The rise of the flying cars: is the future finally here

“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” For a while, this 2013 quote by Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, seemed to never get old — except now we have 280 characters. But five years later, it finally looks like we are on our way to have Twitter AND flying cars.

2017 was a busy year for flying cars. Two German start-ups, Lilium and Volocopter, carried out the maiden flights of their electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles: Lilium in Munich in April 2017, and Volocopter in Dubai City in September 2017. The former, in particular, looks like the closest thing we can imagine to the machines that crowd the sky of Metropolis or Blade Runner. Both companies assure they are developing the future of mobility, a future in which they imagine their flying cars as a taxi service as ubiquitous as Uber. Uber, as it happens, is also working on their own machine, the UberAIR, as part of the project Elevate: the first demonstrator flights are set to start in 2020, and the commercial operations in 2023 in three launch cities (Dallas and Los Angeles have been confirmed, and Uber is now searching for the third one).

Major constructors are also in the starting-blocks. In March 2017, Airbus and a subsidiary of Volkswagen-Audi demonstrated their Pop.Up concept in Geneva: an autonomous capsule that can be attached to a four-wheeled vehicle or dock on a sort of giant drone that carries it to its destination. Around the same time, Google founder Larry Page launched his own version of the flying car: Kittyhawk — which initially was the subject of mockeries. In a segment of his Late Show in April 2017, Stephen Colbert joked: “This is it, the thing we’ve been promised, the thing we’ve been dreaming about our entire lives. (…) It looks like a mini-trampoline had sex with a wiener mobile.” The title of the video was no less eloquent: “Flying Cars Are Finally Here And They Suuuuck”. Today, the company is developing Cora, an “everyday air taxi”, and Flyer, for a personal flying experience — or, as Colbert put its, the thing that “is going to revolutionise how rich people travel across a lake.”

Safety issues and the march of progress

The arguable reason why everyone wants in on the flying car game is that we are starting to run out of options to make city traffic bearable again. Major cities all face problems with congestion and air pollution. And the rise of ridesharing services has, among other things, highlighted the fact that a lot of people would rather ride a taxi than bike, walk or use public transportation. In short, one car replaces another. So if we are to keep living with taxis and chauffeur-driven cars, they might as well be electric, silent and able to fly above traffic.

Before they become commonplace, though, there are quite a lot of hurdles to overcome. Some, like engineer, architect and MIT teacher Carlo Ratti, don’t even believe in the technology. In Le Monde, he argues that these vehicles will still be too noisy for city-dwellers to bear their presence in massive numbers. He also writes: “the multitude of vehicles required to transport a large number of people above our heads would pose serious threats to our safety. (…) A battery failure or a rotor blade breaking could make a heavy vehicle fall on a highly-populated area.” There’s also the reglementary framework to consider: would only taxi services be allowed to fly in the city, or could anyone with a flying car? Who would regulate aerial traffic, and how? How will we ensure that the system stays out of reach of malevolent hackers or terrorists?

As relevant as these questions are, one thing the history of progress has taught us is that if something is physically possible, there will be people to develop it. So much money and so many interests are already on the line that it seems highly unlikely the flying cars will be abandoned before they even try to roam the city skies. We just have to ensure they really are what we have been promised all along: a sci-fi utopia that will make our cities more livable.