The future — our present — is not what we were promised.
Man has not been to Mars (Wired, 1997), food has not become obsolete (Ray Kurzweil, 2005), and robots have failed to make the entire country’s population independently wealthy (Time Magazine, 1966). The human foot has not morphed into one giant toe (Dr. Richard Lucas, 1911), dental transplants have not become common (Mechanix Illustrated, 1947), and no one has “a live-in ape to do the cleaning and gardening chores” (RAND Corporation, 1967).
We also don’t have flying cars (Popular Science, 1924; The Saturday Evening Post, 1942; Back to the Future, 1985; etc.). For a century, visionaries, futurists, and wild-eyed sci-fi writers predicted airborne sedans parked in the garage of every suburban commuter. But nearly two decades into the 21st century, that dream has not been realized, even as so many other markers of “the future” — video chats, robotic house cleaners, the Cubs winning the World Series — have become reality.
Over time, people began to ask “Where’s my flying car?” as shorthand for disappointment with reality failing to meet the most exciting projections of the future. Sure, we’ve got tiny supercomputers in our pockets and countertop speakers that can tell jokes, but our cars still drive on four wheels.
That may soon change. Really. The past decade has seen a flurry of innovations for what were once called “flying cars”; now they’re vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (VTOLS), electric VTOLS (eVTOLS), or air taxis. They’re built by scrappy startups and legacy aerospace firms. They’re coming out of Silicon Valley, Pittsburgh, Slovenia, and China. And no tech billionaire’s portfolio is complete without an investment in a vehicle that can drive in the sky.
If the most ambitious projections are accurate, somebody somewhere will be laughing at the suckers stuck in traffic below them within the next five years. But the most ambitious projections are rarely accurate. More likely, it’ll be decades before flying cars are anywhere close to common. And when they are, they won’t be what we’ve always imagined.
“The lay person usually thinks about a Jetsons-like world,” said Sanjiv Singh, a research professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute. “Something that takes off from their driveway and then takes them somewhere else. You’re talking about a vehicle that operates in the presence of a densely populated area with lots of complexity.”
We’ll first see, Singh said, autonomous vehicles delivering cargo to remote areas or flying supplies to inaccessible disaster zones. “A place where roads have been destroyed due to a hurricane or earthquake,” he said. “You can’t get supplies there because power lines are down and roads are broken. Emergency operations of all kinds.”
Once flying cars make it to urban areas, they’ll look more like helicopters or human-sized drones. They’ll take off vertically from one helipad and land on another. In the early years, there will be a pilot, who will eventually be replaced by an autonomous flying system that’s more reliable and more profitable — you don’t have to fund a computer’s 401(k). And they won’t be kept in your garage.
“They will be one element of a multi-mode transportation experience,” said Robin Lineberger, Deloitte’s aerospace and defense leader. “They will not take you on the first and the last mile in your journey.”
In an autonomous “ground vehicle, if something bad were to happen, you could pull over. For an air vehicle, this is a significant issue.” Translation: you might drop out of the sky.
The type of flying car that will drive on the road, fly in the sky, and park in your garage will only be practical for the super-rich. That’s not because they’ll be expensive, though they will be, but because you’d need the ability to maintain it, store it, and land it, which takes more than a suburban driveway. “If I happen to be pretty wealthy and I want to own one of these, there’s nothing to say one endpoint of my journey couldn’t be my ranch,” Lineberger said. “But that’s not for the masses.”
This can all sound theoretical since virtually no one has even seen one of these in the air, but it’s not. The Slovakian firm AeroMobil is currently taking orders for its AeroMobil 4.0, with delivery scheduled for 2020. Uber has said its air taxi service will launch in 2023. Dubai is desperate to put an air taxi into operation, and Japan’s Cartivator is aiming for its SkyDrive to help light the torch for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
They may not be the flying cars science fiction promised, but they’re the closest we have, and they’re almost here.