Why Are Flying Cars Not a Thing Yet?

Why Are Flying Cars Not a Thing Yet

Flying cars simply aren’t “taking off” for some reason, here’s why! 

In the classic American sci-fi film Back to the Future II (1985), the main characters Marty McFly and Doc Brown travel into the future to the year 2015. The film indicated that 2015 would be the year of flying cars, remote control dog walkers and even hoverboards. This is not the only film to discuss these ideas. Other films and TV shows, like The Jetsons (1962) and Blade Runner (1982), also feature flying cars. 

The number of times we see the concept of flying cars mentioned in popular media makes one wonder why we haven’t actually seen this technology find its way into our everyday lives. If you are just as curious about flying cars as we are, here is a look at the history of flying cars and the reasons behind their lack of mainstream prevalence. 

History of flying cars

Just like its prevalence in films and on television, the idea of flying cars has been around for a long time. British inventors William Samuel Henson and John Stringfellow had even patented the concept of a flying car (a flying aerial steam carriage, to be precise) in 1841, even before the Wright brothers made the first plane. Unfortunately, unlike the Wright brothers’ invention, the Henson Aerial Steam Carriage never made its way off the ground.

Henson and Stringfellow’s failure didn’t discourage other inventors from trying to make their own renditions of the flying car. In fact, there have been several notable examples of flying cars, such as the Curtiss Autoplane in 1917, Airphibian in 1946, Aerocar in 1946 and Convair in 1947, to name a few. But all these projects never reached the public— some because of lack of funding and others because they simply couldn’t fly properly. 

More recently, in 2020, we saw the ride-sharing company Uber foray into making its own flying cars with air taxi start-up Joby Aviation. While Uber’s flying cars are meant to be used as air taxis, there are companies working on cars for people like you and me. In 2020 itself, the Japanese company SkyDrive Inc. was able to test their flying cars with a pilot on board. The company intends to debut its flying cars at the Osaka World Expo in 2025. 

What’s stopping companies from releasing flying cars?

Besides the obvious technical issues associated with making flying cars, there are several major reasons why the production of flying cars isn’t quite that simple. The first of these is the fact that to fly a plane, you need to have a landing strip to take off from and land on which the average person wouldn’t have access to.

Then, to take the flying car off the ground, you would need a pilot’s license. It costs about US$6,500 to be certified as a recreational pilot which isn’t something that everyone is willing to shell out. For comparison, getting a driving license costs somewhere between US$20-US$1,000. There is also a medical examination involved with getting a pilot’s license. This medical exam will consist of a vision test, hearing test, heart examination, urine examination, blood examination, mental examination and neurological examination. All of this eliminates a large group of people from piloting a flying car. 

Even if you are able to find a landing strip and get a license, there is still an inherent danger of accidents. While the overall risk of fatality in flying is 0.23, meaning that you would have to fly every day for 10,078 years for one of these flights to end up in fatality. This number is based on data from heavily regulated commercial airplanes and the same wouldn’t be true when there are average people zooming around in their own flying cars. According to the World Health Organization, 1.3 million people die each year as a result of road traffic accidents which should tell you that things wouldn’t be any different when people are flying instead of driving. In fact, things could get much worse because having any kind of accident or vehicular failure mid-air would mean the flying car would come crashing down.

Of course, we cannot disregard the air traffic regulations that would be involved in making the mass use of flying cars feasible. There would be clear rules on where you can and cannot fly from, at what time flying is permissible and how far apart the cars need to be from each other. Air traffic regulators would also have to put efforts into charting out proper skyways (a recognized route followed by aircraft) to make flying cars as safe as possible. 

So, will we be able to have flying cars soon?

Air taxis are the closest we have come to having flying cars. Experts creating air taxis state that the barrier of finding landing strips can be overcome by having cars capable of vertical take-off and landing. As far as accidents are concerned, they believe that they can be eliminated by having automated flying vehicles. Some, like the Uber project we mentioned earlier, are even designing sky ports (elevated parking garages with landing pads) to make designated spaces for the air taxis to take off and land. 

But other experts, like American astrophysicist Neil Degrass Tyson, wonder why anyone would even want a flying car. When Tyson appeared on the Joe Rogan podcast, he explained that we already have flying cars— helicopters, and they are noisy and create a downward thrust of air equal to their own weight to fly (basically, the helicopter needs to counteract gravity to be able to fly). This disrupts the terrain wherever they go, which he expects would also happen with flying cars. He even goes on to say that the reason we feel the need for flying cars is that we want to bypass traffic congestion, something which is already being solved by using bridges and tunnels and the subway system. 

Much like the people reading this article, I also like the concept of commercial flying cars. However, unless and until we have a flying car that solves all the issues we discussed above as well as addresses Tyson’s critique, it is hard to imagine the average person ever manning their own flying car, at least not for the foreseeable future. 

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Header image courtesy of Unsplash

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