Will Flying Cars Ever Make Sense?

If you’re looking up into the sci-fi skies, you’ll see flying cars zipping around more often than UFOs. (See some cool ones here.) Dreamed-up worlds in books, movies and games like Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, Star Wars and Mass Effect all including flying cars. Even Harry and Ron were excited to drive a flying Ford Anglia in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and My Neighbor Totoro has a flying Catbus. (And let’s not forget the totally psychedelic Magic School Bus!)

The First Flying Car on the Market

It’s not a flying car, it’s a “roadable aircraft” — and that’s the rub.

All of these sci-fi flying cars have got me wondering whether flying cars are a real-world possibility. It seems that at the very least, they’re no longer just theoretical: if you have about £130,000 or $279,00 saved up, you can land a Terrafugia Transition, the first flying car on the market. Too bad it looks more like a life-size toy airplane — a bit cumbersome next to a traditional car on the roads, even with the wings tucked in.

To drive the Terrafugia Transition, you need at least a Sport Pilot license and a valid driver’s license. So one of the questions in the FAQ about the Transition is “Why would I get a Transition instead of a car and a plane?” The answer is that for recreational pilots, you can save money by purchasing just one, versatile vehicle. And if weather stops you from flying, you can tuck in those wings and take your journey from the skies to the roads — via an accessible airport, of course.

Inside the cockpit of the Terrafugia Transition…

It’s a cool idea, but personally, I can’t see the appeal for either pilots or drivers. For those who bother logging 20 hours of flight practice to obtain a pilot license, a traditional plane may seem more appealing. At the very least, having a traditional plane will allow them to also purchase a car that actually looks decent on the roads.

And most of us don’t have pilot licenses, making this particular flying car beyond reach. Even if I could be bothered to get a pilot license and somehow managed to afford a Terrafugia Transition, I wouldn’t want to drive that thing to work every day. I would want a commuter car, too — and in that case, why bother buying the Transition when I could get a cool jet?

Don’t get my wrong: I have great respect for the innovation that went into engineering the Transition. It’s a stepping stone, and I’m excited to see what comes next. But I still have to wonder if flying cars will ever truly be practical…

Traffic Laws

A car chase scene gets more complicated in The Fifth Element.

Sure, flying cars could ease up gridlock. Instead of a measly 3 highway lanes, you’d have 3 lanes plus a dozen more above them. But to accommodate all of this new traffic, you’d have to rewrite traffic laws and add a load of new ones. And that seems like quite an overwhelming task, especially as flying cars would probably leak into the marketplace one by one, making a rewrite of traffic laws seem a little over-the-top, at first.

When my Shep was in a Mass Effect 2 skycar, I held my breath as we careened through traffic in the skies over Illium. I felt the same seat-gripping thrill watching Anakin steer the sky car in Attack of the Clones — the sort of thrill that works for a game or movie but would be absolutely terrifying in real life. The Fifth Element’s car scenes seem equally chaotic with all of those cars in such close quarters and no familiar traffic laws to keep them in place.

Already innovations in land-based cars are spotting problems ahead when it comes to getting traffic laws changed. A recent article in Popular Science highlighted a new technology: car-to-car communication that would allow a single driver to “tow” a string of synced-up cars, caravan-style. (It’s already been tested!) This would allow all but the first car to go driver-less. But what happens if the first car makes it through a yellow light? Obviously, the other cars can’t safely continue on through a red light to stay in tow.

The article states that adjusting traffic regulations is a major obstacle standing in the way of making car trains a practical possibility. So I can only imagine what sorts of hurdles flying cars will have to overcome…

A More Practical Approach: Sky Trains

If we’re going to be rewriting traffic laws, why bother accommodating millions of (idiotic) drivers and their flying vehicles? To me, it makes more sense to make air-based public transportation trains, like sky trains.

Public transportation is already highly regulated. Trains and the tube run efficiently, without any traffic to worry about. (Buses are another thing altogether.) Having commuter planes running specific routes at specific times would reduce traffic on land (and underground), yet traffic laws for them would not have to accommodate an overwhelming number of drivers who are commuting to work or, on a whim, decide to take a spin or go out for too many drinks.

Already many people are trying to take public transport instead of using personal vehicles, for the sake of saving the planet from pollution. For this reason alone, sky trains seem more efficient that personal flying cars. Of course, cars will become very clean vehicles someday, too… but there’s still gridlock to consider.

Cars That Are Smarter Than We Are

If we go the route of public transportation instead of personal flying cars, I can see us going Minority Report and having driver-less vehicles on grids that allow for swift traffic flow. Already, intelligent cockpits that brake for you, notice when you’re getting sleepy and report on upcoming traffic are making cars more intelligent, so their drivers don’t have to be.

Some of Minority Report‘s cars run on a grid, at least in the city.

But personally, I want personal vehicles to be available until the end of time. Maybe that’s not practical, but I love driving, and even if I take public transportation around the city at times, I want to be able to take my car for a spin — and not one that’s controlled by an intelligent cockpit or allows me to put my feet up and read a book, or that brakes for me all the time. Driving can be a zen experience, and I hope car-makers will find a way to make cars safe while still giving drivers freedom to just drive sometimes… or fly. But that’s another train of thought.

— Ashley

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