The Abstract Truth

New Challenges for the Flying Car

Posted by rbpasker on August 13, 2007

We’ve seen a resurgence in interest over the past few years of the “flying car,” one which can operate seamlessly in both land and air traffic environments. The idea is that highways would become obsolete for most trips of up to a few hundreds miles, reducing congestion and being able to fly over geological obstacles such as mountains, rivers, and lakes. Some day we will all have these flying cars and go point-to-point by air, as easily as driving down the freeway.

Flying cars can be broken down into two broad categories: car-o-planes (“cars that can be flown” or “planes that can be driven”) and the VTOL (“vertical take-off and landing”) . A car-o-plane is a car you can drive to the airport, take off on a runway, land at another airport, and drive away down the street. There have been a few of these vehicles made, such as the Taylor AeroCar. One brilliant individual even designed a flying car based on the Ford Pinto. I guess the hazard of having the gas tank behind the axle wasn’t dangerous enough. The VTOL flying car takes off and lands vertically, like a helicopter, and doesn’t need a runway, just a parking lot or a field. The Moeller Skycar is the current favorite in this category.


The Taylor AeroCar


The Mitzcar Flying Pinto


The Moeller SkyCar

Much of the work on flying cars has been on mechanics and aerodynamics: how do you make something that fits in both environments, and how does it fly?

Certainly the mechanics and practicalities of a flying car are important, but there are three three big non-mechanical challenges that must be overcome before we can see one of these in every garage: weather, obstacles and terrain, and in-flight emergencies.

Have you ever taken a car trip where the day starts off reasonably nice, and somewhere down the road, the weather starts to look threatening. First the sky starts to get cloudy. Nothing mean, like a big thunderhead, just some overcast or maybe some fair-weather puffy “Simpson’s clouds.” Fifteen minutes later, the wind picks up, not too strong, maybe 15 miles per hour, and a little gusty. Then there’s the smell of rain. Have you ever smelled an approaching rain storm? It happens a lot in the summer, when the air is moist. Here come a few drops. The wipers go on intermittent, to match the speed of the drops, and soon you realize they have to go on full time, first slow, then fast. Before you know it, you’re in the middle of a rainstorm. At this point, you have a few options: pull over, turn around, or keep driving. How many times have you actually pulled over or (less likely) turned around because the storm was too strong? How many times have you driven on, thinking to yourself, “I should have pulled over when it started, but I’m almost through it now”? Such a storm, which thousands of drivers survive every day somewhere in the world, would be disastrous in a flying car, but certainly no more
disastrous than for a week-end pilot in his Cessna. Forecasts and live weather information in the cockpit help, but they don’t prevent people from flying into bad weather. Even experienced pilots licensed to fly in bad weather are caught off guard and get killed. As the saying goes, “its better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, rather than in the air, wishing you were on the ground.” Amen.

The second issue with which pilots have to contend is hitting something, either an obstacle like a tower or a bridge, or terrain, like a mountain. In the flying community, this is called “controlled flight into terrain” (CFIT). With cars, we know that if we stay on the road, we won’t hit a tree or a mountain. (What amazes me is how many 50 mph roads there are with no center divider, and how few head-on collisions there are.) With flying vehicles, we can fly anywhere, even right into something. The latest technology, which is now required equipment in almost all jets and turboprops, is called the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning Systems (EGPWS). EGPWS, however, doesn’t prevent the pilot from flying into things, its just alerts him to the danger. Experienced pilots still fly into things.

Imagine yourself driving along and your car fails. Probably 99% of the time, you can just throw on the flashers and pull over (or coast) to the side of the road. Sure, the engine isn’t running, but you know what to do: turn the wheel and head for the side of the road. Now think about a failure at 5,000ft. What do you do? You either fix the problem and continue on your merry way or land. Most pilot training (initial and advanced) is spent learning to deal with in-flight emergencies because how one reacts in an emergency has a lot to do with getting on the ground safely. Some airplane manufacturers have installed the “get out of jail free card”: a ballistic parachute that can be activated in flight and will lower the plane to the ground even if a wing falls off. They claim on their website to have save 203 lives, but what they don’t say is that may lives have been lost in planes equipped with this system, even when the parachute was deployed. Even Cory Lidle’s plane had such a parachute.

Some people will see this post as pessimistic, thinking that I believe flying cars will never happen. What this post really about is identifying the challenges that a flying car would face if it ever became possible to put one in every garage. I am hoping to spur debate and research on solving these problems so that when the flying car becomes a reality, it will be for a much wider audience than just the trained pilot.

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One Response to “New Challenges for the Flying Car”

  1. Totally agree. Everyone who has these fantasies about flying cars are inevitably not pilots and so don’t know about the weather or just hitting stuff. To me, the single most important quality of a pilot is aeronautical decision making. No way you can just let people go flying around without serious training. Won’t happen until there is some sort of way better, completely automated control system(s) out there.

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