Will We Ever Really Own Flying Cars?

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By Lindsay J. Warner
Our undying obsession soars into the 21st century.

Few concepts have dominated our collective imagination as stubbornly as the flying automobile. It’s an enduring fantasy—one that is born as soon as we’re old enough to give lift to our Hot Wheels. 

Now, we may finally be on the cusp of making our flying dreams a reality. This fall, Uber Elevate—the division of the ride-sharing company that heads up research and development for its airborne ventures—is opening an Advanced Technologies Center in Paris and planning to invest $23 million over the next five years, with a goal of test-launching its aircraft by 2020. In Miami, a property developer is building a high-rise with a rooftop launch pad for residents’ future aerial commutes. And a handful of companies actually have flying cars in production. Prices and lead times vary, but Dutch firm PAL-V is already taking preorders for a flying car to be available as early as next year...for $399,000. That’s a hefty sum to pay simply to shave some time off getting to work. Oh—and you might need a pilot’s license to fly it. Better start logging those flight hours now. 

Why are we so obsessed with flying cars? Our infatuation can be tracked back through art—Jules Verne’s 1904 novel, Master of the World, famously featured a vessel meant for sea, land, and air—as well as science, with prototypes built as early as the 1840s. What is it specifically about flying cars that we just can’t let go of? 

Some might say it’s the freedom. With a personal aerial vessel at our disposal, we could—theoretically—go anywhere: zoom across the country or climb the highest skyscraper. In practice, a host of federal and international regulations would govern our flights through the increasingly crowded skies. Among the challenges: regulating airspace, certifying the vehicles, and licensing pilots (or not). At the Uber Elevate Summit in Los Angeles this May, Dan Elwell, acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, made one thing abundantly clear: No one will be launching themselves off of tall buildings before the FAA has thoroughly cleared the concept for takeoff. That could take years. 

Still, we can’t stop lusting after the flying car. Part of the allure is undoubtedly the appeal of driving a vehicle fit for a superhero. Among other sleek prototypes, the self-flying taxi Airbus tested this year looks like a Formula 1 helicopter. Flying cars are undoubtedly cool. 

Ultimately, though, aerial automobiles tap into the universal human desire for more time—time spent doing anything other than sitting trapped in gridlocked traffic. It’s a relentless quest, or perhaps a euphemism for complete freedom: shorthand for living in a world unfettered by gravity or time.  

• Uber hopes to operate demonstration flights for an aerial taxi service in Dallas and L.A. as soon as 2020.
• But the technology that its plan hinges on—a self-flying, electric vehicle capable of vertical take-off and landing—doesn’t exist yet.