Do you really want your flying car?

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Flying cars have been a staple of science fiction for 70 years. Once the ground car became a popular thing, and traffic increased with increasing popularity, it was inevitable for people to imagine cars that could fly above the traffic, and didn’t need roadways. Robert Heinlein featured flying cars frequently in his stories of the 1940s (“Beyond This Horizon–,” for instance). Isaac Asimov included them in the opening story of his “Foundation” novel. The Jetsons featured a flying car in the 1960s. In the 1980s, they were featured prominently in the Back to the Future sequels. And today, Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict novels feature flying cars. This is just a small sample of the long history that the flying car has in science fiction.

It is a joke in the science fiction world, among fans and writers alike, to ask, “Where is my flying car?” We wonder why, after 70 years, we don’t have them yet. I don’t believe it is the technology for the car itself that is the problem. Indeed, I read with increasing frequency of the development of flying cars. We don’t yet have flying cars because of two unspoken assumptions that I think were built into the science-fictional notion of a flying car: (1) an infrastructure to support such vehicles; and (2) autonomous vehicles; that is, cars that were controlled by computer as opposed to by human.

Without an infrastructure a flying car is nothing more than a gimmick vehicle out the reach of most people. An infrastructure includes not only the ability to mass produce the vehicles, but also includes how the cars would make use of airspace; how they would share such airspace with other aircraft; how the vehicles would be licensed and inspected; safety regulation, etc. While I have read many stories about flying cars, I can’t recall reading a story about the first flying car, or the Henry Ford-type man or woman who invents the assembly line process for making flying cars practical.

The second unspoken assumption is, in some ways, even more critical. Flying cars come complete with an autonomous system for getting you where you want to go safely. I couldn’t imagine drivers today in control of their own flying cars. As a former private pilot, I know just how much training and skill is required to safely pilot a small aircraft and the level of skill I see on the highways around the country is at least an order of magnitude below what would be required to pilot a flying car. You, gentle reader, might do perfectly fine piloting a flying car, but would you trust those around you to do the same? Do you really want your flying cars without an autonomous system to make sure that the people inside them don’t screw things up?

Self-driving road cars are just coming into being. Google has done significant research in this arena. Self-controlled flying cars are another story entirely. Certainly we have autonomous drone aircraft, and that is a start, but I think we are a long way from a point where people would trust their lives to a computer controlling their ground vehicle, let alone a similar vehicle that could fly through the air. They’d rather fly it themselves, and that would be a disaster.

I want my flying car just as much as the next fellow, but I don’t quite trust the next fellow to fly his car safely with thousands of other cars zipping through the skies.