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Large transitions can take up to 100 years. And that is not what you would expect. We all believe that change is happening faster than ever before. It is true that a lot is happening, but a lot is overly exaggerated as well. After all, it is becoming more difficult to find financing for new innovation which in turn postpones the predicted market introduction by ten years. What’s more, we are not immune to groupthink and tunnel vision. Moreover, if an automobile brand promises to bring the self-driving car to the market next year, others would have to make spectacular predictions too. Regardless of whether they believe in them or not.

Japan’s Skydrive will enter the market in 2023 with a flying car costing between US$300,000 and US$500,000. The Skydrive does not need a runway and is therefore suited for use in urban settings. The Dutch PAL-V is expected to enter the market in 2021, except that it will still need a runway. 180 meters is enough to pick up enough speed to fly into airspace. The PAL-V seems to be at a disadvantage in this compared to the SkyDrive, however, this is not warranted.

History teaches us that major innovations that have been predicted to take place within three years’ time, will almost all come onto the market much later, if at all. In 2001, Daimler, Honda, General Motors, and Toyota predicted in the midst of the hydrogen hype that they would bring a hydrogen cell car to market three years later. Little has come of that.

Directional arrows on roofs

The flying car has had a much longer history. The first serious attempt to market a flying car was made back in 1917 when Glenn Curtiss built the Autoplane. Despite those efforts, a bit of hopping up and down did not eventuate. The Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) already thought a century ago that it wouldn’t be too long before an airplane/car combination would roll out of a factory somewhere. Consequently, they thought that there had to be signposts for ‘air tourism’ so that drivers of flying cars could find the right route.

Following consultation between aviation organizations, the Department of War, the ANWB, and the Dutch Association of Gas Manufacturers, it was decided that directional arrows should be placed on roofs of gas factories. The first one was placed in Deventer and it turned out that this was highly visible from an altitude between 1200 and 3000 meters. But the war brought the project to a halt.

When the market for flying cars breaks open, then a lot of money is at stake. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) drafted four scenarios for the rollout of flying cars in 2030. If technological developments falter, or infrastructure and safety do not meet the requirements and the regulatory framework is not favorable, BCG is predicting 10,000 flying cars by 2030. If all of these issues are resolved, BCG estimates a market of 60 million units, with a total of 825 billion flights. Turnover is then estimated at US$2300 billion. Analysts at Morgan Stanley are taking things a bit slower. They claim that the flying city taxi will be the new normal in 2040. The global market will then be worth around US$1400 to US$2900 billion.

Electric cars were around more than a century ago

In short, there are more than a hundred years between the first serious concept of flying cars and the actual marketing of them. That may seem long, but to put things in perspective: The electric car has also taken the same amount of time to get off the ground. The idea of the electric car as a serious competitor for the combustion engine was over and done with by the start of the 20th century. Only Amsterdam bravely held its own for a while with its electric taxis that served the public between 1909 and 1924. The peak in Europe was around 1900. The resurrection of the electric car became reality with the release of the Tesla Roadster and the Nissan Leaf more than 100 years later.

The fact that it doesn’t always take a hundred years for major innovation to break through is something many are hoping to accomplish with the robot car. This should also be able to drive autonomously in the inner cities. The timeframes when this will be possible range from anytime between 2021 and 2050. The first serious attempt of a self-driving car without any radio steering (1925) or magnetic tracks (1960) was in 1987 with a Mercedes bus, therefore, we still have some time to spare.

About this column

In a weekly column, written alternately by Wendy van Ierschot, Eveline van Zeeland, Eugene Franken, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels, Mary Fiers, and Hans Helsloot, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented with guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions for the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous articles.