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:
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?