The phrase "flying car" is code for a futuristic vision of transportation. The dream is that, instead of traveling in earth-bound vehicles, everyday people will be able to avoid gridlock by taking off and soaring above traffic.
We got this idea from mid-20th century futurists who imagined a world where technology would advance to the point where cars would fly. Flying cars were popularized in science fiction, TV and movies and entered into the public imagination as an expectation for the future, along with jet packs and quasi-futuristic silver uniforms.
The flying Delorean in Back to the Future represents the quintessential flying car idea. "Roads Where we're going, we don't need roads!" says the inimitable Dr. Brown.
The flying car vision isn't about a type of vehicle, but a kind of lifestyle. That lifestyle looks like this: In the future, ordinary people in middle-class neighborhoods will get into their flying cars, take off from their driveways and zip over to the supermarket.
The press keeps asking: "Where's my flying car" But actual flying cars are a banality. They've been designed since the 1920s, prototyped since the 1930s and built for many decades. For example, in 1934, an inventor named Waldo Waterman built what was considered the world's first flying car. In 1949, a company built a series of working prototypes called the Taylor Aerocar. In fact, it built six models, but never sold them to the public.
The aviation industry doesn't like the term "flying car" and instead uses the more accurate designation "roadable aircraft." The vehicles that some people would call flying cars are really airplanes that can be driven on roads. Some roadable aircraft have wings that fold out of the way so they can be driven down a road without slicing SUVs in half.
With most roadable aircraft, the idea is that you can land at the local airport and then drive home and park in your garage. Or you can fly to a remote airport and drive to a nearby diner to grab what private pilots call a "$100 hamburger" (the meal you eat when you pretend to fly to dinner but your real purpose is just to fly somewhere). In either case, the driving on roads part is minimal and exceptional. Today's flying cars are just airplanes that can leave the airport on public roads. They're not family cars that can fly.
The imagined flying car lifestyle will never exist because it should never exist.
Airplanes are designed to fly, and cars are designed for roads. So when you combine the two, you get a horrible airplane and a lousy car. As airplanes, roadable aircraft tend to be heavy, bulky and slow. As cars, they're unsafe, handle poorly and, again, are slow. And you pay a premium for the engineering. For the same money, you can buy a great airplane and a great car. So that's what pilots tend to do.
Still, the press never tires of misinforming the public that the era of the flying car is just around the corner (it always seems to be two years away, according to the media). Truly innovative ideas for so-called flying cars these days, some of which are already available for purchase, involve aircraft like, in no particular order, the PAL-V, Skycar, AeroMobil 3.0, Maverick LSA, Icon A5, Switchblade, Lilium Jet, Volocopter, Pegase Mk2, Skyrunner, Volante Joby S2 and the Terrafugia TF-X.
Some of these are extremely advanced, technologically. But you'll note that none of these projects ushers in anything like the flying car lifestyle envisioned by futurists. They don't represent the future of the family car. They're either impractical dune buggies suspended by kites or high-tech roadable aircraft toys for billionaires who want to spend thousands of hours earning the certification necessary to fly such complex aircraft.
The market for these aircraft is tiny. Ultimately, they're all just airplanes that will involve licensing, airports, weight-and-balance calculations, flight plans, air traffic control and all the rest. Nobody's landing in the driveway unless they have a mansion in the countryside or a private heliport. Not one of these so-called flying car projects will result in a vehicle that will be used as a family car.
Another problem with the flying car vision isn't about the vehicle. It's about you and me. The public won't ever be skillful enough to be trusted by society to navigate complex aircraft in unpredictable weather into populated neighborhoods without hitting telephone poles and crashing into apartment buildings.
That's why consumer airplanes are coming, but they'll be self-driving. As Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told Neil deGrasse Tyson in an interview last year, if a flying car is to become popular, "it's got to be autopilot."
Zee.Aero, which is headquartered next door to the Googleplex in Silicon Valley, is a secretive, six-year-old aviation company reportedly working on an electric airplane that can take off and land vertically.
Company representatives had previously told the press that Zee.Aero is not affiliated with Google. But Bloomberg reported last week that Google CEO and co-founder Larry Page is actually the owner of Zee.Aero.
As part of the secrecy protocol, according to the report, employees were supposed to refer to Page as "GUS," which stands for the "Guy Upstairs." Page initially used the second floor of the Zee.Aero building as an office and playground.
Zee.Aero's first aircraft is a strange creature. It has wings at the very back of the fuselage that curve way down at the edges, as well as two rear propellers that provide forward thrust. Two additional wings grace the very front of the plane. Here's the strange part: Between the front and back and on either side of the fuselage are four small propellers on each side. Combined with the two at the back, the Zee.Aero plane has 10 propellers. These propellers aren't powered from a central engine. Each propeller has its own independent electric motor and controller system.
Page reportedly wants the Zee.Aero's plane to be "downmarket" -- an affordable aircraft for ordinary people. Astonishingly, everything we know about Zee.Aero suggests that it's making all the right decisions.
The design is brilliant. A consumer airplane for the masses absolutely requires electric power, and for two reasons. The first is safety: If one or two of the propellers fails, for whatever reason, the rest can safely continue to operate. The second reason is that if consumer airplanes are to be flying around in large quantities near or over residential areas, they have to be relatively quiet.
Zee.Aero has a handful of patents for the innovative multiple propeller system, battery technology and for the airplane itself. One patent says that in "an alternative embodiment, aircraft 100 is an unmanned vehicle that is capable of flight without a pilot or passengers" and that "embodiments without passengers have additional control systems that provide directional control inputs in place of a pilot, either through a ground link or through a predetermined flight path trajectory.
Zee.Aero's prototypes are already flying at a nearby airport. Yes, they're flying, but they're not flying cars. Zee.Aero is working on an airplane, and not even a roadable one.
Page has also invested in another Silicon Valley-based aviation startup called Kitty Hawk, which is reportedly working on an enormous quadcopter drone that's capable of carrying passengers, according to Bloomberg. The company's board president is former Google researcher Sebastian Thrun, who spearheaded Google's self-driving car initiative.
The passenger drone concept was also trotted out at the CES trade show in the form of the Ehang 184, a one-person conveyance controlled with a tablet or by computers -- a self-driving passenger "drone." The Ehang 184 is called a flying car by some, though it doesn't have wheels.
There's no such thing as a flying car, and there never will be. It's simply a bad idea.
The great news, though, is that safe, quiet, affordable and eco-friendly self-flying aircraft are landing, and soon.