Flying Cars - A reality (un) check! Technology Trends
"To fly as fast as thought, to anywhere that is, you must begin by knowing that you have already arrived." - Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull
To fly as and when one wants to, without any earthly limitations, has been a fantasy for scores of dreamers across the world. Several attempts are work in progress and a few closer to a real possibility. Efforts which spanned beyond decades of time are now slowly materializing to become reality.
Pre-orders are on for some of the state of the art machines which enable one to perform dual mode travel - to travel on road and to fly as well. At a price tag varying around US$1 million (plus or minus 350k USD), as we speak in 2017, the concept is slightly away from being an immediate mass market aspiration.
Here are a few quick takeaways on the concept:
Over last few decades, significant progress have been made in manufacturing of advanced light materials and computer aided simulation/testing. This made the creation of flying vehicles much easier, cheaper, safer today than what it could have been in early 1950s.
Ranging from a convertible fixed wing configuration to vertical take-off & landing (VTOL) configuration to a gyrocopter, the competing players are offering a variety of technology options for users to embrace. While fixed wing configurations need lengthier runways, VTOLs make more practical sense for urban setting. Useful load carrying capacity is in the range of 250kg and typically these are one or two seaters. Maximum air cruise speed is in the range of 150-320 kmph and range is about 500-600km. That way, it would take about 3-4 hours and one potential refuel for a one way trip between places that are about 500-600km apart. This speed is much lower than traditional flight travel speed but slightly faster than average road speed. While electric motors for on-road use and IC engines for flight are typical combinations, players are also considering full electric vehicles for both modes (on-road and on-air).
Given that currently the driver in these vehicles need to have both driving license and pilot (traditional or sports) license, initial user base could be limited elite pilot drivers or users who can afford pilots.
Current road and flight infrastructure would need to accommodate for fueling, takeoff, refueling and landing needs of these new generation vehicles. Wingspans of these vehicles in flight modes range from 6 to 10 meters and hence may need dedicated launch/landing/fueling sites. Existing air traffic controls would need to be updated to facilitate this new traffic. Full blown commercial autonomous flying vehicles are still slated for slightly later future and hence there needs to be enough facilities now for training current aspiring drivers for flying.
These new flying vehicles need to be both road certified as well as flight certified, in different geographies. Large time delays in certification can hamper the economic viability of these projects. On the other hand, the certifying authorities would need more time to assess safety concerns and potential risks.
Regulatory authorities are enabling specification for autonomous vehicles and drone transport, as we speak. As far as flying vehicles are concerned, introduction of a new dimension of flight for road vehicles would be adding far more complexity given that their flight space is going to intervene with not only existing aircrafts but also emerging drone paths. A holistic aero commuting regulatory authority may be needed which encompasses- traditional aviation, drones and flying cars. Interstate road tax levying methodologies need to change since flying vehicles can just fly over borders while they are state-residents when driving on road.
Aiming both road and flight performance, these flying vehicles are set to stretch the human potential in designing and implementing safest transportation systems. Most of them incorporate ballistic parachutes in case of emergencies and also enable robust cockpits with superior crash performance. However the challenge for technology lies in convincing the initial set of user to venture to test the vehicles out. Even a minutest of human injury would draw extreme media attention and emerging technology like this may not afford to risk its potential viability because of avoidable mishaps.
Commercial insurance players would have to factor in additional risks of such transportation. Prohibitive high insurance costs can hamper the sustainability of commercial adoption of this technology. A potential skyways authority which manages dedicated national and international skyways which largely cover unpopulated (or sparsely populated) earth surface could be stop-gap measure to mitigate potential large risks to human life.
History has time and again proved that pulsating intense human desire to achieve the impossible has always triumphed over any kind of obstacles.
"Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know and you will see the way to fly." - Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull