This article revives an interesting topic that I have not seen recently, amidst the noise generated by autonomous vehicles, AI, social media aimed backlash and everything else in the public discourse lately. That topic, being flying cars.
In exploring this topic, I will use an article published on Wired by Eric Adams as a place to start.
To Solve Flying Cars’ Biggest Problem, Tie Them to Power Lines
Of the many challenges facing the nascent flying car industry, few turn more hairs gray than power. A heavier aircraft needs more power, which requires a bigger battery, which weighs more, thus making a heavier aircraft. You see the dilemma. So how do you step out of that cycle and strike a balance that lets you fly useful distances at useful speeds without stopping to recharge?
One startup thinks the answer lies in another question: Who needs a big battery, anyway?
San Francisco-based Karman Electric proposes dividing the need for power from the need to carry that power through the air. It wants to connect passenger-carrying electric air taxis to dedicated power lines on the ground, like an upside-down streetcar setup. The aircraft will carry small batteries so they can detach from the lines when necessary, but they’ll get most of their juice from their cords, allowing them to cover long distances at high speeds.
A few more questions, then. What happens if the cable gets jammed, or a bird flies in its path, or a helicopter wanders by? What if there’s a power loss on the ground, or if two vehicles get their cords tangled? How can you traverse bodies of water or rugged terrain? And doesn’t tying a flying car to the ground defeat the whole purpose?
I am going to stop here. Because frankly, the author planted a perfectly good segway.
In short, no, I don’t absolutely think that this defeats the whole purpose of the flying car. For one, in and around areas where they would be utilized most (probably urban and suburban areas), one will have freedom. And when one is traveling outside of areas where tethering is an issue just on account the landscape alone, it wouldn’t be much of a problem anyway. Since most commuters will likely have a common destination in mind, what does it matter if the trip requires tethering to a fixed power source?
In fact, if you are traversing the skies in the dark of night (or in bad visibility conditions), tethering may be a good thing. Spacial disorientation has killed many people before.
Having made that argument, I have to admit that I just don’t see flying cars as being the future of transportation. The problem of powering them without fossil fuels plays a big part in this, at least in the short term. Can long-range (I’m talking intercontinental) high-speed transportation of people and freight ever be made carbon neutral?
But what are far more important factors than this are the problems posed both by the operation of this technology, and other factors unique to aviation. The term flying car alone makes me begin to ponder things. One of them being “What is a car?”. What constitutes a car, and how does this differ from a plane or a drone?
Indeed, most of this is just linguistics to be left to the manufacturers and marketers to figure out. Of which car will likely win just because it’s got so much cool factor.
Personal transportation pod? Nah.
Transport drone? *yawn*
Blurred lines in our understanding of what separates one vehicle from another is the least important issue in this matter, however. I mentioned before the operation of these vehicles as an area of concern. At very least, the necessity of a pilot’s license would be a bare minimum requirement. And the training ought to be just as intensive as for a genuine pilots license.
This is not a popular sentiment in the public eye (imagine THAT!). But there are many more considerations that come to play when you are in the air that one may not even consider when they are on the ground. While it may be possible to automate the process enough to allow even novices to operate these systems on a perfect day, the typical can be counted on as being less than ideal for most areas of the world. Not only do you have atmospheric considerations like wind shear and icing, you also have the issue of dealing with mechanical problems showing up 30 to 300 feet in the air. While not all drastic mechanical faults or failures occurring to an earth-bound vehicle in a risky situation end in tragedy (like losing a wheel on the interstate), any issue that destabilizes a flying car in flight becomes a potentially VERY bad situation. A panicked or incorrect reaction to the problem (common in the realm of traffic accidents) could not only endanger those in the vehicle itself, but also both people on the ground OR in nearby vehicles.
Indeed, this comes across as barely more substantive than “people make terrible drivers, therefore, NO FLYING CAR FOR YOU!“. None the less, one trip out onto the road in pretty much any place in the world shows us just how flawed we can be (how much damage we can do?) when were earthbound. Or if anecdote is an issue (I agree), consider traffic fatalities. Or more accurately, traffic-related injuries and fatalities Vs Air travel-related injuries and fatalities. Though aviation related accidents tend to get more coverage (the stakes are higher just due to the volume of passengers involved), overall, the whole system has gotten safer as people have been increasingly removed from it. Indeed, automation HAS had a hand in more accidents than none. However, more often than not, these are attributable to human error. The problem posed by having to take control and/or diagnose a suddenly uncontrollable juggernaut that has flown itself perfectly for the past 99.9% of your previous flights.
Indeed, a fairly small flying personal vehicle is much different than a 747. None the less, even a flying smart car can cause a heck of a disruption should it crash in the wrong place. Like, say, the upper inner workings of an electricity substation. As opposed to its ground-bound cousins, who may hit a pole, or knock down the fence.
If we are to go this route, then automation is key. Most (if not ALL) aircraft functions of these vehicles NEED to be automated, period. And it wouldn’t hurt to require the presence of a trained and frequently refreshed operator at all times in aircraft mode (for accident mitigation). These vehicles would also benefit for a mandated self-reacting variant of TCAS. Something that would have to take into consideration both traffic AND ground hazards (since these vehicles will be operating in much more built up airspace than other aircraft).
While these are just off the top of my head, there are likely more considerations that will become evident later. Because that is how progress works (not all problems become visible in the paperwork). When it comes to most average consumers, I seriously question if this is in their future (at least as a personal vehicle they own). In terms of a business opportunity (flying taxi’s?), this will also depend on the costs involved. And with the increased amount of research and testing of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles in realistic traffic situations, even this is looking less promising. If I am a business and I have the choice between a vehicle that can operate itself and generate pure profit almost indefinitely, and a far more expensive flying vehicle that costs more money to maintain AND insure (think liability coverage), what seems the smarter option?
I get it, future tech is cool (there is a reason why it has increasingly become a focus of mine in the past year or so). And with the drastic changes that will be forced upon humanity due to a few factors coming in the mid to near future, we need people to be thinking outside the box. That said, however, some ideas just don’t have a future. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of a flying car is cool, creative, even freeing (one is no longer bound to designated road infrastructure). But given the competition that already exists, I have serious doubts that I will be flying to work or the supermarket in the future.
Having said that, while the technology may be redundant in most cases and geographical situations, one context that comes to mind wherein this technology may be beneficial is any situation in which highway access is restricted. For example, communities in Northern Canada which are hard to access with traditional infrastructure. Small-scale is questionable in its necessity, but figuring out how to reduce the cost of large-scale passenger and freight access would have many benefits.
The most obvious would be an improvement in both the standard AND cost of living. Moving more freight cheap means necessities cost less, and luxuries have a place in the market. It also means lower taxes for Canadian citizens in the long run because, with a lower cost of living, there would be less need to subsidize the consumers AND the freight transporter.
Another use that comes to mind would be in the case of disasters. Hurricanes like Maria and Katrina have hammered home the need for advanced preparation if you are sheltering in place. Unfortunately, that is a very naive view to take since many people who can’t afford to adequately prepare ALSO can’t afford to evacuate. Thus, you get what transpired in New Orleans and San Juan after the storm. Even without the clusterfuck that was the response to both storms, access is inherently limited by blocked, damaged and destroyed road infrastructure.
Enter, small to medium-sized flying transporters (at this point, you have probably figured out that I am not sure what to call them). Situations like large hurricanes can allow for the early preparation and rapid deployment of supplies and essentials to residents just hours after the storm. And once accommodations are set up, they can be easily and safely evacuated, with no rescuers put in harm’s way.
Amazon and other delivery oriented businesses are increasingly experimenting with drones to deliver freight on a small scale (flying a pizza or a shower cap directly to your home). However, I’m not sure if this scales up at all.
To conclude, I don’t see money and time devoted to the research and development of flying cars as being the best (or even a GOOD) use of that money. While there are possible uses for the technology in the area of both commercial AND humanitarianism, focusing on the personal is to waste time and resources when we don’t have any more to spare.