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Stop calling them flying cars

Stop calling them flying cars


The technology is interesting, but the name is bad

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“Uber unveils plan to demo flying cars by 2020,” the CNN headline blares. “No longer a dream: Silicon Valley takes on the flying car,” The New York Times says. Even an esteemed publication like The Atlantic couldn’t resist: “When cars fly,” a recent headline ponders. Even we did it — albeit in quotes.

Stop. Stop it right now. We need to stop calling these things “flying cars.” There is no such thing as flying cars. And I say this as someone guilty of taking this rhetorical shortcut myself. But I’m not sure quotation marks are enough anymore.

There is no such thing as flying cars

What we’re really talking about is, well, a bunch of different stuff that flies. At it’s Elevate conference in Dallas today, Uber is talking about a network of on-demand, electrically powered, multi-rotor vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicles. Google co-founder Larry Page’s company Kitty Hawk appears to be working on something more akin to an aquatic hoverbike than a flying car. So you can see why a lot of media outlets are using “flying car” as a workaround. Ask yourself: are you more likely to click on a story that says “e-VTOL” or “aquatic hovercraft” in the headline or “flying car”?

Flying cars, of course, are ridiculous. Wild-eyed inventors have been pursuing the idea for decades, with little to show for it. Many have gone broke, and some have died, trying to turn their fever dreams into reality. The AVE Mizar, pictured at the top, was basically a Ford Pinto with a section of a Cessna Skymaster attached to the roof. During a test flight in 1973, the vehicle crashed, resulting in the death of the vehicle’s inventors.

It’s when they began to grace the covers of magazines like Popular Mechanics and Popular Science that the idea of flying cars became a stand-in for some distant, unattainable future. Those images no doubt inspired many of the flying cars in popular culture we remember best, like The Jetsons, Back to the Future, and Star Wars. They were the magazine covers that launched a thousand nerd fantasies.

“I hate it,” said Mark Moore, the former NASA engineer who now works at Uber, when I asked him how he feels about the terminology. “We’re not driving on the road. I mean, these are much closer to commercial aircraft than anything else that’s being done. They’re just a much smaller size.”

This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve screwed up by applying the wrong name to a certain technology. The Verge pushed back against the use of “hoverboard” to describe self-balancing scooters, but ultimately we lost that battle. Now we find ourselves in the middle of a new battle over nomenclature. And perhaps because the electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft we’re talking about are just now starting to appear, there’s still time to turn the tide against “flying cars.”

there’s still time to turn the tide against “flying cars”

The technology that has Silicon Valley and the aerospace industry so fired up isn’t anything particularly new. Thanks to new innovations like digital controllers, semi-autonomous fly-by-wire systems, and more powerful battery technology, the idea of smaller, quieter, faster, and more efficient aircraft is closer to reality than ever.

“All of the sudden we’ve been given a new widget,” Moore said. “And we have all the sorts of ways to try to use it. So it just opens up the design space to create these new vehicles to do these new things that we’ve been wanting to do for 50 years, but we simply didn’t have the technology to do it.”

But there are many things about flying cars that make them impractical, unworkable, and even wrongheaded. Airspace restrictions, noise issues, and safety concerns are just some of the problems that Uber, Kitty Hawk, and others will run into as they attempt to bring their ideas into the mainstream. Additionally, these aircraft don't solve any problems for normal human beings, nor do they even gesture toward a meaningful impact in the distant future. Supporters site traffic congestion and the daily hassle of getting around as enough of a motivation. But is that enough of a reason to pursue an idea that could have unforetold consequences on our cities?

Some experts contend that even as innocuous a moniker as “air taxi” insufficiently describes the technology. “To be most efficient, it's really not an air taxi, but rather a shuttle that flies back-and-forth all day, every day to maximum the time that it is in use,” said Mike Hirschberg, executive director of AHS International. “Certainly if these aircraft cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, you won't want to drive them around town!”

While the media is certainly complicit in obfuscating legitimate technology behind this faulty terminology, it isn’t the sole offender. Some of the startups that are working on electric VTOL aircraft are guilty of uttering the phrase, too — most likely in an effort to win more press coverage of their prototypes. (Again, guilty as charged.) Other startups completely embrace the notion of flying cars. Slovakia-based AeroMobil recently unveiled a vehicle that it says can both drive on the road and fly through the clouds. Retail price: $1.3 million.

To be sure, most of the aircraft that stand the greatest chance of becoming part of some futuristic, on-demand aviation taxi service like the one Uber envisions won’t be built for urban street traffic. Rather, they’ll have skids attached to the bottom of the fuselage like a helicopter. In fact, the idea of driving through traffic in one of these vehicles goes against the very purpose of pursuing the idea, Moore said.

“Flying cars don’t make sense,” Moore said. “I will go on the record on saying that. The last thing you want to do is take a machine that’s designed for high productivity and get it stuck in traffic... Down on the ground, at 20 miles-per-hour, it’s not being used well.”

Uber has been careful not to push the moniker, but naturally there will be slipups. Jeff Holden, the company’s chief product officer and the guy spearheading the Elevate project, made that mistake pretty much right out of the gate. After welcoming everyone to the conference in Dallas, he marveled at how “flying cars... are actually arriving now.”