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Why Don’t We Have Flying Cars Yet?

February 05, 2021

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Flying Cars are the Past

Flying cars are not impossible. They’re not even new.

For almost as long as we’ve had aircraft, we’ve had prototypes for airborne cars. The Wright Brothers made their first successful flights in 1903 and, by 1917, the Curtiss Autoplane debuted. The Curtiss couldn’t manage persistent flight, but it was capable of getting off the ground and, if not for the distraction of World War I, might have developed even further than that.

The booming post-World War II economy birthed a few flying cars (and, in the Soviet Union, a flying tank). Two of the more successful models of the time—the Airphibian and the Aerocar—not only worked perfectly well, but were certified by U.S. regulatory authorities. The most famous automotive expert of the time made a bold prediction about the future of the industry:

“Mark my word: a combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile, but it will come.” -Henry Ford (1940)

If you were alive in 1950, you would’ve been perfectly justified in thinking flying cars were right around the corner. Yet here we are, seven decades later, with nothing to show for it.

So if we had flying cars in the ‘40s, why aren’t they absolutely commonplace today? There’s actually a very simple explanation.

We don’t want flying cars.


The Future of Transportation

Let me tell you about a vehicle perfectly designed to change the world.

It was created by Dean Kamen, one of the most prolific inventors alive. At conception the idea was so novel, so remarkable, that it had to be kept in secret. In his book Originals, the writer Adam Grant recalls the story:

Concerned that someone would steal his idea, or that the fundamental concept would become too public too soon, [Kamen] maintained strict secrecy rules. Many of his own employees weren’t allowed access to the area where XXXXX was being developed; only an elite group of potential investors had a chance to try it out.

The vehicle was easy to use—you could learn it in a matter of seconds. It was efficient, and fun to ride around in, and felt futuristic. It promised to be the kind of thing which, like a bicycle or a smartphone, just about everyone would want to own. As Kamen put it, his invention would “be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.”

This wasn’t all hype, either. Some of the greatest minds of recent history were early proponents of the project.

Steve Jobs called it the most amazing piece of technology since the personal computer. Enamored with the prototype, Jobs offered the inventor $63 million for 10 percent of the company. When the inventor turned it down, Jobs did something out of character: he offered to advise the inventor for the next six months—for free. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos took one look at the product and immediately got involved, telling the inventor “You have a product so revolutionary, you’ll have no problem selling it.”

The vehicle that Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos guaranteed would change the world is now a few decades old and, in 2020, is no longer in production. Because nobody wants it. It’s the Segway.

The Segway is a running joke nowadays, but on paper, it had all the tools necessary to revolutionize transport. It was easy to use, and fun to ride around in. Randy Komisar, a Silicon Valley executive, described his first time on a Segway as “a magical experience.” It was more efficient than walking, easier than running—the kind of thing you could imagine taking over city streets in the future. But it had one fatal flaw. Komisar recalled:

“That first impression was a ‘wow’ experience. Now, why did I not get convinced by that?”

[. . .]

“I still looked at it as a very significant change of behavior at a very significant cost. It wasn’t clear to me that this would improve a mail carrier’s productivity [. . .] On the golf course, people drive electric cars around all day long. Why will they use this instead?”

Komisar wasn’t the only skeptic.

Aileen Lee [. . .] asked questions about how the Segway would be used. How would you lock it? Where would you store groceries? She had another big practical concern: the price tag, since “five or eight thousand dollars is a lot of money for a normal person.”

The Segway was desirable, easy to use and futuristic. It was “magical” the first time you got on one. But for such an expensive machine, the fact remained that nobody actually needed one. Like the Ford Model-T and the Wright Flyer, the Segway succeeded at changing how people moved around the world. But unlike those vehicles, its actual value to people’s lives didn’t match the engineering cost of building them.

Does the value of flying cars outweigh its associated costs?

Flying yellow car on highwayPhoto Credit: lordsse_design / Pixabay

 

Are Flying Cars Practical?

Just imagine: you’re listening to the radio, where the news is reporting heavy traffic on your route to work. It’s no matter, though, because you can fly your car directly out of your garage, and make a beeline for your office building across town.

Flying cars—or, to use a technical term, VTOLs (vertical take-off and landing)—seem like they would be so useful. But the costs inherent to such machines would surely outweigh their use. It’s why more of us don’t own the VTOLs that are already in supply today: helicopters.

Helicopters carry a small number of people, take off and land vertically rather than on a runway, and they allow billionaires to avoid traffic by simply flying over everyone else. They don’t drive on roads but, if you were motivated to, you could slap four wheels on any one of them. By just about any measure, helicopters achieve all of what we want from flying cars.

But you don’t want a helicopter: they’re too expensive, and way too loud. They’re too big and powerful—if you tried piloting one out of your garage you’d no longer have a garage by the end of it. And you’d need years of pilot’s training to even know how to maneuver one.

Well, congratulations: those are all the reasons why you don’t want a flying car, either.

Helicopters are not big, unwieldy and deafening because we want them to be like that. Nobody who’s ever had to stand under one has thought: if only this vehicle were louder and windier. In reality, it takes an immense amount of force to get a bulky machine off the ground. So whether you’re talking about a helicopter, or something that looks more like a car, the physics remains the same, therefore the practical issues carry over too.

Perhaps it won’t be like this forever. Some of today’s leading transportation companies are investing in VTOLs, like Airbus, Uber and Boeing, who also happen to have the industry’s leading experts in-house. It must be only a matter of time, then, before one of them has a practical flying car you can use in your ordinary life—one that’s relatively quiet, inexpensive, easily maneuverable or self-driving.

But will that be enough? Will we want flying cars, even when we can have them?


The Problem with Good Flying Cars

Long before Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, Henry Ford was a revolutionary inventor you’d be ill-advised to bet against. And, being that his industry was transportation, you’d have been really ill-advised to bet against him when it came to transportation technologies. So if you were alive in 1940, when Ford proclaimed that “a combination airplane and motorcar is coming,” you’d have been shrewd to invest in whatever flying cars you could find.

Ford was building one himself. It was a project very close to his heart, which he debuted in 1926, on his 63rd birthday.

The Ford “Flivver” lacked four wheels, so you wouldn’t really call it a “car,” but that’s where the differences end. It was a single-seat aircraft, which Ford specifically ordered to be small enough to “fit in his office.” The goal was to build the “Model-T of the air”—a plane for the everyman.

The notion of a plane you could park in your garage and fly to work was as exciting in the 1920s as the same idea is today. But before Ford could deploy it to market, it required a lot of testing. So he hand-picked an ambitious 25-year-old named Harry Brooks to be his test pilot. Brooks took to the machine immediately. From Air & Space:

While the Flivver was being developed, the pilot would routinely fly it to work from his home in the Detroit suburbs, where he lived with his parents. Once, according to Hicks, he got fined for landing in the middle of Woodward Avenue. Another Ford employee, J.L. McCloud, recalled golf outings where Brooks would land on the course, taxi up to the first hole, and tee off.

Brooks may have been having fun, but he was also proving just how practical the Flivver was. You really could fly it to work, or to the golf course.

Unfortunately, while proving that you really could make planes for everyday use, Brooks also proved why that wasn’t such a good idea. On February 25th, 1928, he took off for a relatively routine flight from Titusville, Florida to Miami, and never quite reached his destination. On the 26th, his Flivver was found a half mile off Florida’s coast. His body wasn’t ever recovered.

Ford FlivverPhoto Credit: SDASM Archives / Flickr

 

Why We Don’t Have Flying Cars

We often assume that we don’t have flying cars because the technology just isn’t there. In fact, the technology has been around for a century. The actual reason we don’t have flying cars is that they’re too big, too loud, too expensive. They’re impractical for everyday use, and for all kinds of other reasons. From a regulatory perspective: how do you stop people from flying where they’re not supposed to? From an environmental perspective: think of all the gas it takes to move you on the ground, and multiply it by a bajillion. Most of all, though, flying cars are unsafe, and not just for their passengers. After all, a regular car might hit a pedestrian at 50 miles an hour, but a flying car could hurdle into the side of an office building at 150.

In the future, VTOLs may play a larger role in our lives. Electric-powered small aircraft might be an alternative to ground-based transport in certain cities where it’s warranted, or more rural areas where the risk of fatalities is lower. But those vehicles will come with their own set of issues. They’ll be fodder for ultra-rich long before they reach the rest of us. They’ll have to be AI-powered, because regular people will lack the proper training. And governments will have to figure out new ways to regulate air traffic.

And even then, when all the kinks have been worked out, we’ll be left with the same question we’ve always had. Do we really want flying cars?

Written by Nathaniel Nelson for Knockaround.

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