This week Uber announced it was teaming up with NASA to develop flying taxis – and they could be servicing Los Angeles as early as 2020. Uber’s chief product officer Jeff Holden admitted it was a huge undertaking when describing the challenge at the Web Summit in Lisbon. “Doing this safely and efficiently is going to require a foundational change in airspace management technologies,” he said.
Many industry and city leaders–including LA’s mayor Eric Garcetti–have voiced excitement at the plan, while others believe it to be little more than a glitzy pipe dream. “High costs, safety concerns and regulatory burdens are likely to limit the use of this overhyped technology,” Gartner analysts Kimberly Harris-Ferrante and Michael Ramsey told Britain’s The Guardian.
Whatever the outcome, flying cars are one of the foundational tropes of modern science fiction – like time machines, robots and spaceships. And a history of the concept is a fascinating dive into the Icarussian ambition of man.
Some might argue that Leonardo Da Vinci’s 15th century sketches for a flying machine, known as the “Ornithopter”, were the first attempts to combine blue sky with open road. But the oldest vehicle resembling what Uber could put into the air was imagined in 1841 by William Samuel Henson and John Stringfellow, two ambitious if less successful precursors to the Wright brothers. Their 150-foot wingspan creation looked a little more flying ironclad than car.
But it never took off. Neither did Glen Curtiss’ driveable plane, which was unveiled at a New York convention in 1917, as war raged in Europe. The violence would stymie Curtiss’ “Autoplane”, which had an innovative plastic chassis, 40-foot wingspan and motor-driven, four-blade propeller.
War was just two years away when Waldo Waterman (now there’s a name that should have been destined for history books) developed the Arrowbile, in 1937. Similar to Curtiss’ creation it also featured a 100bhp Studebaker engine, and detachable wings. But a lack of funding put paid to Waterman’s wild wishes, and the Arrowbile went to the great drawing board in the sky.
Ten years later, though, a flying car finally made it off the runway – in the form of Theodore P. Hall’s ConVairCar Model 118. The “roadable plane,” as a Popular Mechanics reporter put it, could travel 60mph on terra firma, and 110mph off it. The Model 118 featured a 130bhp Franklin engine and a sleek, streamline-moderne chassic that looked strikingly similar to subsequent Jaguars and Mustangs.
All was going well for Hall when the Model 118 flew for the first time, on November 15th 1947. However three days later, while on an hourlong demonstration in San Diego, the car was forced to make a low-fuel emergency landing that resulted in its complete destruction. The pilot, who survived, had not filled it up with enough gas. But no matter: the public was spooked. And despite continuing the project into 1948, enthusiasm for the Model 118 dried up as quickly as its fuel tank.
But the flying car dream was far from dead. Designs like the Avrocar, Flying Maruti, AVE Mizar and Sky Commuter switched from backroom hobbies to multimillion-dollar projects. But nobody has been able to find a balance between roadworthiness and profit.
AeroMobil could change that. Developed in Slovakia it can fit in a single parking spot and has received official certification – though mass production would require a raft of legislative and technological changes that even Uber admits is an uphill battle. Surely the popular flying car is just a short while away. But innovators have been saying that for a long time.