Monday, March 15, 2010

Why We Will Never Have Flying Cars

In the year 2000, IBM introduced a commercial in which their spokesman, Avery Brooks, initially lamented the lack of flying cars in said year. Perhaps 2000 was a bit premature to expect such technological innovations, but 2010 is here and we still do not have flying cars, even though popular media has long touted flying cars as the wave of the future.

The Jetsons, produced in 1962-63, was set a hundred years forward in the year 2062, where people lived in encapsulated skyrises and flew to work in their bubble-domed cars. 1982's Blade Runner, set in 2019, depicted a dark, grungy world, but at at least they had flying cars. Back to the Future Part II, released in 1989, represented the fictional Hill Valley in the years 1955, 1985, and 2015, the last of which revealed a world where not a whole lot has changed, except that movies (Jaws) are theatrically released in 3-D, hoverboards have supplanted skateboards, big screen TVs with multiple channels are the norm, and cars traverse the air along skyways. At least the 3-D film thing and ubiquity of big, flat screen TVs are starting to catch on, ahead of their time. And lastly, 1997's Fifth Element set 253 years in our future combined many of the aforementioned elements, foremost of which was the heavily populated air traffic ways filled with flying cars.

So might we be able to expect flying cars in the next twenty years? Fifty years? Ever? I highly doubt it. There are a number of reasons why flying cars are a less likely possibility than, say, the discovery of the abominable snowman. One must consider a number of issues, such as technology, fuel sources, fuel efficiency, traffic, safety, and infrastructure.

Currently there are technological limitations to powered flight. Two components are necessary for flight: lift and thrust. In airplanes and helicopters, lift is gained through lighter build materials and aerodynamics, i.e. wing shape and wing structure. A flying car, being fundamentally different than either of those, would most likely go without using a wing, which only entails more obstacles. Jet propulsion is another option, which aside from producing lift, could also be utilized for thrust. However such implementation would be bulky and clumsy at best, not to mention structurally taxing and fuel prohibitive. Smaller, more manageable jet engines might be around corner, and would be a better fit for a flying car, but there are still the fuel considerations.

While oil companies rake in the profits from worldwide dependence on decreasing oil reservoirs, the automotive industry is struggling to come up with alternative energy sources, and that would have a large impact on the fuel supply for flying cars. Thus far completely electric vehicles have failed to catch on, with hybrid vehicles offering a compromise that many have jumped on. But eventually the world's needs will fully deplete the available stock of oil, possibly as soon as in another 40 years at the current rate of consumption, and at that point the presently implemented hybrid technology (electricity/petroleum-based fuel) will be obsolete.

Solar energy is another possibility that has been considered and dropped, for being insufficient and too weather dependent.

Biodiesel is another seldom utilized energy source for the automotive industry. While only slightly less efficient than petroleum-based fuel, its production has an antagonistic effect on farming and food costs. Producing biofuel crops, while possibly more lucrative than food crops, would cause the adverse effect of rising food prices, putting pressure on certain nations. As such, it is not a fuel source the world can fully latch onto as of right now.

One last alternative, hydrogen fuel, is a largely untapped market, but highly speculative. Bear in mind that while hydrogen is the most abundant element in our solar system, producing pure hydrogen gas is quite costly and in turn requires substantial energy to do so. Furthermore neither the technical nor the economic infrastructure exists to support it in large scale at this time.

However one added benefit of all of these alternate energy sources is that they have less of an environmental impact, reducing emissions and greenhouse gases. But more than likely the automotive industry will move forward with hybrid energy research, possibly using combinations of these energy sources in order to deliver on promises of new, less polluting fuels.

Another consideration related to energy is the amount needed to power a flying car. The internal combustion engine is only responsible for powering a car to move in a single direction at one time. A flying car would have to produce constant lift in order to stay in the air while also occasionally producing thrust with which to move forward. This would require an enormous amount of energy. The 2010 Ford Explorer which seats up to 7 occupants weighs around 4,500 lb and has a fuel efficiency of about 14 miles per gallon. Compare this to a Lear Jet 35, which seats up to 7 and weighs about 17,000 lb, with a fuel efficiency of about 4 miles per gallon. A Bell 206 Jet Ranger Helicopter which can seat up to 5 weighs approximately 3,200 lb (max payload) and has an estimated fuel efficiency of 0.8 miles per gallon. Therefore fueling a flying car would be incredibly expensive.

Living in Los Angeles, there is never a shortage of traffic on the streets and freeways. Flying cars would alleviate this congestion, right? Already seeing as how flying cars would require plenty of fuel, in addition to the cost of the technology involved, only the vastly rich would likely be able to afford and maintain one. That would result in only a limited number of cars leaving the terrestrial roads. And the added air traffic would only serve to impinge on current air traffic. It would be similar to adding a few more carpool lanes, which would free up the commute for some but really wouldn't fix the issues at hand.

Having flying cars would necessitate new traffic laws, most of which would be a law enforcement nightmare. If the flying car is of the type that can convert from road to air, there would need to be laws on when and where cars would be allowed to do that. However as anyone can see while driving down the 5 in rush hour, people aren't even willing to observe the carpool lane rules, leaving and entering willy nilly. If that's the case, then how do you expect people to control themselves if their car can simply rise up and over bumper to bumper traffic?

If people can't regulate themselves, then someone else has to do it for them. Flying cars could be outfitted with various regulators and safety devices, such as flight zone restrictors and regulators that would prevent them from converting to flight mode in a non-take-off zone. But such devices in automobiles have always been removable or easy to bypass, illegally of course. Most cars are speed regulated to prevent them from going over a maximum speed, even though their speedometer might say otherwise. But reprogramming the PCM can bypass or alter the top speed limit as well as adjust other preprogrammed functions. All it would take is one irresponsible person to remove the limitations to their flying car to wreak havoc across the skies. Security measures with airplanes and airports in mind, like a No-Fly-Zone regulator or altitude restrictor, would be necessary to ensure that some careless person didn't accidentally fly into a heavily trafficked airspace. Buildings also have to be kept under consideration, after all that was witnessed on 9/11.

Safety is the number one issue with regards to flying cars. With Toyota's recent troubles, it's clear that minor oversights (or cover ups) can create big safety gaffs. And with flying cars, the number of things that could go wrong increases exponentially. If a flying car were to collide with another car, how could a car company ensure the safety of the occupants within? How about the people on the ground? Especially if a flying car were to fail in mid-air, since where else would it have to go but down? The number of flight craft in the sky is limited, reducing the possibility of such accidents, and there are enough qualified people to both pilot those vehicles as well as monitor their progress. Even if drivers license training and tests were heavily revamped to properly train drivers in piloting their flying cars, would we be able to train enough air traffic controllers to monitor the skies?

In essence, flying cars would have to be more or less kept on rails to prevent them from colliding with structures and each other. If the cars were on an automated system, traffic jams and accidents could be virtually wiped out. But such a system would require a massive regulatory infrastructure built into wherever cars go. The abundance of telecommunications receivers and transmitters would make the task less daunting, but the cost to maintain such a system would be a big financial hit, impossible with the amount of government deficits so prevalent today. Additionally the American people have long prided themselves on their freedom, and there would be some people hard pressed to give up minor freedoms in favor of the bigger picture.

The bottom line is that while flying cars is a fanciful dream, it is just that: a dream. Actual implementation would be catastrophic without everybody willing to accede quite a bit in order for it to work. In the end what people would give up most likely wouldn't be worth what they'd get in return. Flying in a car might seem like fun at first, but it ultimately would be just another form of transportation. Novelty would soon wear off, and all that would be left is another vehicle that costs tons of money, guzzles tons of gas, and gets to places a little bit faster, which is pretty much what a sports car does.

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