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Free Minds & Free Markets

Let’s Get Our Skies Ready for Flying Cars

The future we’ve fantasized about really is coming, and soon.

Flying carCasfotoarda / Dreamstime.comPeter Thiel summed up a wide-felt disappointment with the technological status quo when he quipped: "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters." The famed investor should buck up, because he may soon be able to tweet (or not) from his taxi in the skies. Believe it or not: the technology is here. The real task is to set up the skyways across which they'll zip.

Technologists are fond of overprojecting roll-out dates. But in the case of flying cars, or "vertical take-off and landing" (VTOL) aircraft as they're known in the biz, it is no exaggeration to say they are right around the corner.

In some cases, it's actually an understatement, as Brent Skorup pointed out in the Wall Street Journal. Helicopters, a kind of proto-flying car, already whisk passengers safely above rush hour traffic in cities like São Paulo and Mexico City. Voom is the "Uber for helicopters," and its roll out is a good illustration of the buzzing airspace to come. The app-based business matches time-strapped commuters with helicopter pilots for hire. They meet at the closest helipad, and then whisk away to their destination in a fraction of the time it would take in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Mass helicopter transit not cutting-edge enough for you? Well, real-deal flying cars are operational, too.

Chinese aviation company Ehang has been testing air taxi flights with passengers since February. At least 40 brave souls have lived to tell the tale of their trip in a flying car, and the company has big plans for improvements. They want to eventually operate an air taxi service that is not seen as an extreme thrill ride, but a safe and useful transit option for today's commuters.

Entrepreneurs are working to bring flying cars to the States. Uber is eyeing our skies, betting big on the future of air taxis. Its "Uber Elevate" venture hopes to roll out flights over Dallas and Los Angeles in two years. Boeing wants to top that, aiming to test pilot air taxis by 2019.

NASA thinks the air taxi industry could be big business. A slide deck of a NASA-commissioned study suggests that the flying car market could rake in around $500 billion in the best-case future scenario. In this projection, Americans would take 11 million air taxi trips each day. If flying cars were set free today, our current infrastructure of 4,000 crafts could support some 80,000 daily passengers to the tune of $2.5 billion in annual market value.

Here's where things get dicey. The technological hurdles are surprisingly straightforward. Companies are already working on solutions to concerns about noise (they're a lot quieter than their predecessors) and safety. But the policy environment is something that no entrepreneur can control.

To realize those many millions of daily air taxi trips, we need to safely integrate air taxis services into our airspace. Skorup took a deep dive on this question in a recent Mercatus Center report called "Auctioning Airspace." If we don't get our policies right, we could miss the boat (or aircraft in this case) on the promise of mass air commuting.

It's not that flying cars would interfere with traditional air flight. Commercial flights operate at a much higher elevation than air taxis will. Planes cruise at around 35,000 feet in the air, while flying cars nestle at around 1,000 feet or so. Of course, we wouldn't want any air taxis to be flying over airport runways, but neither would the companies that operate them. So that's an uncontroversial line to draw.

The biggest question is how to coordinate the many next-generation aviation technologies that will soon zip around the troposphere. This means other air taxis, helicopters, commercial drones, and the like.

Right now, there's not a lot of activity in Class G airspace, which is a low-lying area that is relatively uncontrolled. It's mostly a few helicopters for tourists, traffic reports, and hospitals, in addition to hobbyist aviation. When flying cars become a reality, certain Class G areas will become congested, which means we'll need more coordination.

We need our skies to be safe, so we need to make sure crafts don't crash and injure passengers or people below. But we also need to make sure we are making best use of our airspace, so we can extract the full benefits of these technologies.

Some people think that the government must plan these routes. Skorup describes this approach: "A central administrator, which can be public or private, assigns access to the resource, often in response to real-time demands."

The administrative body, armed with radar and communication systems, would decide who accesses what routes at what time. This wouldn't be a problem with unpopular routes or times. But disputes could arise over attractive skyways.

Let's say an air taxi service wants to provide hourly flights between a residential and commercial district. There's an obvious public use case there. But a drone courier service wants to take the same path to deliver online orders. The crafts would constantly intersect, meaning that the central administrator would have to make a judgment over whose routes to prioritize. In the absence of prices, this choice can easily go awry.

Maybe the central coordinator gets captured by a particular firm or industry and prioritizes those flights over more socially-valuable ones. Foul play isn't even necessary. Regulators could easily succumb to policy lock-in, where the practices of early entrants become the default through mere tradition. Or they could earnestly try to make the right call, only to be flummoxed by a lack of information about social demand.

This arrangement could cause underutilization of airspace, which means flying cars in the U.S. could be more limited than offerings in places like China.

Photo Credit: Casfotoarda / Dreamstime.com

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  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    So my favorite back country Island a several miles out in Lake Michigan will soon by overrun by hipsters in their PFMs?* I am definitely seeing a down side to this go anywhere anytime no matter how remote development.

    PFM: personal flying maching

  • John||

    You can only go as far as the fuel takes you. So it won't be 'go anywhere'.

  • I can't even||

    You have a convenient place to dispose of the bodies...

  • gaoxiaen||

    Safe as helicopters. Now get cracking on the free soma.

  • GryFalcon||

    C J Cherryh offers some very interesting insights into the political and social consequences of transit and how it limits the moment of populations in her sci fi "Foreigner" series.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Incredible flying cars of the 1950s

    The 1950s called, they want their dream of flying cars back.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Well if the flying cars are automated and run by computers instead of people than nothing possibly could go wrong right?

  • John||

    It is funny as hell to hear Bailey, the guy who thinks that the small chance of being killed or injured in an auto accident is justification to take away people's right to drive their own cars in the name of safety, is here embracing personal aircraft and the catastrophic risks that come with any air travel.

  • AlmightyJB||

    There's no love like state love.

  • Bowerick Wowbagger||

    i hope this happens soon...i want to get a job at Spacely's Sprockets

  • Don't look at me!||

    Cogswell Cogs is the growth company.

  • John||

    The physics problem is pretty straight forward and quite difficult. The problem isn't just taking off and landing. It is staying aloft. That requres lift. And lift requires either wing area or speed. A flying car versus an airplane means a flying body as opposed to a fusalage with wings. Flying bodies do not have the same amount of lift as winged aircraft and thus have high stall speeds. A flying car is going to need slow stall speeds to be safe. Sure, it can use its verticle lift capability, but that is grossly inefficent and will take a lot of fuel.

    I would like a flying car as much as anyone. I am, however, very skeptical that we will get them any time soon. They have been claiming to have solved these problems for decades and they never have. Maybe this time is different but I doubt it. What we will likely see is hopefully the emergence of cheaper and easier to fly civil aircraft with will make civil aviation much cheaper and more accessible. I think we are more likely to see a day where you can get a pilot's license fairly easily and lease a small plane to take your next trip rather than flying commercial than we are to all be taking flying cars to work every day.

  • Don't look at me!||

    Dream on dude. People crash cars because of stupidity, can't guess how they could handle flying.

  • John||

    Yes they do. But Bailey worships technology and thinks the God of AI is going to grant him his wish. I remain skeptical.

  • sarcasmic||

    I followed one of the links in the article and the flying car they were talking about works like one of those quad-copter drones. No wing area or speed needed.

    Flying cars will be VTOL. Speedy take offs and landings are the most dangerous part of flying. VTOL eliminates that.

  • ||

    No wing area or speed needed.

    Wing area and speed are still needed (note: the meager propeller shielding on this vehicle actually make it one of the safer iterations I've seen).

  • sarcasmic||

    Yes propellers are technically tiny wings that provide lift, but he was talking about it in the context of fixed wing aircraft. Talk about being a pedantic, contrarian asshole.

  • ||

    Depending on the craft, they aren't tiny and the speeds are relatively large compared to fixed wing craft. Silly me, when he said 'The physics problem is straightforward' I assumed he wasn't talking about any specific wing/propeller iteration.

  • sarcasmic||

    'The physics problem is straightforward'

    Bernoulli, dude.

  • Ben of Houston||

    It's technically possible. In fact, I'd go so far as to say flying cars are technically easy at this point (though I agree, making them meet expectations require a huge amount of work, but you could easily compare a Model A to a modern Ford and exclaim how deficient the premier car of the 20s was). They are just absurdly expensive and inefficient, and there are lower bounds on how far down those can go. They also inevitably take a lot of space for takeoff and landing. Even with vertical takeoff and landing, you need clearance to not destroy everything around you. At the least, you need a helipad at both origin and destination. That's not exactly common.

    Flying cars, for the foreseeable future, will be the domain of the extremely wealthy. I see no evidence that this will change anytime in the next century.

  • sarcasmic||

    If Huffy made an airplane would you fly in it? Of course not. There will never be "cheap" flying machines because if they break due to inferior engineering or materials, you die. They will always be expensive.

  • John||

    That is a great point. If your car breaks you are likely just stranded. If your airplane breaks, you are likely dead.

  • Rock Lobster||

    "That'll be the day."

    B. Holly

  • Rock Lobster||

    "That'll be the day."

    B. Holly

  • Rock Lobster||

    (crickets)

  • Robert||

    I drove a Huffy for many yrs. What makes you think I wouldn't fly in one?

  • Robert||

    If going from bicycles to airplanes was good enough for the Wrights....

  • ||

    The physics problem is pretty straight forward and quite difficult. The problem isn't just taking off and landing. It is staying aloft. That requres lift. Sure, it can use its verticle lift capability, but that is grossly inefficent and will take a lot of fuel.

    The idea that you can put energy into the air and thrust yourself forward will ever be as efficient as if you put it into the ground to do the same is hilarious. The two keys people keep skipping over in their desire for air travel are thrust mechanisms and energy density. Both will require relatively novel breakthroughs before we can really go anywhere further with air travel. I expect future generations will look back at us putting obnoxious numbers of propellers on stacks of lithium ion batteries and laugh.

  • Robert||

    Why can't you just look where you're going & not hit anyone?

  • Jerry B.||

    Interesting that there was no discussion of noise or issues with landing locations. Moving enough air for something to take off vertically is going to make a good bit of noise, and you're going to need hard surfaced and secure places to take off and land.

  • John||

    Yes. And it also requires a tremendous amount of energy and fuel. If vertical take off were in actually preactical, every military jet would have the capability. Yet, only one ever has.

  • sarcasmic||

    Every helicopter does. The drone industry has made huge strides in computer controlled quad-copters.

    Check out the 'their trip in a flying car' link in the article.

  • John||

    Yes they do. But they are also comparitively more dangerous than planes and not nearly as efficient or cheap.

  • sarcasmic||

    Agreed on both points. However quad-copters with computers keeping the craft stable and preventing the pilot from doing anything stupid might actually be a feasible way to have flying cars. Did you look at the link?

  • ||

    Every helicopter does.

    Jet aircraft outnumber helicopters almost 2:1 in every military in the world. In carrier groups, where logistics are at a premium, helicopters play a more secondary role and the ratios get worse when you look at civilian air travel. Drones, which the military has operated for decades and could adopt pretty much any hardware for any purpose lean heavily towards plane-based travel over single or multi-rotor variants.

  • sarcasmic||

    None of that negates my point.

  • sarcasmic||

    We're talking about personal use by non-professionals. How do you make a flying machine that any Tom, Dick or Harry can pilot with the comparative ease of a car?

  • ||

    How do you make a flying machine that any Tom, Dick or Harry can pilot with the comparative ease of a car?

    Why it would have to stand up to some of the most adverse conditions on the planet and be able to be piloted, in part or in whole, by people with any educational background and only some basic training... if only we had an organization or 6 that did such things.

  • EscherEnigma||

    How do you make a flying machine that any Tom, Dick or Harry can pilot with the comparative ease of a car?


    You don't. Note all the article's discussed use cases. Taxis, shipping, military and research. "Personal use" didn't make the list.

    So we're looking at either automatic pilots, or professional pilots. Not common-man pilots.

  • ||

    None of that negates my point.

    If your point is just that helicopters can take off vertically, you're right. Buy if your point was that VTOL and range are generally compatible, interchangeable, or somehow equal by virtually any metric of value or efficiency it does kinda negate that notion.

  • sarcasmic||

    Why it would have to stand up to some of the most adverse conditions on the planet and be able to be piloted, in part or in whole, by people with any educational background and only some basic training... if only we had an organization or 6 that did such things.

    Really? You do realize that every Air Force pilot has to have least four years of college, gone through officer training school, plus flight school, right? They basically have a Masters Degree in Flight. I don't know about the other branches but I imagine their requirements are similar.

    Buy if your point was that VTOL and range are generally compatible, interchangeable, or somehow equal by virtually any metric of value or efficiency

    No, that was not my point.

  • ||

    I don't know about the other branches but I imagine their requirements are similar.

    Warrant Officer Flight school requires a HS diploma and 110 GT on the ASVAB. You can't be a mouth-breather, but a Master's Degree is not required.

  • sarcasmic||

    My point was that quad-copter drone technology has resulted in a stable, computer-controlled flying platform that could realistically be used to make personal air craft that could be piloted with a similar level of skill required to operate a car.

    Efficient? No. Long range? Nope. Fast? Don't think so. But that's not the point.

  • ||

    Efficient? No. Long range? Nope. Fast? Don't think so. But that's not the point.

    Quad rotors and similar VTOLs don't generally have the thrust to lift and carry humans and software won't fix that. Where software really shines is in conditions largely controlled externally or thoroughly dominated by the mechanics. Software optimally operating machines that are constrained to inferiority by physics is a pretty weak point. Especially when we've already engineered the physics such that humans can handle the situation quite capably.

    Keep in mind that while you only need 60-80 hours of flight time to pilot a plane, pretty much everybody knows/recommends you do 2-3 hours training outside the cockpit working on flight plans, doing fuel calculations, checking weather/visibility, etc. Stuff that, even if the computer could do it means that a certain percentage of the time your personal quadrotor is just going to tell you "You will not go to space today."

  • sarcasmic||

    Check out the 'their trip in a flying car' link above and get back to me.

  • sarcasmic||

    here

    Or don't. Knowing you you probably won't. You're one of the most closed-minded people I've ever met.

  • ||

    You're one of the most closed-minded people I've ever met.

    Between the fall of the Berlin Wall, the internet, and the sequencing of the human genome I'm fresh out of unbridled optimism. I'm sure the future looks good but I'm not going to pretend that people aren't trying to make it look good for their own, and often foolish, purposes.

  • ||

    Here's my olive branch and/or a significant aspect I've failed to consider: This actually will/could facilitate greater population densities in downtown cities. Multiple decks on a building able to accommodate 1-2 person vehicles above smaller roads makes for taller, more densely-packed buildings. 20 min. or 20 mi. ranges would be unnecessary and the more typical pre-flight logistics would become moot. If you look at a collection of superstructures like the Hudson Yards complex that's going up in New York, I can see how the ability to "hop" from tower to tower would be intrinsically beneficial. It's also significantly different prospect than when similar things were done with zeppelins in the 10s and 20s.

    For the vast majority of rubes in flyover country as well as most suburbs, their 'long range' test of 4.5 mi. with a two-person-and-nothing-else payload means the vehicle is useless. Even if they tripled the distance it's just barely reaching the average commute distance (ignoring cab distance vs. crow distance).

  • GryFalcon||

    Some limits on population density in cities (or just population density overall) are a good thing. And, when the infrastructure suddenly fails (think hurricane or earthquake), more population density is going to get very, very, very ugly and possibly apocolyptic.

  • Robert||

    I had an idea for a short story in which this small start-up does a shitload of work & investing, & is prepared to roll out their flying car, when over the news comes word of a successful test of teleport'n of a truck.

  • Don't look at me!||

    That would be my luck.

  • GryFalcon||

    But.... did they really move the truck, or did they destroy it and create another one?

    "I signed aboard this ship to practice medicine, not to have my atoms scattered back and forth across space by this gadget." (Star Trek's McCoy)

  • IJustWorkHere||

    If the same businesses that operate airlines and airports are the first operators of air taxis, the companies themselves should be the ones to solve the issue of air traffic control. To those who thought some independent startup was going to disrupt the space, I'm sorry. Sometimes innovation and entrepreneurship resemble the status quo more than we'd like them to, but that's the nature of markets.

    Wait, you're telling me that governments operate airports and air traffic control, and they're mostly incompetent (except when they do a job effectively, but at ludicrously high cost)? I guess we'll have to wait for them to want to regulate air traffic control for air taxis, and hope they leave some legal path to innovation.

  • lap83||

    a flying car sounds fun, but if a regular car breaks down at least it doesn't land on a house or person

  • Rock Lobster||

    Well. It seems the ultimate answer to the "muh roads" conundrum always thrown at libertarians is, "Roads? WTF are roads?"

    More importantly, this development would also stifle those statists who eternally question the motives of innocent chickens.

  • sarcasmic||

    I asked Siri why the chicken crossed the road and it said "Because the small, chicken-shaped light turned green."

  • Rock Lobster||

    Siri really laid an egg with that one.

  • gaoxiaen||

    She won't even open the pod bay door. Fuck Siri.

  • Bubba Jones||

    What will be the impact on global warming when we replace every Prius with a helicopter?

  • GryFalcon||

    Helicopters are more expensive. Only special people will get their own helicopter. We will have the Private Flying Class and the people who have to fly on Uber. Just as we have now. Some folks have an airstrip in their backyard. And... most folks don't.

  • Widhalm19||

    LOL There will be no flying cars in the near future ... thank heavens. Any moron can be taught to drive an automobile or motorcycle but flying is much more difficult. Ain't gonna happen technopheliacs .....

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    Flying cars will NEVER happen, not because the technology isn't there, but because the regulators won't allow it.

    A pilot's license is much harder to get than a driver's license and includes medical fitness certifications. Further, in the US, the issuance of pilots licenses is under the control of the federal government rather than state governments which control driver's licenses.

    The regulators will never allow the operation of anything resembling a "flying car" on the basis of a license that is closer to a driver's license than a pilot's license.

  • GryFalcon||

    But... technology can get certified. If the AI gets its license, it can take the wheel, and the person does not need a license.

  • Server Admin||

    I just hope that if Flying Cars is actually achieved...... that it happens after I pass away because I definitely do not want to drive and fly with the "millennials" that I see driving on the roads at the moment.

  • Rock Lobster||

    Surely they wouldn't text and fly?!

  • EscherEnigma||

    So y'all are already forgetting that Gen Xers and Baby Boomers are more likely to do that then Millennials and Gen Zers, huh?

  • Rock Lobster||

    Get off my lawn, thumb boy.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Just because the latter two groups don't know how to drive and if they did wouldn't have a job to go to...

  • sarcasmic||

    I think self-driving or self-flying flying cars would be much more possibility than ground vehicles. Just use autonomous drone technology, and put a cabin on top. Collision avoidance in the air would be a piece of cake compared to being on the ground. It's not like an old lady is going to walk out in front of you at 500 feet. With radar your vehicle would have plenty of time and warning. It would be a hell of a lot safer than driving, assuming the thing doesn't break down.

  • gaoxiaen||

    That's a pretty big assumption.

  • No Longer Amused||

    Truly, a horrible idea upon even the slightest reflection. People can barely even drive on the roads, and you want them flying over your home?

  • GryFalcon||

    It only works if there is a computer behind the wheel. ;)

  • EscherEnigma||

    Eh. People have been making "hover cycles" in their garages, without formal education in mechanical engineering or aerodynamics, for years. The problem has for years been in regulation and ease of piloting.

    Automation and professional piloting takes care of the second. Only our lord and master Cthulhu can help with the first.

  • The Last American Hero||

    -Too loud
    -Haven't solved the energy density problem.
    -Haven't worked out what happens when they start crashing into houses.
    -Computers vulnerable to hacking. You think 911 was bad, wait until some jackoff in Russia decides to crash a million vehicles in one day in residential areas with a computer virus.

    Other than that, the Jetsons is right around the corner, man.

  • Art Gecko||

    Good points, except for Point #3. We all know exactly what happens when they start crashing into houses. Film at eleven.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Would do Judy.

  • gaoxiaen||

    And Jane.

  • Robert||

    If you already know where you're going when you take off, why even do it aeronautically rather than ballistically? Don't steer, aim!

  • Art Gecko||

    Meanwhile, the best and brightest minds of the US are building bombs or figuring out how to get more ad-clicks on web pages. We're doomed as doomed can be.

  • ford-poker||

    Regulators could easily succumb to policy lock-in, where the practices of early entrants become the default through mere tradition.
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  • #AirtaxiNow||

    Let's get serious. Air taxis have been flying since the first civilian helicopters, the Bell 47, was certified in 1946 and New Airways launched the air taxi service in 1953, the flight corridors exist in most cities, there a public heliports and almost every city has a licensed helicopter air taxi (they call it air charter) operator. The problem is helicopters are noisy, they use fossil fuels and are expensive to operate, so what is being developed are quieter, climate friendly and cheaper to operate eVTOL aircraft that will need to through the same stringent certification processes as any other aircraft.

    The eVTOL startups and UberAir need to stop whining about non-issues like regulation and get on with the long laborious process of getting their aircraft certified for commercial operations. The sky is not a free for all environment for cowboys and uncertified, unlicensed flying cars and flying taxis. Passenger, pilot and passenger safety must always take preference.

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  • GryFalcon||

    OR, we could just have defined routes that everyone has access to (like highways), and sensors and algorithms in flying cars that define the rules of engagement and prevent them from approaching within a specified distance of another vehicle. It is inefficient and wasteful to auction off entire routes, because the routes will not be fully utilized by one party.

  • zazoo||

    I believe that a helicopter on average requires two hours in the shop for every hour it's in the air.

    That takes care of any idea that it would ever be some form of mass transportation.

  • Remanufactured Engine||

    Yes, software optimally operating machines that are constrained to inferiority by physics is a pretty weak point.

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