Flying Cars: What, How, When, and Why?

Futurists and science fiction writers were discussing the possibility of flying cars even before the appearance of cars and highways. As a concept, they have existed for nearly a century. Today, “flying cars” are an esoteric topic and an ambiguous term that refers to something more than simply a car that can fly. The idea has evolved and it is still evolving. For decades, the idea lacked interest and funding, but it has experienced a resurgence of attention over the last decade. Its comeback is the result of research into electric car technology and autonomous vehicles, and of interest from tech-billionaires who are willing to create start-ups to support their development.

Although flying car technology has been around for nearly a hundred years, these machines face an uncertain future. The current models are noisy, expensive, require heavy batteries, and present safety and security issues for passengers and anyone in their path. Assuming engineers can overcome the technical hurdles, are there compelling reasons to develop flying cars? And are their benefits greater than their potential risks?

Where is my flying car?

Talk of flying cars in the 1930s suffered from unfortunate timing, says J. Storrs Hall. In his new book, Where Is My Flying Car?, he argues that research stalled because the Great Depression, and then World War II diverted a good portion of the available engineering talent.

The earliest prototypes included the convertible and domed versions of the autogyro. For propulsion, they used autorotation, whereby a headwind turns a rotor and causes the vehicle to rise into the air. In 1949, the Aerocar was introduced—a hybrid airplane and automobile that could be driven on roads by folding up the wings and detaching the propeller. The Aerocar was granted civil certification in 1956, but there were not enough interested buyers to justify mass production. Consequently, only six Aerocars were built.

In the meantime, the US government invested in infrastructure—highways and bridges—for cars and trucks, and the aviation industry grew considerably with the exponential growth in helicopters, planes, and jets. The US military then became interested in developing a flying jeep, and the Airgeep first flew in 1959. The military tested several other models, but decided to scrap the project and focus on conventional helicopters instead. In 2009, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) initiated a similar vehicle called the Transformer, but cancelled the program in 2013.

“Where is my flying car?" has since become shorthand for the failure of predicted technologies to appear. The depression and the war effort were understandable barriers, but Hall—a pilot, plane-owner, and futurist in his spare time—grew curious about the period following World War II. His research led him to Richard Feynman, a physics professor at Caltech, who in the 1950s envisioned an industrial revolution using nanotechnology for molecular manufacturing.

Hall, who is also a computer-processor designer and molecular nanotechnologist, proposes that if the scientific community had understood and followed up on Feynman’s vision, we would now probably be living in a world similar to that of 1960s futuristic cartoon, The Jetsons. The flying cars in The Jetsons looked similar to cars because their propulsion systems were more advanced than those we have today. These will require a second atomic age—a synthesis of nanotech and nuclear—to develop more advanced propulsion systems such as hydrogen cells and cold fusion, says Hall. To explain why Feynman’s vision never materialized, he cites an observation by Peter Thiel, further elaborated upon by Tyler Cowen in The Great Stagnation, that following a period of remarkable progress due to the exploitation the low-hanging technological fruit, the US economy began slumping in the 1970s.

Another major trend impacting innovation after the Cold War was a shift in priorities. In Pasteur’s Quadrant, Donald Stokes points out that the emphasis of scientific research has changed over time. Stokes developed four quadrants named for prominent scientists who performed research in those areas. Niels Bohr conducted basic scientific research on the structure of the atom, so the quadrant of basic research is named for him. Research that combines basic and applied science is named for Louis Pasteur, whose work on vaccines, fermentation, and pasteurization was an early example. Thomas Edison pioneered industrial research with an emphasis on commercial inventions.

In the 20th century, the emphasis in science has moved from one quadrant to another. Historically, university research followed the Bohr model, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. After the Cold War era, science and engineering occupied Pasteur’s quadrant, seeking to advance both basic and applied science. Peterson’s field guide of bird markings for birdwatchers is neither basic scientific research nor applied science. Today, industrial research in Edison’s quadrant has come to dominate many fields.

Comparative models of emphasis in scientific research

For basic science, the incentive to spend public money on innovation is the public good. For applied science, the incentive is money and the interests of the company. You cannot receive patents on findings based on basic science and natural laws, so companies are not willing to invest millions or billions of dollars in that area. You can see how the space industry has shifted from NASA to Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson for space tourism and mining of minerals. NASA is still focused on gathering data for basic science and research.

The resurgence

Even though electric and self-driving cars have yet to saturate the market, dozens of companies are at various stages of launching flying cars in a variety of models. Although the earlier prototypes were not successful, they have paved the way for today's more advanced models.

With the more recent development and popularity of drones, several companies have designed passenger models. These include two Chinese companies, XPeng, which is backed by the e-commerce company Alibaba, and EHang, which is supplying the United Arab Emirates with autonomous taxis. The drones run on electric motors.

Building on the prototype autogyro, some flying cars resemble helicopters. In 2017, the Japanese government launched a flying car project with Japan's largest automobile company Cartivator, and hoped to use the SkyDrive to assist with igniting the flame at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The event was postponed due to the coronavirus epidemic, and the SkyDrive is still in the testing phase.

Joby Aviation, which is backed by Toyota, acquired Uber Elevate and plans to use Uber’s app to offer air taxi rides when the company’s aircraft eventually enters service. Uber’s business model plans to provide a convenience to busy passengers through a network of commercial on-demand aircraft and landing spots distributed throughout urban areas. For safety purposes, these vehicles use distributed electric propulsion—multiple separate generators and rotors—in case of a malfunction.

Some flying cars, such as the Dutch company PAL-V’s Liberty, can also function as cars driven on highways due to their foldable wings. In 2020, New Hampshire became the first state to authorize flying cars and passed legislation (known as the Jetson law) making it legal for aircraft to drive on its state's roads. Terrafugia, an MIT spin off, is developing the piloted, folding-wing, two-seat Transition, which will run on premium unleaded gasoline and fits into a standard single-car garage. For safety purposes, it will also have a parachute system.

Are flying cars a good idea?

Elon Musk is noticeably absent from the list of tech-billionaires supporting flying cars. As the brains behind SpaceX and Tesla, he believes they would not be that difficult to manufacture, but has chosen not to pursue their development. If somebody doesn’t properly maintain their flying car, he warns, it could drop a hubcap and guillotine a pedestrian. Also, with the current technology, flying cars are noisy (pilots of helicopters are still required to wear noise-cancellation headphones). Musk argues that traffic is already stressful enough, and filling the skies with buzzing metal boxes will only increase our anxiety levels. Instead, he has decided to focus on the Hyperloop—tubes and tunnels—as the future of transport to reduce congestion and travel time.

Some flying car concepts are commercial, while others are private. Some are piloted and others are autonomous. Samantha Masunaga of the Los Angeles Times calls flying cars an “intriguing chimera.” Propulsion systems currently utilize autorotation, gasoline, and electricity. They can resemble a drone or helicopter and have rotors, folding wings, or both. Autogyro calls its flying car a gyrocopter, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) calls it a gyroplane. Samson Sky makes the Switchblade, which the company calls “a flying sports car.” It has three wheels and is classified as a motorcycle by the US Department of Transportation.

Flying cars are smart vehicles, and like smart houses and smart manufacturing they are smart because they provide the best technological solutions to existing problems. There are trade-offs to consider when choosing propulsion technologies, otherwise you end up with something that is not optimized for a particular task. Cars with wings, such as PAL-V’s Liberty and Terrafugia’s Transition, can fly over mountains, water, and traffic jams, but they need airstrips for taking-off and landing and for dropping-off and picking-up passengers.

Flying cars that carry passengers in urban environments, potentially among high rises, need vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) engines which employ wing-mounted propellers for lift like a helicopter. Air taxis provide convenience through pre-determined routes which are more direct and reduce travel time. Similar to helicopters, all the SkyDrive and Uber air taxis need for take-offs and landings are a 10-by-10-foot pad similar to those found at hospitals, corporate headquarters, and even on yachts.

A major concern for flying cars and autonomous air taxis is safety. To ensure safe and efficient air traffic operations in urban areas, the long-term vision is the “smart city,” of which smart transportation will be a critical component. Urban air mobility (UAM), a concept created by NASA for urban transportation, utilizes automated air traffic management and other technologies for manned and unmanned aircraft. The UAM structure resembles an on-demand bus system rather than a taxi system, since under the centralized system all aerial vehicles are registered and controlled by a UAM platform that manages exact point-to-point routes set by its command-and-control platform.

In the US, the FAA is tasked with managing traffic issues in airspace. With the adoption of flying cars, the traffic in the air could quickly become as congested as the traffic on our city streets. To ensure that flying vehicles are not running into each other or other aircraft, especially in urban environments, it requires sense-and-avoid technology that can see further ahead and identify and measure objects over longer distances than in driverless cars.

Minimizing congestion also requires the reliable transmission of data through a vehicle network so that flying vehicles can communicate with each other and with traffic control centers during clearance for take-off, travel, and landing, and also to receive weather data. For low altitudes, 5G wireless communication networks will provide lower latency than the current 4G networks and the dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) adopted for the current vehicular networks. DSRC also suffers from interference in dense urban environments. For higher altitudes, researchers are testing connectivity using balloons tethered to the ground, high-altitude platforms, and satellite networks. In addition, redundancy with multiple providers and decentralized systems will maximize reliability.

Adoption requires smarter vehicles

If engineers successfully address these challenges, will the public actually buy flying cars? They are currently in the same price range as Ferraris, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. In addition, they require expensive insurance and 20 hours of flying lessons at $100–200 an hour at locations not necessarily near you and your flying car. Although those with a pilot’s license may need less training, for most people flying cars are too expensive for personal use, and not everyone has piloting skills.

Backed by government funding, Urban-Air Port is building the world’s first airport for drones and flying cars. The first installation is in Coventry, in the English West Midlands, where there is no metro and most people remain dependent on a car. The airport is powered by a hydrogen generator and solar panels. Urban-Air Port has partnered with NASA to develop elevated take-off and landing sites—roughly two stories high or around six meters above street level—to minimize noise.

In addition to reducing congestion in urban areas, the aim is to reduce the number of fatalities from automobile accidents and greenhouse gases. Electric vehicles in the skies and on the highways generate zero in-flight carbon emissions. However, since automobile accidents result in 1.3 million fatalities per year worldwide, predominately due to human error, it is unlikely that piloting flying cars will be any safer, especially in foggy and rainy conditions.

As flying vehicles and their infrastructure become more automated, cybersecurity issues are likely to increase. Drones and drone swarms are already a nightmare for security officials. Like self-driving cars, flying cars are susceptible to hacking which could change their course or repurpose them as projectiles. To protect the infrastructure and vehicles on the ground and in the air from cyberattacks, proactive measures such as safe software and real-time intrusion detection will be necessary.

Before the mass adoption of flying cars becomes possible, engineers will need to further develop smart vehicles to work within the smart city infrastructure. Given the weight of batteries and the need to reduce greenhouse gases, more efficient propulsion systems will be needed. Reducing fatalities will require automated vehicles, and reducing congestion and not overwhelming air traffic controllers will require an automated infrastructure. I partially credit The Jetsons for my keenness of everything futuristic—modern architecture, smart homes, smart vehicles, electronic gadgets, robots, and so forth. So, while my heart wants flying cars in our future, my mind tells me that we still have a way to go.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/11/18/flying-cars-what-how-when-and-why/
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A good essay. I particularly liked the section detailing the distinctions between applied and theoretical science. But as to the larger thrust of the essay, I would argue we should look at things from a far simpler perspective- follow the money! The author correctly places the beginnings of the decline in the 70s, but I would argue that the turning point occurred a decade earlier with the introduction of LBJ’s War On Poverty. We can see the effects on development research in this simple graph.

image

Whilst it might be perfectly legitimate to argue that taxes should be distributed differently, the fact that there are finite limits to tax and that sometimes higher taxes have trade-offs- as people work less when the returns are lower or decide to retire off into the sunset when taxes get too high- is harder to dispute. Put another way, did LBJ’s War on Poverty redistribute finite resources in such a way that it both broke some of societies more benign systems and features and drew money away from government projects or enterprises which had greater net positive effects, per dollar spent? The answer would have to be yes on both counts.

The first thing to consider is that much of the War on Poverty’s prescriptions were based upon a top-down approach and came as a result of the prevailing viewpoint of some economists that with productivity increases the labour a society needed would become finite, that government would have to pay people to stay home. Welfare must have seemed like an easy way to reconcile the interests of two competing constituencies with the Democrat coalition- those of white blue collar workers and African Americans- with the interests of white blue collar workers winning out over those of African Americans. The solution of the War on Poverty reduced competition between these two groups, for what many believed would become an increasingly scarce resource- that of labour. Of course, they couldn’t predict the unprecedented growth of the service sector, but this is the problem with all top-down prescriptions- they fail to anticipate the unpredictable.

For the second thread we need to look to China. Although China may be authoritarian in many respects, one area is which it is not is in the area of taxation. Only a couple of years ago China taxed around 24% of all wealth generated, compared to roughly 40% in America (including state and local), and around 50% in Europe. But what is more interesting is not how much is taxed, but rather how is it spent? In China, only 20% is allocated centrally, with the remaining 80% devolved out to the regions. A huge amount of this resource is spent on economic development.

I don’t think it’s an accident that when we look to each countries or regions share of total world GDP China’s share has rapidly grown whilst America’s has declined, and Europe’s has declined most rapidly of all. This effect is seen in two ways. First, taxation removes energy from a system which might otherwise be expended in a manner which is more productive, and social spending or government jobs aren’t always net positives compared to the alternative. Second, it would seem that a government’s resources are better deployed in creating the right conditions for economic opportunities for its citizens, rather than trying to ameliorate the damage of not doing so. If we were to poll people who were beneficiaries of government largesse, I am sure that with the exception of the mothers of young children, most would rather see more economic opportunities for their community, rather than more ‘help’ from government.

The third factor to consider is the damage done by welfare systems. Going back to the LBJ era, it would have been relatively easy to redesign welfare systems so that they were simply an income supplement for the working poor. People could have had a basic state entitlement, which could have then been removed at the rate of between 25c and 33c per dollar earned, instead of losing all their welfare with the first dollar earned. But that isn’t what happened, more is the pity. And through this obstinacy we can be that the main objective was not to help people but to reduce labour competition in general and between two competing, yet aligned interest groups- no doubt it also created a new class of loyal bureaucratic government worker and strengthened the negotiating power of unions through reduced labour competition.

But the damage done was catastrophic. Whether we look at the white working class in Britain (along with Bangladeshi British and Afro Caribbean British) or African Americans, the effect of these welfare programs caused lasting harm because they not only disincentivised work, leading to intergenerational poverty, but also disincentivised fatherhood. And we now know that the rates of fatherhood in a community are the primary driver of social mobility, the ability to escape poverty through positive role models. The only thing which caused equivalent damage to certain groups was public housing. Although public housing can be a positive force when its provision is designed to help the working poor, the nonselective high density public housing projects of the post war period were an amplifier of social ills and a disaster of equal magnitude wherever they were tried, for the simple reason that they were indiscriminate.

There are positive types of government spending. Research- specifically in areas where the risks are too high or the pipeline of economic pay-off is too distant for the market- is one them. Another is nuclear power. Germany and France are of equivalent geographical size and climate. Because Germany decided to pursue renewables and get rid of their nuclear power, their consumers pay twice as much for energy which produces ten times as much carbon dioxide. Even the most extreme estimates place the number of deaths through nuclear power at below 3,000 worldwide, whilst it has saved countless millions in improved air quality.

Western decline began with the Governments of the West. They could have invested public funds wisely, creating future wealth for generations to come. With the economic growth that followed it might have been a lot easier to institute social spending programs which were a much smaller share of the total pot of government funds. Instead they put the cart before the horse, and the West began to stagnate. Virtually every societal problem which has occurred since, whether it is lower rates of fatherhood or mass incarceration (the two are inextricably linked), is a function of these shifting priorities in government spending.

There is a solution. It comes by gradually replacing social programs and government lending to students which zero interest debt. Fiat money was ultimately designed to create sufficient capital for investment, to stimulate the economy. There is now so much capital in the world today that prudent governments can borrow at negative interest rates. We should no longer create fiat money, and there really is a question mark over whether banks should still indulge in fractional reserve lending, now that we know that a world of interconnected and interdependent financial institutions creates the issue of financial contagion and system-wide collapse.

Direct commissioning of zero interest debt for citizens is another case entirely. Because it is direct and closed loop, there is little risk of inflating demand beyond supply and causing inflation. Over time the debt would shrink in real terms, and much of it would be recoverable at the point of death. Central banks routinely eat the toxic debt of business failures- why can’t we demand they carry the can for our own citizens.

With student debts we could even consult the actuarial tables to set thresholds for repayment by degree type. With a zero interest Graduate Contribution Scheme an engineer with an undergraduate degree might find they only start to repay once they are earning over $30,000, for a Liberal Arts degree the threshold might be $10,000. This would allow students to select courses or vocational training likely to land them a decent job.

Unlike conservatives, I don’t see government as innately good or bad, but what I would concede to conservatives is that when political leaders make bad decisions we often have to live with the consequences for decades. We need a better system for Government to own up to its mistakes and to agree to fix them- otherwise we simply live with the consequences forevermore.

The fantasies of of the faiths of Science! and Progress! continue, and like all fantasies, ignore physical reality and all experience. It is best-expressed by John Michael Greer:

Any automotive engineer can tell you that there are certain things that make for good car design. Any aeronautical engineer can tell you that there are certain things that make for good aircraft design. It so happens that by and large, as a result of those pesky little annoyances called the laws of physics, the things that make a good car make a bad plane, and vice versa. To cite only one of many examples, a car engine needs torque to handle hills and provide traction at slow speeds, an airplane engine needs high speed to maximize propeller efficiency, and torque and speed are opposites: you can design your engine to have a lot of one and a little of the other or vice versa, or you can end up in the middle with inadequate torque for your wheels and inadequate speed for your propeller. There are dozens of such tradeoffs, and a flying car inevitably ends up stuck in the unsatisfactory middle.

Thus what you get with a flying car is a lousy car that’s also a lousy airplane, for a price so high that you could use the same money to buy a good car, a good airplane, and a really nice sailboat or two into the bargain. That’s why we don’t have flying cars. It’s not that nobody’s built one; it’s that people have been building them for more than a century and learning, or rather not learning, the obvious lesson taught by them. What’s more, as the meme above hints, the problems with flying cars won’t be fixed by one more round of technological advancement, or a hundred more rounds, because those problems are hardwired into the physical realities with which flying cars have to contend. One of the great unlearned lessons of our time is that a bad idea doesn’t become a good idea just because someone comes up with some new bit of technology to enable it.

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The fundamental problem is fighting gravity, which is a perpetual downwards force on any heavier-than-air airborn craft.

You have two choices (on earth): make your craft lighter than air at low altitude - hence the (slow, awkward) Zeppelin. Or expend enough energy to get to the other place as fast as possible (lift winged craft).

Earth-bound transport does not have this problem (trains, automobiles). We use the solid earth itself to remove the need to energetically oppose gravity.

There will never be ubiquitous flying craft without ubiquitous energy expenditure, and lord knows that is not a popular compromise nowadays.

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There are very many things involve both physics and the “soft sciences”!

Fighting gravity and the engineering considerations - all relevant.

Also relevant: human incompetence. Take a drive through an American city or on a freeway, or really, almost anywhere. How many times have you seen some jerk pulling a stupid, idiotic stunt? Probably 5 times in the past week, right? Unless you don’t get out much. Now - how many times have you caught yourself pulling some stupid goof (or idiotic stunt) yourself? If you are honest and have been able to access the data - if for example you have a spouse who comments - probably more often than you’d like to admit.

People who work in flight schools live with and work in spite of a certain tension or contradiction. It turns out that a whole lot of private/civil airplane crashes (and “incidents”) are due to pilot incompetence. Especially “low-hours” pilots. The business model of flight schools necessarily involves working with some students who really should never get into a cockpit. It doesn’t take long before you kind of wince at the idea of particular students doing that. Unfortunately there’s not a perfect correlation between said students’ desire to continue, and their competence. Meaning, in plain English, there are a lot of wannabe pilots who really, really want to fly a plane, and should never be allowed to do so.

The idea of the general public flying metal boxes “all over the place” in the sky, bumping into each other and flinging aircraft (and body) parts hither and yon - it’s a non-starter. Once you factor in (the lack of) skill, competence, safety awareness, and ability to think in terms of safety protocols, and then behave accordingly. The idea of generally available flying cars, is a disaster waiting in the wings.

The original article considers/treats of this when discussing driverless/self-piloting craft. I wonder how that will play out. It seems more likely that I’d enjoy a short drive to a local/regional airport, followed by a flight in a robot-piloted equivalent of Cessna 402C, Tecnam P2012 (or P-Volt; electric version still on the drawing board), or Piper PA-31 Navajo. Where I live, even though it’s quite rural/forested and the population sparse, there are quite a handful of very nice, small airports, sufficiently near. I like the idea of taking an Uber to one of these, flying the small plane to “quite near” my destination, taking another Uber. For long hauls, that really seems optimal - and not incidentally, it avoids major airports.

For everyday trips and other short hauls, an electric auto-drive car is really the best solution. It’s be nice to get rid of the tires and carbon-fuel power (they emit all that fine and ultrafine particulate matter) and streets. Cruising silently in your maglev over greenswards, taking in the view through the wraparound glass - what a lovely vision.

Though I too miss the idea of being George Jetson and scooting around in that cool bubble-top flying car/vehicle. Seriously, though - people like lawns, green earth immediately at hand. I don’t think folks would really want to live in “the stacks”.

Maybe we should all try to keep ourselves “grounded”, like the New-Agers used to say…

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