Light Mode

Why We’re Still Waiting for Flying Cars 34 Years after Back to the Future (Never mind the Jetsons)

We’re way past 2015, but when will we be driving flying cars?

This week sees the 34th anniversary of Back to the Future Part 2, a movie that, despite debuting before I was born, has become a seminal part of my own science-fiction lexicon. By playing on the familiar beats of its 1985-set predecessor, it was able to make off-the-wall concepts like hoverboards and self-lacing Nike sneakers feel close enough to reality to be believable. Grounded in what was, at the time, the far-flung future of 2015, Back to the Future Part 2 held one promise that as yet remains unfulfilled — flying cars.

With the movie having so impressively predicted things like biometric scanners, personalized advertisements, and even a smartwatch, among much, much more, are we really so far from the idea of a flying car in 2023? As it happens, Back to the Future Part 2’s final big invention could be closer than you think.

- Advertisement -

Keeping things grounded

Automotive development has been constantly iterating for decades as cars get more rounded and comfortable, but the biggest disruptor in the space arguably has been Tesla.

Tesla vehicles have become more common on the streets year-after-year since the company’s founding in the early 2000s, and there’s a good chance you no longer need to Google what they look like. Spearheaded by controversial Twitter/X owner Elon Musk, the company certainly helped kickstart and popularize electric vehicles — but they’ve stalled somewhat with the divisive Cybertruck (itself looking perfect for the background of an eighties movie).

Still, with Musk’s vested interest in projects like SpaceX, there’s bound to be some technological crossover with his other projects. As Musk himself stated in 2019, the company is working on a flying car. Yet despite Tesla’s dominant mindshare and popularity among consumers it’s been overtaken in the race to develop one.

Taking flight, slowly

The company making the biggest headlines in the world of flying cars right now is Alef Aeronautics, a California-based startup that’s acquired a special certificate of airworthiness from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) — and is the first in the United States to do so.

In simplest terms, that means test flights are now permitted for the company’s first vehicle, the Model A, one of the slickest designs you’ll see. Almost spaceship-like in appearance, it’ll run on land like a standard automobile, but is also able to take off vertically thanks to eight rotors under its body — and you’ll supposedly only need a drone pilot’s license to fly one (more on that shortly).

There’s also the small matter of the $300,000 asking price, but with prototypes being slated for 2025, we’ll soon find out if it’s worth the investment. 

- Advertisement -

Jetson, a Swedish company adorably named after the sixties cartoon that regularly featured a flying car, already has an eVTOL vehicle (electric vertical take-off and landing) called the Jetson One — and you can order one now for a mere $98,000.

The Jetson One can reach 1500 feet above ground level and uses a lithium-ion battery that gives 20 minutes of flight time, so don’t plan on any cross-country trips down the length of I-95. 

Chinese manufacturer Xpeng offers its own eVTOL, taking the form of a more traditional car with six rotors that’s almost like something from a Bond movie. It’s packing enough intelligence to fly with two rotor failures, too, and has a multi-parachute system.

Meanwhile over in Rome, Italy, Lazzarini Design Studio has unveiled its concept for “The Air Car,” a near ringer for the flying car–coincidentally(?) likewise called an “Air Car”– that comic book great Jack Kirby, co-creator of most things Marvel, gave Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. back in the mid-1960s:

- Advertisement -

Kirby Air Car:

Lazzarini “Air Car”:

Of course the reliance on technology for all these flying hotrods brings cybersecurity into focus more than ever before, especially with car thieves and other bad actors able to unlock vehicles using radio waves in today’s world.

The research paper “The Flying Car—Challenges and Strategies Toward Future Adoption” by Ahmed, Hulme et al discusses the potential threat of DDoS, or distributed denial-of-service, attacks — after all, it’s one thing for your satnav to drop out due to a glitch, but another for malware to stop your rotors working mid-flight.

Laws of physics

That same research paper notes that drivers of flying cars (or should that be pilots?) will also likely need some training if they’re to be rolled out en masse. This contradicts Jetson’s product page claiming no pilot license is required in the United States, and raises an important question about the safety of other drivers, and not just those flying the aerial vehicles — namely how does one manage traffic flow if cars can leapfrog each other? Will we need floating traffic signals and signs? How long before things start to look like Star Wars’ Coruscant?

With so many road traffic collisions across the globe daily, would the option to take to the skies increase or lower those numbers, especially when factoring in extraneous factors like long haul drivers, the potential for DUIs, or, in time, public transport going airborne?

Perhaps we should be glad that things are progressing a little slower than Back to the Future’s 2015 estimate, as it’s clear there’s much to be ironed out on a regulatory and technological level. In the meantime, why not start a little smaller — for the time being I’ll happily take a Marty McFly-style hoverboard.


Lloyd Coombes is an established freelance writer specializing in consumer tech and fitness. He’s also Editor-in-Chief of GGRecon, and when he’s not writing, you’ll find him at the gym.

- Advertisement -