Now we can finally live like The Jetsons

DeLorean DR-7
Life imitating art: DeLorean’s DR-7

An amusing “meme” has been doing the rounds on social media sites, says Jacob Brogan on Slate’s Future Tense blog. Such memes involve embellishing upon a joke, then widely sharing it on Twitter and other sites. In this meme, wags first remind us of how we all thought back in the 1970s: “I bet they’ll have flying cars and jet packs in 2017!” Underneath, they post a picture from the present day to show how far we have failed to come since then – teens staring gormlessly into their iPhones, taking selfies, playing with pointless gadgets. The meme is a bit of fun, but the real laugh, according to Brogan, is that a significant percentage of Americans really do want to see autonomous flying cars (at least according to one recent study). Flying cars remain “the quintessential undelivered promise of the future”.

Indeed, the non-arrival of the flying car has given rise to a secret sense of disappointment that haunts the lives of those who were brought up in a world where colonies on Mars and teleportation pods seemed to be just around the corner, as David Graeber said in a 2012 essay for The Baffler. When this is pointed out, as in the meme doing the rounds, people tend to mention computers and the internet, as if these were “some kind of unanticipated compensation” for our disappointment that we aren’t actually living like The Jetsons.

But in fact even computers have failed to live up to expectations. We still can’t “have an interesting conversation with one or get it to take our dog for a walk”. The internet may be remarkable, but it’s really just a “super-fast and globally accessible combination of library, post office and mail-order catalogue”. Hardly the stuff of Star Trek. Graeber thinks it’s capitalism that’s holding us back. Only when society “breaks free of the dead hand of the hedge-fund managers and CEOs” will “our imaginations once again become a material force in human history”, he claims.

In the time since Graeber penned those words, those dead hands have been rather busy, however, as the pictures on these pages attest. Could we now finally be on the verge of a true flying car? If nothing else, there is certainly some serious money betting that we are, says Nick Rufford in The Sunday Times. Mercedes has been investing in Volocopter, a small German company hoping to be a world leader in flying taxis. Dutch firm PAL-V has developed a road-going gyrocopter with foldaway rotors. Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, has launched the Kitty Hawk Flyer (see below).

Ehang 184

Taxi-hailing app Uber has signed deals with five companies that are developing VTOL aircraft (those that can take off and land vertically, so no need for a runway). Airbus, Google and Toyota are also investing in flying motors, and in Dubai the authorities have announced trials of an air-taxi service using a Chinese-made remote-control drone helicopter, the EHang 184 (pictured above). Finally, in a sign that life really does imitate art, a prototype DeLorean flying car (remember the car that flew back to the future in the much-loved film) is scheduled to fly next year (pictured top).

“Mark my word. A combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile. But it will come.” So said Henry Ford in 1940, says Rufford, and he was not wrong. Just nine years later, Moulton Taylor, an American inventor, launched the Aerocar, which drove at 60mph, flew at 110mph, and was a wonder of engineering. It was used as a traffic-watch aircraft for a Portland radio station in the early Sixties, and it seemed as though the age of the flying car had arrived. But it remained an invention in search of a market. Only six were built. The technology has moved on a lot, but for practical reasons true flying cars are likely to remain the recreational playthings of the very rich for some time to come.

Flying cars will not look like what sci-fi movies may have led you to expect, agrees Jamie Carter for TechRadar.com. But they are coming. Long-term plans are already being made by cities and transport authorities. For the first time, the technology (better batteries, more powerful compact jet engines, lightweight materials) is right. And as our roads become ever more congested, necessity is pushing in the right direction. But the flying cars we actually end up seeing are far more likely to take the form of helicopter-like taxis, as currently being trialled in Dubai. The Dubai experiment “could be the tipping point”, says Joe Praveen Vijayakumar, an industry analyst quoted by Carter. So if you were picturing yourself driving along, coming upon a traffic jam, then simply taking off, then “sorry, that’s not going to happen”. But fleets of flying robots in our cities that we can hail for a ride from our smartphone? That probably will. “Now that’s proper off-roading.”

Four of the most promising flying motors

The cars that skimmed over the Los Angeles of 2019 in Blade Runner used thrusters for vertical take-off and landing, says Nick Rufford in The Sunday Times. The real-life equivalent, the Lilium Jet, took its maiden voyage this year from an airfield near Munich. The Lilium is powered by electric motors and has a top speed of 186mph. If it makes it into production it “could revolutionise air transport”, though it won’t be equipped for driving. A manned test flight is planned for 2019.

Larry Page’s Kitty Hawk Flyer should be on sale later this year. Though the price is yet to be announced, Page has promised that it will be “affordable”. It has eight electric-powered motors, but can only take off and land on water and fly a few feet from the ground, so it’s some way off the promise of a true flying car. And although you won’t need a pilot’s licence to operate it in the US, you won’t be able to fly it in the UK and there’s little chance of those rules being relaxed, says to Rufford. Only qualified pilots need apply.

Terrafugia’s Transition

Terrafugia’s Transition (pictured above), in development since 2006, drives like a typical car on the ground and fits in a standard single-car garage, says Tori Blakeman The Guardian. It can be pre-ordered for $300,000 and has a top speed of 100mph and a cruising range of 400 miles. But although it may well fit in your garage, that garage will still have to have a runway leading up to it…

Aeromobile

The closest we have come to the sci-fi dream, says Blakeman, is the AeroMobil (pictured above). You can pre-order from its Slovakian makers for delivery in 2020. You’ll still need a runway and a pilot’s licence, but the prospect of flying somewhere and continuing the journey in a viable, not-too-silly-looking vehicle is “exciting”. It converts from plane to car in around three minutes, is powered by electric on road, aircraft fuel in flight, and has a top speed of 99mph. This promises to be the first “real flying car” – at least for the well-heeled. It will cost £1.1m.