Aviation: Will flying cars take off?
The prototype Detroit Flying Cars WD-1 was involved in an accident at Willow Run Airport last Friday. The two seat experimental vehicle that can double up as an aircraft or a motor car hasn't flown yet, but it was undertaking taxi tests ahead of a first flight when the incident occurred. Its not appropriate to speculate on the cause of any accident before the investigation is completed, but the reports did bring thoughts about flying cars back to the fore. The Aviation Oracle has never really subscribed to the concept, and it's now worth outlining why not.
The prototype Detroit Flying Car met with an accident last week during taxi tests. (Detroit Flying Cars)
The concept of taking to the air and winging our way above all the traffic on the roads, avoiding bottlenecks and delays, but then touching down near to the office or shopping mall is extremely compelling. One manufacturer will take a product to market next year using the advertising strap line "Fly & drive freedom" which sums things up nicely. The US firm goes on to say: "One vehicle, two modes of travel. It seats two and converts from drive mode to flight mode in under a minute with just the push of a button." Sounds wonderful.
The Terrafugia Transition will go on sale next year? Is it a portent of things to come? (Photo: Terrafugia)
But the idea that we will all - or even many of us - will be travelling in flying cars in a few years time seems rather far-fetched at present. There are some obvious practical reasons why flying cars won't see widespread use in the near to mid-term future:
Flying car designs are always going to be a compromise between the demands of flying and road driving. Aircraft need propellers and wings that won't be allowed to be deployed on road-going vehicles, while cars have larger driven wheels. All the extra equipment and the complex drive train is not going to be as light - or as optimal for each environment - as items designed specifically for air or ground use. And anything that flies will almost certainly have to be maintained to aircraft standards, and that will be expensive. Cars typically have an annual service - anything that takes to the air (other than drones) is subject to inspection every 100 flying hours. Aircraft engines service and overhaul intervals are based on the hours that they have been running - are owners going to be happy using up these hours driving on roads?
The generation of flying cars currently under development are not autonomous - that is, they are not flown / driven by automatically, meaning that a pilot's licence will be required to fly them. That alone limits the size of the market to little more than the current pilot population, as there won't be many more people prepared or able to learn to fly (including meeting the medical standards), just for the sake of combining their road and airborne transport.
Just imagine driving along a motorway with a flying car skimming over the road and then landing just ahead of a stream of traffic... Or sprouting wings and occupying several lanes as it is driven at or above the speed limit to lift off... There is no way the authorities are going to allow these things to lift off or touchdown on our roads, among all the other traffic - it just isn't going to happen. So the types of flying cars currently being put into production are inevitably going to use airfields to take off and land, unless an owner has a very large flat field. And they won't be 'go-anywhere' machines because they will have to meet the rules of the air - which means they won't be allowed to fly at low-level over built up areas where they cannot 'glide clear' if a fault develops. And if your office is beside the runway at a congested, slot controlled airport there won't be any free airspace capacity nearby anyway.
Despite the shortcomings, flying somewhere and having a road-going vehicle available immediately upon landing will undoubtedly be a compelling proposition to some people. However, it isn't going to be a city-to-city journey for reasons already explained. That means the end-to-end journey will be increased by the time it takes to drive to an airport, or into a city. And are flying cars going to be admitted into many airports - in order to use the runway - without being subject to detailed security inspections? Unlikely - certainly not at the larger ones. So there will be delays in transitioning from ground to air too.
Even a minor ding to the panel / skin of an aeroplane has to be inspected by an engineer, because a small dent could mask more extensive structural damage. Who is going to risk parking their flying car in a supermarket car park, when an incident could mean it's grounded for an inspection? Aircraft tend to operate in fairly well protected environments, where knocks are less common than on the roads. And it won't be possible to take a flying car to a body repair centre round the corner - it will have to go to a firm that specializes in airframes. Are owners going to be happy paying for the work to be done to their flying cars?
It usually costs far more to repair an aircraft after an accident than it does to fix a car. However, insurance for light aircraft often costs little more than for a road-going vehicle, because accident rates are much lower. What's going to happen to insurance rates when a flying car is subject to the knocks that can happen on our roads? Will any insurance company want to cover a flying car at a reasonable rate, given it might get involved in expensive dings in car parks?
And finally, flying cars aren't going to be particularly practical. Those currently under development are only two seaters. There's nothing too much wrong with that given they are likely to be used only as recreational vehicles, but it certainly rules out a whole family travelling together. Furthermore, aircraft are constrained by weight and balance. So while it may be possible to fly to the DIY superstore or garden centre in a flying car, returning home loaded with paint, shrubs or flat-pack furniture is going to be almost impossible.
So if would be owners are going to have to drive to and from airports in their flying cars, and if they are going to have to pay aircraft-like rates for maintenance and repair, what's their true appeal? Private pilots who already own aircraft might as well keep that for flying, and run a car on the road. Potential buyers might save the cost of a aircraft hangar at an airfield by taking their flying car home and parking it in a garage, but that's about all.
Earlier flying cars such as the Taylor Aerocar weren't overly successful - only six were built. The current designs will sell better but are still unlikely to be a practical proposition.
Nope, flying cars don't add up at the moment. The Aviation Oracle thinks that those currently being offered to customers such as the WD-1 (if the firm recovers from last week's setback) and the Terrafugia Transition will amount to little more than expensive toys. The Transition will cost upwards of $279,000, while an alternative from Aeromobil is projected to retail for well over $1.0m. That doesn't mean none will be sold but these designs will only appeal to the vanity of a limited number of rather affluent customers who probably own a light aircraft and have a pilot's license.
The Aeromobil 5.0 VTOL is likely to cost between $1.2m and $1.6m. (Aeromobil)
Bigger things to come
Have almost dismissed the current round of flying cars as 'toys', its important to point out that some heavyweights in the commerce and aviation industries are spending lot of money on research into autonomous flying vehicles right now. Thought leadership by names like Lockheed-Martin, Amazon and Uber demands attention. Their work will come to something eventually - most likely moving goods and packages initially, rather than humans. The work will eventually lead to wider-spread adoption of the technology and it will then start to make a transition into the private ownership space.
If that results in a self-driving / self-flying vehicle that can take off and land in a small space, like a helicopter, the proposition might become a little more compelling. But even then it's going to be interesting to see how highways, housing estates, and public parking areas will be adapted to accommodate such devices. It's going to be quite some time - probably decades - before the results translate into a flying car that will be a common site in the garages of the average family home.
Text © The Aviation Oracle