A standard cliche we often see in film, and on the page, is the flying car, not just for science fiction but even for futurists. A film that was commonly shown to early grade school children in the early 70s predicted that the average family would have a flying car by the end of the 20th century. Despite not being presented as fiction, that film was more fiction than reality. Why do we continue to dream of flying?
Flight represents freedom; freedom from gravity, freedom from the ground, freedom from traffic jams, freedom from rules, freedom of the spirit. The ability to emulate the birds is a long-held dream, even for Icarus.
However, it’s not going to happen. Perhaps one day we will have flying cars. I won’t rule that out. However, they will be expensive. All the problems I outline below have solutions, but each one will cost money and probably a lot of money on an ongoing basis. So if you can’t afford a Lamborghini, then you can’t afford a flying car. Sure, the very wealthy have private airports, and the middle classes can learn to fly and buy small aircraft even now. However, the flying car that you use to go to work, to pick up the kids from school, to go to the grocery store, etc? No.
But why not?
There are a multitude of reasons, but, they all boil down to one basic fact: a flying car is an aircraft, with everything that implies. Ground cars have rubber tires on an asphalt (or concrete) road. That is a huge advantage. Moreover, should a car’s flight system fail for any reason including a collision (with anything including a large Canadian goose), poor maintenance, or turbulence flipping the car over, if the car is flying at, say, 100 m above the ground, then the pilot has less than 5 seconds to fix the problem before the car hits the ground at 154 km/h (98 miles/h). There’s no way around that — that’s fatal to all concerned including the people it hits on the ground. However, it’s worse. In practice, the pilot would probably have less than 2 seconds to fix the problem before recovering control becomes impossible in the remaining altitude and time. However, what are the ramifications?
Before we go further, how does the flying car fly? Wings? Rotors (like a helicopter or drone)? Anti-grav? Let’s discount that last.. I suspect flying fire-breathing dragons, elves, unicorns and the one ring of power are more plausible. Besides, even if we do one day invent anti-grav, that doesn’t mean it would work in a car. It could require enormously heavy equipment (ie heavier than the object that it causes to fly), have horrible environmental consequences, or be very noisy, or require highly expensive engineering and maintenance, or require huge amounts of energy… Besides, most even half-way plausible concepts of anti-grav would be a horrible way to make a car fly at a fixed but adjustable altitude. So if we want to consider a plausible flying car, it doesn’t use anti-grav (nor force fields).
- Maintenance: The flight-generating mechanism, be it wings, rotors, etc, requires space and protection. What happens if a hail-storm or wind-storm strikes? A rock-chip picked up from the wash of the car in front of you? Non-optional expensive repairs. A bit of rust, just a bit, or your neighbour’s kid hits it with a baseball? Or some mechanical part is close to becoming worn out? You need new wings or rotors or whatever. Don’t pretend that a twice-a-year checkup and oil change will suffice. You will need monthly tune-ups done by a licensed professional.
- Training and Piloting: On the ground, a driver normally only has two degrees of freedom to worry about: forward speed and rate of turn, and there are a lot of people who seem to have trouble with even just those two. In the air, there are six. Moreover, the lack of wheels on a road means no brakes, slower accelerations and wider turns. This means that if humans are are at the controls, then they need training as good as or better than modern airplane pilots. Computers (AI) would probably be mandated. Humans would only be allowed to take over if the AI fails/crashes.
- Health: we’ve all heard about the Germanwings co-pilot, Malasia flight 370, heart-attacks, road-rage shootings, etc, etc, etc. Commercial pilots are supposed to undergo medical exams and psych-evals on a routine basis. A flying car would be a very very dangerous weapon in the hands of anyone who has a violent axe to grind. Even silent incapacitation and distractions (cell phones, eating, day-dreaming, …) could become a daily killer, so yet another reason that AIs (and only AIs) would be the pilots. Is this freedom?
- Landing and take off are the most dangerous parts of flight. Wings require a fast take-off and gradual climb-out and the same for landing, which means having a mini-airport with runway in every community. Yes there are a few communities like that even now, but no one is going to re-design an existing city to create those. Far far too expensive. Flying cars, if they happen, will have to work with the cities we have, not some idealized futuristic low-density community. Rotors (like a helicopter or drone) are more practical. What about that bicyclist or those kids playing street hockey that the pilot can’t see because they are hidden by those trees, or that recycling bin on the side of the road, or the toy that your kid left on the driveway? No one is going to cut down their trees so that you can land your car.
- Side effects: Every flight mechanism has serious side-effects including noise and wind-vortexes. Flying cars won’t be silent. The toy drone creates an annoying whine. That whine becomes a roar if the drone is scaled up large enough to carry people. Few people like living under the approach to a runway even now. Even with quieter technology, just imagine someone trying to land on the street in front of your house (perhaps 20 ft away). There go your windows from flying pebbles. There go your dog’s eyes from blown dust. And when the blast picks up a sheet of plywood that your neighbour is about to use to repair his house, you’ll be lucky to not loose your head. Even ground-based cars are noisy enough, so there goes your sleep when the neighbour arrives home from the bar at 2 in the morning, and then again when the other neighbour’s teenager returns from a tryst with his girlfriend at 3 in the morning. Then yet another neighbour has to leave at 5 to get to an early shift takes off. Sleep? Who needs sleep?
Points 4 and 5 (and 6 below) mean that dedicated landing and take-off places (ie micro-airports) will have to be the only allowed take-off and landing places. So much for taking off to escape a traffic jam or landing in front of your house.
- Turbulence: Large airplanes are usually stable from transient gusts, turbulence and other effects because of their sheer size, mass, engine-power and the fact that they fly at 20000 feet and usually more. A flying car would have none of those advantages. The turbulence that the 747 completely ignores and that bumps the Cessna around could turn a flying commuter car upside down. The vortexes generated by city skyscrapers would make things even worse. Turbulence doesn’t just make control harder. It also means that the path of a flying car won’t be straight. This means no flying or even taking off or landing near structures, buildings, trees, fences… The tops of skyscrapers might be good locations for landing pads, but at street level in the downtown core, or even flying between buildings higher up, “no way José” (see also the point about turning radii).
- Weather: Blizzards, thunderstorms, micro-bursts, tornadoes and hurricanes are only the tip of the iceberg. Fog, snow, ice, even just rain makes low level flight dangerous, and doubly so when flying by visual flight rules. So either cars would need complicated (expensive) instrumentation or flight would have to be restricted to calm clear daylight. See also the previous point. In any case, many cities would have to issue frequent no-fly orders that could last hours if not days. So commuters would need back-up plans, and the regular roads would have to be able to take the whole city’s traffic a few times every month (without becoming a gridlock nightmare).
- Energy: Flight is seriously energy expensive. Passenger jets overcome that problem because of the sheer number of people they carry. Small planes, drones, helicopters, etc don’t have that advantage. If we have a limitless, pollution-less compact and light source of energy, great. However, until then, a flying car is not green. Not in the slightest. And the monetary cost of that energy? Not for the faint of heart. That also means much more frequent “fill-ups”. The batteries that need to be recharged every 400 km on a ground car, might need to be recharged every 40 km in a flying car. And you’d better not run out of energy when you’re 100 m in the sky.
- Weight: For a normal ground car, those wheels on the ground automatically balance the weight, and no one cares if you put an extra suitcase in the trunk. Not in a flying car. If it’s rated for 200 kg, then that is the limit, and you’d better not exceed it. And you have to balance the load evenly. Literally, the lives of your passengers will hang in the balance.
- Traffic: if everyone (or a significant fraction of the population) has a flying car, then the air traffic control systems would have to be very, very complex and strict. Air traffic controllers, whether they be computers or people would have to be in charge, and the fines and penalties for not obeying them would have to be very serious. Does this mean freedom? It also means taxes to pay for it. This won’t be cheap. This and the other points combined means large no-fly zones, such as near airports, over hospitals, playgrounds, schools, sports-plexes, etc. etc. etc.
- Id: Many people object to having licence plates on their car. Every week, I see licence plates that someone has defaced to make it harder to read. If cars could fly, the traffic control requirements would make identifying transponders absolutely mandatory. Moreover, some sort of black-box flight-recorder would probably be necessary to solve insurance and liability issues when accidents occur (and they will). Flight plans would probably be needed, just so the system could manage the thousands of simultaneous flights. This means no privacy. If you use your flying car to go visit your girlfriend or boyfriend in the middle of the night, there will be a record of that.
- Accidents: You think the carnage on the roads is bad now? Even the slightest collision could temporarily disable the flight mechanism. This has two immediate effects. Firstly, flying over residential and other densely populated areas would have to be severely restricted. That means no take-offs and landings in those areas. Secondly, impatient driving, tail-gating, road rage, lane weaving and just failing to follow the rules would all have to become criminal offences, not just traffic offences. Of course if AIs are in control, they would follow the rules, but how many people would try to over-ride the AI? It only takes one idiot. Don’t forget that if thousands of cars are in the air, then the chances of collisions go up quadratically – and most of them would be fatal. This, the lack of brakes and tha above-mentioned turbulence problems mean that flying cars couldn’t be close to each other. Probably there would be an exclusion zone around every flying car of at least 100 metres, possibly more, and the following distance would likely be not a 2-second gap, but 20 seconds or more.
- Insurance: Given the above points, would an insurance company ever want to insure a flying car? Perhaps, but I can pretty much guarantee that the insurance rates would be much much higher than for a ground car. Consider that quite apart from the lethality of flying car accidents, if a flying car hits a house, that house would probably be a write-off. A large tower would survive, but the collision would still likely cause millions of dollars of damage. Two-million dollars of third party coverage would not cut it. Try paying for twenty-million dollars coverage.
None of these problems are insurmountable, if we throw enough money and effort at them. Using 2023 prices, apparently the average annual cost of owning and operating a car is $8000. I can’t see the average annual cost of having a flying car ever being below $20,000 (in 2023 terms), and that’s after the prices come down because of the economies of scale (ie they are being bought by many people). This does not include the extra taxes the government will need to collect to create, manage and police the electronic roads in the skies. I can’t speak for everyone, but I doubt many would want to spend an extra $12000 per year for a vehicle that can’t fly if the weather is bad (which could last for days in places like Calgary with strong Chinook winds). I, for one, can think of a lot of things I can use that $12000 for; holidays, retirement, a nicer house… So, no there won’t be a flying car in even a majority of garages.