On the 19th floor of the Intercontinental Los Angeles Hotel, one possible version of the city’s future is playing out.
In a dark room with speakers behind every surface, on a big screen, a simulation of a flying car comes in for a landing above a busy street. You can hear the hum of the simulated motors all around. You can feel this imaginary thing passing through the air overhead.
This is where the design and engineering firm Arup is working with LA’s Department of Transportation and NASA to model the sound of urban air vehicles — flying cars. All this math, physics, audio calculations of soon-to-be-made engines are all in service to one question:
Will these things drive us nuts?
“It's kind of setting some understanding of what the situation is,” says Shane Myrbeck, an acoustician and sound artist at Arup. “It's understanding the parameters of what it could be, and working to set that policy up ahead of it becoming a specific reality.”
The City of Los Angeles plans to introduce what’s called urban air mobility (UAM) by 2023. Worldwide, there are dozens of companies working with billions of dollars to bring this vision about. LA will be a prime market. But how did flying cars even get into the conversation of the future of Los Angeles transportation in the first place?
In this, LA played a big role from way back.
As the production center for American fantasies, Hollywood has been projecting our car-loving past onto our ideas of the future for decades. The result is that flying cars seem inevitable, whether or not they make any sense in 21st century LA.
Flying Americans are good Americans
In movies, where there’s a need for quick images of futurism or escapism, look no further than the flying car. Here is a not-even-complete list: “Back to the Future,” “The Fifth Element,” “Blade Runner,” “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” plus more esoteric, less sci-fi movies like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Repo Man,” and “Grease,” where Sandy and that guy from “Saturday Night Fever” fly off and away to horny teen Valhalla.
And within the UAM world itself, one reference stands out: “The Jetsons.” It’s a perfect vision of the flying car as integrated into regular life. It may seem strange that a huge and growing industry uses a 60-year-old cartoon to plump its upcoming offerings to an American market, but comedian Dana Gould says this all makes sense.
“Well, I think the key word is ‘American.’ It's the version of the American future,” he says. Gould worked with Warner Bros. on a potential reboot of “The Jetsons,” which didn’t get picked up (maybe because of the “Blade Runner” dystopian elements).
“The car is a great symbol of American culture. … That's what we do. We cruise around in cars. ... And we're independent. And we're autonomous. And we can go anywhere we want, individually, in our own car. That's why they don't have flying buses. Because there's nothing individual or endearing about being on a bus. You're a passenger. In a car, you're the captain, you're in charge, you're going to go where you want.”
The car was all about the myth of the free individual. The flying car totally ignores everything we’ve learned about the flaws of the automobile and instead extends that myth into the skies.
We’re gonna go forward … to the past
Flying cars show up all the way back to the pulp magazines of the early 20th century. There’s a story in an English weekly from 1900 talking about flying cars — the illustrations were eerily close to current designs.
Henry Jenkins, a professor and media scholar at USC, says flying cars are connected to the idea of progress.
“If you went back and read some of the technological utopians, you would start to find things that might look like flying cars, particularly if you consider Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers kind of coexisting in a space of technological breakthrough,” he says. “The fusion of those two modes of transportation feel, in hindsight, almost inevitable, because those were the new forms that were shaping early 20th century culture.”
And car companies are still trying to capture that magic.
At the Consumer Electronic Show in January, General Motors unveiled its upcoming offerings, which included a concept for its own flying car. As with its land-based offerings, there’s an emphasis on “electric” and “personal.” In the video, a computer-generated rendering of this flying Cadillac, which looks like a giant, luxurious ceiling fan, takes off from a roof, flies across a downtown, and lands, coincidentally enough, in front of the Intercontinental Los Angeles Hotel — where Arup is, in real life, modeling the flying-car sounds.
“This is not an unfamiliar story,” says Susan Shaheen, a mobility expert at UC Berkeley who’s been studying autonomous vehicles, carsharing, and other transportation innovations for 25 years. “None of it makes me quake. Because I see the repetition.”
She says something very important: All this investment and public relations and lobbying — it’s because the industry wants to force that future into being.
“You're not crazy to be a bit skeptical, and question, you know: How can these developers be so bullish? Well, they need to be, to attract the venture capital money, and to potentially attract your attention.”
It seems to work. After that GM promo event aired, the company’s stock went up almost 10% by the following day.
Carried aloft on the power of corporate fantasy
The car industry, abetted by Hollywood, has been using the myth of sex and individualism to sell cars a hundred years. The flying car industry, inspired by Hollywood, wants to sell flying cars for the next hundred years.
But none of this addresses the question of whether this future is good for anyone but the flying car industry, says Michael Manville, Associate Professor of Urban Planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
“We have apparently an Urban Air Mobility team” in Los Angeles city government, he says. “Well, what's the goal of the Urban Air Mobility team? It's probably to get Los Angeles some urban air mobility. But that's not a policy outcome.”
In other words, it’s not about actually making the future LA a more liveable place.
“Nobody walks around LA right now just being like, ‘We should have some more planes in the sky.’ If you backed up, you would say, well, the policy outcome is to make it easier to move around LA,” he says. “But that's just so far to the bottom of the list of ways to make it easier to move around LA. If someone says, ‘We want to have less congestion and make it easier to move around,’ flying cars are a silly way to accomplish that.”
Which brings us back to The Jetsons, and why it’s a strange totem for the flying car industry to hold up. Because everyone seems to have missed the joke:
The Jetsons were miserable.
George hates his job, Jane covers her loneliness with shopping, the dog is cursed with the recognition of life’s futility. Even the robot is sad.
That’s the whole point of the show — that technology can’t solve these problems. It can modify them, it can sex them up, but it can’t cure them.
An alternate future from an alternate past
Maybe the answer is: a less futuristic future.
Imagine that the great transportation promise of the 21st century is: bikes and buses.
“In the 1920s, Los Angeles had the largest urban rail system in the world,” says Michael Schneider, the founder of Streets for All, an organization that promotes non-car solutions to traffic. “We dismantled it. … But mass transit is very effective. In the early 1900s, there was a huge bike boom, and there was a movement to build these elevated bike lanes all over.”
Yes, but from a sci-fi standpoint, those are just lame. Bicycles and mass transit were already old when cars and planes came on the scene. And then came Hollywood, which had no interest in velocipedes and streetcars.
Now, ironically, bikes and e-bikes are good candidates for our climate change-impacted future, along with that other lame duck, public transit, and maybe even the lamest duck — walking.
Maybe that’s the solution, right there: Get Hollywood excited about a summer blockbuster in which The Rock just strolls around town on his own two feet.