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  • Are flying cars too dangerous to be permitted?

    Posted by ken on January 27th, 2005 (All posts by )

    A lot of people seem to think so. A good part of this perception, as far as I can tell, comes from a misunderstanding of the way society would look after the skycar came into general use.

    When people recoil in horror at the thought of cheap flying cars, they seem to envision a city much like the ones we live in with those idiots they share the road with trying to navigate our accustomed traffic density in three dimensions. They imagine millions of the things flying over a few dozen square miles of city, with cars falling out of the sky through accident or mechanical failure and inevitably crashing into a building or residence far too often for anyone’s comfort.

    All of which fails to address one fundamental question: why do cities exist in the first place?

    They exist because they drastically lower the cost, in time and money, for people to trade and socialize, and thereby drastically increase the number of people they can feasibly choose from to trade and socialize with. This leads to more competition as well as larger markets for enterprises of every kind; the latter allows products, services, jobs, and enterprises to exist that couldn’t show a profit if they were limited to serving smaller markets.

    For all of these purposes, the flying car serves not as a means of traveling within a city, but as a substitute for the city itself! Instead of shortening the distance between people and enterprises by crowding them into a city, the skycar shortens the travel time while allowing the people themselves to live hundreds of miles away from their jobs, their friends, and their favorite shops. A few dozen houses may be clumped together in a single clearing, or a single house may stand on its own, but in either case small neighborhoods and single office buildings/strip malls/large stores will be surrounded by miles of wilderness, and people will spend most of their time endangering nothing but trees or grass if they happen to suffer mechanical failure, and enjoying plenty of space between themselves and the nearest fellow traveler.

    How do we get there from here? Simple – allow ordinary people to operate skycars/aircraft/etc. anywhere except over cities. Even better, let anyone operate an aircraft anywhere if they get sufficient liability insurance – and the insurance companies will profit by setting appropriate rates and conditions. Either way, people flying their own vehicles will tend to avoid population centers, enterprises wishing to sell to or employ such people will start locating away from population centers, and as sales volume and penetration increases and prices go down, the countryside will become more desirable and large population centers less desirable as places to live, work, or operate a business.

    And the end result will be better and safer than what we have now. Against a dispersed population, most terrorist attacks, even with nuclear weapons, would yield disappointing results (a notable exception being contagious diseases). While natural disasters are not as much of a threat for us as they once were, there are potential disasters that could still exact large loss of life in today’s concentrated population centers – a direct hit on New Orleans by a hurricane being one example – that would be drastically mitigated by lower population concentrations and faster evacuation capability. Profit opportunities will open up in the development of vehicles that are easy to control safely, opportunities that don’t exist today because no one who isn’t trained to use today’s not-so-user-friendly controls is permitted to fly a craft with any controls.

    And when you get right down to it, it’s a travesty that, more than a hundred years after the Wright Brothers’ pioneering flight, practically all of us are still driving glorified Model T’s and seem to accept without a second thought that our children and even our grandchildren will do so as well. What happened to us?

     

    34 Responses to “Are flying cars too dangerous to be permitted?”

    1. Michael Williams -- Master of None Says:

      Flying Cars to Replace Cities

      Ken at Chicago Boyz makes an excellent observation with regard to flying cars: they aren’t meant to operate over cities, they’re mean to replace cities. For all of these purposes, the flying car serves not as a means of traveling within a city, but as …

    2. Shannon Love Says:

      Cities that came into being or grew large after WWII and widespread use of automobiles look significantly different than cities that arose prior to the automobile. Suburbia is basically a distributed city based on road transport instead of animal, water or rail transport.

      Personally, I don’t expect to ever see flying cars in wide use. For one thing they are likely to be very loud. For another, the weather will shut them down far more often than ground transports. We might see them as status vehicles, emergency vehicles or used by people who live in the sticks but I don’t see them replacing ground autos.

      The biggest shift in transportation to occur in the last 100 years is the internet. Instead of coming up with new ways to move people from point A to point B we just leave the people at point A and move the information back and forth from point B.

      Thanks to wonders of the internet, I no longer have to travel to France to irritate a Frenchman. I can do it from the comfort of my own home.

      If that’s not progress I don’t know what is.

    3. James R. Rummel Says:

      Oh, I’m just waiting for someone to start in about the Moller Skycar.

      I’ve been blogging about flying cars for years, and it doesn’t take long for someone to claim that they’re here. Right now! Look! The Moller Skycar!!

      Then I point out that the company has been around for a few decades and hasn’t sold anything yet except for some toys and art prints. The problem, so they’ve always said, has been that they were just on the edge, right on the verge, just about to make the breakthrough that they need before they go into full production and everyone in the world will buy buy buy one of their cars.

      Hasn’t happened yet. When they start delivering the product I’ll go around and take a look. I’m not holding my breath.

      I find it interesting that the Moller website has pretty much the same predictions that you do about a world with flying cars. No more cities, safer, quicker, etc.

      First, of course, someone has to come up with a safe, affordable, legal flying car that doesn’t violate environmental noise and emission laws, is easy enough to be operated without costly and incredibly time-consuming pilot training, and is perceived by the buying public as being something that they’re willing to entrust the safety of their family to.

      Like I said, I’ll take a look when they start to deliver the product. Until then it’s a pipe dream.

      James

    4. Michael Hiteshew Says:

      Almost no one has ever died from flying. It’s the crashing part, that sudden impact with the ground, that kills people.

      Elevators didn’t gain widespread acceptance until the Bendix brake was invented. If the cables break, the brake kicks in and stops the car from plummetting down the shaft.

      As it stands now, all private aircraft parts need to be FAA certified. Work must be performed by an FAA certified mechanic. The reason is safety, of course.

      When some sort of antigravity device is invented, the aircraft equivalent of the Bendix brake, then we’ll see everyone flying.

      Btw, this brings Einstien back up. According to him, gravity is not a force. It’s an effect. It’s the result of the bending of space by a massive object like a planet or star.

      So, if mass and energy are equivalent, then a sufficient amount of energy should be able to counter-bend, or unbend, space in a given area, thereby creating an effect that would appear to us as antigravity.

    5. chel Says:

      But I like cities…

    6. mishu Says:

      The other problem is that a lot of that open space that people would suddenly relocate to is now being used to grow food. Who needs to eat when you’re flying?

    7. Jonathan Says:

      Even with flying cars, I think that a lot of people will continue to live in cities for reasons having nothing to do with practicality. Some people just like cities, as one of the other commenters suggested.

    8. incognito Says:

      why not just use a helicopter? louder, but they’ve been around longer.

    9. Billy Beck Says:

      I’m curious: are there any pilots in this discussion?

    10. Ken Says:

      “Elevators didn’t gain widespread acceptance until the Bendix brake was invented. If the cables break, the brake kicks in and stops the car from plummetting down the shaft.”

      But the sparse use of personal aircraft has little to do with their “acceptance”. It has more to do with:

      “As it stands now, all private aircraft parts need to be FAA certified. Work must be performed by an FAA certified mechanic.”

      Not to mention requirements for pilot certification.

      “The reason is safety, of course”

      Which should be less of a concern out in the boonies.

      As long as the safety of third parties is addressed, the proper approach is to let vendors try come up with solutions that those with a vested interest (i.e., those with their own necks on the line) feel is acceptable, make evolutionary improvements that appeal to more and more people, and work their way up to the point where a craft that nearly anyone can use safely is available at a decent price.

      No one’s going to come up with that all in one shot, especially if their profit depends on the judgement of people that aren’t even going to be along for the ride. And people who aren’t going to benefit from the use of the craft, but who are going to lose their jobs if relatives of the craft owners get in a huff about a crash and make too much noise in the media, are not going to be very good judges of what is an appropriate level of risk. Our current system is a recipe for stagnation, and that’s exactly what we’ve gotten for far too long.

      “Even with flying cars, I think that a lot of people will continue to live in cities for reasons having nothing to do with practicality. Some people just like cities, as one of the other commenters suggested.”

      Maybe so. But they won’t do much flying until a lot of improvements have been made over and above those needed to get a scattered population routinely airborne.

    11. emily Says:

      when everyone is flying around in their cars, imagine how fat we’d be! on the other hand, if people are really going to fly hundreds of miles to work and shop, as you suggest, then maybe they’d stop going to the drive-through.

    12. Sandy P Says:

      Birdie, birdie in the sky,

      Look what you did in my eye.

      Boy, am I glad cows don’t fly.

      Sucks to be under one when they have an accident.

      Look at the building reg which will have to be strenghtened.

      Does it come w/a parachute and/or space suit?

    13. Robert Schwartz Says:

      “why not just use a helicopter? louder, but they’ve been around longer.”

      Because heliocopters are just plain dangerous. They crash and kill their passengers with distressing frequency. The accident in Iraq that killed 30 or more Marines this week was not a fluke. It happens every few months in the military, even in peace time.

      Aircraft are a mature technology. The 747 and the SR-71 flew over a generation ago. There have been no startling new developments that have made aircraft exponentially cheaper or safer.

      Besides, men are social animals, we like to herd together.

      If terrorism is the problem, lets solve it by killing all of the terrorists instead of hiding like little mice.

    14. Ken Says:

      Yeah, we can do that too, and damn well should. But it takes time, and other things that are beneficial in their own right are worth doing at the same time.

      Not only that, but unless we saddle ourselves with everlasting stagnation, the time will come when weapons of mass destruction are cheap and simple enough for individuals to acquire and use single-handedly. I doubt we’ll ever be able to kill every individual nutcase.

      “Aircraft are a mature technology. The 747 and the SR-71 flew over a generation ago. There have been no startling new developments that have made aircraft exponentially cheaper or safer. ”

      I know. That’s the whole problem. I’m suggesting that there are ways to encourage new development in aircraft. Expand the market, open up more leeway for vendors to try out new designs and see how they fly (so to speak) in the marketplace, and let them profit from finding new ways to bring in customers who had always assumed they’d spend their lives Earthbound. There’s no law of nature that says that aircraft development has to stop where it’s been for the last few decades, or that better controls can’t be designed and built – it all depends on whether there’s a profit in it, and whether the people who might invest money and effort in designing and building such things are discouraged by the task of convincing regulators to let their targeted customers use their product.

    15. chel Says:

      Good point Emily. It seems like the flying car society would be very unhealthy. In fact it might be even less healthy that our current structure. Imagine that!

    16. Fred Says:

      I love the idea of flying cars, but then, I also love the idea of a fully automatic radar controlled 40mm anti-aircraft cannon to keep you flying yahoos over 5,000 ft and away from my formerly quiet, secluded, cabin.

      I’m sure me and the other locals will be able to make kill zone that will discourage UAV’s, personal flying cars, and all manner of other pests.

    17. j.scott barnard Says:

      James, why you gotta diss Moller? At least they’re trying.–s

    18. Shannon Love Says:

      I think the fundamental problem with flying cars is one of scale. Each technology has an optimum “size” defined by some operational parameter.

      For example, cars started off barely more than a four wheel bicycle. By the 1950’s they reach land yacht sizes and then pretty much stopped. Even giant SUV’s are the size of utility vehicles of the 50’s. Cars stopped going in size because they hit a functional upper limit. If you drew a graph of car size from 1890-1955 you would extrapolate that we should all be driving something the size of semi-truck down to the Quicky Mart. Conversely, successful car designs have a certain minimum size as well. (the top speed of vehicles flattened out around the same time)

      Aircraft have similar constraints at the upper and lower ranges of size and speed. Looking at the conceptions of what people in 1955 expect air transport to look like in the year 2000 you see expectations of giant, supersonic aircraft. Yet aircraft size and speed stalled out in mid-70’s. They did so because cost of increasing size and speed increased non-linearly. A plane that was 50% faster cost 10 times as much.

      Similar problems dog smaller aircraft. The smaller an aircraft gets the less efficiently it flies. The ratio between the size of the aircraft and the size of its cargo plummets. Speed and range fall off in a non-linear fashion as well. Small aircraft are more sensitive to poor flying conditions meaning they have proportionately less up time. (These are problems of physics by the way, not technology per se. That is, given the same technology a mid-sized aircraft will always fly more efficiently than a very large or very small aircraft. Just like a flapping wing works well on the scale of bug or bird but fails at larger sizes. It doesn’t scale.)

      I don’t see any of these limitations changing anytime soon. A car sized aircraft will be to inefficient for most purposes. Even if you got some kind of super-engine with such great weight-to-lift ration you strap it onto your Honda accord and fly it to work, the noise it would generate would make it useless for widespread use.

    19. Brett Bellmore Says:

      Actually, the aircraft equivalent of a Bendix brake has been around for a few years now, and is fairly popular in the homebuilt/experimental aircraft community: The ballistic parachute. It’s a rocket deployed parachute that will bring your plane down intact even if the wings fall off. Because of rocket deployment, your plane doesn’t have to fall hundreds of feet while the chute opens, either. It will fully deploy at an altitude of fifty feet, and has at least mitigated falls from as low as 25.

      I think the real obstacle to flying cars is simply the fact that the regulatory state took over before they became technically feasible. I expect the only reason they even let us have cars is that they’re grandfathered in.

    20. Ken Says:

      “I think the real obstacle to flying cars is simply the fact that the regulatory state took over before they became technically feasible. ”

      Yep. Just the point I was trying to make, only with a whole lot more words :)

      The real work for our side is getting people to realize that the regulatory state retards technological progress. A lot of people seem to have the idea that the regulatory state facilitates progress!

      Well, I’m game to keep posting and plugging away at the job of persuading people otherwise until Hell freezes…

    21. Ken Says:

      “I don’t see any of these limitations changing anytime soon. A car sized aircraft will be to inefficient for most purposes.”

      Well, then I expect we wouldn’t be using car sized aircraft. That’s where increased sprawl pays off – we won’t need car sized aircraft when we’re spread out the way we can be with aircraft.

    22. Billy Beck Says:

      (ahem)

      I didn’t think so.

    23. James R. Rummel Says:

      “James, why you gotta diss Moller? At least they’re trying.”

      Because the only thing I see them really trying hard to achieve is courting investors.

      When I started to blog about flying cars, they didn’t even have a working prototype. But, even so, they wanted people to invest while promising untold riches if you sunk some cash into the company.

      Years go by, Eventually they have something they say is an early model, but it looks an awful lot like a reproduction of the 1950’s Avro Car to me. (And you can get plans of an Avro Car online.) Then, finally, they have a video of an anchored hover test of their Skycar. i still don’t see anything that says they’re ready for production.

      But they claim that they are ready….almost. Just need some more money. Pay them $100K USD and you’ll get put on a list so you can buy one of the first 25 Skycars to roll of the assembly line, delivery date sometime in 2006. Pay less and get further down the list.

      Or you can get in line for your very own dealership. Just pay the Moller people some money and you’ll get down on the list for preferential consideration when production is ramped up and the vehicles are finally (finally!!!) ready for delivery.

      Or you can buy an artist’s rendition of a Skycar in flight, or a T-shirt, or a model. Yeah, sure, they’re not the real thing, but at least they’re willing to ship this stuff immediately instead of some unspecified time in the future that never seems to actually arrive.

      Like I said, when a dealership opens near me I’m gonna go for a test drive. ‘Till then…

      James

    24. James R. Rummel Says:

      So I have this car where the air conditioning won’t shut off, and no matter what I do I can’t find the short to fix the problem.

      When the weather turns cool I get under the hood and remove the belt that drives the compressor. As long as the AC isn’t actually slowing the engine down I get 28 MPH in the city, 34 or so on the highway.

      When it gets hot I put the belt back on. Then the compressor is always on no matter what. My gas milage plummets to 22 MPH city, 25 highway.

      Think about that for a minute. My car, which is broken but still runs, nevertheless travels along the ground at a little better than 20 MPG.

      Look at the Moller website and you’ll see that they’re predicting that their M400 passenger Skycar sedan will get 20 MPG.

      20 MPG even though it’s a VTOL aircraft. 20 MPG even though (they say) it will still run on the same gasoline that I put in my car. 20 MPG even though it’s cruising speed is 205 MPH.

      Shannon has a very good comment up above this one, where she points out that physics dictates aircraft design. I’m not even sure that you can get 20 MPG with a ground car travelling at 205 MPH, let alone a VTOL aircraft! But that’s what Moller wants us to believe.

      I dunno, guys. Sounds like someone’s willing to say anything in order to drum up investors.

      James

    25. Shannon Love Says:

      “she points out that physics dictates aircraft design.”

      Actually, I really meant that different problems present themselves at different scales.

      For example, a small insect like a bee expends about 10% of its power getting airborne. That is why bees to so much VTOL. Its easy for them. But, moving forward against air resistance cost a takes 90% of its thrust. On the scale of a bee, air is quite viscous. For a bee, flying is more like what we would think of as swimming. The almost floats on the air.

      As the size increases this ration changes, for large birds the ratio is around 50/50. Big birds just can’t leap into the air, they need a running start.

      By the time you get up to something a human will fit in the ration is 90% of thrust to get you in the air and 10% to move forward. That is why VTOL craft, including helicopters are very inefficient.

      That is why supersonic aircraft like the Concord, the SR-71 or even supersonic missiles are very large. Once you get them moving its more efficient to be big at high speeds.

      Even given all the objections I mention I really think that making a flying car is well within the capabilities of contemporary technology.

      Its making a LANDING car that’s the bitch.

    26. Tyouth Says:

      About 10 years ago some sport down in southwestern US (Las Vegas area?) bolted a surplus jet engine onto his old Chey Impala. I believe he flew (?) into the side of a mountain.
      A “Darwin Award” winner.

      I hope one or two of the above “facts” are more or less true.

      Technically, you could fly a brick these days if you have the right stuff (of course the Impala owner didn’t quite have the right stuff) but, just like cars, why would you want to?

    27. Shannon Love Says:

      Tyouth,

      I think this is the incident you are think about.

      I don’t think care actually flew, although if he had hit a steep enough hill going up slope…

    28. Robert Schwartz Says:

      “There’s no law of nature that says that aircraft development has to stop where it’s been for the last few decades, or that better controls can’t be designed and built”

      No, but I have an empirical observation that may indicate a law of economics/technology. The observation is that the exponential growth phase of a technology from the time that the first useful implementation is produced until a mature implementation is about 60 years or two generations.

      The observation conceptualizes the growth of a technology in three phases like a yeast growth curve an initial, perhaps long linear take off period, the short exponential growth period, and then the slower more linear growth of the mature period.

      Example airplanes. Lots of experimentation and tinkering throughout the 19th century. In 1903, the Wright brothers. The 747 flew 66 years later in 1969 and the SR71 63 years later in 1966. The A380 is an advance over the 747, but it is an incremental and linear advance, coming 36 years later. 36 years before the 747, saw the introduction of the first planes that became the DC-3 series of twin engine prop transport planes that could carry 24 passengers. That is the difference between exponential and linear development.

      We may be seeing the same phenomenon in computers. Just last year Intel announced that it would not be producing a 4 GHz Pentium IV because it could not solve current leakage and heat dissipation problems. We are approaching the 60th anniversary of the invention of the transistor. Is this a coincidence?

      The economic law that may serve to explain this phenomenon might be the law of diminishing returns.

    29. incognito Says:

      one other factor, how much gas would a Moller flying car take, weighed against the range and carrying capacity. I already complain that it takes $30 for a fillup, and that’s just 15 gallons. I’m guessing an hour of round trip flight time would take more than 10 gallons. But let’s say 10 a day, 50 gallons a week = $100 a week/$400-$500 a month/$5200 a year. I guess you can rationalize it by the rent or mortgage you’ll save. But something to think about.

    30. incognito Says:

      Which goes back to a point Shannon raised in that the Internet is phenomenal at distributing information. Our company has a ton of telecommuters working at home. Firewall technology is such that my work laptop can do everything I can do at the office at home.

    31. Ken Says:

      “We may be seeing the same phenomenon in computers. Just last year Intel announced that it would not be producing a 4 GHz Pentium IV because it could not solve current leakage and heat dissipation problems. We are approaching the 60th anniversary of the invention of the transistor. Is this a coincidence?”

      I don’t know. There are still ongoing developments other than ever-faster CPU’s, with improvements in networked portable computers (notably the fold-up variant with a cell phone built in), wireless networking, and continuing improvements in software production tools and available software. Whether this counts as a separate “technology” with its own 60 year lifespan, I don’t know.

      And where does that 60 year span come from? Is that how long it takes most societies to regulate a new technology into stasis? Is that how long it takes the most talented people to get bored with it and work on something else? Is that how long it takes for the product to get to a point where most consumers figure it’s “good enough” and stop upgrading regardless of further developments?

      Oh, and a good counterexample is the telephone. Introduced in the 1870’s, it entered a period of relative stasis after the AT&T monopoly was granted, only to begin generating new revolutionary developments after new players were let in and some publicly owned spectrum was released for use in cell phones.

      At any rate, even if further revolutionary developments in personal aircraft aren’t technically feasible, then loosening controls on their use in lightly populated areas still won’t really hurt anyone (at least, not anyone who doesn’t deliberately accept a risk) or cost any real money, and it seems likely to allow some improvements in price and quality that benefit society. I don’t see any way we could lose, and we just might win big – I suspect we would once a relatively deregulated industry manages to attract more talent to the task. Can’t hurt either way…

    32. Robert Schwartz Says:

      “And where does that 60 year span come from?”

      As I said its an emperical observation. My proposed explanation was declining marginal utility. The computer industry is a good example. New PCs used to be upwards of $3,000 fully loaded. Those prices have been lost forever. The market will no longer support them, and will no longer support much R&D. Dell the market leader does none.

      “Oh, and a good counterexample is the telephone. Introduced in the 1870’s, it entered a period of relative stasis after the AT&T monopoly was granted, only to begin generating new revolutionary developments after new players were let in and some publicly owned spectrum was released for use in cell phones.”

      Bell patented the telephone in 1876. “In 1877, construction of the first regular telephone line from Boston to Somerville, Massachusetts was completed. By the end of 1880, there were 47,900 telephones in the United States. The following year telephone service between Boston and Providence had been established. Service between New York and Chicago started in 1892, and between New York and Boston in 1894. Transcontinental service by overhead wire was . . .[begun in] 1915.”

      “In 1889, Almon B. Strowger a Kansas City undertaker, invented a switch that could connect one line to any of 100 lines by using relays and sliders. . . An associate of Strowgers’ invented the rotary dial in 1896 . . . ” which was universal by the 1940s.

      That pretty much describes the system as I found it, growing up in the 1950’s. The Bell system started installing computerized hybrid digital/analogue switches in the 1960s and started offering touch tone service. Cell phones became possible because of other technological advances and the willingness of the FCC to allocate spectrum in the mid 1970’s. It was not until cell phones became digital devices in the 1990s that they could be universal pocket communicators, because analogue cell phones were far too heavy and power hungry to be practical.

      What I see with telecommunications is a mature infrasturcture that is being destroyed and replaced by a new digital system that will be vey different physically (based on fiber and coax running to computer hubs and thence via VOIP) and economically (all new players).

    33. Michael J. Morrison Says:

      The world once laughed at a man flying period, so anything negative about the use of flying cars or vehicles used by the world masses would be ingnorant and foolish as its not a question on if, its a question of when! Embrase new tech, cmon now or go get yourself a horse and cart and some chewing tobaccoo.
      Michael J. Morrison
      Canadian.

    34. Michael J. Morrison Says:

      I vision Golden M “Mcdonalds” and “FLYThrough” coffee shops way up in the sky Contractors building landing pads in a frenzy cheap family flights and our world getting very small as the time passes.

      The future cannot be stoped.
      Enjoy what you can before you leave this planet.
      Take Care Everyone.
      Best Regards,
      Mr. Michael J. Morrison
      37yrs Canadian