The Myth of the Flying Car

Is there any other piece of speculative technology that symbolizes the future more than the flying car? It’s been portrayed in countless sci-fi movies and TV shows from The Jetsons to Blade Runner.1 It seemed a given that by the year 2014 we’d all be happily commuting to work in our flying cars. Yet, we’re still well entrenched in cars that reside squarely on the ground, and there is nothing on the horizon that shows a flying car will ever become a reality.

While there are many reasons why the flying car hasn’t come about, what interests me more is how it symbolizes an inherent problem with how people predict future technology – the inability to look beyond the legacy of the past.

The main problem with the flying car prediction is that it’s based upon a legacy technology – cars. Cars seem so ubiquitous in society today that it’s hard to imagine a future without them. However, there is nothing about the car itself that guarantees it will remain our primary form of transportation. By the time we reach the point that we have some sort of anti-gravity flying technology, what are the chances cars will still be around? We might have vehicles that are nothing like cars, or some type of highly advanced public transportation system, or who knows what else. It seems highly unlikely we would simply graft an advanced flying technology onto vehicles that were created around the turn of the 20th century.

This is the fallacy I see all the time when people are trying to make predictions about the future. They simply look around at what already exists and then jazz it up a little. The refrigerator of the future will be the same, but have a digital screen on the front. The smart phone of the future will be the same, but be thinner and more sci-fi looking. They aren’t looking outside what they already know, and that blinds them to all kinds of out of the box thinking that might actually key in on what the future might really be like.

Will we use refrigerators in the future? Will we even have smart phones? Those are the questions one should be asking, as opposed to whether those technologies will simply get a couple cool features. Yet people don’t usually like to ask those questions, because they are harder to get your mind around, and it’s easier to stay in the comfort of what you already know.

I liken it to someone in 18th century trying to speculate what the future of personal transportation would be. I bet many would have imagined something akin to a mechanical horse. That would make great sense to them, as they knew that people used horses to go places, so in the future, they will simply use futuristic mechanical versions. They were so blinded by their own present day circumstances that they could never imagine something like a car would actually be the future technological breakthrough.

Even if you don’t get stuck in this thinking, is it even worthwhile to speculate about the future? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself lately. In the tech circles I run in, speculation about future tech flies thick and fast. Everyone has an opinion about whether future iPhones will have a certain sized screen or whether personal computers are dying. The problem is there’s no score card or any real consequence for getting it right or wrong. The speculation simply becomes noise.

However, despite all that noise, I still think in some ways speculation can be worthwhile. It’s an intellectual exercise; it helps you see things in a new light and look at the world in a different way. In some circumstances, it might actually lead a person to an actual technological breakthrough. Someone like Steve Jobs loved to speculate about where future technology was heading, and that drove him to take the technology there. If he simply refused to entertain any vision of the future, would he have created the original Mac or the iPhone?

I think I’m heading down the road of embracing speculation of the future, albeit in a smart way. You can’t fall into the trap of the flying car and become blinded by your own legacy technology. You have to see the entire picture and how technology has progressed over the years before making off the cuff speculation. Don’t simply look around at what already exists and adapt that, imagine things that have never existed. You will still probably get many things wrong, but at least you will be ahead of the game and thinking in new and interesting ways.

1. I also can’t leave out a mention of Kevin Smith’s hilarious short film that involves the two main characters of Clerks talking about the flying car.