That’s not just the name of a rock group from Scotland, it’s pretty much a fact — if the stories and pictures that generations of us saw in comic books and science-fiction magazines, in movies and on television, amount to a promise, that is. And they pretty much did; from the 1920s through the 1960s, the jetpack you would strap on your back to go soaring off to work or school was part of the future that many of us came to believe we were supposed to get.
There were some obvious problems, of course, such as how to protect certain parts of your anatomy from getting char-broiled by the jet blast, or the fact that if the thing ever stalled or ran out of fuel, no matter how high up you were, you’d drop like a stone.
But this was the future, after all, and not to be ruined by mere facts. So, in the movies and later on TV, Commando Cody would soar around with his jetpack, with control knobs on the front of his leather jacket. Undeterred by the dupa-frying jet flames, he’d fight off such villains as the Radar Men from the Moon. The anachronisms could be confusing: The bad guys, inexplicably, were trying to take over our planet by wearing gangster-style fedoras from the Prohibition era and firing revolvers from the windows of racing Nash and Mercury sedans, even though they had arrived in rocket ships and possessed ray-gun technology. In the end, though, the good guys always won.
Another thing we were promised, so to speak, was the self-driving automobile. It was in Popular Science, or maybe it was Popular Mechanics, with illustrations: Mom, Dad, Sis and Junior would sit in the car under a clear plastic bubble — with the front seats facing the rear so they could play Monopoly while the car whisked them over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, guided by radio signals from a cable embedded in the roadway, or something.
There was even a 1956 promotional movie made by General Motors in which the all-American family motors across the country in way-out, futuristic 1976, their jet-powered car guided by the Autoway Safety Authority. Dad sets the car for automatic control while junior dispenses cold drinks and ice cream from the dashboard. The strangely fixed grins on their faces were probably caused by the pleasure of living in a future when you don’t have to actually steer your own car, or do much of anything.
And while every few years seem to bring some new development on the jetpack front — without, however, solving the two big problems cited above — the self-driving car seems to be coming on strong in the fast lane. Google’s self-driving cars have already logged more than 400,000 miles on public roads, and lots of automakers in this country, Europe and Japan have introduced or are working on features such as radar-controlled automatic braking.
Computers, after all, don’t drink or take drugs, don’t text while driving and never get tired. For those and other reasons, news reports indicate that truly automatic cars could save thousands of lives and billions of dollars per year.
However, computers do “crash” — as anyone who uses them regularly can attest — so there’s bound to be some trepidation on the part of the driving public when they’re finally asked, in the not-too-far-off future, to let go of the steering wheel and hope for the best.
So here’s a prediction: When computer-controlled cars are just about to start rolling off the assembly line in droves, there’s going to be a bull market in St. Christopher medals. Invest accordingly.
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org.