‘Flying cars are not cars in the sense that CAR will be going on road trips in them or dri ing them round Oulton Park’
THE CAR as we know it is under attack. It’s like a scene from that movie, Dunkirk: digging into the dunes on our left flank is the electric car, patiently waiting to strike. It’s like a sniper… silent… deadly… and boring. On our right flank are battalions of autonomous cars, ready to surge forward and disarm us of our steering wheels and our six-speed gear knobs. And now, with the pressure building and the soundtrack ramping up the tension, a new attack from the air: flying cars! Bloody flying cars! Now swooping down like wasps. If I read one more newspaper article about a ‘realistic’ flying car, I think I’m going to strip down to my underpants and wade out into the Channel. (I don’t mean that literally, I’m just continuing the Dunkirk metaphor... perhaps you haven’t seen the film… okay, let’s move on.)
Flying cars have made massive leaps forward in the last decade, helped by advances in other spheres, such as mobile phones, electric cars, drones and ride-sharing apps. Put all of these together and you get the Pop Up concept, developed by Airbus and Italdesign. Its passenger capsule can detach from its wheels and then drone-style rotors whisk it skyward. Another, and this one’s actually at the flying prototype stage, is called the Lilium. It’s been built by a Munich-based team, funded by the Chinese and one of the guys behind Skype. The sleek pod takes off vertically and then transitions into wing-borne flight – a bit like a Harrier Jump Jet, only powered by AA batteries. (Joking! Before Lilium sues me.) Then there’s Uber, which hired some NASA people to develop its own app-based ride-sharing service using autonomous, electric, flying drone-pods. How 21st Century is that sentence? ‘App-based ride-sharing service using autonomous, electric, flying drone-pods.’
There are others – the eHang concept from China, and Toyota has backed a Japanese team who are building the SkyDrive, which they hope will be flying in time to hover in and light the Olympic torch in Tokyo in 2020.
Yes, yes, yes – it’s all very ‘oooh, exciting!’ and Blade Runner-esque, but I have two objections. First, stop calling them flying cars. They’re not cars, not in the sense that CAR will be going on road trips in them, or drifting them round Oulton Park. Cars, as we’ve understood them for the last 100 years, are about freedom, escape, road trips, about getting in and driving off to the north of Scotland or the Alps. These hovering pods take off vertically, move two miles across town and then descend to drop you off and recharge – they’re like travelling in a lift that isn’t limited to a single lift-shaft. Despite the sensational headlines, this isn’t actually The Dawn of the Flying Car! – it’s the dawn of Willy Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator. And my other objection is… okay, I hate flying. I don’t know why, but I have this morbid fascination with aviation disasters and every time I board a plane I can only think of all the things nd that might go wrong. Pitot tubes – I worry about pitot tubes. So the idea of strapping into a battery-powered drone that doesn’t have a pilot, at the mercy of the weather and the software… that experience would be NOTHING LIKE DRIVING A CAR.
Plus, I’ve seen a few drone fails in my day – most photographers we work with at CAR use them nowadays. Battery failures, heavy landings, collisions – if every crash I’ve witnessed became a proper air disaster with people aboard, the whole ‘flying car’ revolution wouldn’t last a week. In Norway with photographer Richard Pardon to drive the Range Rover Velar, his drone just went AWOL, off on its own up a ord, disappeared for about 15 minutes while we scanned the skies like pigeon fanciers. Imagine that, if you were sitting in it? ‘Computer, where are we going? Why are you taking me home via the North Sea?’
So don’t believe the flying-car hype – autonomous cars are coming, yes, and in terms of cutting fatalities on the road they’ll be a benefit; but they’ll have to survive a lot of bad publicity to become established: the first crash, the first fatality, the first pile-up. But autonomous electric drone taxis? Every time my iPhone glitches and I have to reboot, I shake my head and think, ‘No, never, I’d rather walk.’
Editor-at-large Mark would like it to be known that although lying cars are a ludicrous idea that will never amount to anything, he’d really, really like a go in one