Flying cars! So futuristic! A world in which they’re buzzing around the skies must be dazzling – like a Popular Mechanics feature come to life!
Well, yeah. About that. It seems increasingly likely that aerospace companies and startups are rushing to embrace a world of vertical take-off robotaxis. Just don’t be surprised if it looks a lot more like “Blade Runner” than “The Jetsons.”
A Boeing Co. prototype flying taxi completed its first test flight on Tuesday and Airbus SE’s drone-style self-driving air taxi will follow within weeks – both of them trailing in the wake of Alphabet Inc. founder Larry Page, whose Kitty Hawk vehicle took its maiden flight in New Zealand last year. Even Japan, whose attachment to vintage technology like fax machines and cassette tapes is legendary, is getting in on the act, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
It’s quite possible that these vehicles have a viable future, because they’re already a mature industry. In current parlance, “flying car” essentially means an aircraft that could take off and land vertically from a suburban backyard. But we have a name for those sorts of vehicles already: helicopters.
Of course, start talking about helicopters and you end up with a whole bunch of unsavory associations: Brazilian billionaires soaring over chaotic megacities, a young Donald Trump flitting around 1980s Manhattan, Robert Duvall dropping napalm to the sound of Wagner in “Apocalypse Now.”
The truth is, they’re not so different. The reason helicopters are associated with the military and the ultra-rich while the rest of us get about on the ground or in fixed-wing airplanes is that they’re horribly inefficient and, as a result, expensive.