Why Are There No Flying Cars?

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When airplanes were developed in the early 20th century, the technology developed rapidly. 

Within a matter of a couple of decades, aviation had become a norm for transporting people and delivering mail. 

As flight technology kept improving, people assumed that it would keep improving to the point where everyone would own their own personal airplanes.

…except that never happened. 

Learn more about why we don’t have flying cars and how all the predictions were wrong on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

When there is a new revolutionary technology, it is natural for people to extrapolate where they think the technology will go. This was certainly the case with airplanes and aviation. 

The motorized, heavier-than-air aircraft was developed in 1903 by the Wright Brothers. 

People had been working on the problem for years, but it was Orville and Wilber Wright who finally proved the concept over the dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Once the dam was broken and people realized that heavier-than-air flight was possible, it unleashed a torrent of innovation. 

Within a decade, airplanes had become safer, larger, and could fly further. 

Most of the advances were incremental. Improvements and new designs to engines, propellers, body design, and metallurgy improvements kept making planes better and better.

Furthermore, the rise of the airplane roughly coincided with the rise of the automobile. It wasn’t a stretch to assume one day, cars and airplanes would merge such that everyone would have their own flying car.

The first attempt at creating a flying car was in 1917. American inventor Glenn Curtis developed the Curtiss Autoplane. As far as design was concerned, it wasn’t very clever. It was literally just the front end of an automobile with a three-wing triplane attached in the back. The airplane part was detachable so that it could be used as a car. 

The major difference between the autoplane and an automobile of the time was that the autoplane was built out of aluminum, which was still pretty rare for any sort of vehicle. 

The autoplane was capable of getting off the ground briefly, but it wasn’t able to achieve sustained flight. 

It was shown at an aviation event in New York in 1917 before development was halted when the US entered the first world war. 

Despite this failed first attempt at merging cars and airplanes, it didn’t stop people from dreaming. 

By the year 1927, people were envisioning what the future of aviation would be like. The epic science fiction film Metropolis by Fritz Lange envisioned a world where airplanes would fly between buildings of a large city.

A flying car was just something that most people assumed would happen at some point in the indeterminate future. 

In that same year, Henry Ford unveiled the Ford Flivver. It was really just a small single-seat airplane, but it got a lot of press attention because Henry Ford was associated with the project. They only produced five prototypes.

The next attempt at achieving the flying car came in the 1930s from another American inventor by the name of Waldo Waterman. He created the Waterman Arrowbile. 

The Arrowbile was a two-seat vehicle with a rear propeller and no tail. It was really more of a small, lightweight airplane than it was a flying car. 

Development on the arrowbile took place throughout the 30s, but in the end, only five were ever made. Unlike the autoplane, the arrowbile could actually fly, and one actually flew over 2,000 miles, but construction ceased in 1937.

Despite all the failures, people kept trying. The next was a design by Robert Edison Fulton Jr., who was actually a distant relative of Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamboat. 

He unveiled the Fulton Airphibian in 1946. Unlike previous attempts at flying cars, rather than just merging a plane and a car together, the Airphibian had the plane part detachable like the original autoplane. It also had a detachable propeller that had to be taken on and off whenever it went from car to plane mode. 

Four models were made, and some can be found at aviation museums today.

Around the same time, the Convair Model 118 was released, which was one of the oddest flying cars ever released. It was literally a car with wings, a tail, and an engine that could be bolted to the top. 

It actually did a one-hour test flight but was damaged when it landed, because, as it turns out, cars aren’t really designed to land after flying.

Over the years, there were more of these same types of designs that would periodically pop up. They were chimera vehicles. They were all just one-part automobile and one-part airplane, which were just smashed together to make a flying car. 

Despite the fact that some of these could actually fly, it wasn’t what people wanted. 

The dream of a flying car wasn’t about an airplane that could drive on the ground. It was about having a car that looked like a car but could fly around in the air just as easily as you could drive a car on the ground. 

All of the chimera vehicles behaved like airplanes when they flew. They had wings and a propeller and required a runway for take-off and landing. They weren’t flying cars. They were just airplanes that sort of looked like cars. 

As science fiction advanced, it solidified exactly what the dream of a flying car was supposed to be. 

One best illustrations of flying cars was, believe it or not, the Jetson’s cartoon show.  Everyone in the Jetsons flew around in personal vehicles. These were not vehicles that were a cross between a car and an airplane. 

They were just cars…..that flew. 

How exactly they flew was never quite explained, but they were car-like vehicles that just flew in the air. 

Science fiction continued to expand on the idea of flying cars. It was something that almost every depiction of the future had. 

Blade Runner had literal cars that could just take off vertically and fly around. Star Wars had similar flying car vehicles. Back to the Future had a fusion-powered flying car. 

What all these fictional examples had in common were vehicles without wings, without propellers, and that didn’t require special runways.

Despite the fictional portrayal of flying cars that just magically flew, companies kept coming out with prototype flying cars that looked like it was an airplane. 

These prototypes kept failing for the exact same reasons.

First, cars and airplanes are very different things. You can’t just take tack wings and a propeller on a car and make it fly. Flying takes a lot more energy than driving. A Cessna Skylane, which is a small 4-seat aircraft, has a fuel tank of 87 gallons or 329 liters. 

Even a large SUV will only have a tank around a third to a fourth of the size. 

If you want the ability to take off and land vertically, that requires even more energy, which means even more fuel. 

Second, a flying car requires licensing and regulatory approval as both a car and a plane. Operators would need to have both a driving and pilot’s license, and the vehicle would require approval by both aviation and highway agencies.

Third, these regulatory requirements ensure that a flying car would be really expensive. That is why so few have ever been built beyond prototypes. It would literally be cheaper to buy a small airplane and a car, than it would be to buy a flying car, which wouldn’t be as good as either one separately.

Finally, there is the issue of safety. Cars driving past each other at high speeds are dangerous enough. However, cars can make contact without it being a catastrophe. Certainly, head-on collisions can be horrible, but if you sideswipe another car, there might be damage, but the passengers probably won’t be hurt.

If two flying cars were even to clip each other while flying, the results would be catastrophic. 

Factor in the sheer number of potential flying cars if everyone had one, and it could be a potential disaster. 

So flying cars that are based on airplanes will probably never happen. What about if we used a different model to build off of? 

There aren’t that many ways to fly, so the other option would be a helicopter. 

There are small personal helicopters, but they are helicopters. Likewise, there is a hybrid vehicle called a gyrocopter which uses an overhead  helicopter propeller for lift and a horizontal airplane propeller for thrust. However, these still need runways. 

One possibility could be something like the Moller M400 Skycar. 

The Skycar was the brainchild of a Canadian engineer named Paul Moeller. It looks like a single-seat car with four ducted fan pods, which look like but are not jet engines. Despite being in development for over 40 years, the Skycar has yet to make an actual flight. 

So, it looks like a flying car, but it doesn’t actually work yet, and given the financial problems with the company, it might never fly.

However, there has been an innovation in flight that has finally taken a major step toward the dream of a flying car. Drones.

Drones might not seem like a technical innovation in vehicles. Drones are really small and don’t carry passengers. 

However, the quadcopter design has been adopted for passengers by a large number of companies. 

In researching this episode, I have found at least 20 different companies which are developing flying vehicles based on quadcopter design. Sometimes they have more than four propellers, but the concept is basically the same. 

They are just drones on steroids. 

Moreover, because this is just using a scaled-up version of something that already works, aka a drone, most of these companies have working, flying prototypes already. 

The companies working on these are ones you’ve heard of. Uber, Boeing, and major airlines such as United, Delta, and American, in addition to a host of start-up companies. 

In addition to these human-flyable drones, there are people who have modified the design to create a Back to the Future type hoverboard, albeit with large propellers. 

So, big quadcopters are going to be the thing that finally delivers us flying cars?

Not quite. 

Most of these products are being marketed as air taxis, not flying cars. The reason for the naming convention is that they are being designed to fly very specifically, short routes. 

These air taxis are usually electric and powered by batteries. Just as with drones, these have a very limited amount of energy that they can provide. Most of these systems have a limit of about 20 minutes of flight time depending on speed, altitude, and wind. 

So, this isn’t something you can just fly around willy-nilly. The primary use case for these electric flying vehicles is for short-distance routes from city centers to airports. It is something that might cost $100 per trip and drastically reduce the time it takes to get to the airport, especially during heavy traffic. 

Some of these vehicles are being sold to consumers, but it is probably a very limited market. The range you can fly is so short that it really constrains how useful they can be. It might be fun to fly around for short periods, but you can’t really go anywhere. 

Even if personal electric quadcopters go into regular use, it still isn’t going to result in everyone with a flying car in their garage. While it is a big step forward, it doesn’t address the issues with licensing and energy. 

Unless there is a new form of energy or propulsion is discovered, the flying car is probably going to be something that is forever out of reach. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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