Have you ever sat in traffic and wished longingly that your car could take flight? We’re not too far away from making flying cars a reality, so here’s how they’re likely to impact transportation and society.
Flying cars have long held a place in our dreams of ‘the future.’ And the vision of flying cars dominating our airspace is now within our reach, thanks to technology. Very soon, you won’t need Harry Potter’s magical powers or Doc’s DeLorean to make your car glide through the air.
Among other developments, Japanese startup SkyDrive completed a 4-minute manned test flight of its flying car just two months ago. But SkyDrive is just one of at least 20 companies around the globe that are racing to launch the world’s first flying car. Automakers Toyota, Hyundai, and Porsche, and aerospace giants Boeing and Airbus, are some of the established players competing in the market.
The prospect of experiencing a future portrayed in books and movies is too tantalizing to ignore, but it is important to consider the impact of this coveted technology on society as a whole.
In this article, we will discuss both the positive and the probable negative impacts this futuristic technology could have on our environment and society.
How flying cars can help us
First, let’s look at the positive implications of Urban Aerial Mobility (UAM) or flying cars. The obvious benefit is that UAMs will offer a faster mode of transportation.
UAMs will allow people to travel from point A to B directly, and cut down travel time compared to road transportation. Therefore, cities can offer daily commuters a more efficient mode of transit that can reduce road traffic.
Lower cost of building supporting infrastructure
Like helicopters, flying cars are being designed for vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL). This means that flying cars will need only small launch pads to takeoff or land, as opposed to space-consuming runways. These launch pads – similar to helipad – and the larger “skyports” are cheaper to build than roads, railways or airports.
For context, let’s compare the cost of building airports to that of helipads. To build three kilometers of airport runway, you need approximately US$30 million, and another $500 for every square meter of passenger terminal. But, the cost of building helipads starts as low as $15,000—that’s less than 0.05% of the airport building cost.
This means that the cost of infrastructure development will reduce significantly for governments. This in turn will enable them to develop a nodal structure of transportation that has the potential to benefit the masses.
Sustainable transportation over long distances
According to a report by the World Economic Forum, for journeys of up to 100 kilometers, an electric flying car with one passenger could be 35% more efficient than a petrol car with one occupant. This means that electric UAMs will emit 35% less greenhouse gas than petrol-powered cars.
However, non-electric UAMs are expected to emit 28% more greenhouse gases, assuming the same distance and passenger load. That said, the efficiency of UAMs increase with distance.
According to a report by Physics Today, for journeys of 100 kilometers or more, a flying car with four passengers (including the pilot) will release less greenhouse gas per passenger-mile than an electric car with an average of 1.54 passengers.
Therefore, as a recent study noted, flying cars may play a ‘niche role in sustainable mobility.’
Multiple use-cases with public benefit
When thinking about flying cars, private ownership is far from the only use case out there. There are several ways in which flying cars can benefit a significant portion of the population.
Take ride sharing or taxi service for example. Ambitiously, Uber Elevate aims to launch an air taxi service by 2025, with costs comparable to luxury car service Uber Black. Theoretically, instead of spending hours in traffic in a luxury cars, Uber users will be able to reach their destinations in 15 to 20 minutes at the same cost.
While this model may still price out most of the population, it’s likely to help reduce road traffic and offer faster transit options for business travelers.
Similarly, flying cars, which are built to be safer than helicopters, can be used as flying ambulances or for transporting first responders. The reduced travel time may therefore allow first responders to save more lives.
The concerns around flying cars
High cost of ownership and maintainance
UAMs are costly to manufacture because the vehicles need to meet the demands of both road and air travel. In order to bring down ownership and maintenance costs, UAMs need to reach mass production levels and gain economies of scale. According to a report by Uber Elevate, the cost of aircraft production reduces by 15% with each doubling of production capacity.
Since it’s unlikely that we’ll see this level of production in the short-term, the cost of ownership and maintenance of UAMs will remain high for a considerable period of time. According to Uber, individual UAMs will cost over $1.2 million in the initial stages, about $600,000 in the short term, and finally about $200,000 in the long term.
Widening of the class divide
According to a report by the Center for American Progress, flying cars could exacerbate class segregation. Even with costs coming down over time, flying cars will still be expensive and only the elite will be able to own them. Highly-paid professionals will be able to avail them through air taxi services. This can be exemplified in today’s context in the form of helicopters – only the top 1% own and use them.
As the report asserts, flying cars will offer hyper-seclusion to the highest strata of society, excluding all others. UAMs will allow them to fly directly from their walled villas and mansions to the heart of metropolitan areas to conduct business. This in turn will enable them to maintain seclusion from the rest of the population.
New laws and other requirements
Aircrafts have air traffic control to ensure safe travel in the aerospace. While flying cars are expected to have similar levels of autonomy to self-driving cars, there’s a clear need to implement laws and regulations to ensure passenger safety.
Although UAMs will provide the ease of traveling unimpeded from the source to the destination, companies and governments need to chart out proper skyways. Otherwise, collisions in lower airspace will become unavoidable.
Ancillary industries like insurance, service stations, retailers, and parts vendors will also be needed.
Flying cars, therefore, have the potential for large-scale environmental and transportation benefits. However, unless the costs are lowered, the technology will remain beyond the reach of common people.
As Uber says in its report, the more expensive the UAMs, the smaller its target customers. And unless the production costs are cut down through mass production, flying cars run the risk of becoming “a cottage industry for the wealthy not unlike Lamborghinis.”
Header image courtesy of SkyDrive