Flying car

This is why our cars don't steal

In his latest book, Bureaucracy*David Graeber, the American anthropologist and economist who initiated the Occupy Wall Street movement, is saddened that his childhood dreams of technological progress are not being fulfilled today. Interviewed by Libération...he explains: " I was seven years old when the first man walked on the moon. Looking back, my generation's expectation of the year 2000 was very high. The period from 1750 to 1950 had given rise to incredible discoveries: DNA, relativity, steam, oil, nuclear power... Fundamental innovations. Not all the predictions in science fiction books such as Alvin Toffler's Future Shock have come true. Compared to the time machine, the smartphone is still very disappointing. "The reasons for his disappointment: "Capitalism has been a technologically progressive force for a very long time, now it's the opposite. Poetic technologies", sources of creativity, have been abandoned in favour of "bureaucratic technologies". The exponential technological surge that was expected has not taken place. ". 
Among our childhood dreams, long fantasized by science fiction literature and comic books, the flying car is a paragon. Who hasn't dreamed, stuck in their car in the middle of a traffic jam, of pressing a button to spread their wings and fly away?
In the following article, the authors explain why our cars are not ready to take off.
Ahe flying cars from the TV series The Jetsonsthe ones from the film Back to the futureor the spaceships of Star TrekThe newer, more efficient means of transportation have been around for many years, but most of today's means of transportation have been around for much longer. Beginning in the 1830s, railways expanded rapidly; commercial breakthroughs in gasoline and diesel engines date from 1876 and 1892 respectively. And even the jet engine that made aviation possible as a means of mass transportation can be traced back to Frank Whittle's first patent in 1932.


Despite decades of futuristic predictions, modern transportation would not look that different today to someone in the 1950s. Certainly not compared to the fields of communications or entertainment. So why has there been so little recent innovation in transportation? And the latest proposals in this area, the unmanned carss, the levitation trains and the electric plane, can they really make a serious breakthrough?

In part, there has been no revolution because existing technologies have been able to evolve. Engines have become more efficient, fuel is of better quality, we have lighter materials, aerodynamic designs and better brakes that allow our vehicles to be manoeuvred safely. However, there will inevitably be a limit to these developments.


The futuristic vision of the 1950s has still not become a reality. James Vaughan, CC BY-NC-SA

In any case, transport cannot be summed up by its technologies alone. It is also about people, and people do not always like change. We may be stuck with current technology, partly because of our habits, but also because of economic factors.

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For example, we have an extensive fuel distribution system based on gasoline and diesel. Converting vehicles to electricity or, more speculatively, to hydrogenwould involve substantial investments that will be difficult to finance. In the UK, drivers are accustomed to manual transmissions and may be reluctant to learn how to use them. make greater use of automated systems. In the same way, we would be reluctant to use a different keyboard for our computer even if it was more efficient. We're stuck with what we already have, let's call it the" AZERTY economy "

The human factor can have unintended consequences - one of the ironies of automation is that it can lead us to pay less attention to the tasks attached to it. For example, a cruise control that adapts to driving can make motorists less aware of the risks.

Even with complete automation of tasks, while we are still struggling to operate all trains without operating personnelIn fact, it is possible to suggest that driverless cars are a fashionable phenomenon. Another innovation shows that human needs must be taken into account: the design of innovative aircraft, such as the flying wing, is hampered by the demand for a seat near the window (NASA had proposed that windows could be replaced by a streaming video).


The wing blends in with the plane's hull, but the humans want windows. NASA / Boeing

These new inventions in the wind will have to be based on an economic model and the right infrastructure, otherwise they will remain at the prototype stage like the pneumatic conveying system appeared in New York in the 1870s, the precursor of the l’Hyperloop of Elon Musk. Let's go back to the flying car example. Even assuming the technology works, where would they land?

Such a system can only succeed if the infrastructure - air traffic control, landing space, etc. - is in place. - is available. Technically, flying cars can fly from airport to airport, so what's the problem? Until there are enough cars to take off and land on land or roads, we will have none of the benefits of this technology. And there won't be enough cars until there's enough land. A real squaring of the circle.

The niche innovation trap

When looking at the interactions between technologies and societies, it may be useful to consider three different levels The one of niches, diets and landscapes.

In transportation, there are many niche innovations - electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells, car sharing clubs - but few are becoming widespread. One exception is hybrid electric vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, but even here the underlying technology is not so recent: it can be traced back to a patent filed in 1898 by Ferdinand Porsche, no less.


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The first Porsche, and the first hybrid vehicle. wiki

The problem is not to come up with new ideas, it is to change the big picture. At the second level, new technologies in transport have faced resistance from special interests, such as oil producers and car manufacturers. At the third level, which takes into account the global landscape in which a discovery has to be made, it can be said that major innovations are not always favoured - particularly because of low oil prices.

With many individual actors, all different, transport is also subject to a kind of "tragedy of the commons"where competing designs and brands compete. Navigation technologies can only be sold if they benefit the individual consumer. However, if we all have access to these technologies, we may collectively be hindered by too much road traffic. For the good of all, it would be beneficial if, at times, our GPS could send us on a longer route. But who would knowingly buy such a system?

Battery technology for electric cars could be adopted more quickly if it became standardised, in particular to allow automated battery exchange. But standardized for which technology? For its part, the implementation of the magnetic levitation train is hampered by the fact that it cannot run on traditional lines and that there is only one limited opportunity for use on the rail network of other trains of its type.

In short, despite the hype about disruptive technologies such as those put forward by the Uber company, it is unlikely that transport will experience a technological paradigm shift until there is a major change in the landscape. Of course, with the crude price volatilityGiven the current economic situation, limited oil reserves and geopolitical factors, such a change could happen tomorrow. But for the time being, advances in technology do not seem to be accompanied by demand from society. People may enjoy watching science fiction, but they are not yet ready to experience it.

John PrestonHead of the Transportation Research Group, University of Southampton 
Ben WatersonLecturer in Transportation, University of Southampton

*David Graeber, Bureaucracy (LLL, the Links that Free, 296 p, 22 euros)

The original text of this article was published on The Conversation.


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