Are Flying Cars the Future of Transport?
No, and you should know by now that they aren’t. There’s been a headline just about every year you’ve been alive that someone has built a flying car and it’s going to revolutionize the way we travel. It never does. It never will.
This has very little to do with technological hurdles. People have been inventing flying cars since the fifties. They worked then, and they work now.
However, nobody wants a car that is also an airplane. Airplanes need runways, they have big wings that get in the way, and everyone knows it takes a lot of training and practice to be a pilot. A car-plane wouldn’t get to the grocery store any faster, or skip over rush hour traffic. They need airports, flight plans and practice.
What you really want are cars that you can park your garage and take off from our driveway. You want to skip all the fuss with traffic and roads and stop lights. You want Jetsons’ cars, Blade Runner cars, Fifth Element Cars.
These are a terrible idea and you will never get one.
Let us grant that computers are getting good enough that soon they could do the hard job of operating the vehicle for you. No flight path calculations for you to do, no tricky take-offs or landings, and no risk of mid-air collisions. Google has pretty much solved those problems already. Maybe we can even grant that we come up with an energy source that lets us ignore the absurdly high energy demands of vertical take-offs and landings. That is unlikely, but it isn’t inconceivable.
They are still a terrible idea.
Let’s start with the obvious problem of weather. How bad does the weather have to be to stop you from driving? Strong winds, heavy rain, car covered in ice and snow, no problem. You can push through that with your wheels firmly planted on the ground.
Aircraft are a lot fussier. Roads are pretty good at keeping cars in place, but when you are literally driving on air, getting blown around is a problem. Imagine starting to take off when a nice gust of wind throws you through your car through your front window.
That’s just wind. What about cold weather? Ice on your car is inconvenient, but ice buildup on jet intakes, covering propellers, or coating control surfaces would make it impossible to operate an aircraft. If you’re lucky you’d be unable to take off. If you’re unlucky, you’d have a high-speed unscheduled landing in a frozen lake.
Not convinced? Let’s talk about maintenance.
How good are you at maintaining your car? An old tire, an unrepaired dent, a slightly dodgy timing belt, soft brakes… none of these are catastrophic problems in a car. At worst you might have to pull over when something gives out. That’s not really an option in the sky. A tiny mechanical failure could send you plummeting to your demise.
Even if you’re a responsible hovercar owner, how much do you trust your neighbors? How long do you think it will take for someone to ignore that rattling noise in their engine a bit too long and end up parking their car at terminal velocity in a playground?
Perhaps you have enough faith in engineers and service people to think these wondrous devices could be all but foolproof. Having done both of those jobs, I can assure you that your faith is unfounded, but I’ll play along.
Have you thought about the noise?
Flying cars are necessarily loud. There is no such thing as a quiet propeller, rocket, or jet. When you try to move a lot of gas really quickly, you get turbulent airflow and the buffeting air against itself creates vibrations. Those vibrations are sound waves.
That noisy fan in your room isn’t noisy because of the motor; that’s the inevitable effect of the blades moving air. Just think, that fan can’t even lift itself. Your flying car would be hundreds or thousands of times louder. Any high traffic areas would be deafeningly loud.
You think it’s annoying when your neighbor wakes you up at seven with a lawn mower? Imagine them rolling in at three in the morning with a jet engine.
Finally, I implore you, think of the children.
Children are not responsible creatures. They leave their toys in the yard, their bicycles in the driveway, and frolic joyfully without caution or awareness.
When you are landing a flying car, there is still enough downward thrust to keep it and the occupants airborne. All that air has to go somewhere, and when you’re close to the ground, that somewhere is sideways.
Every bit of debris beneath you, every ill-placed tricycle, every yappy dog out for a pee, and every incautious child becomes a high-speed projectile. Your house, and everyone’s house, would be sandblasted with dirt, bugs, birds, cats, and neighbors’ children.
It’s just not a good idea.
All this to say, stop whining about your flying cars. You’re not getting them. You don’t really want them. The ground is quite good enough at holding things up. Try whining about better mass-transit systems instead to get all those plebs out of your way during rush hour.
Don’t get me started on jetpacks.
Featured image from AeroMobil