Friday, March 30, 2018

Flying Cars

Flying cars were supposed to be the wave of the future - will they ever arrive?  Not in our lifetime!

A reader asks me about flying cars.  Do I think this is a real possibility or not?  Not.  And let me explain why.

To begin with, I've written and prosecuted a number of Patents on roadable aircraft.   These are not "flying cars" per se, but a car that can fly or an airplane that can be driven on the road.   Think of them more like the amphibious car - a vehicle that is at home in two environments.   There are a number of these concepts out there - and there have been attempts at roadable aircraft almost since the dawn of the aviation era.

The problem is that it is hard to design a vehicle that works well in both environments.   Just as the amphibious car is a compromise between car and boat design, the roadable aircraft is a compromise between car and aircraft designs.   And the latter dominates - you have to keep weight to an absolute minimum in aircraft design.  You can't just take a car and put wings on it and expect it to fly.  Well, one guy tried that, and it killed him.

A new generation of roadable aircraft are being developed.  The better designs (in my opinion) are usually three-wheeled jobs, which can be registered as a motorcycle, and thus avoid heavy bumpers and stringent emissions requirements - and thus keep weight down so the thing will fly.  The problem is, of course, the resultant car is very lightweight and would lose badly in a tangle with an SUV or pickup truck.  The roadable aircraft would not make a very practical car for daily driving to work.

While these roadable aircraft are cars that can fly, they are not flying cars in the science fiction sense.   They are an airplane that converts to road use, so you can solve that pesky problem of how to get into town, once you've landed your Piper Cub at a small airstrip.   As it turns out, it isn't much of a problem.  Most small airports have a "courtesy car" they let pilots use to drive into town from the airport, if they are visiting.  I think our small airstrip here on the island has at least two or three.  If not, you can rent an electric car at the airport and drive all around the island.   Problem solved.

Thus, even some of the designs that have been proven to fly, such as the Terrafugia, are probably not going to find a huge market, as most pilots would prefer a traditional aircraft, and the added cost of a roadable aircraft (and the resulting performance compromises on both land and in the air) are not worth it.

But what about flying cars - like in Back to the Future or The Jetsons?   In every science fiction novel or movie, it is assumed that flying cars - using some sort of anti-gravity - are commonplace in the future, and everyone will just fly around willy-nilly without plowing into each other or buildings.   There are a number of problems with this model, of course.

First of all, anti-gravity.  It doesn't exist and I doubt it ever will.   God doesn't hand out free lunches, so I don't think "free energy" or anti-gravity will ever exist.  It is like "artificial gravity" - another thing posited in most SciFi genres.   If you think about how gravity works, you'd realize that if you set up a 1g artificial gravity field in your back yard, you would be essentially doubling the pull of Earth's gravity.  The moon would come crashing into the Earth.   Similarly, if you could "repel" gravity the same way, you would end up altering the motions of the planets.   Remember that gravity is a force that acts at a distance - an infinite distance.   Maybe there is some get-out-of-jail-free card here, but I doubt we will find it in the next 50, 100, or 200 years.   Personally, I don't think it exists.   Life is hard, and there are no easy answers.

So if you want to have a flying car, you need to rely on traditional aerodynamic principles, such as using wings, rotors, or thrusters, to generate lift.   And this is where it gets tricky and expensive.   Flying cars are posited as hovering over the earth and landing anywhere - in your driveway or on the roof of your office building.   Hovering uses a lot of energy.  Helicopters don't get miles-per-gallon, at least in hovering mode.   Even flying at cruise speed, they might get a few miles per gallon, tops.  So we are talking about a real energy hog here, in terms of fuel consumption.

Yea, I know, they have electric planes now, and even electric octocopters and whatnot.  These are all prototypes and fly very short distances.  It is sort of like the jet pack - another modern marvel we were all supposed to have by now (as well as a vacation home on the moon!)  yea, you can build a jet pack that works, but only for a few minutes.   And they are dangerous as all hell.  More than one person has been killed by their flying jet pack.

Let's not forget other, more traditional dangers, such as weather.   We were all supposed to be getting our Domino's pizza and Amazon packages delivered by drone by now, but it hasn't happened and likely never will.  Why?  Wind.  Rain.  Snow.  Sleet.  Hail.   Not to mention that bratty kid next door with his BB gun.  Drones are fun for taking aerial pictures and whatnot - in calm, clear weather.   In a 30 mph gusting rain?   Pretty worthless.   Let's keep that factor in mind for later on.

Presuming you can solve all these energy and aerodynamic problems and build a fuel-efficient flying car, using ducted fans, or folding propellers or whatever, there remains the problem of piloting it.   When I was a kid, you used to be able to take a helicopter from the roof of the PanAm building in downtown New York City, to LaGuardia or JFK to catch a 747 "Clipper" overseas.  Those were the days.   But one day, the landing gear on one chopper collapsed, and the helicopter tipped over on the roof of the PanAm building, cutting the passengers waiting to board in half with the rotor blades.

They stopped flying to the roof of the PanAm building after that.  They realized that landing helicopters on the roofs of buildings is really dangerous.  Anything that goes wrong, and you've got a helicopter crashing into an adjacent building.   Some fun.   And after 9/11, well, the idea of flying planes over city streets doesn't seem to have much legs.  Today, they have "heliports" in Manhattan, usually on a pier, that you have to drive to, in order to take a helicopter anywhere.  Of course, some claim this will change with the advent of flying cars.   But if helicopters flying to rooftops was deemed unsafe 40 years ago, why would we think it safe today?

Obviously, we could not have individuals flying these vehicles.  To begin with, the amount of training needed to learn to fly a hovering vehicle is pretty extensive - more than most people would want to deal with.  It is not as simple as driving a car.  Flying a helicopter has often been described as simultaneously rubbing your stomach and patting your head and requires excellent coordination.  95% of the population simply could not do it.   Even if you could simplify the controls using computers, so that it was a "point and and shoot" kind of deal, there would still be people plowing into things, or worse yet, drunk drivers.

One idea that has been suggested is to have autonomous vehicle flying cars.   Hey, why not?  The Uber autonomous taxi is just about ready for introduction - once they put homeless cow-catchers on the front of them.   I mean, what could possibly go wrong, right?   Autonomous vehicles are only minutes away!   Yea, I wrote some Patents on those, too - back in the early 1990's.  And the research goes back to the 1970's, if not before.   It is another idea that has been a long time coming.   This we may actually see, in a few years, if companies like Uber don't fuck it up, and people don't freak out and petition the government to ban them.

So... take this autonomous technology and put it in your flying car and voila!  You have a flying Uber taxi or whatever.   You call one and it lands in your driveway (I presume you cut down that maple tree, right?) and zooms you off to your destination while you read the paper.   The onboard navigation system adroitly avoids other vehicles and communicates with other vehicles as well, in addition to ground control, to smoothly merge with air traffic and find an appropriate place to land.  Sounds swell, don't it?

Well, yea, but.  You see, we're trying to do this right now today with commercial and general aviation, with something called ADS-B - Automatic Dependent Surveillance- Broadcast.  Instead of having "air traffic control" (ATC) radar and "airways" in the sky, each aircraft would locate its position using GPS and then broadcast that to others.  Each plane could then avoid the other, knowing the location of all other aircraft in the airspace.   You could just fly from point A to point B, without following antiquated "airways" that were established in the era of Wiley Post.

And yes, I've written a number of Patents in this field as well.  The problem is, of course, the aviation community has been dragged kicking and screaming into the ADS-B era. There have been delay after delay in implementing the technology, and the technology has changed over time.  Small aircraft owners object to the high cost of the equipment, of course.  ADS-B will eventually be our new standard.   But if you are an air traffic controller, well, don't worry about losing your job just yet.

The point is, we are trying to develop and implement a far simpler navigation system than autonomous flying cars - and running into a lot of difficulties on the political, economic, and technological fronts.   This is something we are trying to do today, and struggling with it.  From what I understand, the new deadline for implementation is now 2020 - so we may finally see it in effect, shortly.   But this is only after years and years of delays.

Now, take all of these problems one at a time, and then put them together.  You need to design a flying vehicle that is fuel efficient and can hover and land anywhere (including in 30 mph cross-winds, in the rain, during snowstorms, and whatnot) and has an autonomous navigation system that will prevent it from colliding with people, buildings, trees, and other flying cars.  Hell, I could design that in ten minutes on the back of a cocktail napkin!  I mean, what is so hard about that?

But seriously, it is a challenge.  And maybe in the future we will see octocopters and electric aircraft that have usable practical ranges.  But I am not sure we will see these flying through the skyscraper canyons of New York City anytime soon.  Probably not in my lifetime.

And yet, clickbait articles abound, claiming that this technology is only a few years away.  In a way, it is kind of charming, how mankind, and in particular, Americans, put so much faith in technology.  Scotty's transporter beam, on Star Trek, can only be a few years away as well, right?

Well, when it comes to science fiction, never confuse a plot device with futurism.   Science fiction shows and movies posit there is "artificial gravity" in the future simply because it is a lot easier to shoot on a set here on Earth than to try to simulate zero-gee.  The "transporter beam" on Star Trek was one such plot device.  It was a lot easier and cheaper to just "beam people down" to a planet, than to have elaborate shuttle-craft shots.   Of course, the special effects for the "beam" itself proved expensive, so later in the series, they would just show Kirk entering the transporter room - and then a quick cut to the planet surface.

Every good science fiction story has a laser, phaser, or "death ray".  In the 1930's in particular, it was always "rays" of one form or another - atomic rays, or heat rays or whatnot.   This doesn't mean these things will exist in the future.   Sure we have lasers - in your mouse or remote control even.   But you aren't blasting through steel doors with them or making aliens go "poof" anytime soon- at least not with some handheld device.   Don't confuse fiction with reality.

Similarly, flying cars are often used as props in movies and on TeeVee, as they are "futuristic" and the "next logical stage" in the development of the automobile, right?  You can't just show a boring old car on a SciFi show - it has to fly!  That's how the audience will be keyed in that this is "the future" - right?  Again, don't confuse a science fiction trope with reality.

Would I like to see flying cars?  Sure, that would be cool.  Although I am not sure I could get Mr. See into one.  I've manged to wedge him into some bi-planes on occasion, but he does have a fear of heights.  He does this in spite of his fears, and to appease me.  But I am not sure he would be comfortable in a flying car, on a regular basis.   And I suspect a lot of other people would have similar problems with it as well.  Although perhaps a new generation, raised on flying cars, would get used to the effect.  But it illustrates there are more than technical issues at stake - there are social and political ones as well.

But quite frankly, I don't see it.  The costs are too staggering and the efficiency very, very low,  And even with autonomous controls, accidents will happen, and a flying car crashing into Times Square would injure and kill a whole lot of people.  And would people really accept a new reality with flying cars constantly buzzing overhead?  Flying at eye-level with the people in adjacent office buildings?  Some folks, I think, might object.

No, I think we need to chalk this one up to "ain't happening anytime soon" despite all the hype and hoopla.

UPDATE:  A reader points out that I missed two huge problems with flying cars:  noise and blast.

Airplanes are noisy, that is true.   Reducing airport noise has been an ongoing concern for the last several decades.   People (including a former neighbor of mine in Virginia) have the airport noise complaint line on speed-dial, and will call in whenever they feel there is "too much" noise from a passing jet.

Helicopters and other vertical lift devices are even noisier - they have to be at maximum thrust during takeoffs and landings.   We have military helicopters do touch-and-goes at our little airport here on the island.   Most of us think it is pretty cool, even if they do fly over the house, sometimes late at night.   Others are less enthused.

Now imagine Uber electric octo-copters taking off and landing in your neighborhood, 24 hours a day - every time someone wants to go somewhere.   It would be unworkable.  On the plus side, the lawn guy's leaf blower wouldn't seem so bad in comparison.

And no, you couldn't have an Uber "airport" to drive to - that would defeat the whole point of the flying car - point-to-point transportation.  Not only that, do you know how hard it is to permit a new airport these days?   Small general aviation airports are being turned into condominium developments at a rapid clip as it is!

In the cities, the noise factor would be horrendous - with these flying cars jumping from rooftop to rooftop.   Yes, we can deal with the occasional helicopter today, because they are occasional - they are so darn expensive, only a few rich people or organizations can afford to operate them.  But flying cars or taxis - for everyone?    It wouldn't work - not even if they were limited to even just the moderately wealthy.

But speaking of leaf blowers, the thrust from these vertical-lift devices would also be horrendous.   Land one in your back yard, and watch your lawn furniture get blown into the pool.   Sure, some rich guy can land his helicopter on the lawn of his vacation home - he owns hundreds of acres of land.   But for the rest of us?  Simply unworkable.

The blast issue would be less of a problem, perhaps, for these proposed rooftop landing zones.   But in order for this air taxi or flying car to work, you have to have a place to fly to.   And the places you fly to, would have to have some sort of safe landing zone free of obstructions and far enough away from neighbors who might complain about the noise.

So the idea of taking your flying flivver to work every day, is, well, a wee bit overstated.

The point of this is (and I did have one) the whole "flying car concept" thing is a prime example of the over-exuberance Americans have for "the next big thing!" technology.  We are convinced that if we throw enough investment money at something, it will happen.   And many people have thrown money at this idea - and many others have been willing to catch it.