The TV show The Jetsons premiered more than 55 years ago and lasted just one season in its original form. But over its decades of reruns, it has influenced several generations’ ideas of what the future might hold. From robot vacuum cleaners to video chat, many futurist ideas from the Jetsons’ world have found their expression in ours. With one huge exception: flying cars.
To this day, the flying car has conspicuously eluded us. The difficulties involved haven’t been easy to solve, and even noted tech optimists have remained skeptical. As recently as 2015, tech visionary Elon Musk went into detail about all the challenges that might keep flying cars from becoming commonplace: energy inefficiency, public safety, noise pollution concerns. That’s especially sad news for Indianapolis drivers, at a time of year when our pothole-strewn commutes threaten to become quasi-subterranean.
Healthy skepticism aside, there’s been talk in tech circles, especially over the past year or so, suggesting that flying cars may soon become a reality.
Uber claims its flying cars could arrive in L.A. as early as 2020, according to recent reports, and has even gotten a commitment from NASA to provide logistical support. Kitty Hawk, a company backed by Alphabet CEO Larry Page, says its flying cars could be in the air in five years.
What’s the real story?
Upon closer inspection, Uber is not exactly selling the “flying car” that the articles have been hyping. A video released in November depicts something that looks like a quieter, cleaner, and more ubiquitous version of a helicopter. You’d use it mostly for short interurban hops—from San Francisco to San Jose, for example—and share it with other travelers who book through the Uber app.
Kitty Hawk’s announcement also paints a picture of air taxis that could be hailed via a smartphone app. Not exactly flying cars, either.
For something that more nearly resembles George Jetson’s ride, you have to look to Terrafugia’s TF-X, a concept vehicle that’s still, by its designers’ estimation, “the better part of a generation” away. Last fall, the Chinese company that owns Volvo and Lotus bought the small, Massachusetts startup, and has promised to bring flying cars to market in stages, with a VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) version on the market by 2023.
So why market helicopter taxis or pie-in-the-sky concept vehicles as viable flying cars? To maintain the parent company’s leading-edge cred with the public. Uber’s flying car project is a glossy, distracting flag to wave whenever its behavior toward employers or regulating bodies gets the wrong kind of attention.
Besides, a flying car sounds like something we all want. When I asked my seven-year-old daughter if she’d be interested in taking a helicopter taxi, she asked, “What’s a taxi?” When I asked if she would like a flying car, she acted as if I’d offered to hop on Amazon and order one right away. “Sure! A pink one, with white wings.”
Better get on that, DeLorean. Did I forget to mention? They’re working on a flying car, too.