It’s been nearly 80 years since flying cars were first “predicted” to be a routine part of our lives in 1950. If we’re really going to be precise, the first “flying car” was actually patented in 1917 (the Curtiss Autoplane) – nearly 100 years ago. Thus, I have one simple question:

So where the heck are they then?

I mean seriously, you can’t tell me after a hundred years (or at least fifty years) we can’t have flying cars?

Yes, that’s what I’m telling you. But I don’t think it’s because we can’t build a flying car, it’s because we must not really want one.

If we really wanted flying cars, we’d have them. This is an idea that has been kicked around for more than a decade.

Flying Cars: Popular Science Article "Flying Autos in 20 Years" - July 1924
Eddie Rickenbacker’s article in Popular Science Monthly – July 1924. Credit: Popular Science

Flying Cars Are Not Held Back By Technology

There’s a lot to be made about the technology of flying cars. Some say the technological issues cannot be overcome.

They can be overcome. We have invented stuff to solve all sorts of problems.

The focus on making a “flying car” has resulted in some rather impressive improvements in innovation in aviation. Two that come to my mind are changes in electric motors and batteries (which will have long term consequences for aviation generally) and potentially the development of new materials that make planes lighter and faster. These improvements (and others) have made general aviation better, and will undoubtedly be folded into commercial aviation down the road. (I don’t see Boeing making a 7-electric-7 any time soon… but who knows?)

While electric strikes me as a relatively futile effort (because I understand how energy density works), and while new poly carbon fibers and whatnot intriguing, cracking these nuts aren’t the real question.

The Terrafugia transition vehicle public flying demonstration at the EAA AirVenture fly-in at Oshkosh Wisconsin. (Credit/License: iStock Photography)

There are three challenges to having a flying car in every garage (or even a lot of garages). They’re quite simple to understand. They’re not insurmountable, but, one has to wonder if solving this problem is really “worth it”.

We can do anything – that’s the joy and consequence of free will and capitalism. The question is, do we actually get more for our money inventing this product, or would we be better doing something else?

It’s this last part that I think is the reason why we don’t have flying vehicles everywhere (and probably still won’t for quite some time). I just wonder if flying cars (where we have it as a primary mode of transportation) ever makes any real sense. There are three challenges that I think about that make me question the long-term societal “profitability” of flying cars. These three challenges are:

  1. The rigors of learning to fly are such that millions of people just aren’t suited to become pilots.
  2. Where are we going “exactly” in our flying cars anyways?
  3. The infrastructure of building the “roads in the sky” seem ultimately counter productive (not to mention dangerous).

Unfortunately, there aren’t any obvious ways around these problems, despite the blind faith of the “flying autos will be everywhere” crowd. While I believe in technology and innovation, and that the capitalist model can find a way, I don’t believe in the mantra of “well we could put a man on the moon, we can do anything.”

Yes, we can do anything. That doesn’t mean it’s a worthwhile endeavor. Making flying cars may never “pay” well enough to make it a reality.

The difference between a pilot’s license and an automobile license is not trivial

The first obvious issue is this – three dimensions make life pretty complicated. Anyone who has become a pilot knows that as soon as they provide back pressure to the yolk, and the plane leaves the ground, life gets very “real” and very “complicated” in a hurry.

(Credit/License: iStock Photography)

Flying, even with all the gizmos and automation, is more complicated than driving. Granted, the entire flight, the trip may not be as intense at landing and take off (especially in planes with highly sophisticated autopilot), but in those moments of landing and take off, pilots experience more demands on their mental skill and craft than they ever would flying a car.

Even with autopilot, the sheer complexity of the task of three dimensional travel, places greater demands on the pilot than would ever be the case with a driver. Cruise control and autopilot are not completely analogous; neither are long stretches of highway with no chance of traffic crossing your path analogous to navigating on autopilot, conversing with ATC, and constantly ensuring your maintaining course. In short, while piloting is a learnable skill (obviously), it’s not as simple as driving a car.

A simple example of this is what it takes to get licensed to fly.

To become a pilot, you have to have a medical examination. Nobody asks you to get a physical before getting a license to drive (although perhaps we should).

Just like drivers ed, pilots have to do a fair amount of ground school. Unlike driver’s ed, which you take in high school and then bug your parents to drive around town, the process of getting your basic private pilot’s license requires you to work with a certified flight instructor in the type of airplane you will most likely fly (at least to solo).

Since most pilots don’t own their own aircraft, and since most pilots don’t have access to a flight instructor for free, the cost per hour to learn to fly can be as high as $200 (plane rental and instructor time).

The investment in getting a license costs as much as $10k and requires anywhere from 40-90 hours to complete. That’s quite a chunk of change for most people. What’s worse (or unfortunate) is that having a private pilots license isn’t like getting your driver’s license.

Your basic pilots license will allow you to fly basically when it’s decent weather out (we call this ‘visual flight conditions’) and it will allow you to fly a basic airplane (if you want to fly a plane with retractable landing gear, multiple engines, and/or constant speed propeller(s), you’ll need additional training and endorsements).

How many people are going to want to “drive” only when it’s nice out? Not many, I’m guessing.

Moreover, nearly all of these flying cars have retracting parts, variable flaps, multiple engines with variable pitch propellers (constant speed). These are going to be complex aircraft in most cases – especially the proposed flying cars that might use ducted turbo props (which are powered by a kind of jet engine).

The real world consequence of all this is that nearly everyone would need to get additional training to become “instrument rated” in addition to their private pilot license. Instrument ratings mean that you use your instruments to see where you’re going, because, if you look out the window – you can’t see anything (clouds, fog, or rain, make it impossible to see out).

All these gizmos aren’t for show. Even when it’s nice out, most commercial flights are conducted under “Instrument Flight Rules” (IFR) for safety and control of the crowded airspace around international airports. (Credit/License: iStock Photography)

Well, we can do that, but it adds another $10K to the cost, on top of the $10K you already spent to become a private pilot. The good news is, in this whole process, you now can basically fly anything and everything you could get your hands on (you may need a few endorsements here and there, or possibly a type-rating, but you’re pretty much good to go). That whole process took you about 150 hours and $20k.

Ouch!

This is in part why we have a severe pilot shortage and why the total number of private pilots has been declining in the past 20 years. When it costs $20K just to get certified to the point of being able to train as a commercial pilot, then spending another $30K in training and qualification to get your “ATP” (Airline Transport Pilot) certificate, and then you have to spend another $130K getting enough hours to be qualified to fly for an airline, the economics of the situation gets complicated in a hurry.

And this is for people who could actually make money as pilots. Imagine if it cost 200K and three years to become an Uber driver? Who the heck is going to do that for tips and 20 cents a mile?

But let’s put aside all this for a moment. Because the advocates of flying cars say, “hey no problem – computers man! Cars will fly themselves!”

Ok. Thus far, that’s a bumpy road for the autonomous driving robots.

I’m willing to entertain that over time, we may have planes that can fly themselves, and we may have cars that can drive themselves, but will we have car planes that fly and drive themselves? Maybe. At best, the technology is 30-40 years away it would seem (assume the robots don’t all kill us first).

So at least for the interim, people are going to have to learn how to fly. Even if we use autonomous systems in commercial aircraft (which is likely), you’ll still need SOMEONE in the cockpit who knows how to fly and can take the controls at key moments in the journey. Which means that you’d need some system to teach millions of people how to fly.

Well that’s something that’s never been done before. We don’t even understand how to do it. Again, we can’t even get people to take flying lessons to become pilots. Who the hell is going to spend $20K and nearly a month of their life learning to fly so they can take the “flying car” out for a Sunday Drive?

And just where are we going in our “flying cars” anyways?

Your average driver spends about 12K miles a year in the car. The vast majority of this time is spent commuting between home and work. The average commute for most Americans is about 32 miles a day.

Typically, to make a single engine flight make any sense, you need about a 100 miles of travel between the airports. The average private aviation flight is about 200 miles. This is because of the time it takes to take off, get to a reasonable altitude, and then line up to land and land. In part, this is driven by average fuel costs (jet fuel around $5.20 a gallon and Aviation Gas around $6.50 a gallon.)

Now, while private pilots love to joke about the “hundred dollar cheeseburger,” the fact is that those little excursions are largely done because of the passion of flying. It wouldn’t make much sense to spend $100 commuting to and from work every day.

Black passenger drone flying over cars in heavy traffic jam. (Credit/License: iStock Photography)

The car and the national highway system changed America. Perhaps flying cars would have a similar effect on national culture. But again, most of what we use the car for is commuting to and from work. Driving Billy to the soccer game. Picking up Suzie from band practice. We’re not anticipating those trips having massive checklist run ups, attempting to clear flights and flight paths, worrying about weather, worrying about flight conditions, etc.

The convenience of flying in a car just isn’t there for 99% of the small trips we would make. Driving would be faster, better, cheaper, and quite frankly, more safe.

Perhaps it will be the case that we can make it economically viable to pick people up from one part of a major city, like New York, and shuttle them 20-30 miles, and the time savings is worth it. But then what “Air Taxis” really are at that point are just helicopters. They may look like flying cars and drones, but the amount we’ll need and the role they will play won’t be all that difficult than helicopter shuttles. The economics of that situation I would imagine would be rather similar – people who value their time more than they value the economics.

I can’t imagine firing up the old “Flyster” and spending $100 bucks to go and get some groceries (for me a trip that would be less than three miles).

So just where are we flying in these cars anyways?

Even if we assume suddenly petroleum gets cheaper (because we’re refining just jet fuel) or somehow we magically figure out electricity and batteries, it’s still going to cost four to five times more to make simple trips to the grocery store or to the baseball game. What’s worse, probably won’t be much faster. Flight’s speed and efficiency advantage only is realized in long haul trips (even for commercial aircraft).

Building a Safe Infrastructure Strike Me as Nearly Impossible.

Let me begin with something you probably think you know, but you really don’t: flying is not safer than driving. I realize you’ve been told, and you tell yourself every time you step on an airplane, that flying is statistically safer than driving, that “mantra” isn’t entirely accurate.

When we talk about saying “flying is safer than driving,” we should qualify those remarks with a very important caveat: flying commercial aviation is safer than driving. As a general practice, air travel is considerably more dangerous.

Small plane crashes through fence on highway in emergency landing. (Credit/License: iStock Photography)

The number of fatalities attributed to commercial air travel has been declining rapidly over the past 30 years. Considering that the number of flights and passenger miles has increased dramatically during this time, the actual rate of fatalities continues to fall dramatically, by any measure.

To simplify the data, there are now approximately three times as many passenger miles flown as there were 30 years ago, but about one half the number of fatalities, on average. Thus, right now, commercial aviation boasts an impressive record of only one fatality per sixteen million flights.

In contrast, private aviation cannot boast nearly as impressive of a record. The fatality rate hovers just over 1 death per every 100,000 hours, according to a 2010 NTSB report. And while accidents and fatalities are down in corporate and business jet flights, the accident rate in personal flights has increased by 20 percent in the past decade, and the fatality rate for personal flights is up 25 percent.

Taking the fatality rate in general aviation of 1.05 fatalities for every 100,000 hours of flight time and scaling it up to 2 million hours (the equivalent amount of flight time that would equal a comparable amount of driving miles driven by Americans) gives a comparison rate of 21 general aviation fatalities per every 2 million hours. This suggests that stepping on a private plane is about 19 times more dangerous than getting into the family sedan. Going back to the earlier point I made about training, nearly 71% of all fatalities in aviation are attributable to pilot decisions (aka “pilot error”).

Then there’s the question of, “how are we going to manage all this air travel?” assuming we can manage it at all.

Right now the US aviation system handles approximately 103 thousand flights a day. The infrastructure of air traffic control, airports, radio towers, beacons, etc., handle this amount of workload every day.

(Credit/License: iStock Photography)

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts that 7.8 billion passengers will pass through airports in 2036, a near doubling of the four billion that traveled last year. Airports are under increasing pressure to expand infrastructure and services to meet this unprecedented demand, and are struggling to figure out how to do it.

The vast majority of this growth will be in commercial aviation (general aviation growth is believed to be roughly flat through 2040). What this means is more people flown, but on relatively fewer aircraft.

Once again, there are roughly 220 million licensed drivers in the United States. According to a study by IHS Automotive in 2014, an average of 253 million roadworthy cars drive in the US annually. In Los Angeles, for example, an average of five million cars drive daily.

Just if LA had 5% of its commuters adopt flying cars, you would effectively double the amount of flying aircraft in the US on a daily basis.

(Credit/License: iStock Photography)

Los Angeles cannot handle that much air traffic, even if the vast majority of it was in uncontrolled airspace. The investment necessary to control that much air travel, safely, would require trillions of dollars.

Where’s that money going to come from?

As it stands right now, just accommodating largely commercial growth, the amount of money needed to expand the nation’s airports is over 100 billion dollars. The FAA has been spending between 7-10 billion dollars a year for the past decade to attempt to modernize and improve air traffic control systems around the US.

If we were to suddenly put 500,000 or a million new airplanes in the air in the form of flying cars – the infrastructure necessary to ensure safe air travel would exponentially rise as well.

The US interstate road system cost about $200 billion dollars to build (initially). Since then, the US Government spends approximately $43 billion dollars a year maintaining it. The interstate system, however, constitutes only a fraction of the road system of the US. Overall, the United States spends nearly half a trillion dollars on the road systems.

If we extrapolate what we spend on air travel, to the level we would need if we wanted a similar infrastructure for “flying cars,” the numbers become mind boggling (even for federal budget numbers) in a hurry. If we extrapolate from IATA’s assessment of how much passengers pay for infrastructure (as a part of their tickets), fifty million flying cars (approximately 1/5th of the cars we have on the road), would require an investment in a similar infrastructure of 350 billion dollars a year – or roughly the cost of the existing national road system to allow 1/5th the amount of traffic. If we wanted comparable traffic, then the US would need to spend roughly two trillion dollars a year to maintain that system, and countless trillions to build it.

Maybe I’m just overwhelmed by the sheer cost of it all – but it strikes me as literally requiring nearly all the wealth we have to build any reasonable system of supporting any sizable fleet of airplanes being flown around as “flying cars”.

Between the cost to build the infrastructure, the safety, and the cost of operating the planes – it’s tough to argue that flying cars would make life better.

Moral of the Story – Path Dependency is a Bitch

By definition, path dependence explains how history really matters – where we have been in the past determines where we currently are and where we can go in future. Even tiny, seemingly trivial differences in the path we have taken may have enormous consequences for where we are and can go. Path dependence is the notion that decisions people are faced with now depend on previous decisions or choices made and past knowledge trajectory, so they are limited by the current competence base.

Our economy is litered with path dependent outcomes.

Consider for a moment, the automobile. The automotive industry continues to primarily develop vehicles with gasoline-fueled, internal combustion engines even though there is ultimately a finite supply of the resource.

Alternative fuels and power sources have been explored; however, they lack the research time and infrastructure commitment that has already been established for gasoline-fueled transportation and machine.

Despite rising costs and increased scarcity associated with fossil fuels, a long-term or renewable successor resource that can meet the worldwide demand has yet to be developed at scale.

As a consequence, we continue to all have gas cars. We will probably all continue to have gas cars into the foreseeable future. Gas stations will not suddenly become electric fueling stations. We will not suddenly have recharging stations at our homes.

Path dependence.

The Dvorak keyboard is more efficient, more productive, and better for you. Look down, do you have one?

Nope. QWER-TY! QWER-TY! QWER-TY!

Originally, the weird order of QWERTY was due to the limitations of the first typewriters. Whenever two neighboring keys were pressed at a fast pace, a physical error occurred inside the machine – the pressed letter would ‘crash’. We no longer have that problem since most people have never even used a hammer strike typewriter (let alone seen one), yet we still use the keyboard.

Path dependence.

(Credit/License: iStock Photography)

Once a business model begins to show increasing returns to scale, it’s very difficult to then replace that model; even if the innovative new product or service is considerably better.

The automobile is a considerably effective mode of transportation. Commercial transportation via aircraft is an effective mode of transportation.

Flying cars, probably won’t be. There are just too many hurdles to overcoming the challenges.

Which is why in 1924, saying flying cars would occur in 20 years was folly.

It’s also why saying now in “twenty years” we’ll have flying cars is folly.

It’s not the technology (although those issues are not irrelevant), but rather, it’s just not worth it to us to change our habits. We’re dependent on cars, roads, and that infrastructure. Most of us aren’t prepared to make the investments to fly – even if the price could drop 50 to 80% (where learning to fly would cost a few thousand dollars).

The entirety of our infrastructure in both flight and personal transport create significant barriers to changing those habits. It takes a lot to overcome that once it gets “locked in.”

USS Alabama (Presently permanently docked outside Ft. Drum in Mobile, AL). (Credit/License: iStock Photography)

There are stories of when path dependence is overcome. For example, heavy battleships were considered one of the most important assets a nation could have. Nations rushed to build them. Naval power was entirely premised on them. One of the most important treaties after World War I was the Washington Treaty which limited battleship capabilities. The most fearsome battleships ever built were the Yamato by Japan and the Iowa & Missouri by the United States.

Following World War II, the battleship was all but irrelevant. The US, clinging to history and stubbornness, finally retired the last of its battleships, the USS Missouri, in 1992. No other navy would ever build massive dreadnoughts.

Why?

Because the aircraft carrier had such distinct advantages over battleships, there was no way for the battleship to compete. Air craft carriers could project power at ranges beyond what battleships ever could. They could deliver more firepower to targets than battleships ever could. What’s more, they were cheaper, simpler, and easier to build in the existing infrastructure.

Bye bye battleship – never to return.

For flying cars to really be successful there’s a couple of things they’ll need to be:

  1. They’ll need to be really reliable, really easy to fly (less than 40 hours total to learn how to fly), and they’ll need to be able to work in all types of weather without difficulty.
  2. Somehow, they’ll need to work with the existing infrastructure.
  3. They’ll need to cost no more, if not less, than existing transportation methods. These costs will be measured not just in operation per hour, but in social costs (deaths and accidents).

For the foreseeable future, I have a hard time seeing flying cars satisfying those requirements. While the idea of robot flying cars, or special composites, or somehow “and a miracle occurs” are fun things to think about. In the end, path dependence is really difficult to overcome.

We like cars. We like planes. But for whatever reasons (mostly economic) we haven’t liked the idea of flying cars for over 100 years.

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