Where Are All the Flying Cars?

Whether it’s H.G. Wells or 2001: A Space Odyssey, it seems that everyone has a vision of the future. The optimism of the post-war era of the 1950s and 60s inspired an obsession with the future. From Disney’s Tomorrowland, to the predictions of magazines like Popular Science, it appeared that the not-too-distant future would be a utopian world in which housework would become a pleasure, robots would mow the lawn and the morning commute would take a few minutes at most because cars would fly.

Despite incredible advances in technology, like the Internet, most of these visions of the future have been just that. However, creative individuals, like Paul Moller, are determined to make at least part of this futuristic vision a reality. Moller, a technological prodigy since youth, has been working on his “aerial auto” concept since the early 60s. Since the beginning, his idea has come under strong criticism. However, the current attention his project is receiving is making doubters into believers. As a result, Moller’s Skycar has recently graced the cover of several magazines, including Popular Science and ForbesFYI.

The difficulties with the Skycar project have mostly been technological: finding a light yet powerful engine, making the operation as simple as possible, connecting the onboard navigational computer to the Global Positioning System, etc. However, in the March 2000 issue of Popular Science, he expresses his hope that his latest prototype, the M400, will be airborne in a few years. In fact, according to a recent ForbesFYI article, Moller thinks that, “we’re five years away from large-scale controlled airways. Most certainly it will happen in your lifetime.”

Of course, it’s never that simple—NASA and the FAA have been working closely with Moller on this project. As difficult as it is for a traditional business to get started because of all the bureaucratic rigmarole, imagine how many hoops Moller’s Skycar will have to jump through before it will be able to “get off the ground.” According to the January 2000 issue of Mademoiselle, the $1 million dollar price tag is not the main obstacle to production.

In fact, 100 people have already reserved a Skycar. The main obstacle, according to this article, is “miles of red tape—FAA certification is still some three years away.” Not only will maneuvering past the regulatory process be difficult, but apparently Moller will also face competition from NASA, which is mostly funded by federal subsidies.

In fact, the February 2000 issue of Popular Mechanics, reports that NASA is working on its own version of a flying car, named AGATE (Advanced General Aviation Transports Experiment). This concept aerial auto will be piloted by computer and guided by digital datalinks to keep the car on course thereby eliminating the need for skilled pilots.

Ever since the 50s, many scientists, futurists and government planners have envisioned controlled roadways. Controlled roadways are supposed to eliminate the stress of driving and the possibility of accidents or traffic jams. Even Moller seems to have bought into the idea of having traffic, especially Skycar traffic, centrally controlled via computer.

But controlled by whom? If the government doesn’t trust the average non-flying business to operate without attempting to regulate it, then there is not much chance of private companies running this navigational network for aerial autos. Why is this the case? Why are bureaucrats afraid of private initiative in areas such as transportation, especially air traffic?

One answer is control. Without regulations on industry, many federal bureaucrats would have to find another job. Many federal agencies like the FAA must maintain control in order to justify their existence. Other bureaucrats actually believe that they are performing a valuable service by protecting the consumer from the “greedy capitalists” or from the consumers themselves—believing that the majority of people are incapable of acting safely without oversight and direction. This, despite the fact that individuals invent these things in the first place and are able to act safely without government involvement. The market has proven itself quite adept at coordinating information, including safety information, and providing the most efficient way for the exchange of ideas, goods, services, etc. The deregulation of industries, including the airline industry, has resulted in more efficiency, quality and safety and lower prices.

Moreover, most people welcome the change that technological advances bring to their lives. Technology, such as the PC and the Internet, have not only been assimilated into society, but have, in fact, become essential tools for individuals to carry out their own plans and visions. A Tofflerite “Future Shock” has not occurred. Instead, in this digital age people have begun to expect rapid technological advances. Furthermore, while some remain “afraid” of the future, most are beginning to see these incredible technologies as passé. These individuals are bored with the current state of things and it is their dissatisfaction that is driving investors and entrepreneurs to undertake amazing projects and bring us closer to what was only imagined a few years ago.

If the private sector has adapted to rapid advances and is the impetus for further progress, then why are bureaucrats still afraid of the future? The mindset of most bureaucrats is conservative—they have a vision of how society “ought” to be. Instead of seeking to persuade others that their view is correct, they use the force of the state to impose their vision on others. These “technocrats,” as Virginia Postrel refers to them, do not believe that people can be trusted to manage their own affairs and still act peacefully. Instead, they think that they have superior knowledge and are able to direct society according to their own plan despite the fact that central direction of economies and information has failed over and over again.

The future does not require an architect or an overseer. It only requires individuals to have the freedom and security of life, liberty, and the opportunity to produce and create in order for innovation and progress to occur. This process is unquantifiable and cannot be modeled. Individuals acting according to their own plan have created great advances throughout history and will continue to do so, as long as, the fruits of their labor, i.e., property, profits, etc., are protected from arbitrary theft by governments or individuals. Without freedom to follow their own plans and reap the benefits from their endeavors, society along with economy, culture and knowledge will stagnate and decline.

The only method of encouraging entrepreneurs like Paul Moller is to allow them to act and achieve without coercion or regulation, thereby spurring each individual to cooperate with his fellow man for the realization of his own goals, while simultaneously meeting the needs of others in the free market. Without this freedom and the protection of private property, one may never have seen a four-wheeled car on the street and will certainly not see one in the sky.

From the October/November 2000 issue of CEI UpDate. A version of this article also appeared at liberzine.com.