The flying car is the Godot of technology: always on its way, never here. Ninety years ago, Henry Ford envisioned an experimental one-seat airplane called the sky flivver, only to abandon the project when one of the first prototypes crashed, killing the pilot. In the 1950s, the U.S. Army commissioned the development of “flying jeeps” with private-sector partners like Chrysler. The project never amounted to much. Today, flying cars figure most prominently not in urban skylines, but in venture-capital tag lines, as in Peter Thiel’s motto: “We wanted flying cars; instead, we got 140 characters.” (James Fallows has for many years chronicled the ascendant hopes and stalled realities of air-taxi development around the world.)
Now tech firms again insist that their Godot is finally coming—but, seriously. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, the most buzzed-about product was probably Uber’s autonomous air taxi. The ride-hailing company has said that it hopes to roll out an air-travel business by 2023. And last week, Boeing debuted a “personal air vehicle,” an electric-plane prototype.
“Global transit is going 3-D in the next 10 years,” Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, on a panel with the chief executives from Uber and UPS. “Advanced propulsion, low-orbit travel, space tourism,” he went on, listing a variety of forthcoming airborne technology: “We know how to do this.” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi agreed that urban transportation is at an inflection point—from cars and trains to drones and planes. “We want to make the city three-dimensional,” Khosrowshahi said, echoing a theme.