Ask Hackaday: Where Are The Flying Cars?

I could have sworn that we have asked this one before, but perhaps I’m thinking of our discussion of nuclear aircraft. In my mind the two share a similar fate: it just isn’t going to happen. But, that doesn’t mean flying cars can’t happen. Let me make my case, and then we want to know what you think.

[Steve] sent in a link to a Bloomberg article on Larry Page’s suspected investment in personal flying cars. It’s exciting to hear about test flights from a startup called Zee.Aero with 150 people on staff and a seemingly unlimited budget to develop such a fantastic toy. Surely Bruce Wayne Mr. Page is onto something and tiny 2-person vehicles will be whizzing up and down the airspace above your street at any moment now? Realistically though, I don’t believe it. They definitely will build a small fleet of such vehicles and they will work. But you, my friend, will never own one.

(Fear of) Flying Jackasses

FlyingPinto Thumb
This isn’t a new idea. [Kristina Panos] wrote about the longstanding quest for personal aircraft like this flying Pinto
Put your mind in the now: think of the time you spent in the car this week. How many cars did you see that had been in fender benders? How many looked to be in grave disrepair? Did you have any close calls from inattentive drivers or jackasses running the red light? There are all kinds of cars and drivers on the road that make it an unsafe place to be. I consider it the most dangerous thing I do on a regular basis. Now take that and put it in the sky. Every one of those inattentive people are now responsible for 3D space where a small accident can send shrapnel raining down over the landscape quite possibly with the flying cars following after them.

There were nearly 30,000 fatalities from automobile crashes in the US in 2014 and that doesn’t count any where there were injuries but not death. We need self driving vehicles because I believe that intelligent systems can improve upon our numbers. Flying machines should be no different, right? I’m skeptical, but just go with it.

So this leaves public sentiment. Do you know how many airplane related deaths there were in 2014? 691. That’s worldwide. Compare that with 30,000 traffic deaths just in the USA. Yet a downed aircraft will be all over the news for days, weeks, perhaps more than a month. Driverless cars seem to be viewed with some fear despite a steady drumbeat of “they’re just around the corner” for the past couple of decades. And I already touched on the hysteria over drones — invading people’s privacy, endangering aircraft, carrying weapons — I don’t worry about any of these thing but I hear a LOT about these concerns from other people and outlets. [Jenny List] even wrote an exceptional article about drone-v-plane hysteria which you shouldn’t miss. My point is that it’s a gigantic task to get widespread buy-in for letting anyone travel the skies in their own flying car. And the first time one falls out of the wild blue yonder into an apartment building it’ll put the effort back a couple of decades.


Which finally brings us to the GIF at the top of the post. I didn’t just choose a scene from The Fifth Element to be cute. That movie does a great job of imagining a future society. 3D printable body parts, tiny locker-like apartments, and a photo ID that you must show to do anything? Sounds like where we’re headed. But perhaps best is that nothing ever works right, just like real life. This is the centerpiece of engineering beyond the minimum specs. You must be able to cope with failure of the system and this is where I think the biggest challenge lies. Achieving an aircraft that you can park in your garage, get off the ground with a few people inside, and travel any meaningful distance is incredibly difficult. Now you also need to make sure it doesn’t fall out of the sky at the drop of a hat. That’s what makes this Science Fiction and not just Science.

Despite my naysaying, I am very excited for Larry Page’s (alleged) adventures in flying car research. Even if we don’t end up having Saturday night drag races in the sky, the research being done will surly yield unexpected advancements that will benefit everyone.

What do you think? Can we solve this engineering challenge within our lifetimes? And if so, will we actually be allowed to use them en masse over densely populated areas? Let us know in the comments below.

73 thoughts on “Ask Hackaday: Where Are The Flying Cars?

  1. To some extent, they already exist. Ultralights and experimental aircraft.
    If you check you find the problem with cars is that all the “as safe as a padded cell” demands NHSTA imposes causes cars to be heavy and expensive – it is simple physics. Meanwhile they need to be fuel efficient beyond the laws of physics. Aircraft are even worse.

      1. That’s unfortunately the case with just about any certified aircraft. The certification requirements mean that repairing or replacing anything on them is horribly expensive. Want a nice GPS that you can use for navigation? A $50 Teclast tablet will do fine. Want a TSO C146c GPS that you can use as a primary position source in a certified aircraft? Expect around $10K plus installation by a licensed avionics installer.

        Comanches (as with most 1960s/1970s light aircraft) are quite affordable to buy; you just need to have a lot of money coming in to pay for the maintenance and updated avionics.

        I doubt that flying cars will ever become a major thing. More likely that self-driving cars will largely eliminate the need; if you can browse the internet or sleep while the car does the driving then it doesn’t really matter too much how long the journey takes. Hopefully “smart” cars will ease traffic woes too.

      1. Don’t know about the US but here in Austria we also have a decline of motor vehicle deaths. But a study has shown that the number of accidents is actually increasing. It is just much more likely to survive an accident in 2016 than it was ten years ago. This is due to the fact that medicine is getting better, the infrastructure to get emergency forces to accident sites is growing, as well as cars themself are getting safer.

        Now that you had to throw politics in: The last point, “cars getting safer” is mainly because car companies were forced to do so because of regulations and that is good. However first point “medicine is getting better” is mainly because we have scientists and doctors who can liberally explore the unknown and question established knowlege and that’s also good.
        Can’t we just agree that neither purely authoritarian nor purely libertian parties are fit to rule?

        1. You have to remember that the safety features of the cars are built to please the regulators first and foremost. They are the least the manufacturers have to do to get the car to pass the regulations – that’s how the free market responds to political pressure.

          They “work” because they are tested to work in tests that capture a small subset of conditions, for which the automakers optimize their devices. The results are often completely irrelevant to real world accidents, the same as how fuel economy tests are wildly inaccurate.

          It’s kinda like evolution: when you apply selection pressure, you get all sorts of solutions to the problem, and the one that uses the least effort usually wins out. That’s why attempts at regulating some industry to do something it wouldn’t already be doing because of consumer demand or economics, or simpy the physics of it – it cheats.

          1. Parent said: “Don’t know about the US but here in Austria we also have a decline of motor vehicle deaths.”

            If you want to make the point that “The results are often completely irrelevant to real world accidents…” you are going to have to respond to that first sentence too.

      2. Unintended side effects: lives and limbs lost in car accidents are now being lost in environmental pollution and lower living standards (poverty) because transportation costs more and can’t be as efficient as it would because you have to have a ton of nanny technology that only gives a diminishing return in actual accidents.

        All the three letter acronyms in your car cost you more, weigh you down, make your fuel consumption go up, and in the case of a serious accident where they would apply they give you maybe a 2% better chance. Mostly they enable you to drive in marginal conditions without noticing the blinking warning light on the dash because it doesn’t feel like you’re driving on ice. On that counterpoint as well: the false sense of security has made people drive faster and riskier – yet if you take a modern car 100 mph sideways into a concrete divider, the passengers will most likely be dead regardless.

        All the regulations ultimately didn’t bring about appreciable changes in accident fatalities. What did bring a change is the spread of the highway network and general improvement of roads and traffic infrastructure and technology with people driving more on uneventful and safe, well organized long stretches of nice flat lit asphalt roads, in cars that were mechanically more sound and reliable. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a seatbelt when you’re unlikely to crash in the first place!

        You could take a modern “safe” car and you couldn’t even get anywhere in the 1925’s US because you’d be stuck in the mud all the time, or get pedestrians and horses and cows jumping in your way.

        1. To what golden time are you comparing today? Air pollution, at least the kinds that directly impact human health in the developed world is way down from what it was which probably peaked in the 70s or the 80s depending on where you are. Maybe deaths from otherwise natural weather phenomena that were amplified by global warming is up but it is hard to quantify that. If anything there are fewer lives lost from pollution due to your hated ‘nanny technology’.

          As for the cost of traveling, we did have a generation or so that got to travel really cheap but we are still privileged to have access to cheaper travel than pretty much every generation that ever lived on this planet except for the previous one.

    1. It’s PEBKAC for IT related support. – Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair
      I suppose it would be PEBCSAS for aircraft? – Problem Exists Between Control Stick And Seat

  2. There is a generational turn-over in automotive that is very slow and thus slow to absorb change. There are many people driving 10+ year old cars today. And even more driving 5+ year old cars. Mostly because they are the second largest capitol purchase a family typically makes beyond a house. It takes 10-15 years after a change is introduced to turn over the whole fleet. And most radical changes require an entire fleet turn-over.

    Most near-term futuristic auto visions have car ownership in urban areas plummeting as autonomous vehicles mature. Why would you own a car when there will be Uber-esk services offering pick-ups at 7:30a at your home to go to the office and 5:00 at your office to go home? Autonomous cars will queue at locations and times forecasted by computerized demand models. Industry economics and price models will be stream-lined by technology and scale. And hopefully the government will catch-up with enough safety standards glue to keep us all alive.

    This automotive technological adolescence we’re entering in where at any moment there exists an eclectic mix of old and new technology on the road is a bit scary. But once we get over this pubescent growth, the transportation problems outlined here driving a perceived need for flying cars will not be the concerns of our automotive adult-hood.

    1. That’s an interesting view and quite possibly the correct one.

      What pops up in my mind then is the resistance to this. Surely automakers don’t want to see individual car ownership decline and will resist this with every resource they have (advertising, lobbying, etc.).

      Certainly this will be an expansion of the big-city-dweller-lifestyle who doesn’t need to own a car. That pool of humanity will expand past urban to suburban. But there are still so many other modes of car use: out of town travel, and populations not living in dense population areas. I wonder how that will work?

      1. I think there will be a mix of business models, but the total number of vehicles will decrease as personal ownership of vehicles decreases. Big cities will generate large orders for fleets of self driving cars, for both police and public transportation use. Taxi companies (which may be owned or managed by larger cities) will also have large fleets of self driving cars. Car companies will primarily target these markets, and those who miss out on the big orders will go out of business, or be taken over. Customers will likely pay for transportation subscriptions, rather than owning their own vehicle, or paying for individual rides. There will probably always be a niche market for rich collectors, driving enthusiasts, or people who live in rural areas, who will likely still buy and maintain personal vehicles of both conventional and self-driving varieties. I also think there will be an increased market for 3 wheel “smart” motorcycles, and low tech mopeds, especially outside the US.

        1. I don’t see cities owning Taxi fleets. Already they are losing the grip on regulation through ride-sharing (Lyft, Uber) and losing revenue on the historically expensive taxi medallions. I don’t see them taking back that kind of control by owning their own fleets. I think that sort of thing will be private business.

          Transportation subscriptions…. hmm, maybe. There are companies now that pay for unlimited public transit passes for their workers on a monthly basis. Driverless cars are akin to that.

      2. The fundamental fallacy is in thinking that we’re all going to be living in cities.

        But there’s no work in cities, except pushing paper and serving coffee, or doing all sorts of other non-productive stuff that consumes rather than creates wealth. With all the people only consuming, making money by trade, gambling, stock trades, or some sort of entertainment and service business – sure, in that sort of future people wouldn’t be owning cars – because they couldn’t afford to. They’re trying to make a living by offering a song and dance, just like 7 billion other people.

    2. You concern about the use of mixed technology is nothing new, there are many examples of the friction between automobile drivers and people still using horses, to the point that many towns outlawed cars in the city to preserve the horse and carriage culture

      1. Or you can look at Pakistan where the donkey is hitched to what used to be the back end of a pickup truck. Nice axle and bearings. Green power source. Nearly useless beyond subsistence living. They mixed with all other kinds of traffic. Cross the border to India and enter the modern world. Same thing for this vision as you go from rural to urban. In fact, I will predict the licensing and inspection alone will keep the rural vehicles out of the cities.

        There is always the old Roman system. Draft animals (big trucks, etc) allowed in the streets only at night. The real beauty of the Uber-esque future is that if you try to skip jury duty the system will find you and bring you in anyway, or straight to jail if the judge so decides. You won’t have to be bagged like 5th Element or Brazil. Just enter any of the transport systems. Johnny Cab will take lock the doors and bring you in.

        The flying part is maybe not that difficult. If you have quad-copter type vehicles they can be autonomous in traffic and directed at will in unrestricted space, with collision avoidance and all that. Fair weather light weight short hop stuff seems obtainable. Hundreds of thousands of personal Zeppelins would be a lot cooler and energy efficient, but imagine the wind gusts.

        1. Yes I can’t imagine trying to lift a car as we know it. As you say quad-copter based with maybe the ability for auto-rotation and you are sitting in a Bucky-ball type bubble of flexible material to absorb impact and enclose the occupants.

    3. “Why would you own a car when there will be Uber-esk services offering pick-ups at 7:30a at your home to go to the office and 5:00 at your office to go home? ”

      Because it costs you much more.

      The other person who is actually driving the car still has to pay for the car, for the maintenance, insurance, licenses, fuel, etc. and they also need to make a profit and support themselves, so what you basically get is a taxi driver.

      It’s the same problem as with the “hey, we’ll just all rent cars” idea. Sure – but you’ll pay dearly.

      1. A public transport service wouldn’t cost much. In turin there is a completely automatic metro, tram are largely automated, there are some on demand mini bus, automated car sharing and bike stations. Full range of services cost around 700€/year, owning a car would cost more and it would be really hard to find parking.
        Car rental is cheaper owning, because of heavy tax discounts.

    4. Looking forward to see what happens when the entire suburbia tries to “schedule” rides in one direction, at the exact same time, for the morning commute. Just let me grab the popcorn. Not sure if I’m expecting a Woody Allen or a Tarantino movie though. And if there _really_ are many enough cars to suffice, that just means _my_ car is wandering the streets all day now instead of sitting at-the-ready in my garage for whenever I need it. Win-win! Oh, wait… the other thing.

    5. Ugh.

      I remember having friends in college who liked to walk or take the bus and would say ‘why should I own a car’ 1/2 the time I would see them. The other half they were begging me for a ride! They couldn’t bring more than a bag or two of groceries on the bus or they wanted to go buy furniture or one of dozens of other random one-off situations people aren’t thinking about when they decide to go carless. What a PITA!

  3. I have to admit I share the same concern, “5 car pile-up” suddenly gets a literal interpretation: two that collide mid-air and collect another 3 on the way to the ground.

    I ride a bicycle as my sole means of private transport and I see plenty of examples of why flying cars will never fly. The modern car is an isolated bubble of distraction on wheels for many drivers. Modern climate control and other comfort features means they’re about as far removed from the environment as it is possible to be without the car being remotely driven. (And I’m sure some wing nut is working on the latter option, they’re already working on the far harder problem of AI drivers.)

    Then you get the drivers that are too busy with the mobile phone to actually pay attention. (Or the newspaper; as one colleague noted one morning.) Driving requires constant adjustment of one’s velocity; dv/dt. You make “dt” bigger by checking less often whilst you task-switch between a screen and the road, you’ll necessarily make “dv” bigger, and it’s those sudden changes in speed and direction which others may not be expecting which cause a crash.

    I deliberately leave home at about 4-4:30AM to get to work by 6AM (with one rest stop for breakfast) so that I can just ride in quietly taking my time, then be well ahead of peak hour when it comes for the return home around 2-4PM. It means I avoid a lot of what goes on, as there’s considerably fewer cars on the road. I still get the odd idiot, but my chances are greatly reduced.

    Cars in 3 dimensions means that you’ve got to be mindful of what’s happening above and below… more concentration. People have proven they can’t get it right in 2 dimensions. A big part of it will be signalling intentions to other “pilots”, so this will require new signalling standards as “left” and “right” no longer is sufficient.

    Pilots use air band to a traffic controller to ensure everyone is on the same page. Ever heard Ch 40 UHF CB here in Australia? Good way to learn new rude words, that’s about all its good for.

    I think the only truly flying cars will be taxi services where the pilot can be trained and suitable standards put in place. The pilot may even be a computer rather than a human. You won’t ever see the 1950s vision of people doing the actual control of the vehicle, as we know there are too many variables for that to work.

  4. They are coming but you won’t own one. They will be autonomous and you will probably be part of a car-share plan to make use of them. In the suburbs they will probably come to your driveway, but in the inner city they will come to predetermined safe landing areas and you will take a small autonomous car, also shared, to your final destination.

    1. Yep in the future private vehicle ownership will be for the rich and powerful (for the good of the environment and cause everyone else will be piss poor) and regular people will have to make do with the robotaxi/bus, hosed out once a year weather it needs it or not.

  5. *Digs up the 5th element movie from his hdd*
    Nice article too, not just headline image :P but i think we will eventually see flying cars, the term car will just be very loosely, when they do appear they will prolly fly in predefined paths with minimal user input, self flying cars so to speak.

    1. The clip from The Fifth Element is great action movie stuff, but if 3D traffic really looked like that, the MTBC (mean time between collisions) would be in seconds. Real flying cars would require some discipline, just as 2D driving does. Level changes would require protocols similar to lane changes.

      The real reason we won’t get flying cars (OR quadcopter cars) is the drastically lower efficiency compared with wheels on a hard surface.

      1. I agree with both your points, but I don’t think that these are the only reasons why the average person will not have a flying car.

        Because drones make sense for certain delivery purposes, the efficiency problem will eventually be solved for drones used in delivery fleets. NASA already has a drone with a tilt-rotor configuration, and a hybrid diesel-electric power plant. It can fly like a plane, rather than pulling its entire weight vertically for the entire flight.

        Human-controlled flying cars don’t make sense as personal vehicles for the following reasons:
        1. It will become easier to put work and shopping options closer to the people, than create and maintain the transportation infrastructure to take everyone from the suburbs to city and back. Cities should apply common sense (via zoning laws), and not allow developers to build a ton of houses in an area that lacks the infrastructure for providing jobs, schools, police and fire services, as well as dining, shopping and entertainment. To do so is just begging for gridlock, as people flock to the highways to get from where they sleep to where they want/need to be, and back.

        2. The average person will not be able to afford, maintain, or safely and reliably control such a vehicle. These vehicles will be owned by larger organizations with the means and legal obligation to maintain them. These vehicles will also be flown by computers, to guarantee all the proper protocols and regulations are followed at all times.

  6. Surprisingly enough, pretty much everyone is wrong: the only thing definitively keeping flying cars away is the FAA’s lack of preparation for them. Once that’s in place (I don’t know whether the current upgrade program will get the required automated dispatching services in place) it’ll just be a matter of upgrading auto-pilots… and making autopilots that only allow the user to directly control the vehicle if the autopilot bugs out.

    There are plenty of “starting point” aircraft options out there, the support systems just need to be put in place.

    1. Disagree. The FAA wasn’t ready for drones, and yet here we are. It’s all in the price point. If somebody comes up with a way of making flying cars NOT cost > 5x as much to own and operate as ground-bound cars, the FAA will have to adapt to them as well.

          1. Okay wordpress. You are starting to piss me off!
            I know what happend, and I’m not happy.
            Before you make fun of me look at the source code!

            Actually, make fun of me anyway! :O

          2. Does it remove the prefix? It was working 20 minutes ago.

            I guess I’ll never do this again, no point in wasting time. If you want to see a picture of a car flipped over add wwwblah to it. But, everybody here knew about that but me, apparently.

  7. Yup… What I want to know is where is my flying work van… The logistics of a community of flying commuters to safely get between their starting point and destination are insurmountable in this day and age, let alone the technological logistics. People are sick of driving, and aggression rises throughout the day as the nerves of the commutes take their toll on us out there fighting to get home.
    We must also remember this is really only fixable problem for part of the workforce as many of us have to have a vehicle to take around to various locations within a city every day, loaded down with equipment and parts. But for those of you who do go to one place every day, with your cool hip shoulder bag- start using public transit or suck it up, move out of your suburban mini mansion and move close enough to walk or ride your bike.
    *dismounts soap box*

  8. It wont happen for most people: I don’t see a bright future ahead going the same path we are right now.
    – it is not energy efficient to fly vs driving on a road. As if we don’t already have problems with CO2 and energy issues to worry about. Good luck with climate changes.
    – The infrastructure isn’t there to handle the amount of air traffic.
    – Last thing you want in cities is flying cars – noise, air/light pollution and people flying into buildings by accidents or intentionally. Reduced line of sight and collision distances pretty means that it is not ideal for city flying.
    – Idiot drivers aren’t train to be pilots. Needs lots of automation.
    – collapsing middle class means most people won’t have the money to buy useless toys.

    1. Actually planes are way more fuel efficient than cars per distance, look up the specs of passenger planes and do the math. Having 300 people drive cars (with baggage on top of things) the same distance like a regular airbus flight for instance would be much worse
      Plus these flying cars could be like big quadcopters using electric motors, and yes you can make electricity without pollution (and I include nuclear as being pouting).
      And obviously you need to keep them low near the ground not at altitudes of planes.
      And you would have them be driven by computer not handled by training ordinary people to become pilots.
      And you would have air corridors like normal planes use too, except separate and low altitude (and more plentiful).

      1. Disclaimer: normal planes being more efficient of course relies on planes having wings, and quoadcopters would be another thing altogether, but that’s why clean electric energy would have to be used.

  9. Ehang184 shows how easy personal VTOL air vehicles are. 30km range (enough for most commutes) and not even a good layout (8 motors+8 props, should be in octocopter layout or distributed across tilting wings to reduce power, not lousy non-tilting top and bottom quadcopter layout that is optimised for low speed camera drones buzzing around gardens -can only assume lack of competent engineers involved. And should use wings for more efficient + 3-5x range cruise.

    In volume production they will have similar weight, power and cost to a sports motorbike (<100kW, <$10k, <200kg), so will quickly grab big market by lying within discretionary budgets of 10's-100's of millions of people worldwide. A 300kg Gross take off weight winged electric VTOL PAV with conservative Lift/Drag~10 will use 5x less energy over a given distance than a 2000 kg car (with effective L/D ~20), and will travel a faster direct route.

    Ballistic parachutes make highrise rooftops the safest option for landing sites (high enough for parachute deployment).

    The technical solutions are relatively easy. Its the regulatory hurdles that are the big problem (Nimbys and vested interests)

  10. You’d need fully automatic ‘driving’ as a minimum when you want private citizens to own flying cars, else the chaos and mayhem is unimaginable.

    That’s apart from the various other issues people list here, like the noise.

  11. Just in case anyone was interested:
    1500 deaths per 10 billion passenger miles for driving (in the United States in 2000)
    3 deaths per 10 billion passenger miles for flying (commercial airlines in the United States between 1995 and 2000)

    The assumption of course is that flying is safer, but you have to recognize that flying vs. driving is different due to who’s in control of the vehicle. Switching to an automation-only pilot for consumer passenger vehicles should eliminate variability.

  12. the 5th element clip is what i always go back to when people talk flying cars: it shows what it would actually be like. In order to work at all, it would have to suck just as bad as traffic now. There’s be rules, laws, highways, lanes, speed limits. It would not be free blue skies.

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