BOSTON (TheStreet) -- A Google (GOOG) - Get Report search for "Where's my flying car?" yields some 812,000 hits. "Where's my jetpack?" garners more than a million hits. It's indicative of a common sentiment among Americans in a nascent century: Why isn't the future more futuristic in 2010?
Well, have no fear, dreamers. The future is here. The flying car is real, and so are the jetpack, the pneumatic tube, and even the tractor beam. They just don't look exactly the way 20th-century comic books imagined them. Here are five examples of how the world's entrepreneurs have brought the future to the present: The Flying Car
For those of us who grew up in the era of The Jetsons, nothing evoked the future like the flying car. NBC's The Tonight Show debuted a short film dedicated to the dream vehicle in 2002. The dream is pretty close to reality, thanks to Terrafugia (Latin for "flee the earth"), a start-up company in Woburn, Mass.
The company plans to start rolling out its Transition Roadable Aircraft, a street-legal airplane, at the end of 2011. The vehicle runs on gasoline and sports wings that retract for road use and garage storage. The selling point, other than the indisputable fact that a flying car is cool, is that consumers could use the same vehicle to fly to an airport and drive out of it.
"It's a solution to what we call, in pilot's circles, 'get-there-itis,'" says Carl Dietrich, chief executive of Terrafugia, who co-founded the company while studying aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Most of the smaller airports don't have a rental car facility. If we can give pilots a vehicle that they can drive to or from any one of these airports, it gets around that barrier."
Terrafugia has managed to woo some angel investors, including 3Com (COMS) co-founder Ken Morse, but securing venture funding has been tough because it takes longer to bring a flying car to market than, say, a new software program. "We're on the lookout for new venture capital," Dietrich says.
So far, about 70 customers have made the $10,000 down payment to reserve a Transition; the full price of the vehicle is $200,000. "Why get a Lamborghini when you could for the same price get an actual flying car?" Dietrich says. The Jetpack
Popularized by the Walt Disney (DIS) - Get Report film The Rocketeer, the personal jetpack isn't the ubiquitous form of transportation that 20th century comic books promised it would be. But it does exist.
Glenn Martin began dreaming of a jet pack at the age of 5 -- "Too much TV," he says -- but started pursuing the dream in earnest in 1981, as a university student. Martin built the first prototype in 1988 and founded Martin Jetpack in 1998. The Christchurch, New Zealand, company's current prototype (the 11th in 22 years) has a maximum thrust of 600 pounds, a range of 31.5 miles at a maximum speed of 63 miles per hour, and it burns premium gasoline at a rate of 10 gallons per hour. The fuel tank holds five gallons.
The company is negotiating a large government order for search, rescue and emergency services, Martin says, but he's mainly marketing the jetpack as a recreational vehicle. "It is a hell of a lot of fun to fly," Martin says.
The company plans to start construction on a production facility in June, with the goal of cranking out 500 jet packs per year. Martin plans to start taking orders in late 2010. The estimated cost is $100,000. The Tractor Beam
Developer: Cornell University's Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
The idea of a tractor beam often conjures images of a space ship sucking up a cow with a big beam of light. Well, it's probably going to be a while before anything other than a tornado renders farm animals airborne. But tractor beams do exist -- they're just very small.
"I don't think we were thinking consciously about tractor beams when we started this work," says David Erickson, one of a team of scientists at Cornell who devised a way to trap DNA and other diminutive pieces of matter with a narrow beam of light. "What we were really interested in was finding out ways that we could directly handle really tiny things," he says.
Since publishing the research last year, the team has received inquiries from multiple federal funding agencies and from biophotonic companies that make optical tweezers, Erickson says. This may help expedite plans to build energy-efficient materials.
"With this technique, we hope to be able to get around that and directly take a series of basic elements -- like carbon nanotubes and gold nanoparticles -- and assemble them into any arbitrary material structure we like," he says. The Pneumatic Tube
Several 19th century novels, along with the Fox (NWS) - Get Report series Futurama have invoked a world in which people travel around via a series of pneumatic tubes, propelled by the force of a vacuum or compressed air.
While most of us aren't engaging in tube travel, our blood samples are.
Many hospitals shuttle specimens through a system such as Swisslog's TransLogic Pneumatic Tube System or the pneumatic tube system from Pevco.
Stanford Hospital uses its four-mile-long pneumatic tube system about 7,000 times a day, shuttling cylinders of specimens at up to 25 feet per second -- or 18 miles per hour -- according to hospital officials. The Ubiquitous Jumpsuit
In many old comic book prognostications, humans of the future -- whether on Earth or in space -- spent most of their time donned in shiny silver jumpsuits.
Alas, jumpsuits are hardly ubiquitous in 2010, but they're not extinct either. MyJumpsuit.com sells some 25,000 per year, according to Alan Sweet, owner and president of Apparel World, a family-run business in Dallas, which operates the site. The jumpsuit has attained recent popularity thanks to the outfits of the "Dharma Initiative" characters on the ABC show Lost and the bad-ass janitor's uniform on the NBC (GE) - Get Report show "Scrubs." MyJumpSuit.com sells versions of both.
-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston.