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Flying Cars are a Terrible Idea

April 23, 2013

Futurists often lament the lack of flying cars, but if they gave it more than a moment’s thought, they’d realize what a terrible idea they are. I would go so far as to say a lot of “futuristic” ideas that haven’t happened yet haven’t happened not because humanity is not capable of creating them, but that if we ever did, it would end very badly, but let’s focus on the flying cars for now.

The trite response to the claim that there are no flying cars is: “Yes there are, they are called airplanes”. This answer doesn’t get at what flying car advocates want, but it does help to highlight some of the problems with flying cars.

1. Fuel efficiency – It takes a ton of fuel to lift several tons thousands of feet in the air. Furthermore, optimal fuel efficiency for airplanes is at high speeds and high altitudes. You’re not going to get up to 500 mph and a mile in the air to go to the grocery store, which means burning a ridiculous amount of fuel. For both environmental and economic reasons, flying cars would be a tremendous waste of resources.

2. Safety – Currently, airplanes are far safer than passenger cars, but they are flown by professional pilots, often with military experience, and they get serviced by teams of mechanics every time they land. I know several people who don’t even get their oil changed every year, let alone every 5,000 miles. Do you really think those same people are going to pay tens of thousands of dollars to have a mechanic check their flying car on a regular basis? Currently, if someone crashes a car, which happens all the time, you have less than a 0.35% chance of dying. Now replace those 10 million accidents a year with accidents which have a 5-25% chance of killing everyone involved as well as potentially dozens of bystanders on the ground. That’s perhaps a twenty fold in the risk of death of an activity which is already one of the riskiest things modern people do. Throw in some liability lawsuits, and flying cars are not just dangerous, but also obscenely expensive.

3. Terrorism – Think 9/11 was bad? Try living in a world were every terrorist can just hop on down to their local flying car dealership and buy a 10,000 lbs bomb capable of flying at 500 mph. Flying cars would be the weapon of choice for terrorists everywhere and attacks would be far too common.

4. Better Alternatives – Most traveling people do is either to work or to a store. Fortunately, humanity has developed better alternatives to strapping yourself to a jet engine and zooming around to do both of these tasks: telecommuting and online purchases. Light travels a lot faster than a jet, and with an internet connection, you can work from home. Even if you only telework half the time, that’s still a huge savings in travel time. With Amazon, you can have anything you want delivered to your house by the next day. Sure, you could get it a bit faster in terms of time if you go to the store yourself, but in terms of effort, there is no comparison at all. Five minutes at the computer substitutes for even a “lightning quick” 30 minute jet car trip to the store. Self driving cars promise to be faster and safer than normal cars, and since the driver wouldn’t have to focus on the road, the time spent commuting wouldn’t be wasted time.

How does one evaluate the value of a technological development? I would say that a technology is valuable if it improves the lives of normal people. It’s hard to see how enormous buildings or vast public works achieve that end, let alone the more frivolous technologies predicted in ages past. I think stagnationists should be clearer about what aspects of human existence they want or expect to improve. I’m pretty happy with my Roomba (less time spent on chores), internet (higher quality and cheaper entertainment), and steadily advancing life expectancy.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 27, 2013 8:53 am

    This is brilliant. It’s sort of a reverse Bastiat where the “unseen” advances are not actually as good as the “seen” advances that we take for granted.

  2. August 6, 2013 10:52 pm

    Any invention you can say what it is and has not been implemented is probably a bad idea. That they don’t exist tells you what a bad idea they are.

    Artificial heart? 😉 Space elevator? 😉

    Flying cars would be noisy, fuel inefficient, and horribly dangerous.

    I agree that something that drives on the streets and also flies is not likely to “fly.” Where I don’t agree is that it seems very likely to me that aircraft similar to the V22 Osprey (i.e., vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), capacity up to about 25 passengers, maximum speed 300 mph) will become very common…when planes become completely piloted by computers.

    Here’s a good letter (isn’t the Internet cool?!) that contains some thoughts similar to mine. It points out:

    1) There are 20,000 (!!!!) general aviation airports in the United States (Wikipedia estimates 5,200…but that’s still ~100 per state),

    2) The V22 Osprey is tremendously expensive, but might be significantly reduced in cost if rotary engines replaced the turbines,

    3) VTOL aircraft similar to the Osprey can get 85 passenger miles per gallon.

    http://www.moller.com/president_letter.pdf

    I agree that they would be noisy (I think neighbors of general aviation airports are going to be in for very unpleasant surprises in the coming decades!). But let’s suppose that “only” 2,000 general aviation airports were sufficiently isolated from neighbors and in areas sufficiently desiring of the money that a fairly busy airport would provide. That would still mean 2,000 “new” passenger airports in the U.S., or 40 “new” passenger airports per state.

    I don’t agree that they would be “fuel inefficient” (see point 3 from the letter).

    I also don’t agree they would be “horribly dangerous.” I agree they would be “horribly dangerous” with human pilots…but with computer pilots, I think they would be pretty safe. Specifically, with computer pilots, your concern about their use as a tool by terrorists would be essentially eliminated, because the terrorists would not be able to fly the plane. And the fact that computer hardware/software would continue to improve would make them more and more safe.

    Per a U.S. DOT website, less than 1 percent of trips on U.S. highways are 100 miles or more, but they represent 15% of the passenger miles traveled every year. I can imagine a time when many or most of those trips are instead taken from nearby general aviation airports, via computer-piloted planes. I think this will also greatly increase the number of trips of 100 miles or more that will be taken each year.

    • August 7, 2013 8:22 am

      The robot pilot thing is a good point. I’m still not sure that large helicopters are going to be all that popular for mid distance routes. Most trips are still less than 20 miles – commutes, trips to the store, etc.

      I thought artificial hearts were already being implemented. I get your point on space elevators. I guess inventions have prerequisite complimentary inventions that are needed for them to be efficient. There’ve been tons of things where humanity has come up with an idea, but it wasn’t really effective until a hundred years later. I guess the main reason I wrote this is angst that the “new future idea” has been flying cars, as if flying cars are anywhere near as important as limb replacement, stem cell research, genetic engineering, cheap solar panels, the internet, etc. Humanity has come up with tons are great stuff and futurists are still obsessing about an idea whose main contribution to our lives would be to make our commutes be 15% shorter.

      • August 7, 2013 12:01 pm

        Hi James,

        You write, “I’m still not sure that large helicopters are going to be all that popular for mid distance routes.”

        I think the more likely route will be something like the V22 Osprey…something that can take off and land vertically, but flies as a fixed-wing plane. I think computers can handle the transition to and from fixed-wing operation better than human pilots can.

        “Most trips are still less than 20 miles – commutes, trips to the store, etc.”

        You’re absolutely right. As I noted, less than 1 percent of all trips on highways are more than 100 miles (an they represent only 15 percent of all vehicle miles traveled). I don’t think flying is good for anything less than ~100 miles. (Particularly when it will be possible to travel at 80+ mph safely on interstates, when all vehicles are computer-driven.

        “I thought artificial hearts were already being implemented.”

        They’re certainly a rarity. Per this website, tens of thousands of people die in the U.S. every year, waiting for heart transplants:

        http://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/everyday-innovations/artificial-heart.htm

        You conclude, “I guess the main reason I wrote this is angst that the “new future idea” has been flying cars, as if flying cars are anywhere near as important as limb replacement, stem cell research, genetic engineering, cheap solar panels, the internet, etc. Humanity has come up with tons are great stuff and futurists are still obsessing about an idea whose main contribution to our lives would be to make our commutes be 15% shorter.”

        That’s an excellent point. I make a similar point when people talk about designing permanent gates to protect (or “protect”) NY City from flooding. My counterpoint it that the proper way to go is a *protable* sytstem that can be used anywhere in the world:

        http://markbahner.typepad.com/random_thoughts/2008/01/the-us-should-b.html

  3. January 21, 2014 11:58 am

    Right now, the fuel issues and control are the biggest hurdles.
    The problem is the latter will be solved by autonomous vehicles, possibly by 2030. That just leaves fuel, and it’s possible we could come up with something by then.

  4. ___ permalink
    March 3, 2016 6:43 pm

    Yes, flying cars are a terrible idea. Can you imagine what would happen if Arabs got a hold of them? It would be 9/11 every single day.

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  1. The "Flying Car Fallacy" and Why It's Wrong - Stratexist

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