What if flying cars are just a bad idea?

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For a newspaper journalist on a tight deadline, there’s nothing like a “flying car” story. It’s guaranteed to get lots of clicks, the companies being profiled will eagerly supply information, and most readers don’t know enough to fact check the article. Pilots generally roll their eyes at this sort of thing, but the articles keep coming.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the money keeps coming. Billions of dollars have been invested in flying car startups over the past decade, and if the press releases are to be believed, tilt-rotor aircraft will soon be a reality in American cities. Prominent investors (who probably think those eye-rolling pilots are a bunch of unimaginative cavemen) argue that the only limitation has been technological, and those problems are quickly being solved. Our bright future is within reach.

I’m skeptical, as I was four years ago, for reasons of technology, economics, and regulation. But in addition to those practical considerations, I’m increasingly convinced that Americans don’t actually want a flying car in the first place. Maybe the problem isn’t the technology, but the product-market fit, to use a popular venture capital term. In fact, if you dig into the details on the latest generation of flying cars, you find they aren’t designed for individual owners and they aren’t cars at all—hardly a realization of our midcentury dreams.

The current contenders

The latest headlines have not been too positive for flying car enthusiasts, with a recent shakeout in the market leaving plenty of casualties. Terrafugia, the once-hot company founded by MIT alumni, not only flew a prototype “roadable aircraft” but earned FAA certification for it. They even saw New Hampshire change their traffic laws to accommodate such vehicles. But after years of delays and a predictably swelling price tag, the company laid off its US staff and closed up shop.

Terrafugia earned certification for its “roadable aircraft,” but was still shut down.

Kitty Hawk, a buzzy startup backed by none other than Google’s Larry Page, also laid off staff and ended operations last summer (although they claim to be redirecting efforts to another project). Uber Elevate, the ambitious proposal to add vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft to big cities, was supposed to launch in 2020 but was instead sold off as a part of Uber’s broader retrenchment.

There are some survivors, and three companies in particular seem to get most of the press these days. EHang, a Chinese drone manufacturer that displayed its human-sized mock-up at the Consumer Electronics Show five years ago, is flying a prototype and even planning to build a vertiport in Italy. Germany’s Lilium promises a new era of “all-electric regional air mobility” with its sleek VTOL Jet that features 36 ducted fans. It has some big names on its board, including a former Airbus CEO, and is aiming to fly four passengers at 160 knots for up to an hour. It too is working on a vertiport network (who isn’t?).

But the leader of the pack, at least in terms of press, is Joby. The California company has raised almost $1 billion and is going public via a SPAC controlled by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Zynga founder Mark Pincus. Uber is also an investor, as part of their deal to sell the Elevate program to Joby last year. The goal is to offer an integrated urban mobility platform, from the aircraft to the ground infrastructure to the app. Their website shows a hypothetical trip from LAX to Newport Beach, which would take just 15 minutes by air compared to over an hour in a car.

Hoffman sums up the optimist’s pitch in six words: “Tesla meets Uber in the air.” Take that Cirrus marketing department!

In a recent tweet, he went even further, claiming Joby delivers on Peter Thiel’s famous lament about technological progress:

Why hasn’t it happened already?

Cut through the hype, though, and one question persists: can any of these projects actually make it? Any attempt to answer that question must start with a look at the huge graveyard of past flying car companies.

Indeed, the allure of flying cars stretches back to the earliest days of the “horseless carriage” revolution in the early 20th century. Henry Ford himself said, “Mark my word: A combination airplane and motor car is coming. You may smile. But it will come.” Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, a futuristic vision of suburban life first unveiled in the 1930s, included helicopter-like machines connecting far-flung communities. More than anything, though, it was The Jetsons and post-war science fiction that really gave flying cars a place in pop culture, and inspired Thiel’s quip.

The Aerocar was the only flying car to be approved for driving.

While these concepts might seem like pure fantasy, author John Storrs Hall argues that flying cars should have happened decades ago, and only failed because of bureaucratic inertia and a lack of imagination. His eccentric but thought-provoking book Where’s My Flying Car? catalogs a number of practical, well-funded ideas, going all the way back to Harold Pitcairn’s auto-gyro in the 1930s. This easy-to-fly aircraft even landed on the White House lawn, but was killed by World War II and some bad business deals. In the postwar boom, the airplane/car combination beat out the auto-gyro, leading to catchy brands like the Aerocar (whose inventor, Molt Taylor, described his creation in Air Facts in 1959), the Arrowbile, the Road-A-Plane, and the Airphibian. In the 1990s, a new concept was floated with the name of CaRnard.

Without exception, every one of these companies failed to deliver a flying car in any volume.

Hall believes a cultural shift in government and business during the early 1970s is responsible for a “Great Stagnation,” as rapidly growing regulation killed progress in transportation and energy, even while failing to improve safety. In his telling, surging numbers of lawyers and environmental standards slowed down what had been breakneck advances in cars and aircraft up until that point. For a counterfactual look to consumer electronics, where Moore’s Law has proven that capabilities rapidly increase and costs plummet when an industry is freed from regulation.

This libertarian argument certainly has some merit, as anyone acquainted with Part 23 certification standards knows. One factor that added to Terrafugia’s cost and complexity was the need to satisfy two burdensome federal standards: the FAA’s airplane certification rules and the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. This forced the company to increase the empty weight and make all kinds of messy compromises.

But I don’t think regulation is the whole story. Consider Terrafugia: far from being picked on by the FAA, they actually received numerous concessions on certification rules to help them get over the finish line. Their biggest issue seemed to be lack of demand. Besides, if the problem were simply regulation, we should expect to see flying cars in the experimental world, where numerous creative ideas have flourished under less onerous rules. Yet such machines are absent from Oshkosh, and Van’s doesn’t offer an RV-10 car kit. Even the military, which for all its sclerosis does not have to worry about FAA regulations much, has yet to deploy a flying car at scale.

Solving technical problems

The urban air mobility (UAM) startups—the name that Joby and Lilium prefer—believe technology is the solution this time, specifically VTOL and new powerplants. Almost every design today uses electric motors to drive small rotors or ducted fans, vs. Terrafugia’s folding wings and Rotax engine approach. This enables vertical takeoff, a key advantage that eliminates the need for long runways far from city centers and annoying reconfiguration time. After all, if you have to drive your flying car to an airport 25 minutes away, then spend 15 minutes changing to “airplane mode,” you’ve given up much of the potential time savings on a 100-200 mile trip.

As convenient as VTOL is, though, it introduces what may be the most significant roadblock to flying cars: neighbors. I fly helicopters and occasionally land in friends’ backyards. The reason I don’t do it more often has nothing to do with safety or the FAA, but rather neighbors who don’t like the idea of an aircraft flying near their house. In some areas, local ordinances give such complaints real teeth.

The neighbors won’t mind if you park this in the driveway, will they?

Joby is tackling this issue head-on, with an array of six electric motors and quiet rotor blades. The company claims their vehicle will produce zero emissions and less than 70 decibels of noise on takeoff, which is quieter than a car driving down a city street. That is real progress, and the company deserves credit for making noise a priority, even if there is some concern that electric aircraft may overwhelm the power grid.

But such an engineering-focused solution ignores the emotional (irrational?) nature of most NIMBY complaints. Developers can’t even build condos in many cities, with activist groups using everything from historic preservation to environmental regulations to prevent new building projects. A vertiport—no matter how quiet and clean it is on paper—will likely be met with an allergic reaction by neighbors.

Another problem often overlooked by flying car enthusiasts is the complexity of flying a light aircraft. No, you don’t have to be a superhero to fly a Cessna, but it does require more training, practice, and focus than driving your Toyota to the grocery store. That’s especially true when the weather is bad: 30-knot winds are not much of a concern in a car but can cause real issues in an aircraft, especially in urban areas with tall buildings. Add fog or snow and things get even more challenging.

UAM companies have a plan to address this problem as well. While all aircraft under development today have a pilot on board, it’s clear that the ultimate goal is remotely controlled or fully autonomous machines. Even in the short term, these eVTOL aircraft are highly automated, with computers doing a lot of the work—no need for fancy stick and rudder skills.

That might address the workload problem, but it does nothing to address the comfort problem. Even when it’s safe to fly, plenty of weather conditions are simply unpleasant for passengers at low altitude. Autonomous aircraft also bring up safety issues with the NIMBYs, and the example of self-driving cars is not encouraging: even though the safety record is incredibly good, almost 75% of Americans are wary of driverless vehicles. Imagine one flying over a neighborhood at 11pm. Now imagine what the reaction will be when one inevitably crashes.

What is a flying car anyway?

While I think complexity is a big reason why flying cars never went mainstream, Hall points out that even if only 10% of US drivers took on the challenge, we’d have millions of flying cars. The fact that less than 0.3% of drivers in the US have a pilot’s license suggests other problems. Here’s one that doesn’t get enough attention: is it possible that flying cars just don’t solve a real world problem for most people?

There are roughly three missions for such a machine: local trips to work or shopping that are under 25 miles, 25-100 mile flights to the other side of a big city or to a nearby town, and longer range flights to another state or even country. The first category is “car mode” travel—the average American drives 29 miles per day and most of those cannot easily be replaced by flying unless there are thousands of landing spots at every soccer practice and grocery store. The second category is tailor-made for eVTOLs, which can take off and land in city centers and avoid traffic, although the market for this is dramatically smaller. The last category really requires an aircraft that can travel at 200+ knots and climb above en route weather, something today’s models cannot come close to offering.

Trying to do all three of these missions (or even two) leads to an ugly compromise. As the old joke says, a flying car is just an expensive combination of a bad airplane and a bad car. That’s particularly true of current UAM aircraft. Joby’s eVTOL has much shorter range than a light GA airplane, but still features a 38-foot wingspan – not exactly something you can park at Walmart while you buy milk. And what happens when your wing gets hit by a shopping cart?

That’s not a concern for UAM companies, because hardly any of today’s “flying cars” are cars at all.

Are any of these really cars?

Transport Up tracks these projects, and out of 86 total designs on their website, at most five could actually be driven on a road. The rest look like airplanes or helicopters, not a modern version of Molt Taylor’s Aerocar. That might seem like a minor point, but it’s a critical concession on the part of manufacturers. One of the promises of flying cars has always been that you didn’t need to coordinate ground transportation when you landed, so one machine could handle all your transportation needs. Even better, if you encountered bad weather en route, you could just land and drive through it. Losing that flexibility makes today’s UAM designs more like manned drones than flying cars.

Even worse, most of the surviving companies are focused on fleets, not personal ownership. Many explicitly state their aircraft will not be available for purchase, like Joby: “The aircraft will be part of an on-demand commercial aviation service similar to today’s ground-based ridesharing and will not be available for individual sale.”

What we’re left with is a fleet of eVTOL aircraft that fly 50-100 mile trips in big cities. Far from “a flying car in every garage,” these are merely another tier of taxi or ride-sharing services—which is of course exactly what Uber wanted all along. That means there’s no role for private pilots or cross-country travel here, and certainly no replacement for either your Cirrus or or Cessna.

Echo?

If these companies’ mission is limited, the ambition is not. As Uber said four years ago in their manifesto: “there is a path to high production volume manufacturers… which will enable VTOLs to achieve a dramatically lower per-vehicle cost.” Joby apparently agrees. Undeterred by Uber’s missed launch date, they are planning to begin commercial passenger service in 2024 and at aggressive prices: “Over time, the cost of these trips per passenger is expected to be on par with an UberX.”

For pilots who’ve been following aviation news over the last two decades, this techno-utopianism might sound more than a little familiar. Something about a new commercial aviation business model enabling high volume manufacturing and thus lower prices?

As a refresher, here is a profile of Eclipse Aviation in a 2001 edition of Time magazine: “Say hello to Baby Jet. [Vern] Raburn, a longtime amateur aviator who got bored with his life as a computer-products developer, wants to produce the world’s first affordable—at least to some—personal jet. Raburn intends to price his twin-engine, five-seat Eclipse 500 at a mere $837,500… ‘The Eclipse will change the way air transport works,’ says Raburn, 51. ‘You will think about using your Eclipse almost as quickly as you use a taxi.’”

DayJet was supposed to reinvent regional travel too.

Of course things didn’t quite turn out that way. The Eclipse did get certified, and it eventually turned out to be a decent airplane, but only after many broken promises and over $1 billion of investors’ money. There was no breakthrough air taxi business, in spite of DayJet’s rosy predictions for 1,400 airplanes. Today, very light jets are a small niche, and apparently an unprofitable one: Cessna ceased production of their Mustang and Eclipse is bankrupt for the second time.

Will this time be different? UAM companies have new technology, deep pockets, and a predicted economic boom to build on. I’m rooting for Joby, Lilium, and the rest of them, but Eclipse also had lots of new technology and very deep pockets. The post-WWII aviation boosters who predicted a market for 50,000 airplanes in 1946 had a booming economy, but likewise ended up in failure.

Back in the mid-2000s, when talking about DayJet and other such startups, one industry sage used to ask, “if this air taxi concept is such a good idea, why is no one testing it out with old turboprops or piston twins?” The same could be said for UAM companies: if there’s such a desperate need for regional mobility, why is nobody testing this theory with old Jet Rangers or light airplanes? After all, Uber didn’t invent for-hire car transportation, it just offered a better taxi experience (and, crucially, built on other people’s vehicles). Outside of Manhattan or Sao Paulo, there are very few examples of successful VTOL businesses today. Surely emissions and noise are not the only reasons why.

Car tech and aviation tech

One of the real missed opportunities from the 1960s flying car bust was the chance to closely align technological development in cars and airplanes. Look at a 1953 Cessna 195 and a 1953 Hudson Hornet—while there are important differences, they look like different branches of the same transportation technology tree. Even the styling is similar. Now look at a 2021 Cessna 172 and a 2021 Toyota Camry (not to mention a Tesla). General aviation engines are stuck in the 1950s, yet car engines have raced ahead.

Renewed interest in UAM depends on advances in electric motors, tilt-rotor aircraft, and software, so there is some hope that this investment boom will eventually trickle down to general aviation. For example, while it may be a long time before you take the family 800 miles in an eVTOL, I think the light helicopter’s days are numbered. As much as I enjoy flying a Robinson R44, I can’t imagine my grandkids will be checking out in a machine with a piston engine, two big rotor blades, and no computerized control system. That would be progress.

So I say celebrate the new fleets of eVTOL aircraft for what they are, a new generation of helicopters for use in big cities. Pilots should follow their technological advances carefully, and if Joby offers a $79 flight from my neighborhood vertiport I’ll probably sign up. But for heaven’s sake, don’t call them flying cars.

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