What do you call an electric aircraft that lands and takes off vertically to carry passengers around town?

This CEO thinks history provides an answer for marketing urban air mobility to the masses

This story has been updated with additional information from Archer about the reasoning behind its shift in terminology.

Adam Goldstein used a curious choice of words in an online earnings call with investors and reporters like me on Feb. 26: “We also continue to believe India will be the largest market for flying cars globally,” said the CEO of Silicon Valley-based Archer Aviation, a leader in the field of urban air mobility.

Archer had, until Goldstein’s speech, eschewed the term “flying car” to describe its Midnight aircraft, preferring to call the planned all-electric design an “eVTOL,” short for electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft and pronounced E-V-toll. Archer’s historical feeling about the “flying car” term was not unique. Its competitors also shunned that label for the aircraft they’re developing with the goal of revolutionizing how regular people move about cities and the suburbs.

“We hate the term flying car,” said Mark Moore in 2017 at AIAA’s Aviation Forum in Denver, before he left Uber when it sold off its aviation arm and then co-founded Whisper Aero in Crossville, Tennessee, to pursue a quiet propulsion technology. “It’s so misrepresentative of what we are doing.”

The problem was that through history, “flying car” has often referred to hybrids of automobiles and aircraft that could be driven on the road and also go airborne. There was the Curtiss Autoplane of 1917, the Arrowbile of the 1930s, the Aerocar in 1949 and other concepts that percolate to this day. EVTOLs, by contrast, won’t ride on the road. They’ll operate out of vertiports.

No one would dispute that eVTOL is more accurate, in a technical sense, than “flying car,” but Goldstein suggested it’s a poor marketing term.

“There’s no question that [eVTOL] remains a mouthful for newcomers,” Goldstein said on the call. “So we’ve decided to embrace the term ‘flying cars,’ because to make urban air mobility accessible to the general public, we need to bring the future of transportation into today’s reality.”

The reality today, of course, is that people drive or ride in cars. Goldstein wants them to choose to fly in his Midnight aircraft, which plans call for selling to air taxi operators and other customers.

The shift in terminology wasn’t just a whim, judging by the reworking of Archer’s website, which now says on its homepage that “Flying cars are landing in 2025.”

Later, Archer elaborated to me by email: “We adopted ‘flying car’ as we near the public launch of Midnight,” it said, referring to its plan to earn a type certificate from FAA in time for passenger flights starting in 2025. The flying public will “connect with a term that resonates and inspires,” it predicted. Asked about any reactions from its competitors, Archer said “we hope our embracing of ‘flying car’ will encourage industry peers to follow.”

If Archer’s change of heart catches on among those peers, that would mean abandoning a term that’s been in place in Goldstein’s field since 2009, nine years before he founded Archer. That’s when NASA began using eVTOL to describe the newly envisioned breed of aircraft. One of the first eVTOLs was NASA’s own Puffin concept, an all-electric personal air vehicle, meaning an aircraft that would carry one person, rather than passengers and a pilot. As with other concepts in the eVTOL genre, Puffin was not meant to be driven on roads, so the idea was to avoid confusing people.

Not everyone is convinced of the marketing wisdom of switching to “flying cars” for the coming class of urban aircraft.

History has not judged the “flying car” genre kindly. The term is “viewed as eccentric at best, and snake oil at worst,” says Roger Connor, aeronautics curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “So many times, we’ve read about flying cars being right around the corner, only to find out it’s actually total nonsense.”

Connor doesn’t see the marketing value. “I understand that eVTOL, AAM [advanced air mobility], UAM and even tiltrotor are not really particularly accessible terms for the general public, but I would argue that perhaps the problem is not as much about finding the right name as it is demonstrating a popular use case. Once the public understands how they can use an eVTOL, they’re much more likely to accept it.”

Aviation jargon can get “convoluted” and confusing to the casual observer, says aviation author Daniel Bubb, an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, by email.

“I think to avoid confusing the public, perhaps it would be better to use the term air taxi, which has been in use in aviation for decades,” Bubb said. “Goldstein has a point, but I would wonder what his definition is for flying car.”

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What do you call an electric aircraft that lands and takes off vertically to carry passengers around town?