When the first DeLorean rolled off the production line on January 21st, 1981, it looked gorgeous. With its gull-wing doors and brushed stainless steel finish, it looked like the car of the future. The UK government was convinced it would be, and put up about $120m of its estimated $200m start-up costs to have it produced in Northern Ireland, an area of high unemployment.
Robert Zemeckis wanted a futuristic car for his 1985 movie, “Back to the Future,” and featured a DeLorean as the time-travelling vehicle. As Doc Brown put it to Marty McFly, “The way I see it, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?” Indeed, had it featured the time travel app shown in the movie, I would have bought one.
It looked superb, but it was under-powered and over-priced, with a top speed of 109mph, and taking 8.8 seconds for the stick-shift version to go from 0-60mph, and 10.5 seconds for the automatic. People expected better from something that called itself a sports car, and never bought it in numbers, leaving DeLorean with an unsold inventory. The company lasted only 2 years before it went bankrupt, and the UK taxpayers lost their money, as they usually do when their government “picks winners.”
In the second of the “Back to the Future” trilogy, Marty went in the car to the world of 2015, then far into the future. It was an amazing world in some respects, but less amazing in others. In addition to flying cars, there were hoverboards and self-tying sneakers, robotic litter-bins and dog walkers, small-scale fusion reactors, and Marty had a self-adjustable, self-drying jacket. Yet there was no internet and no mobile phones, both ubiquitous when the real 2015 came along, and both world-changing.
Many of the things that give the world its flavour and feel are inherently unpredictable, since they depend on technological innovations which, if we knew about them now, we’d have now. Popper uses that in his “Poverty of Historicism” to reject the notion that the world is moving to a predictable future. We can use inspired guesswork, but we often get it wrong.
What often happens is that the things we predict as developments take longer to appear than we think. Flying cars are not yet commonplace. The movie “2001 – A Space Odyssey,” expected faster scientific progress than we’ve had. We haven’t yet gone back to the moon in the near half-century since we last did.
On the other hand, if the expected things take longer, new and unexpected ones appear out of nowhere and have the capacity to transform our lives more than the anticipated ones do. If we want such new opportunities to appear, the best thing we can do is to clear some ground they can step into. Instead of putting money into projects that look as though they will be the future, we should be removing the regulations and roadblocks that make it harder for unexpected innovations to make their appearance and transform our world.