Science or Fiction in 50: Flying Cars
Meet George Jetson. Will we fly to work?
We have no shortage of flying cars in our literature and especially in our movies and television. It is a topic approachable to nearly everyone as they sit in gridlock traffic or take a four hour drive to the beach. We love to imagine a quick 50 minute flight to your favorite ski mountain and a 15 minute commute into the city every day, guaranteed. Instead of dividing our stories into eras as we’ve done in previous columns, we are going to break out our science fiction writer concepts by means of propulsion.
Add wings to a car
Jules Verne gets credit for the first reference to a flying car less than a year after the Kitty Hawk flight, what a baller. But it is Robert Heinlein who deserves the most credit of any writer, all the way up to today, for his detailed description of the flying car in For Us, The Living. RAH provides fantastic detail into the different battery chemistry that enables them to be significantly lighter. He spends time on the redundant safety systems and the variations between a family model and other flying vehicles. But most importantly, he describes the automation in the software that makes human piloting mostly a personal choice.
Master of the World by Jules Verne (1904)
For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs by Robert Heinlein (1938)
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)
Inspector Gadget (1983)
New form of power
Fusion, perpetual motion, and magic cover the majority of our stories and movies where the vehicle shows no aerodynamic characteristics. I hate to say it, but the Absent Minded Professor provides the most detailed explanation for his power source, which is sad. As we look at real world flying car possibilities, we won’t spend time on not-yet invented power sources. Or magic.
The Absent-Minded Professor (1961)
The Jetsons (1962)
The Ganymede Takeover by Philip K. Dick and Ray Nelson (1967)
The Number of the Beast by Robert Heinlein (1980)
Blade Runner (1982)
Back to the Future Part II (1989)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rawling (1998)
There are a number of startups actively working on flying cars. This is not new. The Ford Flivver came out in 1927. In 1947 the ConVair attempted to bridge car and plane. Every 20 years we see another attempt. But the latest companies are tackling the flying car challenge in a new way that addresses the shortcomings of previous efforts.
First, and most importantly, software will take the place of piloting skills. Previous attempts at flying cars were more like airplanes or helicopters that could drive on the ground. You needed a pilot license. Even then, 50% of helicopter accidents occur due to pilot error. More if you assume that maintenance issues are also human error. Today’s software is already advanced enough to remove the need for a pilot’s license. Look to the latest drones to see how effective software can replace a human at this task. Drones are incredibly effective at getting back home, adjusting to wind, and remaining stable when flown by tiny hands. We shouldn’t be surprised if our future flying cars have only override controls in case of an emergency.
Second, we need a power source that doesn’t require specialized fuel. A tip of the hat goes to Tesla for making fast battery charging a reality. Ideally we could get the weight of our batteries down significantly, but an intelligent use of lift in the wing design buys us some distance. Designs that incorporate fixed wing as well as vertical lift provide our future flying car with the ability to glide over the air versus constantly fighting gravity.
Last, we should keep an eye on materials. Boring ole metal will make up a significant part of the weight of our vehicle. As we develop new techniques in casting, as seen by the Cybertruck, and new composite materials, we will see significant benefits in our flyable distances. This will also be important in getting the overall size of the vehicle down to something closer to one to two car widths.
A few companies are taking advantage of these three trends. ASKA, which recently opened a showroom in Los Altos, CA, is betting that all of the above opens the door to a new entrant. If they can find enough patient capital to take the journey with them, we might see our first fleet of flying cars within five years. Like Tesla, you should expect the first units to be priced out of your range. But it only takes sales of 500 ASKAs to convince more investors to pour funds into adding mass production.
Just down the street in Mountain View the company Kitty Hawk, known for attracting Google founder Larry Page as the sponsor, is developing a concept called Heaviside that uses eight motors and a large wing. Every flight with Heaviside has been remote-controlled. They have a beautiful video of it here.
There are a number of other companies working on concepts like these, but I think these two stand out as companies that will rely heavily on software. Often when a hardware company starts, it is founded by people who love to build and who don’t value software. But starting with software leads to major leaps in value to the consumer. Apple wiped out the old hardware phone companies. Tesla and others are on their way to doing this with the automotive companies. Software that flies for you will remove the skill barrier, and it is 1000 times easier to write autonomous flying software than driving software, so we can expect all of this to be possible well within our lifetime.
Therefore the only thing holding us back is cost, and that is something we can work relentlessly towards in the near future.
Verdict: Flying cars within 50.