One of my least favorite responses to hear when talking with someone about the future is what I call the “flying car fallacy”. While the precise phrasing differs from person to person, the most general form looks something like: ‘They promised us flying cars’ or ‘Where are our flying cars?’. The implication, of course, is that any form of techno-optimism or forecasting should be regarded with extreme skepticism due to the failure of flying car predictions to come true.
Honestly? The concept that you should regard what people tell you about the future with skepticism isn’t a bad one. However, while it’s not a precise corollary, I think Scott Alexander’s Innoculation Effect comes into play here. Because there’s this very basic, obviously failed prediction about the future, people applying the fallacy are able to dismiss all other predictions as wishful thinking or, if proven correct, lucky guesses. And as someone who likes to think that he can make useful predictions about technologies, that’s hardly ideal.
While the correct usage parameters for technological forecasting and trend tracking aren’t 100% established (and I hope to get a better handle on those exact things in this blog), there’s a large amount of data that shows that there is -SOME- predictive value. I think it’s worth it, from a professional or even just hobbyist perspective, to examine this misconception and take it apart. So, what powers the flying car fallacy?
“They promised flying cars. There are no flying cars.” Perhaps a bit more verbose than the normal phrasing, but it serves my needs. I’m perfectly comfortable admitting that I’m deconstructing a particular phrasing of this claim that I myself constructed, but I feel the above version adequately represents the concepts and thoughts typically being expressed.
To examine this more closely, it needs to be decomposed. Let’s look at the first sentence: “They promised flying cars.” This is more interesting than it might appear at first glance. There’s a lot of meaning contained in the three concepts in this sentence. First, “they” implies some form of authority or expert. Honestly, while I can find plenty of general references to a ‘they’ or ‘scientists’ or ‘futurists’ discussing flying cars, most of these references fail to cite a specific source. Other controversial topics in futurism (such as AI) often have specific names claiming specific dates, a much more falsifiable claim.
An article on Livescience discusses broken science promises, flying cars among them, and mentions Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. Further investigation reveals that discussion of personalized flying transportation (and railway cars, something that did in some ways come true) go all the way back to the 1930s and 1940s. But still…these were popular magazines. By those years, they had already transitioned into appealing to the public mind and eye as opposed to serious, calm discussion.
This isn’t to say that experts haven’t forecast flying cars–but that allows us to take a look at the second word in the first phrase, “promised”. What does “promised” mean? Well, it might be semantics, but to my mind that means that people are taking a personal guarantee that flying cars will exist rather than a prediction, projection, or forecast. Forecasters who “promise” something about the future are generally not experts but popularizers–experts will generally couch statements carefully.
What does Google say? Well, if you search explicitly for the string “promised flying cars”, it returns about 239k results. If you search explicitly for the string “predicted flying cars”, it returns only 19.5k results. Other configurations return even less. Because it’s a personal guarantee, a promise, people feel betrayed. And that betrayal sticks in people’s minds as a failure for an interesting future to come about, disregarding all the other things that HAVE happened. Things that have happened become natural–things that don’t happen are failures.
Finally, the term “flying cars” itself is a bit of a misnomer–or at the very least unspecific, and looking at exactly what it means lets us address whether or not flying cars ‘exist’ or not. The off the cuff thought is simply a car that is unconstrained by the rules of the two dimensional road. If you think about it a bit more, you conceive of one of two things. The unrealistic/idealistic version is trivially having access to flight to ease up traffic without requiring building additional expensive infrastructure. The more realistic/pragmatic example, however, is a car that also works as a plane, and is subject to all the restrictions that entails (something that has been shown in prototype multiple times, with the most recent being the Parajet Skyrunner, which works off a parachute and a very light body, and the Terrafugia Transition, which is more technically a roadable airplane).
Why Didn’t They Happen?
Okay, so we’ve established that actually using the flying car fallacy generally has to do with a failure to live up to a flight of fantasy that appealed to the imaginations of readers and fans of technologies, rather than a serious, pragmatic estimation of the future. But why DIDN’T they happen? Well, to go over it very briefly (as there are more issues holding back flying cars than can possibly be dealt with in a competent manner here, but they have been discussed in depth elsewhere, we’ll keep it brief):
- Safety: Three dimensions and velocities make things much more dangerous, meaning that there will necessarily be quite a bit tighter…
- Regulation: Pilot’s licenses are more difficult to get, violations would be punished more harshly, variations would take longer to be approved.
- Cost to consumer: Flight takes more fuel than driving, not to mention the fact that the additional engineering required would mean that vehicles would be drastically more expensive–in turn, leading to the fact that a comparatively small portion of the population would use the needed infrastructure. Speaking of…
- Cost of infrastructure: New structures to support new dimensions of travel, new ways to deal with cars taking off and landing, etc. As mentioned above, this would be required for a comparatively small portion of the population, unlike roads which (with the exception of some private toll roads) are used by both expensive and economic cars.
Arguing Against It
To argue against the flying car fallacy, you need to clearly delineate between different types of technological predictions (or promises). Making sure that wild unsupported flights of fancy aren’t put forward as representative of your beliefs is ideal. In fact, one of the major things you should take away from this is that you SHOULDN’T let your hopes rise when someone claims something about the future, but can’t present rigorous evidence as to why or how it will happen. The next blog post will go into how to counter poorly framed techno-optimism and promises.
Citing the lack of flying cars isn’t the only pithy response people make in response to positive predictions about the future, but it is most certainly a common one. However, it’s founded on a bitterness on the lack of follow through from visionaries more than any widespread failure on the part of people who make rigorous evaluations of future possibilities. I am in no way trying to say that people should by default accept optimistic predictions about the future, any more than they should reflexively dismiss them.
In the end, if someone wants to believe that a failure of techno-optimism to bring about their hopes means that all forecasts fail, you can’t convince them otherwise. The best thing you can do is try to show them amazing things that WERE predicted ahead of time.