Coming to Terms: Let's Talk About "Flying Cars"
By Daniel I. Newman
Vertiflite, November/December 2020
This article is the first in a new series on terms used in our expanding vertical flight industry, addressing the uses of terminology that threaten to become routine expressions or idioms — or already are — but are misleading or erroneous
Everyone knows what a car is. The dominant configuration is a self-propelled, wheeled ground vehicle that carries a driver and one on more passengers, often built in large quantities on efficient production lines and usually made compliant with the regional rules of the road. Affordable, safe transportation that is there when we need it, that starts every time, is easy to own and easy to operate. The reliable family car.
And everyone understands flying: airborne, stable and under control, typically self-propelled and kept aloft on the lift of fixed or rotating wings. While we all can fly by taking a scheduled flight, it is rare for the vast majority of people to have an aircraft for use on demand, as they are generally expensive to own and it takes specialized training to operate them safely. So, for most of us, flying is something that is done through a scheduled service provider — an airline. Humans have likely envisioned combining cars and flying since before either were available. This desire only grew stronger as cars and aircraft each matured in the early 1900s, with magazines like Popular Mechanics and Popular Science — as well as Henry Ford — claiming that flying cars were just around the corner for the everyman. The popularity exploded in 1962 when televisions in every living room blared “The Jetsons,” showing every kid and adult the ease and freedom of a personal family aircraft for George’s commute and Jane’s shopping.
There is absolutely no ambiguity with the term “flying car.”
A far less common term — at least for an aircraft that can drive like an automobile — is “roadable aircraft.” Few know it, and among those who do, it is the less popular term; markedly less sexy and harder to say. But those who know (e.g. engineers) consider it more appropriate than “flying car” because of the much greater challenge and risk in designing and operating an aircraft than a car.
You would expect a “flying car” to be able to operate like a car and an aircraft. However, the term has been applied to a wide range of new vehicle configurations, very few of which are actually capable of driving on a road (and most of which do not even have wheels).
And while misuse of terms risks confusion and rework among the audience, public misuse also wastes the opportunity to educate the rest of the audience. And the public can learn. One thinks of ubiquitous technologies that were readily adopted by the public without a “sexy,” misleading name — video cassette recorder (VCR), compact disc read only memory (CD-ROM), and microwave come to mind.
The term “flying car” earned the focus of this inaugural column due to its rampant overuse when referring to the electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) platforms being developed for the urban air mobility (UAM) market, also referred to by yet another industry term, advanced air mobility (AAM). (We’ll talk about “eVTOL” another day.)
The most concerning use of poor terminology is in a solicitation. Here, terms are often taken as the customer’s vision or requirement, launching work and demanding investment by potential bidders. So, terms used in a government program or solicitation should be clear, unambiguous, and correct. Systems engineering initiatives strive for efficiency and affordability of effort to achieve first time quality in meeting the customer’s needs. Here also is where industry most needs clarity of terms —and where poor terminology is most hazardous.
The announcement of the US Air Force’s Agility Prime program last year was baffling for the vertical flight community, with the first headlines saying that the Air Force wanted to replace the V-22 Osprey with flying cars. With the program launch in April, the Air Force doubled down on the term, basically as click-bait to attract a larger — but perhaps less germane — audience (see “Agile Change in Air Force ‘Agility Prime’ Launch Pays Off,” Vertiflite, July/Aug 2020).
The program tried to invent yet another term: ORB, or “organic resupply bus,” with several other “backronyms” suggested. But officially, the program’s website calls itself “Agility Prime, the Air Force flying car program.”
Recently, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Charles Brown tripped up on the moniker as well when talking about working with commercial technology developers: One example was Agility Prime, the flying car. People ask, ‘Why do we need a flying car?’ Well, it’s less about the flying car. It’s the capability that it might provide in the future to be able to do logistics for us.”
Here, the Air Force again has to explain that by “flying cars” it doesn’t mean actual “flying cars.” Use of a term with a century of baggage to mean something else not only sews confusion among the public, but also potential vendors.
Solving the Wrong Problem
The problem with using the phrase "flying cars" is that people think about the wrong platforms. The most visible of the technologies and approaches fueling the AAM excitement is distributed propulsion — using a multitude of thrust-only propellers for lift and for control. And it is facilitated by electric power transmission, with wires rather than complex, costly and maintenance-intensive mechanical drive systems. The promise of electric propulsion for vertical takeoff and landing capability is what VFS has termed “The Electric VTOL Revolution.” After more than a century of manned aviation, the public is still generally unaware of the term CTOL (conventional takeoff and landing), but is just now — after more than 75 years — starting to use the term “VTOL” through the proliferation of millions of commercial drones.
Now is the time to insist on the use of correct terminology as the first aircraft are making their way through certification for public use and through expanded use in the military.
Just call it what it is: a roadable aircraft, an eVTOL aircraft, an advanced rotorcraft or whatever. Let’s err on the side of accuracy.