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When Cars Fly

The flying cars that we’ve been dreaming about for decades are not here yet, and we already have very unreasonable expectations.

"Roads? Where we're going we don't need roads!" –Doc Brown, 1985 (Urban Aeronautics)

Look at just about any celebrated imagined futuristic city—The Jetsons! Star Wars! Back to the Future! Blade Runner! What do we see? Flying cars.

And the decades-old dream of soaring over the gridlock seems to be within reach. We have autonomous cars. We have electric cars. And we have electric drones flying around all over the place. Surely, the great lift-off is almost upon us.

Several companies claim to have prototypes coming to market. Andrew Hawkins at The Verge reports that Metro Skyway, a subsidiary of the Tel-Aviv company Urban Aeronautics, just unveiled a “CityHawk” that might fly rooftop to rooftop by 2022. AeroMobil, a Slovakian company, just started taking pre-orders for 2020 for their flying car. German company eVolo plans to launch their Volocopter by 2018. Meanwhile, AirBus is touting autonomous “CityAirbus” vehicles as the “future of urban mobility,” and Uber is promising to craft an “on-demand aviation network.”

The latest study from Michael Sivak, the University of Michigan’s czar of all things car, and his colleague Brandon Schoettle, aims to take the public temperature about our flying-car future. After polling about 508 people around the country, it turns out we want ‘em. But whether we have realistic expectations for these airborne automobiles is another story. Let’s start with some of the findings of the poll.

There are a lot of reasons we want flying cars, but the main one, according to 75 percent of respondents, is shorter travel time. Far fewer people believe that flying cars would result in fewer crashes (9.8 percent), better fuel economy (8.3 percent), or lower emissions (6.9 percent). But we’re not unconcerned about the risks. Safety was still the biggest concern: 62.8 percent of respondents said they’re very concerned about it. People also worried about poor weather (61 percent), performance at night (48.2 percent), and learning how to fly the darn things (32.9 percent). About four-fifths of respondents say they’d want a parachute too—not just for themselves, for the whole vehicle.

To find out if our expectations for flying cars are even halfway reasonable, I called up Levi Tillemann, the author of The Great Race: The Global Quest For The Car Of The Future. Tillemann is a managing partner at Valence Strategic, working on electrification and autonomous vehicles, and he is currently a fellow at New America.

First things obvious: Flying is a lot more complicated than driving. “With a car, you have many fewer axes of control,” Tilleman says. “We already lose 30,000 people a year in automotive accidents and you’re only having to worry about two basic things: Is the car going forward and does it turn left or right?”

Even lightweight drones face a question of safety in cities. “If something goes wrong, there is no coasting to a stop. It falls out of the sky,” Tillemann says. “Even if a drone weighs six kilograms or five kilograms, it can easily kill someone falling out of the sky.”

The learning curve could be kind of steep, too. Only 50 percent of respondents say they’re definitely interested in attending training that requires 20 hours of their time. A sizable portion of that other half is likely older folks who are not going bother waiting at the Department of Motor Vehicles again for a newfangled way of getting around. Less than a third of respondents said they would be willing to train as long as the 40 hours of flight that the Federal Aviation Administration requires to earn a private pilot’s license, let alone the 1,500 hours required for commercial pilots.

“The likelihood that we’re going to have highly-skilled pilots working flying cars in numbers that are going to make any kind of impact on urban transportation within the next 10 or 15 years is very, very small,” Tillemann says.

But who says we’ll need these puny humans to fly? About 43 percent of people say they’re “very interested” in a fully autonomous sky-taxi, compared to about 16 percent who have a similar interest in having a pilot with a license flying them around (though more people, 26.2 percent, are interested in flying on their own).

Again, easier said than done. Tillemann points to the FAA’s Pathfinder Initiative as evidence that regulating autonomous flying objects will be complicated. “If they’re communicating with each other in a highly coordinated fashion, that's not a big problem,” he says. “But if there are a lot of different flying cars and they’re not communicating in a tightly integrated, systematic command-and-control structure, then it’s a disaster from a safety standpoint.”

No future cul-de-sac will be complete without flying cars in the driveways. (Urban Aeronautics)

What’s going to power our cloud cars? Apparently, respondents are pretty optimistic we will have discovered alternative forms of energy (or magic) sorted out by the time flying cars come around the bend (man, we’re going to lose a lot of driving metaphors). Almost 60 percent of respondents prefer an electric powered car-plane with about another 21 percent expecting a gas powered one. Solar, hydrogen, and “other” (probably whatever worked on the ‘64 Malibu at the end of Repo Man) round out the last fifth of respondents. Again, I ask Tillemann to splash cold water on this hippie pipe dream. “The energy requirements for a flying vehicle are dramatically more than for a rolling vehicle,” he says. “Even with cars [on the ground], the traditional Achilles Heel of an electric vehicle has been energy density.”

We have just hit the point in battery development where long-range electric vehicles are starting to overcome that challenge; electrifying sky-cars will be much more difficult. “I haven't done any calculations on how much energy would be required to take a car-sized vehicle 200 or 400 miles in the air,” he says. “But my gut tells me that, in the near term, we would have to do one of two things: Either you have very short-range flights, or you run the thing off of diesel.”

Not what Sivak’s respondents want to hear. About 26 percent of respondents expect a range of 200 miles in the air while 41 percent think 400 miles in the air ought to be the minimum. (The future Terrafugia TF-X promises to go 500 miles via an electric battery by 2019.) The other 19 percent and 14 percent think that we’ll be able to fly a minimum of 600 miles and 800 miles (respectively). With all due respect, they’re bananas.

“If you look at an airplane like the 747, between 25 and 45 percent of the weight of that vehicle is fuel,” Tillemann says. “The weight is so significant if you’re trying to come up with an efficient operational model for those vehicles. It's a really big part of [airline] operating expenditures. Doing this with an electric car seems prohibitively difficult for the near term. I’m not saying that we can’t accomplish it eventually. It just seems very challenging.”

Another thing to file in the don’t-hold-your-breath department: carpooling. The majority of respondents to Sivak’s poll (61.9 percent) said they would like a flying car that can carry three to four people. Even with the most optimistic “useful load” estimates weigh in at 500 pounds, so those better be some skinny people. Another 16 percent seem to want minivans and SUVs in the sky, with room for five to eight. That ain’t going to fly.

Indeed, the high expense of lifting human or other cargo into the air is one of the big reasons why cars, trucks, ships, and trains still move most of us and our stuff. “Once you get past a couple of pounds of payload, the cost profile for using a little rolling drone that goes down the sidewalk rather than a flying drone is so much so much better,” Tillemann says. “It makes very, very little sense to use flying drones in the vast majority of applications.” Compare flying drones to something like Starship Technologies self-driving robot delivery system.“With a rolling drone, you can carry a 10 kilogram payload with a drone that costs $1,000,” Tillemann says. “A flying drone that carries a 9.1 kilogram payload will be about $12,000.”

Neither flying, nor a car: A Starship Technologies autonomous robot delivers food in Washington, D.C. (Andrew Small/CityLab)

Many of the current flying cars, such as Terrafugia’s Transition, are really “roadable airplanes”—winged planes that can kinda-sorta trundle along the highway. But 83.1 percent of Sivak’s respondents want vertical take-off, which eases the need to find a handy runway every time you need to run to the store, but increases the complexity and energy-consumption demands drastically.

Another constraint: cost. About a quarter of respondents (24.2 percent) think $100,000 to $200,000 is a reasonable cost to spend on a flying car. With most of the questions in Sivak’s poll, there’s a bit of a gender gap, but it’s bigger here, with only 18.6 percent of women saying this is affordable versus 30.3 percent percent of men. (Too bad the Terrafugia Transition is going to cost $275,000.) People are also low-balling the likely insurance costs. About 31.5 percent of respondents said they could afford twice the current insurance costs for a car while only 3.8 percent think they could afford four times and 2.2 percent think they could afford six times the cost. But in 2012, Marketwatch estimated that premiums for flying car insurance could be about $60,000—annually.

Overall, the future looks bright for the flying car, in theory: People with a positive view of the future for flying cars outweigh the negative—44.7 percent of respondents had a positive view of the cars, 29.5 percent had a negative opinion, and another 25.8 percent remained neutral. But Tillemann warns against putting too much stock in polls about technology that has not even launched yet.

“You could have asked someone in the 1980s if they wanted a phone that they carried around with them all the time where their mom or boss or whoever could be constantly able to message them,” Tillemann says. “People would have said, ‘No, that sounds like a nightmare.’”

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