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Hey you, up in the sky, learning to fly, tell me how high.
August 22, 2014 8:14 PM   Subscribe

Why We're Not Driving the Friendly Skies A number of us can thank a cartoon character from the future, George Jetson, for instilling our longing. Students of aviation history might look for inspiration to the Autoplane prototype built in 1917 by the flight pioneer Glenn Curtiss. And tens of millions of motorists who have been stuck in traffic jams stretching toward the horizon must also feel a need to know: Where are the flying cars?
posted by modernnomad (25 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
An interesting attempt
posted by miyabo at 8:54 PM on August 22


Because if we can't handle traffic jams in two dimensions, why would three be better? No one really fantasizes about a future with flying cars, they fantasize about a future with exactly one flying car--theirs.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:21 PM on August 22 [31 favorites]


It seems like when people say they want flying cars what they really mean is that they want rocket-powered, wingless vehicles with VTOL, at the cost of a regular, ground-locked automobile. Cessnas and helicopters have been around for a long time; go buy one.
posted by aaronetc at 9:48 PM on August 22 [2 favorites]


People don't want a street-legal Piper Cub; they want Blade Runner, and they are out of their damn minds. Halloween Jack is understated in his comment; even with Blade Runner-type cars, the skies would rain hair, teeth and eyeballs from normally inept drivers trying to negotiate three dimensions. No, thank you.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 10:02 PM on August 22 [7 favorites]


Halloween Jack:: Because if we can't handle traffic jams in two dimensions, why would three be better?
I'm as cynical about the prospects for flying cars as anyone, but digitally controlled aerial highways, which could be expanded, contracted, moved, detoured, re-routed, multiplied, created and decommissioned in minutes, at zero cost, really would have some novel advantages, I think.
...even with Blade Runner-type cars, the skies would rain hair, teeth and eyeballs from normally inept drivers trying to negotiate three dimensions.
It would be pretty quixotic at this point to propose that the next frontier of human transport should be based on human pilots.
posted by Western Infidels at 10:12 PM on August 22 [5 favorites]


The problem with Cessnas and helicopters is they keep outrunning inflation. $275,000 for a Cessna 172??
posted by crapmatic at 10:35 PM on August 22


The problem with Cessnas and helicopters is they keep outrunning inflation. $275,000 for a Cessna 172??

Yeah you're basically talking about a sewing machine with wings
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 11:54 PM on August 22


$275000? Seriously? Why?
posted by mattoxic at 1:42 AM on August 23


Flying cars. My thoughts always turn to these poor guys:

"Henry Smolinski and his partner, Hal Blake, founded Advanced Vehicle Engineers in 1971, expressly to design and build a flying car. Their one and only product was the AVE Mizar ... it was simply a car that a person could attach wings to, fly up into the air at a local airport, come down a few hundred miles away at another airport, stick the wings in the trunk, and head out down the road.

The prototypes of the car were made by sawing up a Cessna Skymaster airplane and a Ford Pinto, and putting them together...

... It wasn't until late 1973 that Smolinski and Blake discovered there was a problem with a plane whose wings were designed to come off. The pair were ... on a routine flight of the Mizar, when the Cessna wings detached from the car. This left the two inventors in mid-air in a Pinto."
posted by Auden at 1:48 AM on August 23 [10 favorites]


No need to drop that kind of money. You can get an ultralight for 30 grand or less.
posted by solotoro at 1:50 AM on August 23


This seems likes something that could come into play in the decade or two after driver-less cars are fully adopted, provided fuel costs aren't too looming.
posted by fermezporte at 4:58 AM on August 23


Hasn't this question been answered ad nauseam? The technology for flying cars is pretty much done, and has been since, say, the late 70s or so. But the danger and risk factor of millions of people zipping around in the air is a no-brainer for anyone who gives it a few seconds.

On the positive side, though, we'll have self-driving cars in the next few decades, so that'll lay the groundwork for self-flying cars. Assuming, of course, by that point fuel is still abundant and Gaia hasn't chewed up humanity and spit us out.
posted by zardoz at 5:38 AM on August 23 [2 favorites]


Fuck flying cars, I want transporters.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:41 AM on August 23 [6 favorites]


$275000? Seriously? Why?

A lot of factors, but the short answer is regulation and lack of economies of scale. The FAA mandates a lot of certification and safety work be done to ensure planes aren't constantly falling out of the sky, and it takes money to get to the confidence levels that are required for that. Plus, not a whole lot of brand new airplanes get sold every year - maybe a couple hundred 172s in the US - so you don't have the mass production advantages of auto manufacturers. Every plane is essentially built by hand.

Safety critical parts on aircraft are required to have a failure rate as low as 10-9, or one failure in every trillion flight hours across the fleet. Engineering that kind of confidence level into a part (and then proving it) it a very expensive process. You don't get those kinds of assurances in your car, nor should you really need them most times; for the most part, if you break something in the car you can safely pull over to the side of the road. If a part breaks in an airplane, it can become a dangerous situation very fast.

You're also running parts a lot closer to their design tolerances in an airplane than you are in a car. Planes are generally a more severe environment to operate in - high vibrations, temperature extremes, altitude changes, turbulence, hard landings, etc. If you dropped your car from ten feet on to a hard paved surface, what would happen? That's a bad landing in a 172, and everything in the plane is still working afterwards. Car engines run at around 10%-20% maximum power when you're driving down the highway; airplane engines operate at around 65%-85% max power in cruise. It costs money to operate on the edges and still be confident that you can continue to operate the next day.

Numbers matter, too. The 172 - the most popular airplane ever - has had a production run of around 60,000 so far. Since the 1950s. You can't keep production costs down if you're only making a few hundred a year. Not many private owners buy new, anyway; there's a thriving used market for small airplanes. Our club's planes are from 1978 and 1979, and they're still going strong (another testament to the confidence levels built in to aircraft design and manufacture - how many cars that old are still on the road?).

Aviation is one industry that's hard to outsource. The FAA requires that planes be built in FAA-approved shops by licensed assemblers, which is possible but extremely difficult to accomplish overseas. Cessna was actually building their light-sport "Skycatcher" in China and suffered a lot of flak for it back in the States.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:51 AM on August 23 [15 favorites]




> digitally controlled aerial highways

...would absolutely utterly completely eliminate the fun. To fly that way I would pay ...busfare, not a cent more.

Anyway I never wanted a flying car, I want a flying belt so I can fly up and clean three years of leaves out of the gutters, or just sit on the roof and patch some leaky shingles without worrying about falling off.
posted by jfuller at 6:36 AM on August 23 [1 favorite]


There is also the fact that, barring some kind of very unlikely anti-gravity technology, it takes energy to keep a heavier than air object off the ground -- that's the reason the Cessna's engine is running so hard just to cruise. It's holding the plane up as well as pushing it forward, and it has to do that no matter how fast or slow it's going. (It's been a long time since I did the math but I seem to recall it working out at around 1 horsepower per 30 lb, which seems to agree with the power requirements for light aircraft.)

Considering that energy and pollution are already issues keeping cars rolling along on the ground, putting everything in the air might be a bad idea. Although that might be mitigated if computerized traffic control eliminates traffic jams.
posted by localroger at 6:38 AM on August 23


You can drive a car through a thunderstorm.

Anyway. Drones are scaling. It's only a matter of time.

I've always been a fan of precision ballistics. Basically, get thrown through the air to your destination human cannonball style, in a suitably equipped pod. How much fun would that be?
posted by Devonian at 6:52 AM on August 23 [1 favorite]


Ultimately what cracks this, in my opinion, is about two more step changes in battery technology, taking it well beyond the power per unit of weight of avgas or jetA. With that, engineers can ditch wings as the primary source of lift and move to fans. All of a sudden you lose a major space and design challenge of wings, the need for horizontal takeoff and landing space, the ability to operate at null or low speeds. With computer controls you probably get more stability too.
posted by MattD at 7:35 AM on August 23


George Jetson lived in the sky, where is my cloud house? Until I have that, I see no need for a flying car.
posted by arcticseal at 7:45 AM on August 23 [1 favorite]


From the article:

"NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration are working on a GPS-based technology called an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or A.D.S.-B., receiver that would help multiple light aircraft coordinate flight paths and request changes. "

Cringe. So full of misunderstanding, it makes me doubt the rest of the article.

ADSB-out is a transmitter that is mandated for most aircraft in controlled airspace after 2020.

Adding it to a basic airplane right now is $5k - $10k, depending on whether you want to also receive traffic and weather data. It has nothing to do with "coordinating flight paths" and everything to do with "avoiding running an airliner (or drone) into a light aircraft.
posted by sea at 8:07 AM on August 23


I wish the article talked more about the challenge of training pilots. Flying a plane is significantly harder than driving a car, for a variety of reasons, a primary one being you can't just pull over to the side of the road and stop. Computer-controlled "flying cars", maybe (although cost is a huge factor). Human piloted? Hard to say.

Terrafugia is still plugging away at a plausible drivable airplane. For pilots this solves a nice problem, which is how do you get from the airport to the place you want to five miles away? Fold in the wings and drive your plane! I fear they're going to be limited to the tiny general aviation market, they're not going to be making new pilots with the thing. But it's kind of neat.

sea: charitably, ADS-B does help with a flying car problem in that it makes it at least plausible that a bunch of flying cars could avoid hitting each other. With ADS-B you know where the other aircraft are and where they're going. But it's definitely only one tiny piece of the puzzle. And it's way further ahead than the other challenges of flying cars.
posted by Nelson at 8:55 AM on August 23


Basically, get thrown through the air to your destination human cannonball style, in a suitably equipped pod. How much fun would that be?

Presumably the landing pad is a giant trampoline?
posted by goethean at 11:45 AM on August 23


digitally controlled aerial highways, which could be expanded, contracted, moved, detoured, re-routed, multiplied, created and decommissioned in minutes, at zero cost, really would have some novel advantages

Well, yes, if accompanied by a mandatory and unhackable autopilot that kept people to the lanes. Which, again, is a problem that hasn't been satisfactorily solved yet in the second dimension.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:34 PM on August 23 [2 favorites]


Halloween Jack: Well, yes, if accompanied by a mandatory and unhackable autopilot that kept people to the lanes. Which, again, is a problem that hasn't been satisfactorily solved yet in the second dimension.
Yes, flying cars would require autopilots.

It's natural to suppose that the 2D auto-pilot problem (self driving cars) should be easier than the 3D auto-pilot problem (self-flying aircraft) but I think it may also be wrong. Roads are designed in ad-hoc, unstandardized, heterogeneous ways, largely because they must accommodate other things in the environment. Skyways (or whatever you'd call them) wouldn't have to make the same accommodations and wouldn't be as messy.

Self-driving car projects have set themselves a particularly hard challenge: To perform a human task in more or less the same way that a human performs it. They have only line-of-sight sensing gear, they have the same outdated and error-prone maps the humans do, they have to actually read the street signs and watch for traffic, they have to decide what is and isn't roadway to a very high degree of accuracy even when visibility is poor, etc. They have to do this because there's no economic possibility that the roads will be redesigned for use with self-driving systems, and because there's no organizational possibility that they would be perfectly consistently refit in such a way either.

But that's not the way most other automation efforts work. An aircraft autopilot has other human-incompatible inputs, like radio beacons, GPS, electronic compasses and gyros, etc. that were designed to work with other machines from the beginning. We actually do have and use practical aircraft auto-pilots. The first trans-Atlantic flight to operate entirely on auto-pilot (including takeoff and landing) happened in 1947.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is: No one has seriously tried to make self-driving cars with the same approach used for self-flying aircraft. No one will. Arguing that "it hasn't been done in two dimensions" isn't as good an argument as it sounds, at first, because solving the same problem in two dimensions would actually be pointless. You'd wind up with a car that could drive itself on a high-tech, futuristic highway system that didn't exist and that couldn't be paid for.

In any case, I expect flight will, for the foreseeable future, be too energy intensive to be a mode of general transportation, even for us relatively rich first-world types. The plutocrats will still have helicopters, and regard their requirement of a highly skilled servant as a plus.
posted by Western Infidels at 9:58 AM on August 25


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