For a newspaper journalist on a tight deadline, there’s nothing like a “flying car” story. It’s guaranteed to get lots of clicks, the companies being profiled will eagerly supply information, and most readers don’t know enough to fact check the article. Pilots generally roll their eyes at this sort of thing, but the articles keep coming.
Perhaps more surprisingly, the money keeps coming. Billions of dollars have been invested in flying car startups over the past decade, and if the press releases are to be believed, tilt-rotor aircraft will soon be a reality in American cities. Prominent investors (who probably think those eye-rolling pilots are a bunch of unimaginative cavemen) argue that the only limitation has been technological, and those problems are quickly being solved. Our bright future is within reach.
I’m skeptical, as I was four years ago, for reasons of technology, economics, and regulation. But in addition to those practical considerations, I’m increasingly convinced that Americans don’t actually want a flying car in the first place. Maybe the problem isn’t the technology, but the product-market fit, to use a popular venture capital term. In fact, if you dig into the details on the latest generation of flying cars, you find they aren’t designed for individual owners and they aren’t cars at all—hardly a realization of our midcentury dreams.
The current contenders
The latest headlines have not been too positive for flying car enthusiasts, with a recent shakeout in the market leaving plenty of casualties. Terrafugia, the once-hot company founded by MIT alumni, not only flew a prototype “roadable aircraft” but earned FAA certification for it. They even saw New Hampshire change their traffic laws to accommodate such vehicles. But after years of delays and a predictably swelling price tag, the company laid off its US staff and closed up shop.
Kitty Hawk, a buzzy startup backed by none other than Google’s Larry Page, also laid off staff and ended operations last summer (although they claim to be redirecting efforts to another project). Uber Elevate, the ambitious proposal to add vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft to big cities, was supposed to launch in 2020 but was instead sold off as a part of Uber’s broader retrenchment.
There are some survivors, and three companies in particular seem to get most of the press these days. EHang, a Chinese drone manufacturer that displayed its human-sized mock-up at the Consumer Electronics Show five years ago, is flying a prototype and even planning to build a vertiport in Italy. Germany’s Lilium promises a new era of “all-electric regional air mobility” with its sleek VTOL Jet that features 36 ducted fans. It has some big names on its board, including a former Airbus CEO, and is aiming to fly four passengers at 160 knots for up to an hour. It too is working on a vertiport network (who isn’t?).
But the leader of the pack, at least in terms of press, is Joby. The California company has raised almost $1 billion and is going public via a SPAC controlled by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Zynga founder Mark Pincus. Uber is also an investor, as part of their deal to sell the Elevate program to Joby last year. The goal is to offer an integrated urban mobility platform, from the aircraft to the ground infrastructure to the app. Their website shows a hypothetical trip from LAX to Newport Beach, which would take just 15 minutes by air compared to over an hour in a car.
Hoffman sums up the optimist’s pitch in six words: “Tesla meets Uber in the air.” Take that Cirrus marketing department!
In a recent tweet, he went even further, claiming Joby delivers on Peter Thiel’s famous lament about technological progress:
“We wanted flying cars. Instead we got 140 characters.” — Peter Thiel, 2013
What a difference 8 years makes!
In 2021, we've got 280 characters. And threaded tweet-storms. And – wait for it – flying cars! pic.twitter.com/Y3n1hdkpqt
— Reid Hoffman (@reidhoffman) March 18, 2021
Why hasn’t it happened already?
Cut through the hype, though, and one question persists: can any of these projects actually make it? Any attempt to answer that question must start with a look at the huge graveyard of past flying car companies.
Indeed, the allure of flying cars stretches back to the earliest days of the “horseless carriage” revolution in the early 20th century. Henry Ford himself said, “Mark my word: A combination airplane and motor car is coming. You may smile. But it will come.” Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, a futuristic vision of suburban life first unveiled in the 1930s, included helicopter-like machines connecting far-flung communities. More than anything, though, it was The Jetsons and post-war science fiction that really gave flying cars a place in pop culture, and inspired Thiel’s quip.
While these concepts might seem like pure fantasy, author John Storrs Hall argues that flying cars should have happened decades ago, and only failed because of bureaucratic inertia and a lack of imagination. His eccentric but thought-provoking book Where’s My Flying Car? catalogs a number of practical, well-funded ideas, going all the way back to Harold Pitcairn’s auto-gyro in the 1930s. This easy-to-fly aircraft even landed on the White House lawn, but was killed by World War II and some bad business deals. In the postwar boom, the airplane/car combination beat out the auto-gyro, leading to catchy brands like the Aerocar (whose inventor, Molt Taylor, described his creation in Air Facts in 1959), the Arrowbile, the Road-A-Plane, and the Airphibian. In the 1990s, a new concept was floated with the name of CaRnard.
Without exception, every one of these companies failed to deliver a flying car in any volume.
Hall believes a cultural shift in government and business during the early 1970s is responsible for a “Great Stagnation,” as rapidly growing regulation killed progress in transportation and energy, even while failing to improve safety. In his telling, surging numbers of lawyers and environmental standards slowed down what had been breakneck advances in cars and aircraft up until that point. For a counterfactual look to consumer electronics, where Moore’s Law has proven that capabilities rapidly increase and costs plummet when an industry is freed from regulation.
This libertarian argument certainly has some merit, as anyone acquainted with Part 23 certification standards knows. One factor that added to Terrafugia’s cost and complexity was the need to satisfy two burdensome federal standards: the FAA’s airplane certification rules and the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. This forced the company to increase the empty weight and make all kinds of messy compromises.
But I don’t think regulation is the whole story. Consider Terrafugia: far from being picked on by the FAA, they actually received numerous concessions on certification rules to help them get over the finish line. Their biggest issue seemed to be lack of demand. Besides, if the problem were simply regulation, we should expect to see flying cars in the experimental world, where numerous creative ideas have flourished under less onerous rules. Yet such machines are absent from Oshkosh, and Van’s doesn’t offer an RV-10 car kit. Even the military, which for all its sclerosis does not have to worry about FAA regulations much, has yet to deploy a flying car at scale.
Solving technical problems
The urban air mobility (UAM) startups—the name that Joby and Lilium prefer—believe technology is the solution this time, specifically VTOL and new powerplants. Almost every design today uses electric motors to drive small rotors or ducted fans, vs. Terrafugia’s folding wings and Rotax engine approach. This enables vertical takeoff, a key advantage that eliminates the need for long runways far from city centers and annoying reconfiguration time. After all, if you have to drive your flying car to an airport 25 minutes away, then spend 15 minutes changing to “airplane mode,” you’ve given up much of the potential time savings on a 100-200 mile trip.
As convenient as VTOL is, though, it introduces what may be the most significant roadblock to flying cars: neighbors. I fly helicopters and occasionally land in friends’ backyards. The reason I don’t do it more often has nothing to do with safety or the FAA, but rather neighbors who don’t like the idea of an aircraft flying near their house. In some areas, local ordinances give such complaints real teeth.
Joby is tackling this issue head-on, with an array of six electric motors and quiet rotor blades. The company claims their vehicle will produce zero emissions and less than 70 decibels of noise on takeoff, which is quieter than a car driving down a city street. That is real progress, and the company deserves credit for making noise a priority, even if there is some concern that electric aircraft may overwhelm the power grid.
But such an engineering-focused solution ignores the emotional (irrational?) nature of most NIMBY complaints. Developers can’t even build condos in many cities, with activist groups using everything from historic preservation to environmental regulations to prevent new building projects. A vertiport—no matter how quiet and clean it is on paper—will likely be met with an allergic reaction by neighbors.
Another problem often overlooked by flying car enthusiasts is the complexity of flying a light aircraft. No, you don’t have to be a superhero to fly a Cessna, but it does require more training, practice, and focus than driving your Toyota to the grocery store. That’s especially true when the weather is bad: 30-knot winds are not much of a concern in a car but can cause real issues in an aircraft, especially in urban areas with tall buildings. Add fog or snow and things get even more challenging.
UAM companies have a plan to address this problem as well. While all aircraft under development today have a pilot on board, it’s clear that the ultimate goal is remotely controlled or fully autonomous machines. Even in the short term, these eVTOL aircraft are highly automated, with computers doing a lot of the work—no need for fancy stick and rudder skills.
That might address the workload problem, but it does nothing to address the comfort problem. Even when it’s safe to fly, plenty of weather conditions are simply unpleasant for passengers at low altitude. Autonomous aircraft also bring up safety issues with the NIMBYs, and the example of self-driving cars is not encouraging: even though the safety record is incredibly good, almost 75% of Americans are wary of driverless vehicles. Imagine one flying over a neighborhood at 11pm. Now imagine what the reaction will be when one inevitably crashes.
What is a flying car anyway?
While I think complexity is a big reason why flying cars never went mainstream, Hall points out that even if only 10% of US drivers took on the challenge, we’d have millions of flying cars. The fact that less than 0.3% of drivers in the US have a pilot’s license suggests other problems. Here’s one that doesn’t get enough attention: is it possible that flying cars just don’t solve a real world problem for most people?
There are roughly three missions for such a machine: local trips to work or shopping that are under 25 miles, 25-100 mile flights to the other side of a big city or to a nearby town, and longer range flights to another state or even country. The first category is “car mode” travel—the average American drives 29 miles per day and most of those cannot easily be replaced by flying unless there are thousands of landing spots at every soccer practice and grocery store. The second category is tailor-made for eVTOLs, which can take off and land in city centers and avoid traffic, although the market for this is dramatically smaller. The last category really requires an aircraft that can travel at 200+ knots and climb above en route weather, something today’s models cannot come close to offering.
Trying to do all three of these missions (or even two) leads to an ugly compromise. As the old joke says, a flying car is just an expensive combination of a bad airplane and a bad car. That’s particularly true of current UAM aircraft. Joby’s eVTOL has much shorter range than a light GA airplane, but still features a 38-foot wingspan – not exactly something you can park at Walmart while you buy milk. And what happens when your wing gets hit by a shopping cart?
That’s not a concern for UAM companies, because hardly any of today’s “flying cars” are cars at all.
Transport Up tracks these projects, and out of 86 total designs on their website, at most five could actually be driven on a road. The rest look like airplanes or helicopters, not a modern version of Molt Taylor’s Aerocar. That might seem like a minor point, but it’s a critical concession on the part of manufacturers. One of the promises of flying cars has always been that you didn’t need to coordinate ground transportation when you landed, so one machine could handle all your transportation needs. Even better, if you encountered bad weather en route, you could just land and drive through it. Losing that flexibility makes today’s UAM designs more like manned drones than flying cars.
Even worse, most of the surviving companies are focused on fleets, not personal ownership. Many explicitly state their aircraft will not be available for purchase, like Joby: “The aircraft will be part of an on-demand commercial aviation service similar to today’s ground-based ridesharing and will not be available for individual sale.”
What we’re left with is a fleet of eVTOL aircraft that fly 50-100 mile trips in big cities. Far from “a flying car in every garage,” these are merely another tier of taxi or ride-sharing services—which is of course exactly what Uber wanted all along. That means there’s no role for private pilots or cross-country travel here, and certainly no replacement for either your Cirrus or or Cessna.
If these companies’ mission is limited, the ambition is not. As Uber said four years ago in their manifesto: “there is a path to high production volume manufacturers… which will enable VTOLs to achieve a dramatically lower per-vehicle cost.” Joby apparently agrees. Undeterred by Uber’s missed launch date, they are planning to begin commercial passenger service in 2024 and at aggressive prices: “Over time, the cost of these trips per passenger is expected to be on par with an UberX.”
For pilots who’ve been following aviation news over the last two decades, this techno-utopianism might sound more than a little familiar. Something about a new commercial aviation business model enabling high volume manufacturing and thus lower prices?
As a refresher, here is a profile of Eclipse Aviation in a 2001 edition of Time magazine: “Say hello to Baby Jet. [Vern] Raburn, a longtime amateur aviator who got bored with his life as a computer-products developer, wants to produce the world’s first affordable—at least to some—personal jet. Raburn intends to price his twin-engine, five-seat Eclipse 500 at a mere $837,500… ‘The Eclipse will change the way air transport works,’ says Raburn, 51. ‘You will think about using your Eclipse almost as quickly as you use a taxi.’”
Of course things didn’t quite turn out that way. The Eclipse did get certified, and it eventually turned out to be a decent airplane, but only after many broken promises and over $1 billion of investors’ money. There was no breakthrough air taxi business, in spite of DayJet’s rosy predictions for 1,400 airplanes. Today, very light jets are a small niche, and apparently an unprofitable one: Cessna ceased production of their Mustang and Eclipse is bankrupt for the second time.
Will this time be different? UAM companies have new technology, deep pockets, and a predicted economic boom to build on. I’m rooting for Joby, Lilium, and the rest of them, but Eclipse also had lots of new technology and very deep pockets. The post-WWII aviation boosters who predicted a market for 50,000 airplanes in 1946 had a booming economy, but likewise ended up in failure.
Back in the mid-2000s, when talking about DayJet and other such startups, one industry sage used to ask, “if this air taxi concept is such a good idea, why is no one testing it out with old turboprops or piston twins?” The same could be said for UAM companies: if there’s such a desperate need for regional mobility, why is nobody testing this theory with old Jet Rangers or light airplanes? After all, Uber didn’t invent for-hire car transportation, it just offered a better taxi experience (and, crucially, built on other people’s vehicles). Outside of Manhattan or Sao Paulo, there are very few examples of successful VTOL businesses today. Surely emissions and noise are not the only reasons why.
Car tech and aviation tech
One of the real missed opportunities from the 1960s flying car bust was the chance to closely align technological development in cars and airplanes. Look at a 1953 Cessna 195 and a 1953 Hudson Hornet—while there are important differences, they look like different branches of the same transportation technology tree. Even the styling is similar. Now look at a 2021 Cessna 172 and a 2021 Toyota Camry (not to mention a Tesla). General aviation engines are stuck in the 1950s, yet car engines have raced ahead.
Renewed interest in UAM depends on advances in electric motors, tilt-rotor aircraft, and software, so there is some hope that this investment boom will eventually trickle down to general aviation. For example, while it may be a long time before you take the family 800 miles in an eVTOL, I think the light helicopter’s days are numbered. As much as I enjoy flying a Robinson R44, I can’t imagine my grandkids will be checking out in a machine with a piston engine, two big rotor blades, and no computerized control system. That would be progress.
So I say celebrate the new fleets of eVTOL aircraft for what they are, a new generation of helicopters for use in big cities. Pilots should follow their technological advances carefully, and if Joby offers a $79 flight from my neighborhood vertiport I’ll probably sign up. But for heaven’s sake, don’t call them flying cars.
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“The very best implementation of a flawed concept is itself fatally flawed.”
The mere idea of tems of thousands of flying vehicles of ANY configuration, operating simultaneously in an urban environment is…
Well, “flawed” is breathtaking understatement.
Collision avoidance. Endurance issues. (Non-)Existence of suitable locations for unscheduled landings. Those issues (and many more) must be addressed – at least, conceptually – before even beginning to design a vehicle.
Another old YARSism:
“You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit.”
Of course, that never stops people from LABELING chicken shit as chicken salad…
Tom, I never thought of the need to have flying cars until sometime in the long distant future where technology would warrant it, but I laughed at the way you were so succinct to describe it the way you did!
All good points. To these I’ll add the fact that anything that flies is necessarily fragile because of the weight restrictions. Would you tie your plane down in a Walmart parking lot, or drive it on a freeway in rush hour? There are two problems:
1. A fender-bender that you know about could cost $20K instead of $200 to repair.
2. A fender-bender that you *don’t* know about could cause structural failure in flight.
It just doesn’t make sense. If they were insects, airplanes would be fragile butterflies, while cars would be (almost) indestructable cockroaches.
A well articulated synopsis.
One challenge for flying cars/UASs is to be significantly better than the existing alternative (non-flying cars). Cars take you from exactly where you are to exactly where you want to go at a modest, but usually acceptable, speed. Reliability and fuel efficiency are excellent and the cost of ownership is reasonable.
Local investment for a new urban mobility paradigm won’t be accepted by citizens unless everyone benefits from it. Voters will approve bonds for subway, light rail and high-speed rail projects long before approving (much smaller) measures for urban mobility infrastructure that serves a minuscule sliver of the public.
I can’t say where this will end but, if the urban mobility gurus’ vision is fully realized, it will eradicate what came before – e.g. check the number of horses in the US before and after Henry Ford began mass production in Dearborn.
I was going to comment on bad airplanes and bad cars but your article beat me to it.
Aww c’mon, George Jetson has been using one for decades. Old news.
John, I am owner and pilot and A&P for my 1956 Taylor AEROCAR. Molt Taylor was more than a friend, to him and his wife, I was their missing son. He was a mentor to me.
If Molt were to read your article today, he would write to you with compliments on a well explained conundrum. A new flying car, with four wheels on the ground for grocery shopping, and wing to fly, is not a technological problem. It is a people and application problem. AND, a regulatory impossibility.
I am proud to own and fly my AEROCAR. Right now, it is out of Annual inspection. I hope to get it flying again by later this year. Ed
Wow, small world. Thanks for preserving an important part of aviation history.
Ed, congratulations on keeping Molt’s dream flying, if not always. Best of luck with getting into annual. You are correct about the “regulatory impossibility” for a “highway capable” aircraft.
The main reason I want nothing to do with flying cars is traffic. It’s hard enough when there are 6 airplanes in the traffic at the local nontowered airport. And that’s with 6 people who have training, know where they are supposed to be, know where everybody else is supposed to be, and are accustomed to communicating clearly with each other.
I cannot imagine what it would be like when even a few dozen yahoos are flying over a small city within a narrow altitude window, all thinking they are the most important person in the air and flying in straight lines the their various destinations.
The whole idea of millions of flying cars clacking around uncontrolled is preposterous. I have been flying for 50 years as a corporate pilot. Just witnessing pilot rudeness at local uncontrolled airports by pilots is awful. We haven’t yet experienced the forthcoming issues of drones. God forbid we have unfettered flying cars creating unimaginable danger to people on the ground1
Imagine 150 ‘flying cars’ converging on a supermarket parking lot. Fender benders would occur at 50′ altitude. Things would get ugly real fast. Individually piloted ‘flying cars’ are not gonna happen. Neither are a gazillion electric powered cars, airplanes, and eVTOLS; with batteries charged by wind turbines and solar. There are a lot of Don Quixote’s out there wasting a lot of brain cells tilting at windmills.
No question the tech issues can be solved. As mentioned by you and comments, real hurdle is economics and operating environment. Having a driver (aka janitor) onboard is no real payload penalty for ground uber, but a significant hit for a small payload air uber. I can’t imagine too many repeat customers after a skittering drop off at one of the conceptual high rise lily pads…and who gets to clean up the puke before the next pax?
I’m in there with all the other nimby’s, I don’t want the constant all hour buzz of vertical envelopment by uber, UPS, Amazon so someone can get their fresh cupcakes, stat! or have an oops dropping the floor jack for my neighbor short of the target…but if I was advising a law student on personal injury specialization, I know what I’d recommend. Unless self insured (stockholder buy in on that?), the insurance industry is going to have their say too.
This is a great point. The insurance companies dictate how and what I fly, much more than the FAA. They will have a steep learning curve on these operations.
…and I hope the insurers that show up are not the same ones insuring us!
Road blocks to eVTOL and other Urban Mobility options center around mass use by everyday commuters. While I agree turning every (or even a small percentage of) auto/taxi drivers into pilots flying wherever they want is not likely or feasible in the foreseeable future, these technologies may have a good niche role soon.
Point to point cargo transportation is feasible and advantageous. Not door to door delivery, but by taking some percentage of trucks off our roads by flying cargo from large scale regional distribution centers to discrete urban warehouses supporting “last mile” delivery by smaller ground conveyance the advantages of emerging technology can be introduced into our national transportation system. Discrete routes, trained operators, and purpose built delivery terminals are supportable in a safe manner and will provide nascent infrastructure for broader application in the future. Imminent advances in these technologies are too important to dismiss. Flying cars….no……Flying trucks….Maybe.
I could see this, akin to what Uber has proposed for long haul trucking: the last mile is really tricky, but the highway miles are solvable and account for a lot of the miles driven.
But in that case payload matters a lot, and that’s a real drawback for eVTOL technology for the foreseeable future.
Never underestimate the power of a bad idea gone viral. I predict billions more will be spent on what is essentially a day dream. Nothing wrong with dreams but timing is everything in business and the time just isn’t right for the flying car. I’m not convinced there is even a market for electric urban helicopters. Reducing congestion in urban areas is badly needed and is probably better addressed by investing in electric buses, trains and subways.
Weather, software, manning…and liability (again)
As an engineer and pilot, my experience is that engineers strive to constrain (or through ignorance) wish away unconstrainable variables (remove those pesky pedestrians, construction zones, weather, GA airplanes). How many lighter than air lifting concepts conveniently ignored that winds/blimps near ground=bad result…yet folks continue to suggest that solution for mountain logging. Much like the shop floor, when you get the engineer out in the operating environment they suddenly realize the ideas of the squishy pink bits don’t reign supreme. The world is a windy, bumpy, rainy, icy place outside LA (or powerpoint).
Software/configuration management…when it’s commercial/safety of flight, mom-pop solutions won’t cut it, only standardized fleets will be viable, this will be expensive to keep current/standardized and a source if liability exposure for anyone touching it. God bless you if you decide to redesign the interface.
Autonomy is not here. Semi-autonomy requires many, more expensive folks supporting it than the cheap crew you can hire/fire to fly the Kingair…that crew is minimizing your costs in pursuit of turbine hours to move on.
Without a dead pilot to serve as a liability cut out for manufacturers, what happens when a few loads of wealthy early adopters burn up in the wreckage of the new lessons learned that come with a new flight regime?
Not a bad idea at all if the goal is to make a handsome living off gullible investors. How long did Paul Moller live off the Skycar?
More than a couple of decades, and still ongoing. He’s gotta have “sunk cost” nightmares seeing cheap drones. And none of his numbers ever made sense (Peter Garrison wrote on that perhaps 15 years ago), especially the required BSFC numbers from a Wankel required to make this work.
The push to design autonomously piloted aircraft is driven by the desire to reduce operating costs and eliminate pilot error. The inability of software to correctly cope with every possible combination of failures, is also a function of human error on the design level. Human error can not be completely designed away, even if computers replace all of the pilots, because unforeseen deficiencies in the design of hardware and software, will always exist. It will always be necessary to have one or more human pilots to intervene. An evolutionary process with continued human pilot intervention has always been the path to safer designs and procedures.
The reality is that the FAA is run by old men (like me) who will be resistant to certify a new type of aircraft without extensive testing and documentation. Few manufacturers have the financial reserves to pour into such a project that will take so many years before getting to the point of selling even one aircraft. The Lear Fan is one example that comes to mind. The FAA wanted the Lear Fan composite fuselage to have embedded wires to conduct static electricity and lightning strikes. This was an example of an expensive and never ending series of FAA test requirements that resulted in a greatly increased time to market, which essentially destroyed Bill Lear’s company. It is probable, that FAA certification of a partly autonomous battery powered VTOL craft will take so many years, that few companies could hold out that long.
The idea of fully autonomous aircraft, flying commuter passengers on demand, brings to mind the 1973 movie “Westworld.” The telling words of one memorable scene: “We have no control over the robots at all.”
Actually, eliminating the pilots once software/hardware is “good enough” may cause fewer accidents than having them aboard.
I’m a hopeless optimist, but your article raises many good points. Power lines, bird strikes, unsupervised passengers are just a few more problems adding to the many challenges. I always loved that dream of being able to take off vertically out of a traffic jam – but what if others have the same idea at the same time, and they’re all driving flyable cars from different manufacturers…
Like you I don’t want to see pioneers fail, and I always welcome reports of progress. But this clearly is a far more complex challenge than it appears to be.
I think that the Switchblade may be the future to a successful flying car. I was surprised that you didn’t even mention it.
I think they have the best idea, that of a flying motorcycle due to the 3 wheels, which will allow it to bypass much of the regulatory mess applied to cars. However, I did some research for an unrelated project on how different states grant licenses to motorcycles and there is a question whether some states would license it as a motorcycle or as a car. If one state says it’s a car, and another says it’s a motorcycle, and the feds give it a N-number, I wonder what the insurance carrier will do?
“If one state says it’s a car, and another says it’s a motorcycle, and the feds give it a N-number, I wonder what the insurance carrier will do?”
The insurance carriers will require millions in coverage limits on multiple policies: Car, motorcycle, and aircraft. The owner won’t be able to afford the annual costs.
All excellent points, especially the ones about how GEICO and Allstate would obliterate this segment of transportation.
However, all is not lost. I believe the technology being advanced by the “flying car” (as well as the quad/hex copter UAS) will at long-last retire the single-rotor helicopter.
The flying car is not just a bad idea: it is a terrible idea. I recall Paul Poberezny’s comment that “Aviation is full of dreamers.” He went on to say something to the effect that dreamy aviation projects are among the best ways to turn money into scrap aluminum… or today, scrap composite bits. I agree with John Broadmeadow; some good things will come from the UAM scrum, but it won’t be mass aerial transport around cities.
I own 8 guitars. Each one does something better than the others, and there are some things one or another can do that NONE of the others can. Same thing with my 12 ga. shotgun and .22 pistol. Yet the fundamental aspects between these guitars or guns are far more similar than those of airplanes and cars. Just sayin’…
BTW, wait until the owner of a certified flying car finds out how maintenance must be handled, and by whom.
Great idea, but who will insure any VTOL and at what cost? BTW:
Flying cars are a solution looking for a problem. I was asked to deliver a Bonanza F33A to a flying car company in Oregon that the owner was “donating” for stock. The same week the company announced yet another delay after several years because the engine they chose would work…to each his own I guess.
Great article and great comments. In summary, it appears that UAM’s and flying cars are adolescent fantasies, promoted by over confident visionaries, people with lots of disposable money, and engineers who are motivated to solve technical engineering problems with the latest technologies. In short, while the individual vehicles might become operational, it is highly unlikely that they will be put into any sort of service. However, I still remember being 12 years old and having an idea of putting wings on my bike and somehow connecting a propeller to the handle bars so I could fly to school.
There are fundamental design conflicts between cars and planes. There are fundamental conflicts between driving and piloting. While we’re at it why not make a plane/car/submarine? Just about as likely to work.
The minute even the first one of these vehicles came crashing through someone’s roof, especially where fatalities are involved, it would shutdown the industry, permanently. Air rage anyone?
Exactly. Does the name New York Airways mean anything? Pan Am building? https://gothamist.com/news/in-1977-five-were-killed-in-helicopter-accident-atop-midtowns-pan-am-building
NYAirways was a viable business model in the 60s. Airport to airport in NYC airspace. Fatalities caused by a failed landing gear bolt ended the business.
Traffic being what it is, I can see Uber of the Air in the future for major cities. Flown by computers, that will solve the collision and avoidance issues. Probably it will be the preferred mode for the wealth or elite, but that’s about it. The rest of the topic the article sums up well. I don’t think the helicopter is going away. Even the piston powered one. There’s lots of territory outside of cities that isn’t conducive to electric, short range, slower, drone type machines.
Where’s my f#%@}*g jetpack?
A common reframe since ‘The Man from Glad’
commercials in the 1970’s.
Any vehicle with the primary operating principle of accelerating air in one direction so that the vehicle can go the other direction is doomed in an urban environment.
All of those science fiction movies showing airborne vehicles moving along, in great streams, above the city are not depictions of aircraft. They are depictions of gravity control vehicles, or some other basic science which does not involve aerodynamics as we know it. When and if we ever understand those principles, or if there even are such principles, maybe elevated cars will be possible.
I think you hit the bull’s eye, where is the market, and, especially, where is the private-owned market?! And what about bad weather, snowstorms, and fog?!
As these vehicles to up a lot of ground, that are never going to be something found on everyone’s lawn and considering the noise when one of these leaves every little villa in suburbia at the same time, creating areal queues, like those we see when we sit in the cockpit of an airliner approaching a major city. Just entering Edinburgh we had at least 16 identical BA aircraft in line ahead of us, as far as I could see (it was a very clear day).
I doubt these electrical vehicles would be allowed to land outside the airports in any city, and even heliports are not practical, unless the thing buggers off in a jiffy, just as helicopters do. So we have to build new airports out in suburbia, from where these things will trundle into the center.
Working from home, as many do today, is a much saner idea, and combined with fuel misers we might survive some years longer on earth.
Alas, the cars people demand in the US are getting bigger and bigger, with bigger and bigger engines (or heavier and heavier airframes like any longrange electric car), so I guess we’re heading for destruction?!
A true carplane does have considerable unique value that airplanes and cars separately do not have. On my website http://www.carplanenews.com I provide a description of the key aspects of true flying cars:
“It is important to keep in mind the three basic problems that carplanes solve: the last mile problem, the weather problem, and the restricted airspace problem. Solving the last mile problem is accomplished through a carplane’s ability to drive from the destination airport to your final desired location (and to the airport of origin from your point of beginning). Solving the weather problem is accomplished by the carplane’s ability to land and drive through bad whether; and bad weather can be defined as anything from low cloud ceilings to high winds to thunderstorms ***. Solving the restricted airspace problem is accomplished by the carplane’s ability to land and drive through areas that they might not be able to fly through due to airspace restrictions, such as occur near military installations and class bravo airports. Carplanes solve all of these problems without any backtracking. You can always land your general aviation aircraft and rent a car to drive to your final desired location, and this is doable even if the weather deteriorates. However, you’re plane will be back at the airport and, at some point, you will have to backtrack to get it. This is not a big deal if you’re going back to where you came from but it is a big deal if you’re headed in a different direction. There is considerable travel freedom associated with a carplane that other modes of travel do not provide.
If a carplane does not solve all of these problems, then its really not a carplane. For example, passenger carrying drones are being developed that will be able to transport people directly from their point of beginning to their ultimate destination (in many cases, not all). This solves the last mile problem (in many cases, not all) but does not solve the weather or restricted airspace problems. You can solve these two problems without a carplane by simply waiting, or by risking either your life or your pilots license by flying, but neither of these options is very attractive.”
Please note that passenger carrying drones are NOT carplanes. People confuse the two all the time.
Excellent analysis – well written John! As mentioned above, all that is needed to open dreaming eyes is a few circuits at an uncontrolled airport on a sunny Saturday morning. And these are certified or aspiring pilots not SUV drivers headed for Costco. Always appreciate your research, analysis and quality writing….
Sorry to digress from the thread, but are you the Walt Catlow who participated in Big Brothers in Indianapolis in the 70s? Your comment on an aviation article makes me think you might be.
John, This is a fantastic editorial and is followed by many terrific posts with great points, too. I have faithfully read Aviation and Space Technology magazine also for 30 years and they have a section devoted to articles about UAMs, drones, etc. This entire editorial and threads needs to be forwarded to them so A&ST’s editorial board can get a healthy dose of reality.
To add a small thought, the Amphicar in the 1960s was a combination car and boat that was a complete dog of a car and a lousy boat, but could marginally perform as both interchangeably. The now defunct Terrafugia always looked to me to be a parallel example of a car/plane that could do neither task well. And even if you forget the “car” part as most startups have and even if you develop a completely autonomous guidance system that safely interacts with other UAMs, you can’t fly one helicopter on top of another, can you? The downwash from the higher helicopter would destroy lift in the helicopter below it, so there really isn’t as much airspace as you would think in an urban environment full of vertical lift vehicles.
Have a photo of and Amphicar cruising through our sailboat starting line off Sausalito back in the 1970’s. Then saw another one at the Whiskeytown Regatta in the 2010’s.
I have been saying for years: we already have flying cars: the airplane and the helicopter. They require a PILOT’S LICENSE to fly; and, they are the MOST EXPENSIVE FORM OF TRANSPORTATION TO MAINTAIN. How many people know someone who dashes out of their home in the morning, boards the car they should have taken in to the garage for that tune up and oil change they couldn’t afford that week, doesn’t check their oil, tire pressure, or even let the engine warm up… before driving off? That’s …EVERYBODY. How many times have you been driving along and your car konked out? In an airplane that’s called an EMERGENCY. But at least you have SOME glide to help you get to safety. And…! In an age when states are legallizing the “personal use” of a substance that I won’t even use the name of (hey, Sully! I KNOW what you mean!!).((It’s on his website if you want to know what I’m talking about.)) …And in an age when the average driver can’t keep their car on the road?
NO THANK YOU!! You’ll be crying: “the sky is falling!” faster than you could yell uncle. Only the sky would be raining flying car parts…and bodies.
I live on an airport and this topic was discussed at last Summer’s annual picnic. End result was something to the effect “flying cars are about as practical as electric cars are now…maybe in 50 years there will a need” or not.
I remember my Dad repeating a comment from his father in the 1920’s who said “the only advantage of the car over a horse is you don’t need to feed and clean up after them”…you see where that ended up.
I tend to agree with the solution-in-search-of-problem crowd. It’s an interesting dream, but along the lines of the 1946 dream: “there will be thousands of young people on the GI Bill who will want to learn to fly. We should build thousands of these small aircraft!” (Oops.)
From a regs standpoint, it seems you can have a good car/poor flying platform “flying car”, or a good airplane/poor driving platform “roadable airplane”, or one that sucks at both … but from a regs standpoint, these regs compete too strongly, esp. w.r.t. weight; I just don’t see a way to design something that meets both sets of requirements well. Electrics might … might … change that. But even if they do, do we really want thousands of new pilots in our airspace? Would it really take 15 minutes to go from LAX to Manhattan Beach if we had the dream-level increase in traffic? (Hint: no.)
Honestly, one of the best designs is Molt Taylor’s I think, especially with an additional maybe 50 hp (watching it fly at 7,000′ elevation was interesting). Keep it flying Ed!!
Remember the very old Supercar quasi-animated TV series? Oh … to dream.
My future business plan depends on flying cars. I am planning on manufacturing kits to put 3 inches of steel over houses.
Excellent article, John. I could not agree more. If I had a “flying car” company, I would sell the business right away after reading your points! What we see often – especially on YouTube videos’ comments – is people who don’t really know the details issuing pseudo-informed statements.
The future of flying cars isn’t bright because the concept is fatally flawed, for all the reasons cited above, and more. The Future is arriving by Drone. Not that I’m a fan, but the future of personal air transport lies in the passenger carrying drone, eliminating the ground option altogether. In an urban environment, a networked/automated, GPS enabled drone transport system would work. the technology is proven, now the only remaining issues are regulatory and marketing. As for marketing, People today want convenience over everything else. Whipping out your phone, and using an Uber like app to summon a ride directly to your destination from where you’re standing would appeal to vast numbers of people. The big IF (and it’s a very big IF) is can achieve a service price point that makes them competitive with ground based transport. Look at what Uber and Lyft did to the local taxi drivers. Safety and technological hurdles exist, but they’re being worked, and will probably be solved. In a few decades I imagine the airspace below 1000ft in the urban environment will look a lot different. Drones carrying people, products and raw materials, providing law enforcement presence, and emergency services response. The flying car was, and probably will always be just an interesting side note in aviation history, but not much else I’m afraid.
Back in the day, early 1970’s, a guy gave a talk to the Advanced Missions and Concepts Div at Ames Res Ctr. It was about building a STOL port in one of the NYC rivers. Can’t remember which river. It was NIMBY to the max. They held public meetings with groups trying to convince folks the idea was a good one. One member of the public said flat out. We don’t care what you say. We have been F’d over so many times we believe no one.
I disagree with the complaints offered here, because they seem all to be based on flawed presuppositions. None of them seem to consider that both the automotive and aircraft infrastructures have developed to their current states over the course of a century. Many of them fail to consider that flight between two random points is an entirely different paradigm from what was achievable during that period. The only justification for trying to combine a roadable vehicle with a flying one is to shoehorn the flyer into the footprint of the car. Granted, there is a requirement to resolve the challenges of transition between a 3-dimensional flying environment and a 2-dimensional ground positioning one. It is not unlike the challenge of an airplane landing precisely and gently onto a runway, but in more restricted space that demands greater precision and control. However, the problem of waiting patiently in a queue is no different whether many cars are trying to transition from a multi-lane highway, to smaller streets and ultimately to a limited number of parking-lot entrances, or a similar number of vtol aircraft are trying to approach and light upon a set of parking spaces. They still must wait patiently in some structured coordinated manner; and perhaps part of that infrastructure may be an inter-craft communication that can identify which vehicle has priority and when it is next in line to approach its designated destination point. Fitting large numbers into “parking garages” may require ground-handling conveyors and elevators. But developing suitable infrastructure is a system design problem that can be solved, even if it takes another century as did the development of current automotive infrastructure. Cars have not always handled weather conditions and road conditions well, either, but they have improved over time. Aircraft likewise. So we may expect also for compact vtols, which must overcome winds, gusts, and precipitation to approach and land precisely. Can cockpit automation aid a pilot to do what will be required? Certainly! But fundamentally all the “nimby” objectors must recognize and embrace the positive values of an alternative transportation paradigm, and not try to conform it with previous paradigms or expect it to do anything more than operate safely and expeditiously. Insurers will need to calculate afresh the probabilities of accidental landings in unintended places like residential rooftops, not unlike the car or truck that suffers a loss of control and smashes through walls into someone’s living room. Safety measures like parachutes and automated landing systems that enhance safety will affect the probabilities and severities of damages. But the “flying car” is an idea that is not merely a melding of two older vehicles. It merely resembles their characteristics of individual operation and control, point-to-point transportation, freedom of movement, and greater speed than that of ground vehicles, at a manageable expense. It remains to be seen how well this idea can be realized with advancing technology. Aircraft designs were also quite varied originally, with many failures, until only a few workable configurations remained. It shouldn’t be surprising that this new wave of ingenuity should be similar.