Admit it: You're a tad disappointed that, three years into the 21st century, our automobiles are still earthbound. Flying cars always seemed like sci-fi's most attainable vision, much more so than lunar colonies or robotic paramours. Living in the exurbs wouldn't be such a hassle if an airborne, 150-mph commute were possible.
But mass-market air cars are far less feasible than The Jetsons and Blade Runner made them seem. Engineering hurdles aren't what's keeping commuters out of the skies. Flying cars are already here: Way back in the 1940s, a man named Robert Fulton (often said to be a distant relative of that Robert Fulton, though the claim has never been verified) produced the Airphibian, the first "roadable aircraft" to earn federal certification for highway and aerial use. The current Great Flying Hope is the Skycar, which Canadian-born Paul Moller has been developing for more than 40 years. Those who enjoy a brisk breeze as they commute may prefer Trek Aerospace's SoloTrek, which resembles a latter-day jet pack cross-pollinated with a Harrier jet.
So, what's keeping your car tethered to the two-dimensional confines of streets and highways? True believers argue that these designs have yet to flourish due to overregulation, poor timing, and automaker myopia. They like to share how, in the early 1970s, a young Ford executive named Lee Iacocca took a keen interest in something called the Aerocar, until the oil crisis and the proliferation of Toyotas diverted his attention. That's about as close as the nascent roadable aircraft industry has ever gotten to mass production. The news of late has been somber, as SoloTrek recently "cut all payroll costs"—that is, fired everyone—and a Skycar prototype failed to sell in a February eBay auction. (Moller has somehow coaxed more than 100 people to pre-order Skycars—as well as plunk down $5,000 deposits per nonexistent vehicle.)
What the flying-car faithful tend to ignore are the concept's mundane flaws. Start with what may sound like a minor concern—noise. Until some yet-to-be-born genius figures out how to harness the power of superconductors, flying-car designers are stuck with VTOL (vertical takeoff/landing) technology, which relies on whirring rotors. As anyone who has stood near a helicopter knows, this isn't exactly the quietest approach to locomotion. It seems unlikely that suburban America, where the background noise rarely rises above 70 decibels, would put up with the rush-hour roar as commuters rev their engines.
Moller has proposed a network of neighborhood "vertiports," shielded from the surrounding homes. Maybe, but that's adding an enormous amount of pricey infrastructure to the situation—I can already hear the "NIMBY!" cries. Plus, imagine the long lines as flying cars became more and more ubiquitous. And you thought tollbooths were a hassle.
Even if the roadabale aircraft folks come up with some near-magical noise-canceling technology, getting the Federal Aviation Administration's seal of approval will be a tough slog. The FAA is lenient with experimental aircraft but far less so with models meant for mass production. The Airphibian and the Aerocar are the only two roadable aircraft to ever receive the federal OK for the assembly line, and that was back in Uncle Sam's more easygoing days. The FAA's safety bar is even higher now, meaning that millions must be spent on prototypes and testing before the go-ahead is given. (The FAA is fond of the "grandmother test," which translates as: "Would we feel comfortable putting our 91-year-old grandmother in the back seat?")
All an FAA nod really means, though, is that the vehicle can be operated by licensed pilots, of which there are less than 1 million in the United States. The trick, then, is getting blanket FAA approval for anyone to sit the behind the wheel—er, flight stick—a sweeping decision that would obviously be a first. The agency would have to consider this frightening question: How much death from above will the nation tolerate in the name of realizing a Jetsons future? Adding a third dimension to automobile travel introduces a whole new set of handling problems, from yaw to pitch as turns are made or altitude is adjusted. As any pilot will tell you, weird things can happen when the winds shift or an errant pigeon gets in the way. At least when a fatal highway crash occurs, the fatalities are limited to those unfortunate souls in the vehicles. Casualties would soar if wreckage were to crash into homes and unsuspecting pedestrians.
Air-car advocates claim the answer is automated navigation—in effect, taking the control out of the hands of the driver-cum-pilot. Merely input the coordinates upon entry, and the vehicle will take care of the rest, courtesy of GPS satellites. Collision-avoidance systems, similar to those already installed on commercial airplanes, would prevent midair catastrophes. If pilotless cockpits will become standard in the next 30 to 50 years, as the Economist recently predicted, why can't that technology be lifted into flying cars?
That's a deeply flawed apples-to-oranges comparison. The number of commercial flights per day is infinitesimal compared the number of auto trips—picture a 12-plane lineup at your local airport versus the 8:30 a.m. logjam on your local interstate. Moreover, an air car's computerized "brain" would be bombarded with threats every second, as other commuters approached from above or below at upward of 300 mph (the Skycar's top speed). That's likely too many threats for any processor that would be cheap enough to be installed in a mass-market vehicle.
None of this is to suggest that flying cars are entirely useless. The military has certainly taken an interest—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is a SoloTrek sponsor—as has the Border Patrol. And as hobbies go, it's a pretty cool one to have. (The curious are advised to join the flying-car mailing list by e-mailing the message "subscribe flying-car" to email@example.com.) But as far as actually being the transportation of the future, air cars belong in the same retro has-been file as jet-propelled paddle steamers. Your 2020 Hyundai may run on hydrogen, corn syrup, or cold fusion, but it'll still have all four wheels on the ground.