Friday, 3 April 2015

Flying Cars For Everyone? Not A Chance

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.  Sure, the very wealthy might have private airports, and the middle classes can learn to fly and buy small aircraft even now.  However, the flying commuter car?  No.

But why not?

There are a multitude of reasons, each one good enough to stop us from having a flying-car in every garage.  There might be solutions to many of them, but most of those solutions would be expensive, probably very expensive.

  1. Engineering/Physics:  The flight-generating mechanism, be it wings, rotors, etc, requires space and protection.  Certainly, some inventors have built cars that have fold-up wings, but every one that I have seen pictures of is unwieldy and/or impractical for most people.   What happens if a hail-storm or wind-storm strikes?  There goes your car to the trash-heap.  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?  You need new wings---or rotors or whatever.  If you want to postulate some anti-grav unit or internal jet pack, then fine, but those might be just as vulnerable, and require just as much maintenance, and that means money.  Don't pretend that a twice-a-year checkup and oil change will suffice.  You will need monthly if not weekly tune-ups done by professionals.
  2. Take off and landing space:  The most practical solution, wings, require a fast take-off and gradual climb-out and the same for landing.  This means that the road had better be clear of traffic. Also, the sky above needs to be free of bridges, trees, overhead wires, traffic lights and street lights.  This is going to happen?  Ha!  The other flight mechanisms don't have the same restrictions, but where are they going to land?  On a busy road full of traffic going 50 kph?  Not likely.   On a quiet residential street?  What about that bicyclist or those kids playing street hockey that you can't see because they are directly below you, or that recycling bin on the side of the road?
  3. Side effects:  Everything except possibly anti-grav (and don't hold your breath waiting for that) has serious side-effects including noise and wind-vortexes.  Few people like living under the approach to a runway even now. Even with better 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 rocks.  There go your dog's eyes from blown dust.   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 the person who has to leave at 5 to get to an early shift takes off.  Sleep?  Who needs sleep?
Points 2 and 3 mean that dedicated landing and take-off places (ie an airport) will have to be the only allowed take-off and landing places.  So much for taking off to avoid a traffic jam or landing in front of your house.
  1. Scale:  Large airplanes are 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.  Then the car driver has perhaps 3 to 5 seconds, if he is lucky, to recover before the car slams into the ground (or another car) at a fatal speed. The vortexes generated by urban jungles would make things even worse.

  2.   Weather: Blizzards, thunderstorms, micro-bursts, tornadoes, 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 weather.  See also the previous point.

  3.   Energy:  Flight is seriously energy expensive.  If we have a limitless, pollution-less compact and light source of energy, great.  However, if that is true, then that changes so much in society that who knows what civilization would look like. Until then, does spending ten times the money of your ground-based commute make financial sense? Instead of filling your tank twice a month, consider the cost of doing that every third day! And with high performance fuel to boot! Expensive is the word.

  4.   Traffic: if everyone (or a large 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?

  5.   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).

  6.   Accidents: You think the carnage on the roads is bad now?  Fender-benders become fatal accidents and may even kill people on the ground. Even the slightest collision that even temporarily disables the flight mechanism kills everyone in the car since they probably wouldn't be flying at several thousand feet. 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 offenses, not just traffic offenses.  This danger can be reduced (but not eliminated) by having computer-controlled flight, but there goes the freedom; you are just a passenger. Don't forget that if thousands of cars are in the air, then the chances of collisions go up quadratically.

  7.   Training:  even if the cars are computer controlled, the human "driver" will need to know how to fly because computers can fail. That means training equal to or perhaps even more thorough and difficult than what modern pilots go through. With all that traffic in the air, having the skills, knowing the rules, knowing how to avoid even near misses, etc will become even more important than when driving on a road, not less.  Anyone who is even remotely as bad as those considered for "Canada's Worst Driver" (or any other similar TV show) would have to be disqualified from driving flying cars.

  8.   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.  Flying cars would be very dangerous weapons in the hands of anyone who has a violent ax to grind. Even silent incapacitation and distractions (cell phones, eating, day-dreaming, ...) would become a daily killer, so these rules would have to be applied to anyone who wanted to drive a flying car and the tests would have to be repeated every few years. We can't assume that a person's health or mental state won't change. Firstly, that would prevent a large fraction of the population from driving those cars. Then also, just think of the costs that that would create when half the population has to get a thorough medical check-up and psych-eval every two or three years.
So there are 11 reasons, each one good enough, for why we will never have flying cars in even a majority of garages.

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