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Monday, March 8, 2010

It's 2010, so where's my flying car?

Admit it, you want your flying car. We were supposed to have colonies on the moon, cities on mars, and flying cars all by the year 2000. Surely, ten extra years is plenty of time for the human race to get with the program and give us flying cars. Right?


Well.... maybe.

What: The flying car

Who invented it: Bengali feminist sci-fi writer, Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain, gets the award for her work published in 1905 entitled Sultana's Dream. I've never read the piece but if you're interested you can read it on the web HERE.

How does it work? That would be the tricky question. Ideally, a flying car would be able to fly off the ground, possibly at small aircraft elevations, as well as it runs on the ground. A flying car would mean you didn't have to worry about nails in your tires, pot holes, or road kill.

How it would work depends on who you ask. Magnets, jets of air, and helicopter rotors have all been suggested as the way to get your car off the ground. But think about it... how heavy is your car? Have you ever tried to pick that sucker up? They aren't light. Not even the little beetles.

The most feasible option is probably the air lift system similar to what airplanes use. Air pressure is a beautiful thing, when properly applied. This is where the heavy physics comes in. Lift force, and I'm borrowing from the wiki again because I don't actually remember all of this...
If the lift coefficient for a wing at a specified angle of attack is known (or estimated using a method such as thin-airfoil theory), then the lift produced for specific flow conditions can be determined using the following equation:[42]
L = \tfrac12\rho v^2 A C_L


This equation is basically the same as the drag equation, only the lift/drag coefficient is different.

The quick and dirty version: By curving a wing just so the air flow on top exerts less push than the air on the bottom. The air at the bottom has more push and the wing goes up.

The other way for a car to get off the ground would be a form of vertical lift, like the coaxial rotors found on a Chinook military helicopter. The principle is similar to the lift produced by an airplane wing but the effect is acheived by fans pushing air down.

When can I get one? Well, if you were very ambitious or very affluent you could have one today. The first attempt at a flying car was in 1917. That one didn't fly as much as it hopped. Things have improved since then.

There was an awkward flying saucer stage. Now it looks like flying cars have moved into a sleeker, less bulbous, form. Right now I can easily Google at least five companies designing and testing flying cars, from the Skycar to the Cityhawk.

Flying cars do exist, the problem is making them affordable, accessible, and legal to drive.

How feasible is a flying car?
Honestly, this is where the hold up is.

Flying cars aren't cheap. And despite every argument, they aren't very practical. Air space is not as free as people like to think. Governments and airlines track everything over a certain size because you don't have fender-benders in flight, you have huge flaming chunks of metal hurtling down towards school children if airplanes collide in midair. There would definitely be complaints at the next PTA meeting.

Even if a flying car could be made affordable legislation and controlling where a car could fly, who could fly them, establishing flight paths... it's a legal nightmare. One or two cars isn't a problem, but imagine all of your city traffic zooming at 400 miles per hour fifty feet above your house.

It's enough to give me a headache.

Flying cars are much more feasible for new cities or off-Earth colonies where road systems haven't been set down. If you're building everything from the ground up you could easily include the infrastructure and legal controls to make flying cars a daily reality.

In the meantime, the first place you're likely to see these cars isn't in your neighbors driveway. Think big cities first. A flying ambulance that could cross the city in minutes without worrying about traffic? That's an idea that could get off the ground.

Black and white photos used under fair use law, copyrights and thank you go to the original owners. The equation is from wikipedia. The lift force drawing is courtesy of and copyright to NASA. The saucer car is courtesy of and copyright to Dr. Moller and Moller International home of the Skycar.


  1. If you think about it... in real life, flying cars makes more sense if there would be a massive air taxi system.

    That would be similar to the airplanes we have now, but smaller and more economical for daily use. It would be on a circuit and only operated by people who are drilled and trained like today's airline pilots are.

    As far as everyone whooshing around in their own flying car - I think part of the hold up is the safety.

    If you crash a regular car, odds of survival are generally high. Unless it was a really DRASTIC car crash.

    But most airplane crashes result in deaths.

    In car terms crashing a flying car would be like driving a regular car off a cliff.

    People assume accidents will happen - whether driver error or natural hazards (weather, animals). I think that's the reason why there isn't a huge rush to fund and push flying cars for the populace. :]

    In fiction though... it is a whole different ball of wax. There is no such thing as driver error unless it's part of the plot. :]

  2. I love the short story you linked to -- great stuff. Although the wing cross section remnded me uncomfortably of lectures about Bernoulli's equation. Brrr. :)

  3. I forgot to mention... I always loved the idea of flying cars from Star Wars. They were hovercrafts and stayed fairly close to the ground. So if any accidents happened, the people inside were more likely to survive.

    It was only on certain planets (Coruscant, for example) that people flew around like termites in levels high above the ground.

  4. Ha! I love the UFO looking car. It's green right? ;)

  5. Catherine - The taxi system could work. I'd enjoy it. :o) And think of all the jobs it would create! ... I also think of all the possible plot lines %-)

    James - There's a reason the cross-section reminded you of Bernoulli's ;o)

    T. Anne - I think the original one was black. I was trying to find a good video of the flying cars but the one about Moller cut out before it showed the new car.

  6. I would love one of these. Especially if I could send my kids off safely in it while I stayed home to write!