’s note: there is a second excellent review of Where’s My Flying Car in the Runners Up packet. I didn’t consider it for the contest because the author submitted a second entry, and I figured since Flying Car was a duplicate I would consider the second entry instead. In retrospect I regret this and it was pretty great. Read it here, and if you like it you can vote on it in the Runners Up vote - see point 3 here for more details.]