Conversations in Management: The Flying Car

“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

Peter Thiel.

1924 Flying CarPeter Thiel is a billionaire. He’s the co-founder of PayPal, a business that pioneered e-commerce and is now valued at $50 billion. He was also the first external investor in Facebook. It’s a $200 billion company that’s transformed how 1.4 billion people—that’s 20% of the world’s population—communicate with each other. That’s a lot of billions to be associated with and it’s earned him the right to dabble as a Silicon Valley “techno-libertarian-futurist.” In that capacity he funds things like longevity therapies, seasteading and artificial intelligence. Thiel’s concerned that our vision of the future is becoming constricted and that we’re substituting incremental improvements for ground-breaking change. He wants us to move, as he calls it, from zero to one. That means creating something from nothing instead of something that’s just new and improved. It’s easy to see what he means. For all the excitement surrounding Tesla Motors, the Model S is still just a 21st century version of a vehicle that was first produced in the 1880s. No surprise then, Thiel despairs that while Twitter’s great; it isn’t exactly in the class of a flying car.

But despair no longer! Two manufacturers—AeroMobil and Terrafugia—claim to be on the cusp of bringing a flying car to market. They’re both sleek, folding wing models. AeroMobil boasts, “As a car it fits into any standard parking space, uses regular gasoline, and can be used in road traffic just like any other car.” Terrafugia notes their model, “can fly in and out of over 5,000 public airports in the U.S. and is the only light aircraft designed to meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.” Both come with, “a full-vehicle parachute for additional safety.” That business about parachutes might cool the ardor of many early adopters. On the other hand, it probably doesn’t reflect the manufacturer’s pessimism any more than, say, the hundred or so airbags traditional automobiles sport these days. At least it’s standard. Rumor has it that in an effort to hold down costs, the companies are dispensing with popular options like radios and cup holders. When asked if the flying car came with a navigation system, a spokesperson explained one wasn’t necessary since from 10,000 feet you could pretty much figure out where you were headed. As for air conditioning, he suggested you open a window. With an MSRP of roughly $500,000 you might think owning a flying car is beyond your reach. Fortunately, generous government subsidies are likely to bring the price down to about $30K and you’ll be able to get an ultra-low nautical mileage lease for about $199 a month (in theory at any rate). Either way, you’ll still need both a driver’s and pilot’s license.

Oddly enough, this is exactly the kind of vehicle that WWI Ace Eddie Rickenbacker described in a 1924 article for Popular Mechanics. He predicted that within 20 years cars with folded wings will travel the roads and, “when on a straight stretch of road they can be spread and take to the air.” He didn’t mention anything about parachutes. In other words, like a Tesla, we’re supposed to be thrilled by a new and improved 1924 model flying car. Maybe not. Let’s stop being enthralled by incremental change. Kaizen only produces more of the same. The iPhone 6S will be better, but stand in line? Fuggedaboutit! No matter where you are in your life journey, take Thiel’s advice and start moving from zero to one. You’ll find your happiness soaring higher than a flying car!     —Ebert

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