A car affords great freedom of movement, and that is partly why I like automotive design – for the sense of liberation the finished product affords. Mind, the majority of drivers just want to get to the shops, transport their kids or do other ordinary things. It takes a while for a designer to come to terms with the fact that for most drivers, a car is just a tool.

Among those who view cars as merely “white goods” (that is, appliances), there is a large group whose members positively dislike cars, who are compelled to use them but hate to admit it, and who would welcome a great disruption to the status quo – a fully autonomous car, for example.

Recently, an audience member at a “future of transport” conference demanded that the panel, which included me, explain where her flying car was. She “had been promised it by engineers and designers 20 years ago” and had been “let down”. In closing, the attendee suggested there might be a conspiracy keeping her and others out of the sky. The only answer, of course, is this: it’s complicated.

The fantasy of the flying car has captivated humankind for decades, fanned by Popular Mechanics magazine, comic books, science fiction stories, television shows and movies. The US animated sitcom The Jetsons of the 1960s unfolded in a futuristic utopia called Orbit City, whose residents lived high above the ground and travelled in flying cars. These cars wore transparent bubble tops: a feature that would also appear on Detroit show-cars of the era and in the work of California customisers such as Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, with his Beatnik Bandit, and Dean Jeffries’s Manta Ray roadster. In the ‘70s, Luke Skywalker’s X-34 Landspeeder bore a bubble-shaped windscreen. The “Spinner” vehicles in Blade Runner were designed by renowned futurist and illustrator Syd Mead, who – Hollywood lore has it – was enraged when he saw how his utopian visions were rendered in grim, dirty and unattractive tones in the film.

In 2004, I was invited by Gerry Anderson, creator of the Thunderbirds and New Captain Scarlet UK television shows, to design the new Spectrum Cheetah car. It was not to be a classic flying car, but rather one that could, for a short duration, take off to clear other vehicles or obstructions. It was a very satisfying project that brought me into contact with a charismatic movie maker and a world where nothing was impossible.

In the past it has generally been the good guys who have the flying cars, but in the Marvel comic Incognito, the villains have it: modelled on a bright orange Jaguar XKR. Not so easy, mind, for Zack Overkill and Ava Destruction to go incognito in an orange Jag…

But back to the reality of the flying car. Have designers and engineers – indeed, the whole automotive industry – failed fantasists like my cranky inquisitor? It is a rather scary proposition, filling the air with flying machines piloted by anyone with the whim and the wherewithal. Multi-use machines, such as the amphibious car, always make bad means of transport; a very poor boat turns into a really poor car.

Not to say there haven’t been valiant stabs. A ConvairCar Model 118, designed by Theodore P Hall for the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Company of San Diego, California, was photographed during a test flight over that state in 1947, but never went into production. The trouble was primarily weight-related; on the road you dragged around the aircraft bits and in the air you lugged that heavy sedan. Like the amphibious car, it was a simple case of inherent, debilitating compromise.

This has not put Massachusetts-based Terrafugia off the idea. Its Transition flying car prototype was seen in action in March 2013 above Oshkosh, Wisconsin, during an air show. “We wanted to demonstrate some of the technology and infrastructure that’s being deployed today that is actually making that Jetsons dream a reality,” Carl Dietrich, Terrafugia's chief executive and co-founder, told local media at the time.

For designers, not having to worry much about wheels can produce some new forms and directions. Design students and professionals clearly enjoy this freedom, evident in the sheer volume of illustrations they produce depicting levitating cars. The reality of getting a car to fly, however, never looks quite so good when the prototype appears.

The exception was probably the Aerocar of the ‘60s, a simple, good-looking little thing that towed its wings behind it or left them in the garage altogether. Quite a few of the original plans for the US interstate system considered the accommodation of flying cars, the blueprints depicting airplane runways alongside the roads.

Still, the appeal of “first-mover advantage” for a major carmaker can be overpowering. Toyota engineers are apparently devising a car that wouldn’t quite fly, but instead hover over the road surface – thereby reducing friction and  saving fuel. I am a little bit sceptical about this concept since more energy will likely be expended hovering above the road than is used in overcoming road-surface friction. Meanwhile, Volkswagen in China used a crowd-sourcing gambit in 2012 to find out what vehicles customers might want to drive in the future. Once again, the flying car was the most popular suggestion. Volkswagen proposed a two-seat pod with magnetic levitation, drawing a connection to the Mag-Lev train that links Shanghai city centre with its airport. Like the Toyota concept, the VW objective was to reduce friction while boosting energy efficiency. Said Luca de Meo, VW’s marketing chief at the time: “We are no longer just building cars for, but also with customers, and at the same time initiating a national dialogue which gives us a deep insight into the design preferences, needs and requirements of Chinese customers.”

So where is your flying car? Well it’s here, it’s expensive, it’s not too practical, and it’s actually the Terrafugia (which incidentally looks great in Photoshop but not in iPhoto).

Eventually, the stars may align for a viable, and beautiful, flying car, producing a new form of transport. Ironically, such progress may come at the expense of driver involvement; autonomy may well go hand in hand – or wing to wing – with such vehicles.  We would have to take control of the machines out of the hands of the user.

Would that feel liberating?

Look for Peter Stevens every month on BBC Autos, where he will offer opinion, insight and back-of-napkin sketches on the future of automotive design.

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