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The Future is Now

Magazine covers from the 50s

In the 1950s people loved to speculate on what cars might look like in the 21st century. Now in the futuristic year of 2013, we look back at some of the wackiest future predictions... and some others that were amazingly accurate!

Flying Cars

Perhaps the most famous - and most disappointingly inaccurate - technology prediction of the 50s was the flying car. In the year 2000 motorists would sail effortlessly through the air in their brand new jet-propelled vehicles, whizzing from A to B faster than you can say "anti-gravity". How would the car remain airborne? There were a number of theories... here are some of the best.

The Rocket Car. Spawned by America's drive to get to space before the Soviets, rocket power was the talk of the nation in this era. In the future, it wouldn't just be space exploration vehicles that had this kind of technology - it would be family cars too.
The Flying Fan Vehicle. This amazing contraption, which graced the cover of Popular Mechanics in 1957, was dubbed to work "almost like a flying carpet" - that is, it is kept aloft by four giant ducted fans that allow the car to hover, apparently weightlessly, in mid-air.

The Personal Helicopter. A bit of a variant, but another Popular Mechanics classic, this miniature "simple, practical, foolproof" helicopter can be landed on your own lawn, stored in your garage at home and used for a quick nip to the supermarket (as long as you don't buy anything heavy).

Flying cars have always been the ultimate automotive dream, and we still see the legacy of these early conceptions in movies today. So why did the flying car never make it into the 21st century showroom? Physicist and science fiction author Gregory Benford explains: "It turns out that if you optimize the performance of a car and of an airplane, they are very far away in terms of mechanical features. So you can make a flying car. But they are not very good planes, and they are not very good cars."

50s Magazine inside

From the Ridiculous...

The flying car might sound like a ridiculous concept, but when compared to these absurd designs from 1950s popular science magazines it starts to look like a really good idea.

The Dyno-Wheel Motor Bus. This baffling design appears to defy all logic, featuring a giant wheel that runs through the chassis of the bus and renders its more conventional wheels utterly useless. What purpose this huge wheel serves is unclear, but perhaps it was inspired by fears of giant mutant hamsters?

The Giant Fan Car. It's hard to know what to say about this extraordinary vehicle, which appears to be a car powered by a huge fan welded onto the bonnet. Perhaps inspired by the search for cheap, renewable energy sources, this massive fan is a noble concept but one that completely obscures the view of the driver. But on the plus side I guess you wouldn't need to worry about bugs hitting the windscreen.

...To the Conceivable

It wasn't all mad-cap schemes and hokum designs in the 1950s. That era boasted some really significant leaps in our scientific knowledge, and some great predictions were made that have actually turned out to be pretty accurate.

On the "Electronic Highway of the Future", cars rely on automated A.I. systems that respond to road conditions. This A.I. will "provide automatic warning to a driver following too closely behind another vehicle" and "indicate to a driver the presence of a parked vehicle or other obstacle." Sound familiar? It's startlingly reminiscent of Germany's pioneering car-to-x system we reported on here.

Although the Electronic Highway also features advanced technology we haven't quite mastered yet - such as a fully automated driving system that lets the driver "carry on a conversation with your passengers - or even catch up on your office work" as they go, the "smart" features of this concept car are certainly becoming reality today.

Looking Forward

Now that we've reached the heady heights of the 21st century and found them to be not as futuristic as we expected, we must wonder what the world of automotive technology will be like in the next century. Will we have solved the fuel problem that has dogged our heels for so long? Will electric cars like the Tesla become more popular than petrol-fuelled vehicles? Will we finally figure out how to optimize the flying car? By looking back on the ideas and innovations of the last century we can say one thing for certain: science and technology will continue to make driving experiences safer, easier and more exciting in the coming years.