A brief history of flying cars, and what it teaches us about futureware

How long have we been heralding the age of the flying car? Flying cars serve as a shorthand for “the future”, holding a permanent (and rather fond) place in our collective imaginings of what’s to come.

And this vision of the future dates back as far as the beginning of the 20th century. For over a century, we’ve been captivated with the idea of hopping in a car and taking to the sky.

But as often as the promise has been made, and the feat attempted, we’re still yet to achieve a reality of the functional flying car. They’re the ultimate futureware.

So, what can we learn from the history of flying cars?

The history of flying cars

The idea of flying cars dates almost as far back as the invention of grounded cars (1885). As early as 1890, there were visions of the future that depicted flying cars. For instance, the Au Bon Marche Company issued a comedy ad card that included a flying car. Over the 20th century, various inventors filed various patents and built various prototypes.

Henry Ford’s 1926 experimental ‘Flivver’ was not a flying car itself but rather a single-seat aeroplane. However, it sparked widespread excitement at the concept of a mass-produced aeroplane that you could own and operate as a car. The project was scrapped, however, after a fatal crash in 1928.

A notable flying car prototype came in the mid-1940s, with the Convair AirCar, designed by Ted Hall. In 1947, one such prototype crashed due to running out of fuel in mid-air. The accident threw cold water on enthusiasm for the project, and it was scrapped soon after.

In 1949, Moulton Taylor’s Aerocar made a successful flight. Over the next few decades, the Aerocar would get wide publicity and permission for mass production. But this mass production never came to pass thanks to hesitant manufacturers and regulation concerns.

Alongside real-world efforts to make cars airborne, the idea also grew popular in science fiction and fantasy works. For instance, the 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which features a magical flying car. And who could forget Back to the Future and its DeLorean, or Harry Potter’s famous flying Ford Anglia?

Flying cars, in short, have been a fixture of both our imagination and our engineering efforts for generations.

Flying cars: the ultimate futureware

For all the promises, for all the hype and years of predictions, we’re still left asking ‘where’s my flying car?’ Flying cars are perhaps the most famous instance of futureware that the world has ever seen.

Futureware is software (or in this case, technology) that doesn’t quite exist yet. It’s either in active development, or included in formal plans for development. Rather than an available service, it’s a promise that a piece of software or technology will be available in the future.

And flying cars have certainly featured in promises for the future. Consider, for instance, Henry Ford’s assertion in 1940:

“Mark my word: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.”

Henry Ford isn’t the only person to expect or talk about the flying car-filled future. In “The day after tomorrow: what is going to happen to the world”, Sir Philip Gibbs predicts:

“By 1953 motor-cars will be obsolete, because aeroplanes will run along the ground as well as fly over it.”

But the status as futureware has continued to reign. As Gail Collins puts it in her article for The Post and Courier in 1999:

“Here we are, less than a month until the turn of the millennium, and what I want to know is, what happened to the flying cars?”

And still today, companies are attempting (with limited success) to create flying cars.

The lesson for technology consumers and vendors

For consumers, the lesson behind the history of flying cars is to be wary when it comes to buying futureware.  

While futureware can come with good intentions (the plan is to build and develop it, or it’s already being built) it’s still not a realised product yet. So, ensure you’re aware when the features you’re buying are futureware, and evaluate what value you’ll get now.

In short, don’t believe everything you’re told and recognise that the future is uncertain. Take futureware promises with a pinch of salt.

For vendors, meanwhile, the lesson from flying cars is a warning not to overpromise. (And, in turn, don’t underdeliver.) Overpromising sets unrealistic expectations, and underdelivering hurts your credibility and your chances at success. People become disillusioned after a long wait or big failures. They lose belief in your product or software, and so lose interest, too.

Flying futureware

The future isn’t a certainty — and neither is that futureware you’re promising (or buying.)

Not every piece of futureware will become as much of a caricature as the flying car. And who knows, perhaps one day we will finally reach the day in the future that flying cars are a reality.

But when it comes to futureware, it’s best not to hold our breath, because there’s no telling what bumps we will run into on the way to release.

Useful links