Flying Cars Impractical

 Blader Runner car over LA

For anyone stuck in traffic having a flying car is the ultimate dream. It sounds like a good idea and looks so uber cool on film. Imagine zipping around the skies in a flying car like George Jetson or Doc Brown with his DeLorean in Back To The Future. You’re late for work, traffic has come to a halt on I-95 due to construction or some accident. But no problem! Shift your car to flight mode and off you go. Soar by all the rubberneckers and you make it in time to your meeting with minutes to spare.

Transition Production PrototypeThe problem with this concept is that flying cars are not practical, today. Yes, there are inventors fine tuning actual flying cars but they’re bound to be a novelty items at least for the near future. Actually, those so-called flying cars that are being tested now are really just mini-copters or airplanes with automobile features. They’re not hovercraft. Several companies that are testing practical flying cars include Terrafugia, Haynes Aero and Moller International. In fact, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has a multi-million dollar program with Terrafugia to build flying  military vehicles.

Terrafugia car

You would think that with all these recent developments and press releases that flying cars are just around the corner. The truth is that people have been building prototypes going back decades, but the cars built just weren’t practical. And neither are the ones being tested now.

Skyjams

Let’s look at the traffic scenario from above. OK , you’re stuck in traffic and switch your car over to flight mode to escape congestion. That would be fine if you’re the only one with a flying car. More likely, many drivers around you would have flying cars as well and have the same idea as you.  Before you know it, the traffic will be following you into the sky. Then there’s coordinating the air traffic with all the cars suddenly going up into the air. It would be a chaotic, logistical headache and will probably lead to more accidents.

DeLorean in sky traffic

As shown in Back To The Future, Part II, Doc Brown had to deal with traffic in the air when he flew the DeLorean time vehicle. In fact, there’s this one scene where he complains about congestion in the skyway. The film showed that when flying, the cars had to follow a certain path. A driver won’t have free reign and space to just go anywhere. Actually, any pilot will tell you that planes and helicopters have rigid flight paths that they must adhere to; any deviation has to be cleared with air traffic control. Flying cars will also have to follow strict flight paths; in effect a skyway will be created with these paths. So if flying cars were to take off in popularity, the traffic congestion won’t go away. It may turn out to be faster to stay on the ground! Of course, there are some futurists that may scoff at this hurdle with claims that flying cars operate three dimensionally instead of today’s ground vehicles that operate two dimensionally. In theory, they claim that traffic jams would not be a problem for a vehicle operating in a three-dimensional plane but reality will probably dictate otherwise.

Air & Road Compatible

Another issue is that there are many dials and features on a plane that a pilot has to contend with so it’s more complicated to operate than a car. Remember when they showed the dashboard and controls in that flying spinner car in Blade Runner? It looked very complex. Then there is making sure the cars meets both road and air standards.  What about safety features? Convertibles are definitely out, which makes that flying car chase sequence in Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones even more ludicrous. It’s one thing to have Obi-Wan Kenobi landing on Anakin Skywalker’s flying car unscathed or Anakin jumping out of it to get to the assassin’s vehicle; it can be explained that they used the Force to control their falls. But Anakin jumped out of a convertible, how safe would that vehicle be or practical without a helmet and mask? Just look at the old biplanes. The pilots in them had to wear helmets, goggles and warm clothing. All that wind up in the sky is cold and brutal, there isn’t any way anyone could operate an open-air flying car.

Star Wars flying car

What if something goes wrong? This won’t be like a normal car situation where the vehicle just stops working and you push it off to the side of the road. No, that thing is coming down. Perhaps an onboard computer will sound off an alarm if something is wrong with the car, forcing an emergency landing. But how trustworthy is that computer?

A look at the current prototypes will tell you that these things can’t easily fit into an average mall parking lot or garage. The flying features, i.e. the wings and propellers, have to be more compact to reduce the vehicles’ profile on the road. But how much can be reduced to operate safely in the air? All of this will add significantly to the price of the cars. Which means even if they came out tomorrow only the wealthy can afford them. Plus, what kind of fuel is to be used and its cost hasn’t been taken into account.

Blader runner spinner car across cityscape

The Human Factor

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume these facets have been covered. There is the most important factor of a flying car that has to be considered. That is the driver or pilot. When operating a flying vehicle, it has to operated three dimensionally. With cars, they only have to driven in two dimensions: forwards, backwards and sideways. Flying cars (and planes and copters for that matter) have to be operated up and down. Basically, you would need a pilot’s license to fly your car, which wouldn’t be easy to obtain. Learning to fly is a lot harder than learning to drive, this means that the learning curve for a flying car will be different than a regular car.

Blade Runner car controls

One other consideration is the problem with drunk or impaired drivers. Can you imagine someone under the influence of drugs or alcohol getting behind the wheel of a flying car? That vehicle won’t just be a hazard to other cars in the sky. No, people and buildings wouldn’t be safe as the vehicle would crash into sidewalks or rooftops! But the thing is, a car can and will fall from the sky even if the driver is perfectly sober. For any reason, that car could fail or crash and that thing will come down on our heads. It’s doubtful that airbags alone will protect the driver/pilot in the event of a crash, never mind the people on the ground.

The Computers Take Over

The only way such a vehicle would feasibly work is if it is computer operated. The concept of computer-controlled cars (the non-flying kind) has been seen in the world of science fiction and could be a reality very soon. Supposedly, traffic congestion and accidents will diminish once the Fifth Element flying police carshuman factor is taken out of the equation. In the case of someone who’s under the influence, the onboard computer will do one of two things. Either the computer won’t let the car turn on when it detects that the person is under the influence, or it will take complete control and operate the car to a predestined route like a home or office. It can also force the car to land in case of mechanical problems or environmental hazards or if it detects the driver cannot operate the car safely for any reason. For that matter why not just let the computer have complete control of the car and do all the flying? The driver just becomes a passenger and can surf the net or watch TV or text without fear of getting into an accident.  But there are some who won’t be comfortable with giving up that kind of control. The car could have a feature that allows the driver/pilot to take control in the event of an emergency.

What if you have a fear of heights? Many people are terrified of flying and won’t do it. This means that there will probably be a significant portion of people that will only drive ground cars, meaning that road traffic is here to stay.

Luke's landspeeder

Probably what’s more feasible is to have the vehicle only lift itself a few inches or feet off the ground like Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder and other vehicles shown in the Star Wars films. So what would be the advantage of the flying car then? Will it really be faster than a normal car or be able to cover more types of terrain? If that is the case then as Doc Brown famously said at the end of Back To The Future “Roads? We don’t need roads.”

Where we're going we don't need roads Back to the Future

Flying cars aren’t impossible and it’s not far-fetched to see Chrysler or Nissan roll out a model flying car in a few years. However, more work needs to be done to work out the kinks and to take these obstacles into consideration. Not that long ago, people kept saying video phones were impractical, even though the technology for them had existed for awhile. Yet here we are today with talking and seeing each other on our iPhones and Droids or doing Skype sessions. So flying cars may become practical down the road, just not right away.

José Soto

 

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