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September 20, 2015 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

A Twentieth-Century MacGuffin

“Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

In exactly one month from now—21 October, 2015—Marty McFly is scheduled to arrive in The Future: a place of transparent plastic ties, inside-out pants and (surprisingly accurate) Kanye boots; where lawyers have been abolished, making the justice system “much more efficient”; where wait staff have been replaced by automated TV screen images of Michael Jackson and Ronald Reagan; where skateboards hover and, of course, cars fly.

We should really get on that, shouldn’t we? It’s turning into a bad habit; there was no Jupiter mission in 2001, and we look set to miss our Blade Runner deadline of sentient robots by 2019. Where are our laser guns and lightsabers, our holographic movies and meal pills, our robo-pals and moon resorts?

Above all, where the hell are our flying cars?


Matt Novak hears this question a lot. Novak is the founder of, and the world’s sole recognised expert in, paleofuturism—a field he stumbled into/invented during a university assignment in 2007. Paleofuturism is the study of historical depictions of the future; Novak, a self-confessed research nerd, trawls through old books, magazine articles and microfiche to uncover the odd and kitschy predictions of previous generations, including flying cars. His blog, Paleofuture, was sponsored by the Smithsonian and can now be found on Gizmodo.

Paleofuture is a trove of flying-car minutiae. A Library of Congress image from 1885 shows an array of mooted “flying machines”, including a floating screw-shaped vehicle and a balloon towed by a squadron of giant flying hawks. A 1901 article in the Lincoln Evening News showed a picture of “the very latest form of flying machine”—a 100-foot-long dirigible that could allegedly carry up to five people and travel at a whopping 45km/h—and predicted that “wealthy Americans will soon be flying about in private aerial cars as they now speed over the county in their automobiles. ‘Own your own flying machine’ will probably be the advice of dealers in ‘aerials’ in the very near future.” In 1909, The New York Times quoted a prediction “that motor cars will in a hundred years be things of the past, and that a kind of flying bicycle will have been invented which will enable everybody to traverse the air at will, far from the earth.”

Although the idea of cars with wings, capable of flight, cropped up occasionally over the following decades, it wasn’t until the 1950s that the idealised flying car truly began to take shape. The key innovation was the requirement for vertical takeoff, and for a vertical propulsion system that removed the need for wings. After all, a car with wings might technically be a “flying car”, but really it’s just a cross between a car and a plane. To Novak, these barely qualify as “flying cars” at all; as Lionel Salisbury, flying car aficionado and editor of the Roadable Times, notes, “it’s like trying to mate a pig and an elephant. You don’t get a very good elephant, or a very good pig.”

A flying car that could take off vertically was crucially different to an elephant-pig winged car because it was possible to envisage such a car as a suburban, middle-class vehicle—a direct, futuristic surrogate for a ground-car. A car with wings, on the other hand, would need significant horizontal space to take off and land—in all likelihood, it couldn’t be used in cities, or in concentrated numbers. An elephant-pig car, in the popular imagination, could only ever be a rich person’s rural plaything.

In 1958, This Week magazine promised that a flying family car that could “land in the backyard” would be available within two years. In 1959, the Chicago Tribune touted the imminent arrival of the “Shopper Hopper”, a “kind of flying carpet” for short-distance trips; and the same year, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran an alarming headline that cheerfully promised/threatened “In 50 Years: Cars Flying Like Missiles!”. Yet these never arrived.

Instead, almost all real-world attempts at flying cars have been elephant-pigs. In 1950, the Yuma Daily Sun reported on a new “Aerocar” with fold-back wings—“According to its Longview, Calif., designer, the airship can be converted to the auto ‘even by a woman, without soiling her gloves’.” In the early 1970s, entrepreneur Henry Smolinski strapped wings to a Ford Pinto, and would take the car on periodic flights to an altitude of a few metres. In 1973, one of the wings malfunctioned in-flight, leading to a fiery crash that killed Smolenski and his business partner.

It’s a similar story today. Most modern-day commercial attempts to produce flying cars have been little more than light aircraft with inflated marketing claims. Prototypes frequently crash. Many more have simply been vaporware, securing funding through outlandish promises while working models perpetually remain “two years away”. Real estate mogul Paul Moller has been “working” on a commercial vertical-takeoff car since 1963, but the only time the car has been seen in operation was 2003—during which it was strapped to a crane.

Novak is scathing about most of these attempts, vowing this year to “literally eat the sun” if the elephant-pig AeroMobil, a prototype of which crashed in May, comes out as promised in 2017.  “I realise that flying cars have been promised for a century,” he wrote. “But we need to stop fetishising this one symbol as the only true barometer of future-ness. Until we have affordable, driverless vertical take-off and landing vehicles, the flying car will remain a dream for the vast majority of humans on this Earth.”



There are three main—though not mutually exclusive—explanations for our lack of flying cars. The first is technological. In his New York Times article “I Was Promised Flying Cars”, astrophysicist Adam Frank pointed out that of the four physical forces known to humanity, we have mastered only one, electromagnetism. And electromagnetism, while allowing for some incredibly sophisticated and complex devices, isn’t great at getting large objects into the air. To make things fly we primarily use aerofoil design and combustible fuel—both of which are electromagnetic phenomena—but this way of doing things is primitive and not very efficient.

Of the three remaining known forces, we have a decent understanding of, and some level of control over, the strong and weak nuclear forces. These forces promise the kind of raw power that would easily—and cleanly—solve almost all of humanity’s energy problems. But modern-day nuclear power plants work on the same principle as 19th-century steam engines: the reaction heats water, which generates steam, which spins turbines. As Frank puts it, “compared with the precision of an electron microscope (or even a grocery-store laser scanner), our handling of nuclear forces is still at the level of slamming rocks together.”

As for the fourth known force, gravity, we still don’t actually understand it—a quantum theory of gravity is one of physics’ great missing pieces. And while we are able to use electromagnetic and, in theory anyway, nuclear forces to help us overcome gravity, we are nowhere near an understanding of how to directly manipulate gravity itself. “All our ways of flying involve a heavy-handed application of the electromagnetic force through fuels and engines,” Frank concluded. “The noise, the danger, the pollution and the inefficiency that accompany the current ways of flying are a testament to our crude approach to defying gravity.” Given these limitations, the flying car has simply never been worth pursuing on a cost-benefit basis.

The second explanation is economic. David Graeber, a Marxist anthropologist at the London School of Economics, lays the blame on market logic and the advent of post-modernism. In his article “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit”, published in The Baffler in 2012, Graeber traced our lack of flying cars—in addition to our non-existent “force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now”—to “bureaucratic corporate capitalism”.

According to Graeber, the rate of scientific progress slowed in the mid-twentieth century as research and academia were overtaken by market forces. Scientists found themselves at the mercy of capricious, results-driven funding models, leading to risk aversion and a decline in blue-sky thinking; a bureaucratic culture that bogged them down with paperwork and publishing requirements; a competitive environment that undermined the intellectual commons; and short-run incentives that directed most research toward either consumer products or the military. All these changes, Graeber thinks, have brought about a cultural shift away from “poetic technologies”—those designed to “bring wild fantasies to reality”, and that characterised the “mad Soviet plans” of much of the last century—toward “bureaucratic technologies”. In other words, our economy is set up to provide CAT scans and incrementally improving smartphones, but it won’t send us to Mars any time soon, nor give us flying cars.

The third explanation is sociological. As film critics are fond of pointing out, most science fiction is less about technology than it is about people. The gadgets and settings aren’t so much a serious portend for the future, but a kind of thought experiment, one designed to get at some deeper social or psychological truth about humanity. The flying car has always been a form of science fiction—and the debate as to why we haven’t got them yet misses the deeper and perhaps more important question of why they became so culturally ingrained in the first place.


It’s this last line of thinking that most interests Novak. Paleofuturism is less concerned with why the “promise” of flying cars was never fulfilled—to Novak, all futurology is an unreliable pseudoscience—and more with what our fixation on flying cars and other gadgets says, or said, about our society and psyche.

In 2012, Novak produced the series 50 Years of The Jetsons for Smithsonian—an episode-by-episode recap of the original, 24-episode season of the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon. “It’s easy for some people to dismiss The Jetsons as just a TV show, and a lowly cartoon at that,” Novak wrote in his first post in the series. “But this little show—for better and for worse—has had a profound impact on the way that Americans think and talk about the future.”

First airing in 1962, The Jetsons follows the life of the Jetson family in the year 2062. George Jetson, the husband, works 20 hours a week at a “push-button” desk; his wife, Jane Jetson, is a homemaker who cooks meals by pulling a lever. They have two children—Judy, a boy-obsessed teenager, and Elroy, a rambunctious six-year-old—as well as a dog and a robot maid. George drives a flying car and disapproves of Judy’s musical tastes. Jane likes to shop.

While few of the futuristic visions in The Jetsons were original to the show, Novak says the show was “the distillation of every Space Age promise Americans could muster. People point to The Jetsons as the golden age of American futurism because (technologically, at least) it had everything our hearts could desire: jetpacks, flying cars, robot maids, moving sidewalks… what The Jetsons did do successfully was condense and package those inventions into entertaining 25-minute blocks for impressionable, media-hungry kids to consume.”

And those same kids grew up to be enormously culturally influential. “Today’s political, social and business leaders were pretty much watching The Jetsons on repeat during their most impressionable years,” Novak writes. “Thanks in large part to the Jetsons, there’s a sense of betrayal that is pervasive in American culture today about the future that never arrived. The Jetsons and everything they represented were seen by so many not as a possible future, but a promise of one.”

Yet that vision of the future was, as Novak points out, a fundamentally conservative one—the Jetson family and their futuristic society are deeply rooted in the social norms of the early 60s. And it’s tempting to wonder how our expectations—our lives, even—might have been different had that outlook been somewhat more progressive. As Novak asks, “what if George took a flying bus or monorail instead of a flying car? What if Jane Jetson worked outside of the home? What if the show had a single African-American character?”

Indeed, for all the technological advances shown in the show, there’s little appreciation of how technology might alter the basic assumptions on which everyday life was built. The car itself, for instance, was a revolutionary piece of technology—the tool that freed the middle classes and led directly to the rise of suburbia. What changes might the flying car bring?

As a discipline, futurology tends to assume that technology is simply a means to realise our innate desires with greater and greater accuracy. The idealised, suburban nuclear family may have been made possible by technologies like the car and the Pill (not to mention valium); but at the time, to its advocates, this lifestyle was more—the summation of previous generations’ hopes and aspirations, the American Dream incarnate.

But not only is this view highly debatable, it assumes that the social effects of technology can be predicted, that the “innate desires” actualised by new gadgets are more than post hoc and can be mapped out in advance. The car may have created suburbia; but suburbia, in turn, has been accused of fostering individualism and class exclusion, pushing society politically to the right. Was any of this foreseeable? Would the America of the 1930s, the one that accepted the New Deal, have wanted it? Today, climate change and population growth are eroding the social conditions that fostered our collective obsession with private vehicles. Flying cars are last century’s MacGuffin—despite their residual kitschy appeal, we’ve largely moved on.

This is why Novak cares little for futurology. While the field is “a great measure of our greatest hopes and our darkest fears”, the discipline itself is, for the most part, academically bankrupt. “The people of 1900 were about as good at predicting the year 1930 as the people of 1970 were at predicting the world of the year 2000,” he told The Verge in 2012. “Which is to say, not very good.”

In particular, Novak criticises the “single creator myth” that futurology buys into. “Visions of the future (movies, books, comic strips, etc.) are generally constructed by one person or a relatively small group of people,” he says. “But it takes the forces of an entire society to build tomorrow.

“The idea that pleated shorts made of plastic might very well be the hot fashion trend of 2020 could be the flap of the butterfly’s wings that makes your concept drawing for the car of 2020 look ridiculous. The greatest visionaries in the history of the world have never been able to predict the minor changes that will completely re-shape what it means to make a successful phone, or revitalise a city, or cause governments to topple.”


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