Where’s your jetpack and flying car? Not in your future.
Farewell, flying future
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a world that’s way more pedestrian than we ever expected.
NOTE FOR 2020 READERS: This is the 14th in an award-winning series of open letters to the next century, now just one generation away. Babies born in more than 40 countries this year are expected to live to 2100 and beyond. These letters examine what the world could look like then — and how we can make the best scenario happen.
Dear 22nd Century,
Hopefully there is some kind of statute of limitations on inappropriate thoughts that flitted through the heads of those of us who were alive on September 11, 2001. (You know about 9/11, right? If not, you really needed to pay more attention in 21st century history class.)
Here’s my confession. After feeling the same grief, shock, and numb horror shared by millions glued to TVs around the world, after grasping the full magnitude of an evil plot that turned passenger planes into weapons of mass destruction for the first (and hopefully last) time, after fearing the war that would doubtless follow, I distinctly remember thinking this: Well, that’s the end of the line for flying cars and jetpacks.
This tells us a few things about the turn-of-the-millennium mind, only one of which is that mine had weird priorities. For one thing, a security clampdown was foreseeable on Day 1, when the first step the U.S. government took after grounding all planes was to ban the sale of electronic tickets. We wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that we’d spend the next 20-plus years at airports taking off our shoes and pulling out laptops and liquid baggies before walking through scanners that may yet turn out to pose a health risk. Of course the dream of us zipping around the sky in millions of private vehicles — each one now a potential terrorist weapon — was going to be DOA at the FAA.
It also tells you we were at a high water mark for those particular dreams, which had been on the rise for decades. Ever since Buck Rogers first appeared in a 1928 issue of Amazing Stories magazine with a jetpack on the cover, science fiction fans longed to follow suit. Same goes for the “space car” popularized by The Jetsons in 1962. These two technologies were really means to the same end, that of making flying as accessible and thrilling as automobiles — more so, in fact, given the extra freedom afforded by all that altitude.
Such aspiration could be seen in commercials for Microsoft Windows XP that launched, with historically terrible timing, six weeks after 9/11. They featured anti-gravity people, soaring joyfully through blue skies to the tune of Madonna’s Ray of Light. Ad executives had, at the last minute, pulled the tagline: “prepare to fly.”
For most of the 20th century, jetpacks and flying cars had been visual shorthand for the near future. But as the years of the new millennium ticked upwards, so did the sense of a missed deadline. Hadn’t Back to the Future promised that where we were going — the year 2015 — we wouldn’t need roads? Similarly, Blade Runner had filled the skies of 2019 Los Angeles with “spinners,” created by legendary industrial designer Syd Mead, who found more success making concept cars for Hollywood than he’d had making them a reality for Ford.
The frustration among Silicon Valley technologists was palpable. “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters,” said PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel in 2011. (Thiel, a big-time Trump supporter who also co-founded creepy surveillance company Palantir, sits on Facebook’s board; he was hardly innocent when it came to creating the social media-obsessed world he lamented.) The title of a 2007 book by roboticist Daniel Wilson spoke for a generation spoiled by sci-fi: Where’s My Jetpack?
Where indeed? The answer, as with flying cars, was: everywhere and nowhere. Ever since I started reporting on technology in the late 1990s, I’ve seen flying car and jetpack entrepreneurs pledge to turn their prototypes into mass-produced must-haves. This part of the process always seems to be five years away. The startups flame out fast, or downgrade their ambitions before those five years are through.
The jetpack prototypes I’ve seen are enormous, noisy and prohibitively expensive, a novelty for air shows and nothing more. The flying cars…well, there was a reason they used the more technically accurate term “roadable aircraft.” You can drive them from the garage to the airport, wings folded, then unfold them there, but you still then need all the trappings of the pilot’s life — the control tower clearance, the roar up the runway before you leap in the sky, the hours of training that get you there in the first place.
Why would you not just buy a car and a light aircraft, each designed for its environment, rather than waiting for a future time when there’s an expensive all-in-one novelty? It’s not like your local small airport doesn’t have enough parking.
Only in the last years of the 2010s have a handful of prototype flying cars adopted the holy grail of VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing). In theory you could pilot them from your driveway, assuming you have enough clearance, acquiescent neighbors, and whatever license the FAA requires for it. You could get around license requirements with the “passenger drone” models other companies are testing — helicopters with multiple small rotors, basically, and the kind of autonomous computer navigation that makes much of commercial flying a pilot-free experience.
But then where do you tell it to go? Is your office, downsized or eliminated altogether now so many of us are working at home, going to build a helipad for you? Is the grocery store?
Every innovative idea in the flying vehicle space has foundered on the rocks of reality. As I began this letter, news came that Uber was selling off its Elevate division, which was planning to partner with manufacturers like Hyundai to make cheap, light electric passenger drones a thing. But the economics just didn’t make enough sense. Is there a reason to suspect they ever will? (To be fair, Hyundai still thinks so.)
I’ve seen enough at this stage to call it: Jetpacks and flying cars will be around in your century, but they will be niche products for hobbyists and entertainers and wealthy pilots and first responders. Even if by some miracle a startup does actually get its product into mass production, your government agencies won’t want your skies filled with millions of potential hazards any more than ours do.
Maybe you find the idea quaint, the way we think of 19th century visions of the year 2000, featuring mustachioed pilots wearing Icarus-like wings. Or maybe you too are not willing to give up on the flying dream, and still build prototypes for some hopeful, hazy near-future date. But the skies full of traffic lanes, as seen in turn-of-the-millennium movies like The Fifth Element, will remain mere science fiction tropes, as fundamentally unworkable as interstellar travel.
You may yet populate cislunar space with all kinds of interesting vehicles. You may even be in the throes of an asteroid mining boom. But back here at home, your modes of transport will be far more down-to-Earth than many of my contemporaries still expect.
Personal flight prototypes are as old as commercial air travel itself. Henry Ford first showed off his one-person “sky flivver” — slang for a cheap car — in 1926, calling it the “Model T of the air.” In 1927, famous pilot and fellow racist Charles Lindbergh disagreed, calling it the worst aircraft he ever flew. In 1928, a fatal crash stalled flivver production permanently. Only five were ever made. Hopes were then pinned on the Aerocar, a snazzy red sports car with folding wings and a propeller on the back designed by engineer Moulton Taylor in 1946. He did a little better than Ford, producing a grand total of six Aerocars in his lifetime.
The first working prototype of a jetpack took a little longer, despite those longstanding Buck Rogers dreams of personal rocket-powered flight (brought to the screen in the 1949 serial King of the Rocket Men) and plenty of interest in military applications. (Flying soldiers: What a concept!) Finally, in 1961, one of the then-largest airplane manufacturers Bell Aerosystems first tried out a “Rocket Belt” prototype designed for the U.S. Army.
It was laughably impractical — a fiberglass backpack that weighed 125 pounds when full of fuel (mostly hydrogen peroxide, the active ingredient in bleach). Flying time: 20 seconds. Flying height: 30 feet. Maximum speed: 10 miles an hour. Designer Wendell Moore broke his kneecap on one of his first flights despite being attached to a safety tether. The Army paid Bell $150,000 and didn’t renew the contract.
But boy oh boy, did the Rocket Belt look cool for those 20 seconds. Bell’s test pilots learned to spin in midair and slalom around obstacles. President Kennedy enjoyed watching his personal performance, even though performance was all it was. Sean Connery wore one as James Bond in 1965’s Thunderball, sealing its reputation as the ultimate gee-whiz future gadget. The same rocket belt was still a gee-whiz future gadget in 1984, when it was used in the Los Angeles Olympics opening ceremony.
Tony Duffy / Staff
Try as they might, in all those decades, even with larger tanks and lighter materials, engineers couldn’t push the Rocket Belt design past the 35-second-flight mark. The fuel expenditure required to shoot a human being straight up in the air was, and remains, outrageous; imagine a car that gets a quarter-mile to the gallon.
Even Google X, the so-called “moonshot” division of the Silicon Valley giant, gave up on the idea of jetpacks at a very early stage. In 2014, Google X chief Astro Teller called the jetpack a “death trap” that was fundamentally “power inefficient” and “loud as a motorcycle.” You need earplugs to fly one, not to mention a heat-resistant suit lest the rocket exhaust on your back set you alight.
Teller’s boss, Google co-founder Larry Page, was somewhat more bullish on flying cars until recently. Page funded a startup called Kitty Hawk that produced an all-electric passenger drone prototype called the Flyer, which only works over water — or at least it did until Kitty Hawk pulled the plug on the Flyer this year — and a whisper-quiet electric plane called the Heaviside. Electric vehicles have recently become as trendy in the sky as they are on terra firma, but the Heaviside isn’t even trying to be a car.
A whole host of startups and established players like Airbus are currently chasing the dream of the mass-market eVTOL, or an electric vehicle with vertical take-off and landing, like the Heaviside. German company Lilium is creating a lot of excitement over its 36-engine, 5-seater eVTOL plane prototype. The CEO plans to build “hundreds” of Lilium Jets in his south German factory. The deadline for this promised delivery? You guessed it: It’s five years out.
A sudden rash of cool YouTube videos in the last few years, like the one for the abandoned Flyer, above, doesn’t mean these prototypes are getting us anywhere. Few flying car startups can provide a simple answer to the key questions: What mass-market problem are they solving? Are they just useful toys for rich people, air taxis for business types in a hurry, alternatives to the standard single-prop plane for pilots? Are they simply smaller, cooler planes that will connect smaller cities that are left out of our current commercial air travel network?
Or is this actually something within reach and strongly desired by the middle class, the way cars are now? Is an eVTOL on every front-lawn helipad the 22nd century suburban dream?
I don’t want to downplay the marvelous ingenuity on display from personal aerospace engineers who just won’t quit, or the number of small market niches into which their flying tech could fit. Jetpack speed is one area where the Bell Rocket Belt technology has improved exponentially; the world record is now 85 mph. In 2019, a French inventor used a jet-powered hoverboard to cross the English Channel, all 22 miles of it, in 20 minutes — although he did have to refuel halfway.
Not to be outdone, a British startup called Gravity Industries has developed the coolest-looking jetpack yet, with five miniature engines, two of which are worn on each hand. Eat your heart out, Iron Man. In fact, Gravity’s recent eye-catching world tour included one demonstration in an Iron Man costume. (I’m assuming you know Iron Man from the 237th Avengers movie.)
Gravity Industries’ jetpack setup has been trialed by paramedics in England’s remote and hilly Lake District. It reached a roadless location on one popular peak, that would have taken 25 minutes to climb, in just 90 seconds. In medical emergencies where every second counts, a jetpack could save lives. At roughly $430,000 a pop, not counting fuel, this one is likely out of the reach of the nonprofit air ambulance service that conducted the trial.
Still, never bet against the price of technology coming down on a multi-decade timescale, especially if it goes electric. “You can imagine,” Gravity Industries founder Richard Browning mused to the Guardian, “with safe and high-energy-density battery storage at 10 times what gasoline, diesel and jet fuel can do, an electric hover suit that can be automatically managed so it does not go more than three or four metres high and an airbag deployment system that makes it entirely safe, the equivalent of going for a bike ride.” (To be clear, we don’t know if we’ll ever achieve the insane level of battery storage necessary for electric jetpacks; electric planes, sure.)
Is that how most of us would want to experience jetpacks — going for the aerial equivalent of a bike ride? Sounds like a fun weekend activity for the well-heeled. But there’s always the element that wants to ruin it for everyone else. This summer saw reports of a mysterious jetpack user buzzing planes at LAX. It may, investigators say, have been a drone carrying a dummy. (The pandemic has certainly left too many people with too much time on their hands.)
It also could be a taste of the kind of terrorism-adjacent activities you’d see if jetpacks ever did reach the mainstream. If Amazon ever realizes its plans for delivering packages via drone, it’s not hard to imagine nefarious jetpack users intercepting and stealing their cargo. Like porch piracy, but in the sky. Which in turn would suggest a need for security guards in jetpacks, flying alongside the drones. The science-fiction novel writes itself.
Electric flying cars seem more likely to see the light of day. A Japanese startup called SkyDrive, with backing from Toyota, completed its first crewed flight in its one-person prototype in August; it looks like an adorable little rocket car from an 8-bit videogame, and flew 10 feet in the air. The original intention was to have a SkyDrive light the flame at the Tokyo Olympics, but the pandemic intervened. We’ll see if it continues a long tradition of gee-whiz flying gadgets performing Olympic ceremonies at the postponed games next summer.
In the short term, the business SkyDrive is chasing is urban air taxis, like this autonomous air taxi demonstrated in Dubai. But it’s hard to see what they can do that helicopters can’t, except go faster (up to 180 miles an hour) at a higher price. Faster than helicopters, but slower than private aircraft: Again, where’s the need, really? In 2019, optimistic Morgan Stanley analysts were predicting urban air taxis would compete in a marketplace worth somewhere between $1.4 trillion and $2.9 trillion a year by 2040. But if the rewards for staying in the market were that great, would Uber be selling off its air taxi division?
Far more likely as an outcome is the cautionary tale of Terrafugia, a drivable airplane company I’ve covered since 2007. Expectations for its carbon fiber vehicle, the Transition, were high; the company initially promised delivery in 2011. Since then, delays and new prototypes have been the order of the day. The price has risen from $194,000 to more than $300,000, and Terrafugia has been sold to Volvo’s parent company. As of 2020, no Transitions have been shipped to customers. Still further off is Terrafugia’s VTOL plane, the TF-X, initially slated for sometime around now.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe one of these companies will achieve a breakthrough in design that lowers the cost of their products rather than raising it. Maybe they will take aim at the mass market. Maybe the inevitable crashes won’t put consumers off; maybe we won’t get vertigo; maybe regulators and security services won’t freak out at the idea of the skies being filled with lots of little potential 9/11s.
I think it far more likely that future transport will plant itself more firmly on the ground, or float just above rails that use maglev technology, such as the train deployed in Shanghai in 2003. At 268 mph., this modern wonder isn’t just the world’s fastest train, it also wipes the floor with those air taxis. China’s next trick — a maglev train that goes further and even faster, at 372 mph. — is bound to spur an international competition to keep up. If we decide that superspeed public transit is the future, then the future is maglev.
And when it comes to private cars, do roads really have to be as bad an experience as they are now? A network of autonomous vehicles all talking to each other would vastly reduce traffic congestion, reducing the need to fly above it. Less commuting and more videoconferencing, thanks to the pandemic, seems a more likely outcome for the rest of the 21st century than zipping between business meetings in air taxis or jetpacks.
But hey, dream on, air heads. Maybe you’ll get there by the 23rd century.
Brittany Levine Beckman
Published at Sun, 20 Dec 2020 14:00:00 +0000