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Flying Cars vs. Self-Driving Cars: How Science Fiction Becomes Reality

Flying Cars vs. Self-Driving Cars: How Science Fiction Becomes Reality

By a Carboncopies Volunteer

It’s official: self-driving cars have arrived.  They may not be as fully autonomous as Elon Musk has said they’d be - yet - but news stories about drivers sleeping behind the wheel are more common than autonomous vehicle accidents.  Flying cars, on the other hand, don’t seem to be taking off. Why is it that self-driving cars have made it whereas flying cars have not? And if there are other technologies that we want to make universally available, such as whole brain emulation, what are our key takeaways?

By: Jeff McNeill from Chiang Mai, Thailand; derivative work: Beck's; CC BY-SA 2.0,

“Where’s my flying car?”  It’s become a standard metaphor for vaporware - for promised technological developments that just never quite delivered.  But the absence of flying cars is not for lack of trying. Since Henry Ford’s 1926 prototype, there has been a plethora of major initiatives.  Moller International has been working on bringing its flying car to market since 1983; and its founder, Dr. Paul Moller, has been trying to make them a reality since the 1960s.  Even Uber has announced that it will begin testing an electric flying car in 2020.

By comparison, autonomous vehicle development is speeding along.  Tesla reported that it had delivered 245,000 vehicles in 2018 alone.  As of June 2019, “more than 1,400 self-driving cars, trucks and other vehicles are currently in testing by more than 80 companies.”  To be fair, while self-driving cars certainly face considerable challenges (including not only the technological/engineering feats required, but also establishing a place for a new entrant in a well-established global market, as well as regulatory hurdles and even fundamental questions about legal and ethical responsibility), they don’t face the same roadblocks as flying cars.  FAA regulation in the US has a lot to do with it: obtaining a pilot’s license is not comparable (in terms of either cost or difficulty) to obtaining a driver’s license, and aircraft maintenance must be performed by FAA-approved mechanics. Similarly, insuring a personal aircraft may be a greater leap from the family minivan than insuring a Tesla Model S.

By some measures, the key differences come down to cost and regulatory approval. 

By: Hydrargyrum; CC BY-SA 2.0,

There is simply more effort being invested in developing the regulatory frameworks to handle self-driving cars.  For example, the international Society of Automotive Engineers has published a formal standard to define levels of automation in vehicles (SAE-J3016), which has been adopted by the US Department of Transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  More is being invested in self-driving cars than flying cars because interest is stronger and more widespread. The idea of self-driving cars has overtaken the idea of flying cars in terms of mainstream acceptance.

How did this happen?  Political science gives us the concept of the Overton Window, which refers to “the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse.”  It also helps to make sense of what’s going on here: flying cars lag behind self-driving cars as both technologies move toward the center of the Overton Window.  As a car owner, it’s easier for me to envision a clear pathway to owning a self-driving car than a flying car (and Elon Musk’s marketing ability doesn’t hurt here, either).  Because self-driving cars don’t face the same roadblocks, entrepreneurs have found it easier to overcome the technical & regulatory hurdles, so there’s more hype about the imminence of self-driving cars, leading to greater perceived attainability.  The idea of self-driving cars is more mainstream because of that perception that they’re more easily attainable.

What does this mean for other technologies that we want to see developed within our lifetimes?  How do we move them out of the realm of science fiction, past mere technicality in the footnotes of history, into commonplace reality?  I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have the academic credentials of many of my colleagues at the Carboncopies Foundation, so this may just be speculation and conjecture, but one takeaway could be the value of communicating how attainable the technology is - as long as it avoids the risk of raising false hopes and hand-waving away the challenges.  Articulating a clear pathway to achieving it, grounded in realism and focused on the problems that will need to be solved, could help with this. Another takeaway may be in the nature of its scalability - specifically, the potential to scale up from what is commonly available today (cars), rather than scaling down from something that currently exists but is not commonly accessible (airplanes).  We don’t want to become private pilots, we want improved versions of the cars we already have.

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