The traffic slows. The vehicle in front of yours turns on its warning lights. Within a few minutes, you’ve basically come to a standstill. If you don’t do anything, your son will be late for his maths test and you might miss a crucial meeting that you’ve been waiting for for months. Happily, you’ve been pretty cunning and recently invested in a new, cutting-edge car. Simply press the button on the screen in front of you and it lifts off the ground pretty much vertically, heading straight to the school, where it lands on a sort of mini-heliport designed for such vehicles. Once you’ve dropped off your kids, you take off again and move onto your company’s head office. Thanks to this futuristic transportation system, everyone has ended up where they need to be very much on time.
We’re all familiar with the fantasy of the flying car and the absolute freedom it would offer travellers. No traffic jams, no red lights, no tolls. But although these sorts of vehicles have been mooted for more than a century, with prototype videos regularly emerging on the internet, none of these cars can be seen in the sky above us. No flying taxis like in the futuristic New York of The Fifth Element, nor speedy vehicles like those transporting Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker through the 5,000 levels of the planet Coruscant. To kick-start this new article series in Midnight Weekly, we’ve decided to investigate this rather retro fantasy, from its origins to how it’s evolved and whether or not the technology is actually feasible.
First, it should be noted that the flying car isn’t a new idea by any means. In fact, it’s something people have dreamed of since the industrial revolution, as historian Patrick Gyger told Midnight Weekly, “working prototypes appeared as early as 1917”. In his book Les Voitures Volantes: Souvenirs d’un Futur Rêvé, the scientist says the idea dates back as early as 1846, when the author Emile Souvestre predicted a future part-way between steampunk and fantasy, where “flying cars, balloon-buses and winged Tilburys” would meet in the sky. As you’ll know, the invention of the automobile and the plane would send engineers and inventors off in a completely different direction.
While authors – like Jules Verne in Master of the World – kept on inventing improbable vehicles to bring their works to life, others (mostly but not always American) all tended towards a similar idea: a flying car or roadable aircraft, which would allow people to move naturally from the road to the sky and back again. “The main asset of such a vehicle would be that it would allow both automobiles and planes to exceed their usual constraints”, the historian writes.
For decades, the pioneers of the flying car thus built mini-planes that can travel via road, and cars that have foldable or detachable wings attached. The aim? That every citizen can get from A to B without ever switching vehicles. But for Patrick Gyger, this dream of absolute freedom is full of contradictions : “For reasons of safety and comfort, cars are by their very nature very heavy and solid, while planes must be as light as possible to allow them to fly effectively. All those flying vehicles that have been created are both bad planes and bad cars.”
At the start of the twentieth century, a myth spread throughout American society: one day everyone would have their own personal plane. It wasn’t just science-fiction works that contributed to the myth: very serious articles and marketing from brands including chocolate makers Lombart, which published ad-postcards “How our grandnephews will live in 2012” promising that we’d be going to shops in very bizarre vehicles indeed. In the 1950s, there were suggestions that landing strips would be built next to roads, so people could rejoin the road directly from the sky. The belief was so widespread that even Henry Ford – the man who made the car accessible to all – got stuck in. “Its engineers focused on a small aircraft called the Flying Flivver, three versions of which were manufactured and tested from 1926. But the test pilot Harry Brooks, close to the industrialist, died when the third prototype crahsed on a Miami beach. The project was definitively abandoned”, says Patrick Gyger.
Dozens of projects kept on emerging from businesses big and small. Contrary to what you might expect, several models of flying car were functional enough to receive official approval and get close to proper commercialisation. That was the case for Waldo Waterman’s Arrowbile, which despite being able to travel at 190km/hour in the air and 110km/hour on the ground, was abandoned because of production costs of $7,000. It was a colossal sum for the time. And it was also the case for Robert E. Fulton’s Airphibian, which was the first flying car certified by American authorities for production, but whose investors ended up pulling out of the venture as they feared not making enough money.
All these examples of flying cars, from the start of the twentieth century to the 1970s, prove one thing. Our cars aren’t necessarily going to remain earthbound for ever. “Several of them worked well enough to be put to the market, but it was at this point that people noticed they didn’t necessarily correspond to real demand, so much as an absurd fantasy of freedom”, Patrick Gyger explains, adding that there’s never been any viable economic model. And the fantasy is made all the more absurd because it only makes sense if flying cars remain rare. “If you’re the only person who has one, you’ll avoid the traffic jams, but if everyone had one, there would hours of waiting around before you could even set off, as sometimes happens with planes”, the historian continues, adding: “If you were travelling from one big city to another, it would just as simple to take a train or a plane, before renting a car, rather than using a flying car, which would have to take off from a dedicated runway.” Not to mention the fact that they would be tracked to the metre, just like the private jets of the ultra-rich are. In other words, we’re a long way from the dream of absolute freedom.