Season 1 / The flying car
Episode 3 - Why do flying-car prototypes keep being made?

As our previous two articles made pretty clear, it’s not looking great for flying cars. Owing to a lack of demand and viable economic models, dozens of prototypes created during the twentieth century have joined the ranks of long-forgotten inventions. As for drones, while they’re technically able to function as flying cars, they face various regulatory and social constraints that mean they are essentially limited to playing the role of electric helicopters. In fact, their only immediate use seems to be that of a personal taxi service that will be tested during the Paris Olympic Games in 2024. So why do car manufacturers and innovative start-ups keep making flying cars? And why do the media keep announcing their time is coming when things really aren’t heading that way?

All it takes is a quick online search to see that articles on the topic just keep, keep, keep being published. Both on specialist car and technology websites, and the mainstream media. In France, France 3, Capital, Les Echos, L’Express, France 24 have all reported on the technical prowess of Chinese flying car the XPeng X2, the Slovakian Aircar propulsed by a BMW motor and the French JetRacer, their autonomy, their power and so on. The top prize has to go to BFMTV, which reported in December 2022 on “Flying cars that simply need to find the right economic model to take off”. And the same goes for the media in basically every country on the planet. Amid all these gushing announcements, only CNN really took a realistic angle, with its piece on “three reasons we won’t see flying cars anytime soon.”

However, while the big manufacturers keep investing in prototypes for flying cars, it’s not because they believe in them. “I see this research as completely by the by, it’s a prospective exercise in which little money or brainpower is really being invested, simply to show that they’re looking at disruptive technologies. But when it comes down to it, it excites journalists more than the leaders of these businesses,” explains Bernard Jullien, an automobile-industry expert at the University of Bordeaux. He adds: “The car industry is really outdated in the years of younger generations, and running these sorts of projects allows them to go into engineering schools and show new talent that they’re able to embrace contemporary issues, just like they might buy out innovative start-ups. We’ve seen the same phenomenon with carpooling and self-driving cars”.

That’s echoed by Laurent Meillaud, journalist and a car and mobility expert : “Manufacturers simply don’t want to be absent from the sector, so they look at what there is to do and make sure they have a presence there. But despite studies from consultancies that claim there’s a market worth millions or even billions here, I’m very sceptical about the reality. It suits automobile groups because they want to be seen as tech firms in the eyes of the public”. The same goes for the hottest topic in tech: ChatGPT. According to the vice-president of General Motors, Scott Miller, AI will soon be incorporated into the American manufacturer’s cars possibly even in the shape of a personal assistant. An announcement that was all the more interesting because it followed another from a Chinese manufacturer, which said it would integrate the local equivalent of ChatGPT in its cars in future. The overriding message is that this is a topic being tackled by firms throughout Europe, the USA and Asia.

As should be clear, despite the announcements and prototypes that fill the pages of our newspapers and litter YouTube, the flying car isn’t a priority for manufacturers. In reality, experts say, the automobile industry is all pretty much focused on the same thing: its ability to deliver electric vehicles as quickly as possible and in sufficient quantities to meet exploding demand. Because unlike flying cars, which are handicapped by European law, their terrestrial equivalents are already supported by national and international legislation. “For now, this technology remains a thing of the imagination”, concludes Patrick Gyger, the historian and author of ‘Les Voitures Volantes: Souvenirs d’un Futur Rêvé’.

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