The phrase ‘flying car’ used to be (and perhaps still is) shorthand for ‘the future’. As long as we don’t have the flying car that a nebulous ‘they’ promised us, the future is not now. Never mind that in this day and age even people fleeing a war-torn Syria carry around more computing power then it took to get people to the moon, the idea of having enough technology seems forever outside our grasp.
These days flying cars are also a go-to topic for the average lazy journalist—there’s nothing like an article that you can write as you type.
Articles about flying cars in the MSM (main stream media) tend to follow a certain pattern. They look at current efforts of building flying cars—which remarkably all look a lot like regular, non-flying cars. If you’re lucky these articles also discuss past efforts, so that you get some historical perspective—for instance, the perspective that people have been designing, prototyping and dismissing flying cars for almost a century. And these articles often close with some made-up theory about how flying cars would lead to mayhem in the sky, followed by conjecture that this may be why we don’t have flying cars yet.
One of my larger objections to this trope is teleological in nature. I contend that we already have flying cars. They were invented in 1903 by two American brothers called Wright and have since taken the world by storm.
It turns out that if you put it like that, a whole lot of people will say: “but that’s not a flying car, that’s an airplane!” So what makes something a flying car? The image we have of flying cars is something straight out of the Jetsons or Back to the Future. It needs to be a vehicle. It needs to land and take off pretty much anywhere you like. It needs to be compact enough to park it near your house and comfortable enough to use for commuting or shopping. And it needs to have two more things, which I will discuss in a second. What it doesn’t need is to look like a car or to have wheels.
Even if you bring these extra limitations into the definition of flying cars, you still have the problem that this vehicle already exists. It’s called a helicopter. You have also introduced a problem for the lazy journalists, because this stricter definition of ‘flying car’ no longer includes any of the flying cars currently under development. The Pal-V’s and Terrafugias require dedicated airstrips to land and take off, so unless you live on an airport, they are not flying cars.
These modern flying cars are basically roadworthy aircraft. They look like cars (at least the bottom half) because when they are on the road, they are cars. What they are designed to solve is the problem that you aren’t allowed to land a helicopter just anywhere. They are 10% technological innovation and 90% legal work-around.
The way land-bound cars are advertised it would seem that their main purpose is personal freedom, especially freedom from roads full of other cars. Obviously if you own a car you realize that this is just a fantasy. If you use your car for commuting, you get used to being stuck in traffic for a considerable chunk of your life. But maybe flying cars could provide a solution? So that’s the final limitation that separates conventional aircraft from flying cars.
So what makes a flying car again?
- It is a vehicle.
- That is capable of taking off and landing where and when its operator desires.
- That is allowed to take off and land where and when its operator desires.
Interestingly the very idea of what a flying car is also contributes to make it so that we don’t have them. The final two defining features are after all legal and psychological/sociological in nature, and such problems can be tricky to solve. (I wrote something other than ‘tricky to solve’, but I’ll leave the anti-technocratic rant for some other time.)