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Why would I not want a flying car?

Previous in series: Why would I want a flying car?

There have been many reasons urged against the concept of flying cars; let’s take stock of them here:

  • They are impractical (and thus time spent on the concept is wasted)
  • They would be noisy or unsightly
  • They would be dangerous, to the occupants or to people on the ground
  • The average person is not a good pilot
  • Kids would do irresponsible things with them
  • They wouldn’t really be as comfortable, convenient, etc as predicted

Let’s take these up in order:

Impractical: This is a matter of degree and of the level of technology. For example, a significant number of people in Alaska have essentially flying cars — private planes that they use to access their remote estates. Thus even current technology allows for flying cars when the combination of personal wealth, distances necessary to travel, and area available to work in come together favorably. This is of course far from happening in poor, crowded cities. But it is clear that aeronautical technology has stalled compared to a century ago. Technological advance, however, is a function of how much effort is put into it, and that in turn is a function of how much near-term benefit is seen. So the question is whether flying cars represent enough of a near-term opportunity, given technology like AI and nanotech, to make them worth the effort to develop.

Noisy: This is a problem–current forms of air propulsion, rotors, propellors, and jets, are all noisier than automobiles. True nanotech solutions like fancloth are probably 20 years off. However, this is a straightforward technical problem and thus one for which a series of better and better solutions can probably be found.

Unsightly is a matter of opinion. I listed it because of a comment made by a friend about how if everybody had a flying car, San Francisco would look like a cloud of flies around a garbage can. She opposed them for that reason. (She apparently liked the way SFO looks now.) Now frankly, some people think cities are beautiful, and some think they are ugly. I vary by city — but all of them look nicer from the air than from on the ground, to my mind. And NO city looks beautiful from the middle of a traffic jam. So let’s factor in the view of the cities that people in the aircars get, shall we?

In the country, it doesn’t make that much difference. A long distance aircar at airliner altitudes would be essentially invisible, and lower ones would be rare, and would often be your neighbor whom you would happily wave at anyway.

Dangerous: We can break this down into vehicle unreliability and operator error (and treat the latter separately). Here’s the competition:

Mortality rates in cars

Good drivers die at about one per 100 million miles travelled. Mortality rates in general aviation are higher, in commercial aviation are lower. In cars and private planes, operator error is significant; only in commercial flight does equipment failure predominate, and that’s because the operator error rate is so low! Thus we need to have flying cars that work reliably; that in turn means they need to be self-maintaining.  This is, again, a technical problem.

People not good pilots: This is undoubtedly true, although not as bad as you might think. VTOLs, if that’s the kind of flying car we’re thinking of, are particularly hard to pilot safely.  But we don’t get all the other advantages of the flying car if we are forced to drive it with all our attention, anyway. We need automatic pilots. Luckily, we have them now. It’s actually easier to build autopilot software than to do the same for a ground car — the problem is cleaner, distances larger, and so forth. So the flying car will not be something you drive, but rather something you get into and tell it where to go. If you want to fly it yourself, get a real airplane — and a pilot’s license.

Teenagers: Well, yeah, see the graph above.  But since they won’t be actually driving it, it doesn’t matter as much. Same is true, only more so, of the oldsters, whom we think about differently but are actually more dangerous.

And finally are the issues of comfort and convenience.  Flying in a light plane is actually in many ways less comfortable than a car or airliner, assuming you have enough legroom and so forth.  It’s noisy, and the plane is subject to being nauseatingly tossed about by winds that the car or big jet shrug off.  But this is again a case of technical challengs.  If you watch a bird in flight, dealing with gusty winds, you will see that its control/actuator response time is much much faster than that of airplanes — and if we had that kind of rapid fine control of thrust and lift in an aircar, we could smooth the ride enormously.

The convenience is another major technical challenge.  There is a spectrum between taking off from your own driveway — VTOL (Vertical takeoff and Landing), through taking off from the street you live on — STOL or STOVL (Short Takeoff …), to requiring a full runway.  The shorter the takeoff, the more convenient, because the closer to home you can do it.  The cutoff is probably the STOVL — take off on any hundred-foot stretch of road, land anywhere.

The bottom line, it seems to me, is that we have to modify the model from a car to the extent that it’s self-driving — but we want that anyway.  Then what’s left are technical challenges.  Can we design an aircar that’s quiet, reliable, takes off anywhere, and is stable in most weather?

23 Responses to “Why would I not want a flying car?”

  1. lorien1973 Says:

    People can’t drive in 2 dimensions, why do you think they can drive in 3? Auto pilot really isn’t designed to work in a traffic situation. Putting, say 5 million, air cars in the air with unpredictable paths is going to make auto pilot difficult to manage. It’s gonna require human navigation.

    But you really forget the main problem. In an aircare, there is no failsafe. The engine stops working, you die (or bailout, I suppose). In a car, the engine stops working, you stop.

  2. stb077 Says:

    In a flying car, every accident is fatal. There are no fender-benders or scrapes, just about any collision or equipment failure will end in death. How many minor accidents are there on the road in a year? Even if autopilot was able to work with millions of flying cars in the sky, if accidents were cut to just 1% of what they are now, that’d be tens of thousands of fatalities.

  3. AST Says:

    First, prove that we can automate highways and surface cars to eliminate accidents and makes traffic flows more efficient . . . maybe after we have quantum computers.

    Second, build a completely automated air traffic control system that eliminates the need for pilots (although they’d still have be be on board.)

    Then, I might think about it seriously.

  4. Mark Buehner Says:

    “Auto pilot really isn’t designed to work in a traffic situation.”
    The stuff they are working on now does. This will be a reality in automobiles within 10 years, no reason it can’t work in the air.

    “Putting, say 5 million, air cars in the air with unpredictable paths is going to make auto pilot difficult to manage.”

    Why should they be unpredictable? If the human brain can navigate traffic (with all the drunks, lane weavers, speeders, text messagers, and sleeping truck drivers), no reason computers can’t do it much better. In fact they will probably end up with a kind of ‘soft networking’ that will allow traffic to behave more like a hive than millions of individuals.

    “But you really forget the main problem. In an aircare, there is no failsafe. The engine stops working, you die (or bailout, I suppose). In a car, the engine stops working, you stop.”

    What if the brakes stop working? Or (much more commonly) the human brain. Human error of one kind of another kills tens of thousands of people per year. I’m quite confident there won’t be 40,000 air-cars falling out of the sky every year.

  5. Jeff Allen Says:

    I was thinking weather would be a problem, especially icing. But I thought of something more ominous, and funny – Homeland Security! They would have to put gatling guns on every federal building. There would be a constant spray of lead raining down on pedestrians and bullets ripping through office buildings as they try to shoot down commuters straying too close to the exclusion zones. LOL.

  6. Dan H. Says:

    You will never, ever be able to make a serious dent in road traffic with personal flying machines, because the airspace simply cannot handle the traffic. It has nothing to do with pilot skills, or autopilots, or anything like that. It has to do with the fact that cars on the ground to can be completely fixed to any arbitrary patch of ground, whereas airplanes move around in a turbulent air mass. This is the main reason why airplanes are separated by 1000 ft vertically and 2000 ft horizontally.

    If you tried to pack airplanes in tight like road vehicles, the first time there’s a wind shear it will be raining metal. Updrafts are generally surrounded by downdrafts. Moving into an updraft is like getting on an elevator going up, then jumping straight into an elevator going down.

    Also, cars in a city tend to head to congested destinations – they aren’t evenly distributed. Have you ever seen the Oshkosh airport during the fly-in? That’s nothing compared to the congestion you’d have over a city if even 10% of the cars on the road were replaced by airplanes.

    My office building has a 12 story garage attached to it. There are hundreds of cars in that garage. They all arrive within about an hour’s span in the morning. Let’s see you land and park 500 air cars in an hour without killing somebody.

  7. Mike Puckett Says:

    The problem of an engine stopping working is simply solved. Have redundant engines. Planes figured that one out a long time ago.

  8. John Reis Says:

    In addition to the safety objections, I have a concern about just plain aggravation. The roads already have plenty of morons with intentionally loud mufflers (or none at all) and window-rattling car stereos. At least now they are not overhead. And what fun it will be when certain folks discover the joys of airborne vandalism by droppping eggs, water filled balloons, and worse. Keep ‘em on the ground I say.

  9. Doc Says:

    Autopilots actually work better in the air than on the ground.

    In the air, there are no set paths, no kids chasing balls into the street, no arbitrary barriers or obstacles other than those easily mapped ahead of time, only the positions of other autopiloted vehicles to worry about.

    No airborne system would even consider the kind of insane car spacing of today’s roadbound tailgaters, nor would it place two routes of opposing traffic with 2-3 feet lateral spacing as undivided roads do today.

    But I do believe that flying cars, although autopiloted or at least autopilot assisted, should be clear weather only for the airborne mode, taking anything small up into storms would be suicidal.

  10. Sarnac Says:

    WRT failure-safety … whole-airframe parachutes are in use today and standard-installed-equipment on some airplane models, retrofittable on many.

    WRT air-traffic management: my pet topic, as it was going to be my A.E. PhD thesis before a medical problem intervened:

    Spheri-shell pseudo-planar lanes in the sky, arranged on a macro-level by speed and a micro-level by direction, maintained by 3D GPS and very quick reaction-time autopiloting …
    pick a base level, say 5000′ as due-north, 250 knots … 5100 is NE, 5200 is E, 5300 is SE, 5400 is S, etc … spiral up to change direction … between 5800 and 6000 you accelerate to the next speed level, 300 knots layered from 6000 up to 6800, 350 knots from 7000 to 7800, 400 knots from 8000 to 8800, etc
    (there is no specific reason for increments of 50 knots, but I’m trying to accommodate slower craft)

    So below 5000, given that terrain height varies and obstacles abound, you have a spend-as-little-time-as-possible zone in which we discourage spending flight time. essentially it is for verti-flight followed by base-direction acceleration or deceleration.

    That covers medium and long-haul flights … but not no-fly zones and local flights: cross-town visits and grocery trips.

    No-fly zones (airports, military bases, government facilities, geographic obstacles) would generally be handled with avoidance ground-beacons and computerized in-flyCar maps with conical steer-around 3D avoidance zones.

    In town short-hops would be handled like Coruscant … speed-controlled widely-spaced cylindrical lanes in the low-sky, faster lanes higher, using the above spiral-by-8-compass-points paradigm, but staying within the beacon-marked cylinder paths. Take-off up to the first lane would be verti-flight, accelerating due north to intercept the lowest lane, which should be NE and as you approach by speed and altitude nearly matching, you right-turn into the lane. Right-turn climb-spiral as need be to get to the direction you wish while limited to the local speed limit (100 knots should probably be the in-transit minimum, again using overly rounded numbers). Once your autopilot decides that your destination is approaching, it will spiral down to the lowest lave (always NE) and as you cross the line south of your destination, left turn and descend out of the lane heading due north and proceed on a quasi-linear descent path to just above the destination and verti-descend through the altitudes of 2x the local max building height.

    Also, in the event that someone is out of control, the local ground radar tracking station will flag the 3D GPS coordinates and everyone spiral-climbs or spiral descends followed by the opposite to correct for the flight path deviation, creating a bubble around the falling (hopefully parachuting) craft.

    In the event of a natural disaster (volcano eruption in Washington state for example) locals beacons will be started to tell all skyCars to avoid the current location of the engine-clogging gooey ash plume.

  11. Greybeard Says:

    A fender-bender in a flying car will require the services of an airframe/powerplant mechanic to fix and will cost lots of $$$$$. Insurance companies will have to worry about owners who want to ignore damage that may make the vehicles unairworthy.
    Metal has a memory. Bend it and it weakens. Trouncing a flying car down the road for miles and miles will fatigue structural pieces.
    I just don’t see this concept ever being feasible.

  12. Ben Says:

    Can we design an aircar that’s quiet, reliable, takes off anywhere, and is stable in most weather?

    And in other weather, it often kills the occupants. Also, it kills the occupants if you run out of gas, or if there’s a mechanical failure.

    Yeah, these can all be considered “technical problems”. But technical problems are real problems. Every single one of these problems need to be solved at some large expense of time and money and lost lives when it doesn’t work the first time.

    What if development of this system costs trillions of dollars? How much will the individual flying cars cost?

    Flying cars for non-pilots are a long, long way off and they may be more trouble than they’re worth.

  13. Mason Says:

    The one big thing that I didn’t see addressed here is cost.

    In a sense, flying cars already exist – there’s nothing stopping you from buying a General Aviation plane and getting a pilot’s license and flying to any small airport you want right now. It’s just expensive and takes a lot of time and effort to get everything together. But General Aviation aircraft are mature technology, and are about as cheap as they’re going to get given the volume in demand.

    So, are we supposed to believe that our mythical flying car will be cheaper? After we add sophisticated autopilots (AFAIK only present on multi-million dollar militarily UAVs) and STOVL technology (also present only on multi-million dollar military aircraft, and apparently pretty tough to get working right there). Are there even any real-world examples of the two combined? Among STOVL or better aircraft other than helicopters, we have the Harrier, a very high-cost tactical fighter, the F-35, an even higher cost tactical fighter that isn’t in production yet, and the VF-22, which took a lot of time and money and lives to get to where highly trained pilots could run it well. A STOVL craft with takeoff-to-landing autopilot and cargo space roughly comparable to a family car would probably be well into the millions of dollars, if it’s even possible. Much less pie-in-the-sky stuff like fancloth.

    And what’s training and maintenance going to cost? There isn’t much margin of error in the sky – if anything goes wrong, you’re in a very bad situation. Especially when we’re talking about new and relatively unproven stuff like STOVL. I don’t know what it would be like, but I strongly doubt you’ll be able to just turn the key and go and take it in for a tune-up every few months.

    And there’s lots of other serious objections, some of which have already been brought up.

  14. Mason Says:

    Sorry, I meant V-22 Osprey, not VF-22

  15. SRB Says:

    My first objection was stated by lorien1973. How do you safely control the actions a millions of drivers in 3D.
    My second issue is cost. Flying requires more energy than driving. We have enough issues with the energy expense of roadbound cars to increase it by moving into the air.

  16. TMLutas Says:

    Sound cancellation technology is one possibility to permit the use of flying cars without waiting for exotic propulsion systems. There are, no doubt, others. One thing I find amusing is the idea that we need pack ourselves in 3 dimensions as tightly as we pack ourselves in 2. I recommend remedial geometry. As for eliminating accidents on the ground, the problem is mostly solved technologically. What daunts us is that the existing solutions (networked radios that allow cars to talk to each other) are not valuable unless a significant chunk of the legacy fleet is equipped with them and they are two expensive. When such equipment can be had installed for $99, it will appear, as if by magic.

    The largest problems are regulatory. The FAA is very far behind in fulfilling its next generation ATC promises. That is all

  17. RIch Rostrom Says:

    Dan H.: you have a good point about turbulence. Ships and boats have a similar problem (look up the original meaning of “touch and go”).

    However, your comment about parking is ass backwards. It would be far easier to get 500 aircars in or out of a 12 story garage because they could enter and exit at all levels and on all sides. A garage for groundcars has to have paths to all spaces and ramps up and down. In an aircar garage, all that could be omitted. Just make sure each floor is twice the height of any car; then each car can fly in and set down on a space. 100% use of floor space, everything’s flat (easier to build I bet).

  18. Mikey NTH Says:

    Too many people can’t deal with lines painted on asphalt. And with a road accident – you are already on the ground – with an aircrash you are just beginning to get to the site of the crash.

  19. Tom Billings Says:

    I find it astounding how many times the same criticisms of individual air transport can be repeated, without people reading about what has been conceived either to ameliorate specific problems, or considering system wide changes that will happen because of both individual air transport and the scale and phasing of its introduction by markets. The technological solutions to human piloting limitations are even now being addressed, from aircraft with their own parachutes, to navigation that has already allowed a 12 years old child to fly in a light plane hundreds of miles from takeoff at one point to landing at another, without anyone touching controls. The system-wide effects are far more significant.

    Dan has maintained, correctly, that dumping millions of aircars all at once into the *current* cities of our industrial society would not work because of the dynamics of flying in an atmosphere, with its winds and other changes of flight medium. What he does not bother with is that this would not happen. People are not going to do that.

    What they will do is that very rich people will buy the first aircars, and those will be in the thousands for the first 3-5 years, during which time experience will be gained in keeping cars separate. These people will set the trend, by using their faster and easier transport to move farther out from city centers, and because of VTOL will find themselves traveling not from city center to city center, but from their house out in the mountains to the house of another rich person they want to meet with, usually equally far from a city center. As tech advances, and prices drop, the professionals who have moderately high incomes will begin using aircars, and following the Bill Gates crowd away from cities, since the primary function of cities, aggregating people in proximity to shorten travel times, will become moot for them, as well as for the very rich.

    As prices drop further, and networked navigation among intercommunicating aircars becomes the norm, the cities as we know them today will begin to disappear much faster than they are now. Not only are larger numbers shopping online and other things making this easier, but the things that make city life harder are increasing, where agency costs for political hierarchies that can easily tax and manipulate any wealth in cities are becoming so evident. The growth of swaths in Detroit and other cities that are becoming de-urbanized to the point of becoming wildlife zones is not a coincidence. People are leaving cities that exhibit these agency costs, and aircars will only accelerate that trend.

    Thus, to sweat bullets over aircars flying between high skyscapers is indulging in fantasy. The cities are dying, and aircars will have lots of airspace. As the author mentioned, an aircar would let him work between Philadelphia and Chicago as easily as someone in the Philadelphia suburbs does today in, …say, …Trenton. That increase in airspace over the area of current cities is at least two orders of magnitude. By the time those enormously larger skies fill up, the incremental development of aircar navigation technologies will be quite able to handle it.

    For instance, Dan noted today’s 1,000 foot and 2,000 foot separations. Over a square metropolitan area only 30 miles square, that would leave volume for about 75X75 positions for aircars on any one level, with levels extending in his estimate up to 50, 000 feet. That is 281,000 positions in that volume. If we need 2/3rds of the positions to allow aircars to actually maneuver, as each does their intercomunicating robotic dance in the air, that’s only 90,000 aircars at any one time. Multiply this by the 100 largest cities between the Atlantic and the Mississippi, (holding the vast majority of total population there) and we have 9 million commuters at once, over land totaling 90,000 square miles. Not enough to move the Bos-Wash corridor commuters, much less the rest.

    However, if we speak of a population spread out from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, the calculation changes dramatically. This is an area about 600 miles on one side and over 1,000 on the other. At 650,000 square miles, we now have enough positions for 65,000,000 commuters flying at once. Not only that, but because we are able to use this huge area for routing via the intercommunicating navigation network, we will probably be able to get by with only 1/3rd of all the positions used for maneuver options. That gives us about 130,000,000 commuters safely moving swiftly to wherever and whomever they wish to see and work with, or play with, ……

    We don’t have anything like that many commuters East of the Mississippi, and likely won’t. Technological advances will only enhance this situation. Aircars using structures like “fancloth” will be *far* more maneuverable, and far more capable of staying on course than present aircraft. The 2,000 foot horizontal separation can probably shrink substantially, as can the 1,000 foot vertical separation, multiplying available positions again. Of course, West of the Mississippi, the distances are greater, and the numbers look even more favorable.

    The answer to cities that are already becoming unworkable, by being undrivable, much less unlivable, is to give up on cities as the primary residence for our population. We are already doing that. The aircar will only accelerate that trend.

  20. the Foresight Institute » VTOL Says:

    [...] Why would I not want a flying car? [...]

  21. Calgary FIAT Says:

    Yeah, I agree that flying cars are dangerous and impractical. It’s very expensive to own and maintain one and young people sometimes can get reckless with them. I can’t imagine two flying cars crashing in the skies and falling down think about what will happen to the people or structures below. It’s not for everyone, but I guess it would be best to be used by professional pilots or government agencies at least they have more accountability in case anything happens.

  22. Vancouver Hyundai Says:

    We would not want flying cars as of the moment. We humans are not ready for this kind of system or technology. If we can be responsible drivers on land, things might have been different, but since there are a lot of beasts and dare devils on the asphalt pavements, we cannot risk having them on air. No to flying cars. Well, for now.

  23. Vancouver Hyundai Says:

    It would take a lot of practice to master flying a car, have an understanding of how the flying car works, consider the weather, and be honest enough to know his limitations or skills. let’s just assume that everyone who wants to own a flying car have these qualities in them. An idiot or daredevil behind a flying car would pose too much risk for himself and other people on the ground. The best way to safe-proof a flying car would be to make it on auto pilot. Just tell it to take me to New York or Hawaii and it will take you there. However, this would take a complex and advanced computer.

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