I could have sworn that we have asked this one before, but perhaps I’m thinking of our discussion of nuclear aircraft. In my mind the two share a similar fate: it just isn’t going to happen. But, that doesn’t mean flying cars can’t happen. Let me make my case, and then we want to know what you think.

[Steve] sent in a link to a Bloomberg article on Larry Page’s suspected investment in personal flying cars. It’s exciting to hear about test flights from a startup called Zee.Aero with 150 people on staff and a seemingly unlimited budget to develop such a fantastic toy. Surely Bruce Wayne Mr. Page is onto something and tiny 2-person vehicles will be whizzing up and down the airspace above your street at any moment now? Realistically though, I don’t believe it. They definitely will build a small fleet of such vehicles and they will work. But you, my friend, will never own one.

(Fear of) Flying Jackasses

FlyingPinto Thumb
This isn’t a new idea. [Kristina Panos] wrote about the longstanding quest for personal aircraft like this flying Pinto

Put your mind in the now: think of the time you spent in the car this week. How many cars did you see that had been in fender benders? How many looked to be in grave disrepair? Did you have any close calls from inattentive drivers or jackasses running the red light? There are all kinds of cars and drivers on the road that make it an unsafe place to be. I consider it the most dangerous thing I do on a regular basis. Now take that and put it in the sky. Every one of those inattentive people are now responsible for 3D space where a small accident can send shrapnel raining down over the landscape quite possibly with the flying cars following after them.

There were nearly 30,000 fatalities from automobile crashes in the US in 2014 and that doesn’t count any where there were injuries but not death. We need self driving vehicles because I believe that intelligent systems can improve upon our numbers. Flying machines should be no different, right? I’m skeptical, but just go with it.

So this leaves public sentiment. Do you know how many airplane related deaths there were in 2014? 691. That’s worldwide. Compare that with 30,000 traffic deaths just in the USA. Yet a downed aircraft will be all over the news for days, weeks, perhaps more than a month. Driverless cars seem to be viewed with some fear despite a steady drumbeat of “they’re just around the corner” for the past couple of decades. And I already touched on the hysteria over drones — invading people’s privacy, endangering aircraft, carrying weapons — I don’t worry about any of these thing but I hear a LOT about these concerns from other people and outlets. [Jenny List] even wrote an exceptional article about drone-v-plane hysteria which you shouldn’t miss. My point is that it’s a gigantic task to get widespread buy-in for letting anyone travel the skies in their own flying car. And the first time one falls out of the wild blue yonder into an apartment building it’ll put the effort back a couple of decades.

Reliability

Which finally brings us to the GIF at the top of the post. I didn’t just choose a scene from The Fifth Element to be cute. That movie does a great job of imagining a future society. 3D printable body parts, tiny locker-like apartments, and a photo ID that you must show to do anything? Sounds like where we’re headed. But perhaps best is that nothing ever works right, just like real life. This is the centerpiece of engineering beyond the minimum specs. You must be able to cope with failure of the system and this is where I think the biggest challenge lies. Achieving an aircraft that you can park in your garage, get off the ground with a few people inside, and travel any meaningful distance is incredibly difficult. Now you also need to make sure it doesn’t fall out of the sky at the drop of a hat. That’s what makes this Science Fiction and not just Science.

Despite my naysaying, I am very excited for Larry Page’s (alleged) adventures in flying car research. Even if we don’t end up having Saturday night drag races in the sky, the research being done will surly yield unexpected advancements that will benefit everyone.

What do you think? Can we solve this engineering challenge within our lifetimes? And if so, will we actually be allowed to use them en masse over densely populated areas? Let us know in the comments below.



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