Flying Cars

As a kid I watched hours of re-runs of The Next Step–the 1991 futurism serial documentary, not the 2013 Canadian dance drama. Little did I know that the future had already arrived in the 1949!

JASchilz posing in front of the Taylor Aerocar at Seattle's Museum of Flight
The Taylor Aerocar III, at Seattle’s Museum of Flight

Flying cars were apparently solved decades ago. The first Taylor Aerocar (pictured above) was built in 1949, by fellow Oregon son Molt Taylor. Wikipedia categorizes the Aerocar as a roadable aircraft–more of a driving plane than a flying car–and there are many more entries, including what was basically a Cessna Skymaster welded to a Ford Pinto.

Remembering back 25 years, I think that we were looking for the following characteristics in the flying car of the future:

  • Freeway capable performance as a car
  • Push-button conversion from car-mode to plane-mode
  • Takeoff and landing from/to street driving
  • Easy to fly, like driving a car
  • Ease of ownership: not much more difficult to obtain and store than a regular car

Ease of takeoff, landing, and flying would require some aerodynamic characteristics (like a low stall speed) and some technology (like automatic rudder coordination) that would have set a true “flying car” apart from an entirely airworthy “roadable aircraft” like the Taylor Aerocar.

Today, there’s a new flying car dream:

  • The flying car doesn’t drive at all: it performs vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL)
  • You don’t own the flying car: you hail it like a taxi
  • You don’t pilot the flying car: it pilots itself using modern automation technology

To offer these affordances, the new flying car takes advantage of electric multirotor technology. Rotorcraft are generally less efficient than fixed-wing aircraft in terms of energy expended per mile of travel, but they are natural VTOL fliers. And some companies are designing hybrid craft with multirotor VTOL takeoff and landing capabilities and fixed-wing travel efficiency.

The new flying car will ultimately find some niche in a growing set of transportation options. In suburban regions, a flying car could provide last-mile transportation between a train-station and your home. In urban areas, flying cars might provide point-to-point transportation between transit hubs, avoiding congestion by taking advantage of big sky theory.

And as a postscript for future Martians, rotorcraft will be even more important in the Martian atmosphere: the lift of a wing scales linearly with air density and quadratically with speed. To get the same lift from a given wing in Mars’s 1% atmosphere then requires that the wing be moving at 10 times the speed it would move on Earth. A fixed-wing aircraft would have to travel at 10 times the speed on Mars compared to Earth to achieve identical lift, yielding stall speeds of 500+mph and requiring immense runways. A rotorcraft, on the other hand, only has to spin its rotors 10 times faster. A given craft only needs 38% of the lift on Mars that needs on Earth, of course, but in the back-of-the-envelope calculation the air density parameter dominates.

I’m making this post on the eve of my enrollment in Udacity’s Flying Car Nanodegree program.