48 thoughts on “Where’s My Flying Car?”

  1. The only complaint of substance in the linked article is “driving while on cell phone.” If you don’t think that’s a problem, you probably don’t drive very much. Google’s self-driving cars are years if not decades from production, and one can double that number before all cars are self-driving.

    Seems to me reasonable to suggest we have to do something in the mean time about the cell phone problem.

  2. I don’t think it’s a problem, Chris. I haven’t seen any big spike in accidents or craziness since everyone got a cell phone.

    What I have noticed is that when people do dumbass things on the road, as they routinely do, witnesses these days tend to look for the cell phone and, if they find it, say Oho! THERE’S the problem! As if it’s intuitively obvious that someone who does dumb things on the road while on a cell phone would not do dumb things if he weren’t, a theory I find highly questionable. (In my experience, people who pay attention to the road still pay attention to the road when they use the phone, and people who are easily distracted or who exhibit poor prioritization of mental tasks aren’t any more distracted by a phone than by a provocative ad on the radio, a funny fart noise by a passenger, or a unicorn-shaped cloud.)

    Me, I tend to think the cell phone distraction theory is just the typical human seizing on the “obvious” explanation, which is what people like to do, the same way the newspapers always have a ready “explanation” for why the stock market went up or down today, the same way everyone blames teenage angst and antisocial funk on Facebook, cyberbullying, video games, premarital sex, jalopies, or the death of apprenticeship, depending on what the latest cultural innovation has been.

  3. Hands-free setups already exist. Whether they should be mandated seems doubtful, and whether they should be mandated at the Federal level rather more so. What’s really going to be fun is how quickly the legal/regulatory regime – which is the only thing holding up robot vehicles, given that they’re almost certainly at least as good as human drivers already – “flips” from its current state to one in which manually-driven cars are illegal. Also, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FAvQSkK8Z8U.

  4. Tests show the hands free devices are just as distracting as ordinary cell phones. It’s likely the attention given to the call itself (often with poor audio quality) rather than the act of holding a phone to your ear that causes most of the distraction.

    Distracted drivers are nothing new. Back in the day when smokers made up a larger percentage of the population, smoking while driving was cited as a factor in a lot of accidents. There were reportedly a lot of accidents caused by people looking away from the road while lighting a cigarette or trying to find a dropped one.

    Cell phones are a relatively new distraction. I’ve seen people weaving all over the road while eating, putting on makeup and primping themselves (the worst case of that I ever saw was a man who primped in the mirror for 30 miles while damn near wrecking several times), and even reading a book. Some people opposed car radios back in the 1930s (Bill Lear of LearJet fame made one of the first car radios back them) as a source of distraction.

    I’ve driven in over 40 states. Everywhere I go, people complain about the bad drivers, and everywhere I go, they’re right. It’s the reverse of the “Lake Woebegone Effect” (where all of our kids are above average. Just about everywhere, a high percentage of the drivers I’ve seen suck.

  5. A Jetsons future has to do with technology more than behavior. Rather than focus on driving-while-texting bans and so forth, why not focus on automotive safety technology. How many people got killed driving their flying cars to Spacely Sprokets each morning? Zero!

    There is a clear market demand for safer cars, and yet it has taken government mandates to push safety techology into cars for the masses (due to economy of scale and barrier to entry, I suppose). Airbags, for example, are one step toward a Jetsons future, and it took government mandates to make them available to everyone at a reasonable cost.

    And mandates are not the only tool the government has available to it. I’ve been very pleased to see that safercar.gov revamped their five star standards to make it harder to get five stars. Some of the IIHS’s “Top Safety Picks” now only get three out of five stars under the new government testing program, due entirely to objective standards in evaluating crashes (“head injury criterion”), as opposed to arbitrary standards like “has backup camera”.

    (In fairness, both testing regimes are inadequate and can be gamed, and they complement each other to some extent, but I’m glad to see the government and the IIHS keeping each other honest.)

  6. The reason we don’t have flying cars is not technological. The technology needed to create a small VTOL aircraft ( = “flying car”) has existed since the 1950s. The reason we don’t have flying cars is social and behavioral. Most people are incapable of operating a land-based motor vehicle safely; the thought of taking the drunks, psychos, mojados, make-up artists, cell-phone addicts, and sleep-deprived commuters i encounter on the freewats of the DFW area and putting them behind the controls of a two tousand pound flyng machine is a sphincter-loosening proposition.

    We will have flying cars as soon as we have a global computer-controlled software system to operate the cars, and an automated air traffic control system capable of making sure they don’t crash into one another or fall into my backyard.

  7. B. Lewis, that’s one approach, but I would rather be like George Jetson, and fly my car myself — I just want it to be super-safe, for everyone. A little less automation than you suggest (but not too much less) and lots of safety gear might accomplish this.

    Also, i don’t agree that the tech is there yet — we need quiet fans for one thing, and that’s very hard.

  8. The reason we don’t have Jetsons flying cars is not technological. It’s due to the fact that we still have habitable terrain. The Jetsons lived in the sky — that’s where their cars needed to be. Maybe their land was infested with mutant radioactive zombies.

  9. Larry J, there was a different study that points out that it isn’t even ‘phone vs speakerphone’. The level of distraction of an ongoing conversation with a passenger is comparable to the distraction of a cell phone. This hasn’t won me any debates with my normal passengers. 😉

  10. Carl Pham – having actually seen cell phone-using drivers act stupid, and based on personal experience (getting off the wrong exit while on cell phone) I still maintain cell phones are more distracting than other passengers or the radio. I also suspect that hands-free vs. speaker doesn’t matter- it’s the mental effort to hold the conversation that matters.

    Bob-1 correctly points out that safety usually requires an outside force to happen. Ford tried to sell their cars as safer and it didn’t work. That outside force could be insurance or government, but “safety as a competitive advantage” doesn’t seem to work.

    Flying cars aren’t here because they currently need a pilot’s license to operate. Moving in 3 dimensions is inherently more complicated than moving in 2. Reliable automation is the only way you’ll get mass numbers of flying cars.

    B. Lewis – sphincter-loosening proposition 🙂 Can I borrow that?

  11. Chris, I disagree. Safety sells. Unfortunately, companies lie about what’s safe while offering unsafe cars. Nissan and Subaru and Toyota are all currently advertising their cars’ safety. So, go look at safercar.gov’s 2010 data, and compare the head injury criteria for crashes. Nissan and Toyota have much worse hic numbers than Subaru. Thank you US government for making the choice clear. I would be fine with mandating hic numbers below 200.

  12. Sorry I didn’t spell that out: currently, car makers must print the five star rating on the vehicle sticker, due to the evil liberty-hating government. The five star rating doesn’t tell you all that much. Printing the hic numbers on the mandatory sticker would help inform consumers. Actually mandating hic numbers, just as airbags were mandated, would make life safer for ignorant consumers who don’t know what the hic numbers mean.

  13. There have been studies which show that passengers have greater situational awareness which leads them to shut up when the driver needs less distraction. Less often true when the passenger is a child, but it is easier to momentarily ignore your child than it is to ignore a boss or spouse on your cell phone.

  14. Flying cars aren’t here because they currently need a pilot’s license to operate. Moving in 3 dimensions is inherently more complicated than moving in 2. Reliable automation is the only way you’ll get mass numbers of flying cars.

    The answer to that is simple – get a pilot’s license. It isn’t that hard to learn to fly a small plane and you can get a private pilot’s license at age 17. An LSA Sport Pilot license – suitable for roadable planes like the Terrafugia Transition only requires 25 hours of flying time.

    As a pilot, I’m not intested in massive numbers of flying cars. I want one for pilots who’ve made a commitment to learning how to fly.

  15. Alberto Santos-Dumont lived much of the George Jetson flying car lifestyle in 1901 than private pilots do today.

    As Paul Hoffman recounts in his Santos-Dumont biography “Wings of Madness,” the eccentric Brazilian was the first and only person to own a personal flying machine that could take him just about anywhere he wanted to go.

    “He would keep his dirigible tied to a gas lamp post in front of his Paris apartment at the Champs-Elysees and every night he would fly to Maxim’s for dinner. During the day he’d fly to go shopping, he’d fly to visit friends,” Hoffman said.

  16. having actually seen cell phone-using drivers act stupid, and based on personal experience…

    Oh! You didn’t tell me you had an anecdote to back up your theory. Of course, that changes everything. I must be wrong, sorry.

    it is easier to momentarily ignore your child than it is to ignore a boss or spouse on your cell phone.

    Says who? Geez, Bob, where do you get these fascinating cartoon theories of the infantile behaviour of your fellow man? Ideas about his inherent habits of attention-setting that would seem so clearly counter-survival that they’d have long ago been edited out of the species?

    I expect almost all people could ignore God Himself on the cell phone if the situation on the road demanded their attention. Very, very few people, I hazard, are unable to correctly prioritize the sheer physical pants-crapping fear of hot flaming 80 MPH death and the more abstract fear of having your boss pass you over for promotion next Christmas. I expect that gets sorted out within milliseconds, instinctively, the same way a base-runner yakking to the first baseman instinctively ducks (rudely interrupting his conversation) when a line drive comes right at his head.

    I think a much more plauslible theory, more consistent with how we observe complex highly redundant systems catastrophically fail is that we have an occasional Black Swan, an unfortunate simultaneity in the presentation of many mental tasks, any one or two or five of which could have been solved if presented alone. I suspect it’s the very synergistic nature and exponential scaling of those kinds of problem solving that makes the system gronk.

    In short, I would hazard that if you convened a Rogers Commission — well funded, patient, with loads of empirical data — to investigate a “cell phone” caused crash, you’d find in most cases a host of other simultaneous problems. Not only was the angry boss on the phone — the guy had a furious itch in his foot, he was tired, he’d just noticed the car was very low on gas, and some smug soi-disant “expert” on public safety had just come on NPR to hector him about how to think correctly, and he was fighting off an urge to punch the radio and send $500 to Sharron Angle.

  17. “How many people got killed driving their flying cars to Spacely Sprokets each morning? Zero!”

    That might be due to the fact that the characters on The Jetsons were all cartoon animations.

  18. Also, both you and Chris seem to have a shallow grasp of the nature of rational decision making with respect to “safety.” You speak of it as if it’s an unalloyed good, something infiniitely precious, for which any amount of expense is worthwhile.

    That’s absurd, of course. If that were rational, we shouldn’t drive cars at all. We should jsut walk everywhere. Or possibly stay at home locked in a nice, safe, stainless steel box. Clealry, there are trade-offs between what you can accomplish with your life’s energy and time and what risks you are willing to take along the way. If people are unwilling to spend the hours of their labor paying for airbags, choosing instead to put that money towards homeowner’s insurance, or savings for a medical emergency, or their brilliant son’s college tuition, or a better quality of glucose monitor for their diabetes — then in the absence of empirical evidence you have no logical justification for calling this an “unreasonable” decision. It may well be the optimal decision, even from the restrictted point of view of personal safety.

    That is, if you look only at the Seen benefit of mandated airbags, in terms of decreased highway traffic deaths, and pay no attention to the required Unseen losses represented by the social time, energy and wealth sucked out of the system to pay for those Seen benefits, then Frederic Bastiat would like to take the 2×4 Cluebat to your skull.

  19. I once saw a guy shaving himself with an electric shaver while he was driving. I have also seen some people reading open newspapers or eating club sandwiches. So talking on the cellphone while driving hasn’t been the most egregious thing I have seen.

    Automated driving would be nice.

  20. Carl, this might be a two parter, but part 1: this was series of studies, I will find at least one of them, and you can read it and evaluate it for yourself. Here’s a pointer to one:

    “Meanwhile, new research in the December Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (Vol. 14, No. 4) shows that cell phone conversations are especially detrimental to driving. The researchers found that cell phone users are more likely to drift out of their lanes and miss their exits than people having in-person conversations. Interestingly, conversations with passengers barely affected any of these three measures. In fact, most passengers took an active role in supporting the driver, often by discussing surrounding traffic. This shared situational awareness may help drivers synchronize an in-vehicle conversation with the processing demands of driving, says study author Frank Drews, PhD, a University of Utah psychology professor.

    “If you look at the crash risk, you’re actually somewhat less likely to be involved in an accident if you have a passenger than if you’re driving by yourself,” says Strayer, who collaborated with Drews and colleague Monisha Pasupathi, PhD, on the study.


  21. Andrea and Leland: I want to live in a world of flying cars and talking computers and robots and easy personal spaceflight. The Jetsons capture that vision. I figure eliminating injury and death is part of that vision too. I bet everyone reading this blog shares that vision. (And Rand, it is silly to talk about leftists not wanting a Jetson future. My god, real leftists were the first people to put a person in orbit, one of the very few things to admire them for.)

  22. I don’t want to, Bob. I’m not interested in solving everyone else’s complex problems. Just keeping my own life on an even keel takes every scrap of attention and brainpower I’ve got. What I have left over I prefer to spend on things with clear, definite, provable solutions — you know, like engineering and science and math stuff, or climbing mountains, building furniture, watching a game. The problem of setting up some social structure which optimizes the very complex half-unconscious decisions 150 million people make while driving cars strikes me as such quixotic tilting at windmills that, by comparison, the dedication of medieval monks to puzzle out the Mind of God, and what he had to say about where to build the Cologne Cathedral and how many cardinals there should be, from the Gospel of St. Mark and Pure Logic seems almost mathematically rational by comparison.

  23. Carl, the study I cited refutes what you said. Obviously the study could be wrong, but you’re guessing while they are doing research.

  24. Also, when you ask “where do you get these fascinating cartoon theories of the infantile behaviour of your fellow man?”, my answer turns out to be the American Psychological Association’s website.

  25. It so does not, Bob. The shortest explanation I can give of why is that the average is not the distribution, and there are phenomenon which cannot be correctly described in any sense by averaging over all but one variable. To give you a very simple and somewhat sloppy example, if I put you in a room with 5 attractive men and 5 attractive women, then your average attraction to another person is zero. (Don’t bug me with irrelevant footnotes to that, because I think you know what I mean).

    However, if we actually did the experiment, we would of course find you most definitely with a complex social behaviour in which forces of attraction and repulsion (or at least non-attraction) exerted very strong influence. Your average experience of sexual attraction conveys absolutely nothing of value about your actual behaviour.

    And pleeze recall I am as always wholly unimpressed with credentials per se. The APA in addition to being 60% charlatans or axe-grinders, I would say, is at least as capable as, say, the American Physical Society (APS) of possessing large swathes of fools as members. I don’t even believe everything I read about physics in Physical Revew Letters. By tenured physicists. Sometimes with Nobel Prizes!

  26. “Andrea and Leland: I want to live in a world of flying cars and talking computers and robots and easy personal spaceflight. The Jetsons capture that vision. I figure eliminating injury and death is part of that vision too. I bet everyone reading this blog shares that vision.”

    I want to live in a world where chocolate rivers pour down candy mountains, and there are no flies and ants to get in it. And I don’t want to get fat — I want my new slim body right now — and I want to be able to eat what I want and not have to exercise. Also a pleasant tingling sensation instead of excruciating pain when I accidentally slam my thumb in the door would be nice.

    By the way, we already have talking computers and robots. We have done for years. You need to stop watching cartoons.

  27. There is one video of the Google car that I have seen where you can see it make wiggle in the middle of the road and look like it is going to swerve over. Really it looked like something someone would do when they are on their cell phone. Before long we’ll be like, “damn automated car, can’t keep in it’s lane, TAKE YOUR CAR OFF gDRIVE YOU IDIOT!!”

  28. Andrea, my love of both flying cars and artificial intelligence has led to a very happy career in both fields. (We have a very very long way to go with AI, as you well know – and it will be a fun journey for humanity.) The Jetsons, and later, written science fiction, has been a positive influence for me in innumerable ways. That’s what works for me. If cynicism and sarcasm works for you, you have my best wishes.

  29. Chris sez: Flying cars aren’t here because they currently need a pilot’s license to operate. Moving in 3 dimensions is inherently more complicated than moving in 2. Reliable automation is the only way you’ll get mass numbers of flying cars.

    This is partially right but in significant parts wrong. Up-and-away, aircraft path control is in many ways simpler than automotive path control, because the accuracy requirements are many times looser. Even during final approach to landing, FAA required navigation performance (RNP) is only 0.3 nautical mile. With modern integrated inertial nav/GPS systems, this is a piece of cake (albeit with some really obscure failure modes that you have to account for). Think about if you only had to steer your car to an accuracy of 1800 feet…Of course, the accuracy has to improve substantially during taxi, takeoff, and landing, but even then a typical runway is much wider than a typical city street. With a human eye backing up automated navigation, it’s not that hard (one of the things that makes designing UAVs hard is the lack of the human visual system to fall back on for these situations). Sensing the road and obstacles is one of the really hard problems for those working on automated cars.

    Chris is correct that the act of controlling a completely unaugmented aircraft, even the most benign, is harder than driving even a poorly-driving car. See http://www.av8n.com for a really good layman’s discussion of why the simple act of changing altitude or speed in an aircraft requires coordination of two controls simultaneously. And that unaugmented aircraft is much less forgiving than a car of stupid pilot/driver behavior (what’s the automotive equivalent of the stall-spin crash?). But all of that, including protection against stupid pilot tricks, can be automated fairly easily; the devil in the details is reliability – both hardware and software. That’s why fly-by-wire aircraft are typically triplex or quad-redundant on all flight-critical HW – if something goes wrong, you can’t just pull over to the side of the road. Note that “easily” does not imply “cheaply” either.

    The fundamental problem with flying cars as I can see is economic; some examples:

    If you want to drive your flying car on existing roads, it needs to either have some complex wing fold mechanisms (read: heavy) or have a compact VTOL mechanism (read: very inefficient).

    If you want a reasonably efficient design (and no, I don’t really count Barnaby Wainfan’s Facetmobile as reasonably efficient, any more than I consider an autogiro as reasonably efficient), you need a decent aspect ratio wing with a lightweight fold mechanism (if any fold at all), so you would need new roads for it (expensive), forgo using it on existing roads (now you need auxiliary transportation for all of the stuff you can’t get to without using existing roads, which can be costly), or have a VTOL design (not efficient).

    Enough for now…

  30. “Andrea, my love of both flying cars and artificial intelligence has led to a very happy career in both fields.”

    Then why don’t you seem to know that we have talking computers (you didn’t say “intelligent computers that can have a conversation with you”, you said “talking computers”) and robots (visit any factory that uses robotics to assemble things, or go to Sears and buy a Roomba)?

    Also, the Jetsons weren’t meant to “inspire” anyone about the future — they were a parody of tv sitcoms. The whole “I want flying cars like in the Jetsons” is a joke; half the time George Jetson was stuck in the thing flying upside down yelling for Jane to stop this crazy thing. Nothing, I think, is stopping the production of flying cars except the reality not enough people really want them. (And if they do, they buy a small plane.)

    It’s like jetpacks. They were all the rage in 50s pulp scifi, but once someone sat down and actually thought of them, they realized that the design, at least as envisioned by pulp scifi writers, would leave the user mutilated and probably dead as the rockets set fire to his buttocks. There is some guy who sort of made one but I think he used some sort of vanes like in a helicoptor. (Can’t remember where I saw that story. It might have been here.)

  31. uh huh.. I’m of the opinion that all attempts to prevent bad behavior (of any sort, be it automotive or not) are philosophically repugnant.

    If I’m driving poorly, you have the right to get away from me, you don’t have the right to stop me from driving or prohibit whatever activity it is that you think is causing me to drive poorly.

    Licensing drivers was the first fascist act of the road, complete with arbitrary literary and eye tests.. preemptive measures like sobriety tests were the next.. now it’s cell phones.. outside an airport, your car is the most rule laden liberty sucking disgrace perpetrated by western governments. Get it through your head: living with risk is better than living with tyranny. We don’t want your rules, we want freedom.

    What saddens me is that the Chinese seems to have gotten it right when it comes to road rules – there virtually are none. Instead they have rules about who can breed, or what you can say in the press, or who you can associate with. I can assure you, they’re no worse than who can drive and how, but we righfully consider them repugnant.

    “Someone might get hurt” was never a good reason to exert your will over society. If someone does get hurt, we’ll deal with it.

  32. Playing devil’s advocate, what is the spread of left verse right politics among innovators?

    I would expect the first VTOL electric flying cars in the next 2-3 years. Maybe 10-20 years for significant market penetration – they will change things.

    Electricity is cheap and they will optimize for speed/power over L/D and single hop range. Cost will be a little more than an electric car of similar size, range significantly less due to much higher speed and a different battery size optimization. Multiple hop average speed, including fast recharge times, can still generally be faster than a car, though hybrids are likely. Autopilots are generally easier in the air than on the ground and flying cars will likely be fully autonomous from early on, where desired.

    Terrafugia combines a bad aircraft with a bad car, that jetpack is mostly just a big boy’s toy (I checked out both at Oshkosh a few years back and a friend did a lot of early work on the latter).

  33. Pete, what do you think will power the first VTOL electric flying cars? Batteries are still about an order of magnitude lower in energy density than gasoline, and weight matters much more in aircraft than it does in ground vehicles. We don’t really have gasoline flying cars yet. Or are you talking about flying “cars” that travel about as far and as fast as the first Wright brothers flights?

  34. A 50km range (actually sufficient alone for most trips) at 100-150m/s combined with a 10 minute recharge gives a continuous hop average speed of 50-75m/s (100-150 mph). This is much cheaper, both up front and on a $/km basis than a large battery vehicle, not to mention much faster and more convenient. Designing for range instead of speed makes little economic sense for VTOL electric aircraft.

    Such a two person vehicle with a say 100kg battery and 250kg dry mass might cost around $25k. Electricity is cheap, batteries, extra vehicle mass and flight time are not, it is much better to fly fast and often with small VTOL electric aircraft. Indeed if your trip is less than maximum range, then it is better to fly faster still, as a little more electricity is far less expensive than a few more minutes of flying.

    There are commercially available lithium batteries with ~10,000 cycle lives and fast (~10 minute) recharge times. They are a little down on energy density but their life cycle cost is about a tenth that of normal electric car batteries – if they can be used 10,000 times. A conventional electric car only needs to be recharged maybe a 1000 times over its life, flying electric cars can be cheaper than electric cars because they are not so constrained. Many more charge cycles is the secret to low cost batteries – flying fast and often enables this and per kilometer costs can be less than for a car.

  35. Why don’t we have gas equivalents of these now? Gas has electrics beat in everything except possibly cost per mile, and it’s not obvious to me that it doesn’t have them beat for that as well (you’re going to pay, particularly in a VTOL vehicle, for the extra weight of the battery pack. And maybe more than the battery pack–gas turbines are quite light for their power output, I don’t know if electric motors come close).

    I don’t see a 50 km range doing anything useful unless your vehicle is also roadworthy. My wife, for instance, commutes 50 miles to work. That’s two hops in the flying car, plus transit to and from the airport at either end. You’re postulating VTOL, so maybe they would convert more parking lots or building roofs to airports. Or maybe not. We’re in a fairly spread-out city, and a big chunk of the airspace is already dedicated to the big airports. I’m not convinced that there’s room here for enough VTOL-ports for commuters.

  36. Electric drives beat gas in control, reliability, often match it on power (can do 3kW/kg including battery) and redundancy (easier to do multiple redundant motors). Electric cars often win on acceleration.

    Yes it will be a long time (decades) before it is even permissible to fly at high speed over urban areas let alone have ready access to VTOL landing pads. I would expect this to happen in rural areas first. However the economic benefits are very great so it seems likely it will happen.

    Yes it is possible to increase range in various ways, but this is not the lowest hanging fruit – it misses the economic point. In a 50 mile commute case one probably would just add in a little extra battery or fly a little slower (range is approximately inversely proportional to speed in this regime), but even with a 10 minute recharge stop it would only take 25 minutes to get there, the same time as if one was flying the full distance at half speed. Traffic avoidance and direct line travel also add into it.

    By the time there is significant market penetration batteries will likely have far greater energy densities (~3x seems likely). But that is beside the point, for now high speed VTOL platforms are desired and range is secondary. Electric flying cars are not airplanes, and they are not cars, nor are they SUVs. It is important to forget those prejudices and design them to their own merits.

  37. I telecommuted for several years and that beats any other mode of transportation! Roll out of bed and wash my face and I was at work.

    What about moving sidewalks? Remember ‘Caves of Steel?’

  38. I poked around wikipedia a bit looking for power densities; there’s a claim for close to 3 hp/pound for an in-hub electric motor, but I have pretty severe doubts about that–my guess is that is peak hp, not steady state. Peak hp might be ok to rate by for cars, where you’re interested in getting onto the freeway in a hurry and can then cruise until your windings cool off, but in a VTOL it seems you’d want to maintain your peak for quite a bit longer.

    You’re talking about Puffin variants, aren’t you? Interesting concept. The articles I looked at said maybe a 1/3 scale design flying by last March. I didn’t see any more recent articles saying whether they’d actually flown it. Electric motors might be handy for that–presumably you’d want quite a few more rpms for vertical flight than horizontal flight. Maybe you could do that with variable pitch props, but it’d probably be cheaper and more reliable to use fixed-pitch and vary the rpms.

    I suppose I’m not visionary enough to see the advantages of commonplace short-range VTOL. My sister lives in the boonies 20 miles from her work. That’s pretty close to your projected range–it usually takes her half an hour to get to work. It wouldn’t be hard to find a spot for her to take off and land a VTOL not far from her house; it would be much harder to take off and land a VTOL not far from her work. I live in California–we have climate here, but she has weather where she lives, and the weather can get nasty enough quickly enough to ground air travel with very little warning. They’d also have to deal with icing. I don’t know how many people would fly into work in the morning knowing that there’s a significant chance that they couldn’t fly home at night. Or how many people would try to fly home anyway. I’ve been on commercial flights that flew there and had to turn around and go back because the airport didn’t clear up when they expected or got socked in earlier than they expected. Which I suppose means that your VTOL’s effective range would only be half the nominal range.

    Presumably commonly-used VTOLs would change architecture in as extreme a fashion as automobiles, but I’m having a problem seeing how to build in a fashion that makes VTOLs more attractive than autos, at least for the short-range VTOL that you’re proposing. Maybe industrial clusters–several high density buildings where everything is within easy walking distance surrounded by a landing field, surrounded by farm land or forest and very low density housing.

  39. The Puffin always seemed like typical NASA design to me – that is not where the interesting hardware is happening. If you want to get some feel for power densities look at the larger model airplane electric systems that you can now buy from China, this might also give you some idea of cost. 10-15kW motors weigh a few kilograms and cost a couple of hundred dollars.

    5kW/kg continuous is now quite common place for high speed electric motors/generators. Model airplane lithium polymer batteries can get up to 10kW/kg for short periods and cost around $100/kg off the shelf, not that one would necessarily want to use these in a flying car.

    The electric flying car developments of interest are somewhat similar to quadrotors, but more so and streamlined with lifting surfaces – highly redundant. Precise high speed VTOL is possible – if you have room to park it then you pretty much have room for VTOL. VTOL control can be better than a helicopter.

    A lot has happened and is happening in this field and it is difficult to keep up to date. VTOL flying cars big enough to carry people can now be made by cobbling together cheap model airplane components – expect a lot of people to do so in the next few years.

  40. Mechanical failures in aircraft of any sort are likely to have much more serious consequences than in ground vehicles – and not only to the occupants, either. This might make it necessary for official inspections of mass-use aircraft to be much more rigorous than for ground vehicles.

    One problem with cars is the small proportion of drivers who are almost aggressively stupid. I remember reading a report of a case on one of Britain’s motorways. The legal limit in Britain is 70MPH and there is also a legal requirement to drive according to the conditions, as well.

    Cue the idiot. Exposed motorway, in heavy traffic conditions and with driving rain making speeds much over 20 unsafe. One driver (a sales rep, who ought to have known better) was pulled over by the police and started making the usual noises about “why aren’t you out catching real criminals???!!”. Apparently, the response was perfect; “Just what I’m doing right now.”

    Why? The driver was doing 95 in a 70 limit, in torrential rain and high winds, while talking on a mobile phone clamped between shoulder and ear and taking notes on a notebook (paper variety) propped up on the steering wheel.

    I wouldn’t be all that bothered about this Darwin Award contest entrant, except for the fact that such idiots often also take other people with them.

  41. By the time VTOL electric flying cars go mass market, I doubt people will be flying them – beyond selecting destination. They will also be much more reliable than internal combustion engines and much more redundant (many motors).

    One business model that comes up is an automated taxi service, this greatly increases vehicle utilization, reducing costs. Also note that VTOL electric flying cars (and buses) have far fewer moving parts or wear points than say a car. Some forms do not even have actuated control surfaces (differential speed/thrust control only).

  42. Pete, there are several experimenters working on electric powered airplanes. China has one that may soon be on the market. With the best batteries currently available, we’re seeing typical speeds about 100 KMH and less than an hour’s powered flight followed by a prolonged recharge period. That’s for fixed wing aircraft. It’s much harder to do VTOL because it requires more power which in turn mean less duration or heavier batteries (which require more power…).

    I met Molt Taylor back in the 1970s. He’s the man who built the Aerocar series of flying cars and actually got them certified for production. From what I’ve read, it was federal regulations more than technology that killed his project. One of the big-3 US automakers was going to mass produce his design back in the 1970s until the regulators stepped in. You see, it was a car so it had to meet all of the regulatory requirements for a car in terms of emissions, crashworthness, etc. At the same time, it was an airplane so it had to meet all of the regulations that applied to planes. Before too long, the extra weight and expense necessary to meet all of the regulatory requirements essentially killed the project. Mr. Taylor didn’t have too many nice things to say about bureaucrats. He’d spent about 30 years and a lot of money to come up with a workable vehicle only to have it regulated to death. If anything, regulations today are far worse than they were in the 1970s.

  43. Electric batteries do not do endurance well, trying to build electric aircraft for endurance is kind of silly – better to use hydrocarbons.

    Instead envisage something like the electric atom or tesla roadster (with a smaller battery) with wings. I also use the flying car term loosely – perhaps one has mobility scooter type ground capability, enough to get off the pad, but not roadable. Yes regulatory issues are extreme and I expect they will take decades and billions of dollars to solve, but like helicopters these vehicles may slowly creep into urban environments over time as experience builds.

    In the fast multiple short hop with fast recharge scenario mentioned earlier. Not only is the electric flying vehicle much faster on short trips (and as fast for long trips), it is also much cheaper (light battery and vehicle), and the cost per kilometer is much less. Slow long range electric vehicles have worse performance and cost more, they make no real economic sense. An electric aircraft is not a hydrocarbon aircraft – completely different optimization.

    For extra points, add ramjets (T/W ~40:1) to the VTOL electric vehicle and one has a cheap and light weight supersonic transport. 🙂

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