Why Flying Cars Are an Impossible Dream

Chesky/Shutterstock.com

The air taxi is the Godot of technology: always on its way, never here.

The flying car is the Godot of technology: always on its way, never here. Ninety years ago, Henry Ford envisioned an experimental one-seat airplane called the sky flivver, only to abandon the project when one of the first prototypes crashed, killing the pilot. In the 1950s, the U.S. Army commissioned the development of “flying jeeps” with private-sector partners like Chrysler. The project never amounted to much. Today, flying cars figure most prominently not in urban skylines, but in venture-capital tag lines,as in Peter Thiel’s motto: “We wanted flying cars; instead, we got 140 characters.” (James Fallows has for many years chronicled the ascendant hopes and stalled realities of air-taxi development around the world.)

Now tech firms again insist that their Godot is finally coming—but, seriously. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, the most buzzed-about product was probably Uber’s autonomous air taxi. The ride-hailing company has said that it hopes to roll out an air-travel business by 2023. And last week, Boeing debuted a “personal air vehicle,” an electric-plane prototype.

“Global transit is going 3-D in the next 10 years,” Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, on a panel with the chief executives from Uber and UPS. “Advanced propulsion, low-orbit travel, space tourism,” he went on, listing a variety of forthcoming airborne technology: “We know how to do this.” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi agreed that urban transportation is at an inflection point—from cars and trains to drones and planes. “We want to make the city three-dimensional,” Khosrowshahi said, echoing a theme.

But flying cars, air taxis, or to employ the industry term, “vertical takeoff and landing technology,” have their share of doubters. Elon Musk, who typically serves as Big Tech’s mascot of industrial optimism, has said that flying-car dreams have a “fundamental flaw”: They’ll always be too inconvenient for urban commuters to rely on for daily transportation. (Musk has founded at least two transportation companies, but they’re focused on digging urban tunnels and rocketing to Mars.)

Cities aren’t about to let hastily trained pilots commandeer thousand-pound machines and human passengers. The alternative, which is to let autonomous pilots commandeer thousand-pound machines and human passengers, is no more likely. If the world has learned one thing about autonomous technology in the past decade, it’s this: Autonomy is hard. It’s really, really hard. Even self-driving advocates admit that in 2018, the hype around driverless cars came “crashing down.” And speaking of crashing down, the consequences of a self-driving error for an air taxi would be calamitous: a machine the size of a small car hurtling hundreds of feet per second toward a skyscraper, house, or crowded intersection.

“I think the idea of air taxis is kind of bullshit,” Carlo Ratti, an architect and urban theorist who serves as director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT, told me. “Technology can change many things, but it cannot change physics. Helicopters are loud and expensive and, for most forms of transportation, inconvenient.” As near-silent electric and hybrid cars take over the road, the sound of a fleet of flying vehicles buzzing overhead will be even more obvious.

To address this noise problem, companies such as Boeing, Airbus, and Uber are plowing billions of dollars into technologies such as electric propulsion, which could be quieter and more reliable than a combustion engine. But building a fleet of electric-powered aircraft that shuttle passengers hundreds of miles between charges would require heroic advances in battery-energy density.

The chief executives at Davos acknowledged these challenges—and identified others. What kind of city infrastructure would be necessary for autonomous flying machines to take off and land (and charge) within the city? Why would dense, expensive cities like San Francisco approve the construction of dozens of vertical platforms if simply building sufficient apartment buildings is already difficult? How would companies like Boeing achieve the economies of scale required to efficiently manufacture tens of thousands, if not millions, of air taxis without clear signals of consumer demand and city regulatory approval? Good questions.

Several years ago, technologists and transportation companies insisted that self-driving cars would be significant parts of the urban landscape by the early 2020s. That hope is proving illusory. But instead of accepting defeat, the mobility-tech world is shifting its laser beam of optimism from self-driving Earth taxis to self-driving air taxis.

“The last 30 to 40 years in technology have been about digitizing the physical world,” Ratti said. “Experimentation has been easy for tech, because in the digital space, you can test and test infinitely. But the next 30 years will be about building technology that bridges the digital and the physical worlds. It’s a much harder challenge.”

If flying cars have a near-term future, it’s probably not urban. Rural areas—where commutes are long and interruptive skyscrapers are scarce—are the more likely initial setting for airborne technology. Once drones and flying cars prove out in Idaho, perhaps they will migrate to Manhattan. Or not. Flying cars might ultimately be the rare Davos dream that actually makes more sense for a small town like Davos than it does for the major cities its attendees represent.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.